Benefits and Consequences
For most coaches, the alarm clock rings early on race days. A tour of almost any race venue will present a flurry of activity that begins hours before the race and continues until the start time. Coaches, staff and athletes are busy testing skis, waxes and various other treatments in order to gain an advantage over the competition. But, increasingly, some North American federations are moving to reduce or eliminate glide wax as a variable in races through the creation of waxing protocols. While these protocols have clear benefits, there may also be unintended consequences that should be considered.
Wax protocols have long been associated with qualifying races in biathlon. Both the US Biathlon Association and Biathlon Canada use a pool system where coaches from all clubs come together to wax all the race skis with identical wax. Cross Country Canada employed a similar system at the November 2016 World Cup selection races in Canmore, Alta. Other local governing bodies, such as Cross Country Alberta and Cross Country Ontario, have instituted bans on high-fluoro waxes and products for the current season.
Ensuring a fair competition between athletes is often cited as a main reason for the wax protocols. Anyone who has waxed skis at a high level knows that the wax matters a lot, but the Hippocratic Oath – “Do no harm” – is the most significant target. Mandating a specific wax ensures that no athletes are taken out of the race on the basis of wax alone, eliminating that variable as a stressor for athletes, coaches and selection committees.
The question of health impacts of waxing products is also noteworthy. There can be no doubt that high-fluoro products can be dangerous if applied without the proper safety equipment. While seeing waxers and coaches with respirators is becoming a more common sight, athletes still inevitably walk into the wax cabin unprotected at inopportune times. Banning these products, and allowing only low-fluoro waxes, limits the exposure of both athletes and staff.
Lastly, there is the cost of waxing, both in terms of money and time. High-fluoro products are expensive and may keep some families away from the sport. But as coaches spend increasing amounts of time selecting the wax for race skis, that perfection may come at the cost of actually spending time with the athletes. This is especially true in the case of small clubs and teams that do not have a dedicated waxing staff. Requiring all athletes to race on the same wax certainly eliminates this concern. And banning high-fluoro products, and therefore eliminating many of the variables for coaches to test, may also aid in redirecting the attention of coaches.
However, the success of these waxing protocols depends on the ultimate goals. While having all athletes race on the same wax certainly eliminates one variable, the bigger variables of ski selection and grinds are still left in play. Most waxers agree that it is these two variables that have by far the biggest impact on ski speed.
The elimination of high-fluoro waxes may help to redirect the attention of coaches away from testing by removing powders, blocks and liquids as ski-preparation possibilities. But coaches may still look for advantages in finding the optimal low-fluoro wax for the day. In that way, testing may still occur, but just with respect to different products. Enforcement of this protocol also becomes a question on the minds of many coaches.
Finally, anyone who has ever competed in a Classic race knows that the grip products, both their selection and application, often have a more dramatic impact than the glide products. Therefore, waxing protocols that simply address glide wax are likely missing the most important variable, at least with respect to Nordic skiing.
The spirit of waxing protocols is noble, as it makes ski racing more inclusive and more athlete-focused. However, to ensure success, it appears that these rules require ongoing refinement based on the feedback of the beneficiaries – the athletes and coaches. It is this ongoing communication that will ultimately determine the success of waxing protocols, as they are implemented by more and more federations.