At the Vuokatti-based unit of the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, seven doctoral dissertations on winter sports are forthcoming. Two dissertations are examining the development of cross-country skiers and biathletes studying at Ruka Sports Academy, which is a sport-oriented upper secondary school. How does teenagers’ moving to live on their own affect their development? Are there any differences in an athlete’s nutrition during a training year?

 Doctoral Student Christina Mishica’s dissertation investigates how the training of cross-country skiers in their late teenage years would be most effective. The research looks at several aspects, including aerobic endurance, anaerobic capacity, recovery, skiing-specific power output as well as various health variables and amount of sleep.

Previous studies have focused mainly on adult athletes and the development of results. Now, the focus is on athletes in their late teens.

An additional area of investigation is how possible stress about school success affects the development of the young athletes. The adolescents are living now for the first time away from home, and the impact of this new situation on their results is being studied in the dissertation research.

Mishica observed 26 young athletes in February 2018 and November 2020. The analysis of the collected data is beginning, and the doctoral research is looking for the coming months and research results.

“It is obvious that adolescence is a challenging time for young athletes. We need long-term follow-up research so that we can better understand development and training during this critical period,” Mishica says.

Focus on the effects of nutrition on the performance of young female athletes

As part of her dissertation, Doctoral Student Oona Kettunen examines nutrition, performance levels, blood-related variables and body composition at different stages of the training period among 27 adolescent female skiers. The purpose is to compare nutritional differences at different points of the training year and to study whether nutrition affects athletes’ development during the year.

A survey of the research team led by Senior Lecturer Johanna Ihalainen, University of Jyväskylä, revealed that about 40% of the athletes who responded to the survey were trying to lose weight, and a similar percentage were concerned about their own weight or body composition.

Cross-country skiing is a sport where body mass and composition are significant factors for performance, yet training burns up a significant amount of energy.

“Based on several studies in equivalent sports, it’s obvious that there is a high risk for insufficient energy supply, but research knowledge for skiers remains scarce,” Kettunen says.

“Anyhow, sufficient energy supply is of primary importance for young athletes, since in long term, insufficient energy resources may lead to hormonal and skeletal disorders, which may cause considerable, even lifelong problems.”

Kettunen also examined this issue in her master’s thesis. According to the findings, symptoms associated with insufficient energy supply, such as hormonal disorders and stress fractures are very common among young Finnish long-distance runners.

“At this stage of research, it seems that the situation among skiers is better, but most of them are still far from optimal nutrition,” Kettunen says. “It will be interesting to see in the autumn, when I have a chance to analyse the data being collected more closely, whether they will reveal connections between nutrition and performance levels.”

According to Professor Vesa Linnamo, who is supervising both dissertations described above, research topics related to young athletes in winter sports are very important. In the future, the research results can be applied to other sports as well.

“There are only a few follow-up studies on young athletes, and development in adolescence plays an important role in possible future success,” Linnamo says. “Well-rounded research settings help future training and coaching to focus on the right things with regard to optimal strain, rest and nutrition.”

Christina Mishica’s doctoral dissertation is scheduled to be completed in 2022 and Oona Kettunen’s in 2023.

Photo: Ebba Stenman (Sweden) in FIS Nordic Junior World Ski Championships in Vuokatti in February 2021. Photo taken by Tomi Mäkipää.

Get latest articles from The University of Jyväskylä’s stakeholder magazine into your email. You can cancel your subscription at any time.