If you were attempting to build the perfect cross-country skier, you might well end up with Iivo Niskanen. The double Olympic champion has a seemingly unquenchable appetite for training, an off-the-scale aerobic capacity and a tolerance for pain that makes most people wince. The bad news for his competitors is that he has plenty of gas left in the tank.
Iivo Niskanen knows he is not normal. Not many people are prepared to push through the pain barrier again and again, but the Sochi 2014 team sprint and PyeongChang 2018 50km mass start gold medallist is. And he enjoys doing so.
“Not every time, but when you are doing test sessions on the treadmill or road skiing and you easily reach your record or the same lactic levels as on your best days, then I really like pushing myself to the very edge,” laughed Niskanen who is known for putting in about 900 hours of training each year, with sessions lasting up to five hours a day, six days per week.
The intensity of the Finn’s training varies depending on the proximity to the season, but at least twice a week he goes full-tilt. Replicating the adrenaline-fuelled rush of race mode is not straightforward, but it is something the 28-year-old has learned.
“If you have an open body then it’s easy, but when you don’t have this kind of day you really need to push yourself to the limit, and that means you have a tired body or tight muscles. Then it’s not that easy; you really need to focus to get the speed,” he said. “It’s more mental pressure.”
Niskanen has been at the top of his sport since the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, when he took the team sprint title just weeks after he had won a U23 World Championship gold medal. Despite everything he has achieved since, he does think wistfully of those carefree days.
“I was just watching and hanging [out]. Everything was new, first Olympic Games, first time racing against the toughest guys. No one was expecting anything so that was really cool. No stress,” Niskanen said. “I was a young guy who was getting better results really quickly.”
He certainly was, with a fourth-place finish in the 15km classic in Sochi – a further sign of things to come. However, while the Finnish prodigy did not have to wait long for a first World Cup win – achieved in November 2014 – he did take some time to learn a valuable lesson.
During the years I have learnt how to stay safe and how to avoid the situations where you get ill. You really need to focus on staying healthy and to listen to your body better.Iivo Niskanen
“It is easy to train too much,” Niskanen admitted, before being unable to stop himself adding, “But of course if you don’t train enough you don’t get good enough results.”
A big turning point in terms of finding this balance came at the 2017 World Championships, held on Niskanen’s home track in Lahti. He unapologetically devoted more than two years to the event, but with his coach’s help he resisted the temptation to work his body into the ground before getting to the start line.
“It was a really huge win, I [knew I] wouldn’t get a second chance to win [a World Championship] in my home town,” he said, savouring his dominant victory in the 15km classic. “I think it is the biggest race and competition in my career. Nothing can beat it. It was a first individual [World Championship] victory, in Lahti, with people cheering. It was my dream and goal for many years.”
With a blueprint in place, Niskanen has gone from strength to strength. His choice of pre-race music signals the serene arena in which he now operates.
“I’m in my own world in competitions. Sometimes when you have really nice split times and you know you can push the extra gear and you still have more energy, then it’s that Rocky feeling,” laughed Niskanen, who listens to Gonna Fly Now, the Bill Conti theme tune to the Rocky movies, before every race.
Clearly confident in his own ability and relishing the opportunity to test himself against his peers, Niskanen has not bothered working much on his mind – a rarity in modern elite sport.
“I have thought [about using a mental strength coach] sometimes, but I have to say when we are speaking about pressure during the races then for me it is [down to] who wants it more. It’s not a problem for me to handle it in a race,” he said simply.
“Of course, if you are in good shape everyone is waiting for you to get a medal or win. And you wonder yourself if you will win. Of course you feel big pressure and you get a bit nervous, but I think it is the same for everyone. It’s good to feel in good shape, it’s not an obstacle.”
Not that Niskanen is immune to feeling the effects of expectation, given that his experience at PyeongChang 2018 was very different from the laidback days of four years previously.
“In PyeongChang I was one of the favourites in the 50km classic, and we had about a week without any races before the 50km. It was a really long time. You are waiting a week to have your most important race,” he explained. “Every morning I woke up and felt my body to see if I was still healthy and everything felt good. It was much more stressful than four years before.”
Niskanen did of course defy this pressure to claim the 50km title so many expected of him. After finishing the 2019/2020 season ranked third in the overall International Ski Federation World Cup, standings he is resigned to experiencing similar stress levels in Beijing in 2022. Although he is buoyed by the fact he will have more “cards in his hand” for his third Olympic Games, with strong chances for gold in the 15km events as well as over the longer distance.
More Olympic golds or not, this indefatigable athlete is not preparing to hang up his race skis any time soon. Not when his source of motivation is unending.
“If you are a world champion or Olympic champion you have achieved a lot, but the goal for me, for many years, is to improve my own capacity, my own level,” he explained. “The goal is to see where my limits are.”