What's it like to train in the 24-hour darkness of an Arctic Circle winter?

Finnish cross-country skier Johanna Matintalo talks to Olympics.com about techniques she uses to get herself up in the morning during dark northern winter months as well as managing her wellbeing during the prolonged lack of sunlight, and skiing by the glow of the magical Northern Lights.

By Jo Gunston

Extricating yourself from the warm cocoon of bedding to get up for work is especially hard during dark, cold, northern winters but what is it like for an athlete training in the Arctic Circle where darkness can last for 24-hours a day? Conversely, summer months enable midnight-sun skiing but how does constant light affect the body clock's sleep patterns and therefore training?

Johanna Matintalo knows only too well. The cross-country skier, who competed at PyeongChang 2018 and is now heading to Beijing 2022 was born in Pöytyä in southwestern Finland but moved further north to Rovaniemi in 2016, aged 20, for better training conditions.

Lapland’s capital city – yes, where Santa lives – sits four miles (6km) south of the Arctic Circle and has a subarctic climate, which means short, pleasant summers but long, cold, dark, snowy winters. December averages just under six minutes of sunshine daily. Conversely, in June 2021, Rovaniemi set a new world record of 122 hours of continuous sunshine from 2am on 1 July to 4am on 6 July.

It is in this environment, where the sun sets in late November and generally does not rise until mid-January, that Matintalo has chosen to train, along with boyfriend and fellow cross-country skier, Lauri Vuorinen. The duo, who are heading to their second Games together, chose Rovaniemi because, as Matintalo told Olympics.com in December, “It’s always winter here”.

Johanna Matintalo Finland cross country
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

“This time of the year, it's really dark here. Normally my morning session, it might be dark almost until the end of training. It starts to come a little bit lighter maybe between 10-11am, so it's quite dark almost to noon. And then we have some rest between training and when we go to the second training in the afternoon, it's completely dark again.”

On the day we spoke, Matintalo, had been doing a rare indoor training session, at the aptly named Santasport gym, an official Olympic Training Center.

“It was fun because today I was inside in the testing laboratory… but I finished my training maybe a little bit before 1pm and I saw the sun going down when I walked to my car and I was like, ‘bye bye’… Now it's been really dark for two hours already, it's like night.”

Dark night sky

Training for cross-country skiers is often a solitary pursuit. So if Matintalo wants to achieve her goals of winning a medal in the team event at Beijing 2022, coming in the top 10 in the individual events, and competing in at least two more Winter Games – it is the incremental moments of making herself get up in the cold, dark mornings – knowing she’ll be physically and mentally exerting herself to the max – alone, in something she describes as "a darkness like no other", which will get her there.

“We have some street lights with the skiing tracks but we also have tracks where there is no light so we have to have the lamp on our head. And you may have two hours of skiing in the dark with the lamp and it might be four o'clock in the afternoon, so you feel like you're in the middle of the night training but it's afternoon."

Conversely, during the region's summer months, there is an opposite effect of 24-hour light, which is also unusual, says Matintalo.

“In the summer, you have to go to bed in the evening, it's like 10pm or 11pm and the sun is shining and you're like, ‘Oh my God, I should go to bed’ and it's like night but the sun is still shining… and it might shine all night long.”

Seasonal moods

The physical and mental effects, of winter seasons particularly – even in less extreme environments – have been well documented.

During winter, the body produces more melatonin (responsible for sleep patterns) due to the darkness, which makes us tired and unmotivated. During summer, some people have the opposite effect where they can't sleep and maybe suffer from anxiety.

“I think it's really hard for the head," says Matintalo who reveals there's no way she'd even wake up if it wasn't for her "best friend" a SAD light, a device used for those who manage Seasonal Affective Disorder (people who express depressive symptoms just during one season, usually winter).

"Sometimes if you are training a lot, you are having hard weeks or some hard training days it's really, really rough because you're like tired already and then you have the tough training there in the dark.”

Yet Matintalo loves what she does, loves her sport and feels privileged to be a professional cross-country skier. She is also proud of being one of a small number of elite athletes who have come from the area to compete on the world stage such as Olympic silver medallist in Alpine skiing Tanja Poutiainen and two-time snowboard world champion Antti Autti.

Matintalo has been training in the region for nigh on six years now, so as much as the darkness and light may have been a bit of a shock then, it's par for the course now.

"When you have been here for a few years, I think it's normal, you don't even think about that. It's normal that there is no light this time of the year... Of course it would be really nice to maybe have more light in the days but when I have my daily routines and my days in the training week, I don't even think about it.

"And, as I said, this is a really important time of the year for us cross-country skiers so I don't think we think that much about the weather. We are so focused with the training and the races and now with the Olympics, so we have so much more on our mind than the light."

Besides, there is also beauty in the darkness. The magical Northern Lights are rare to see, says Matintalo, especially with her profession's constant travelling, but they are a joy when she does see them.

“It's really nice when you have them, of course. We don't have them every day or every week, it's is quite rare, but when we do have them, it's really cool.”

At the end of a disappointing 2019-20 season, Matintalo wrote in an Instagram post of "many dark and hard moments, days and weeks, I sometimes felt like there's no light to get out no matter how hard you look".

On 1 January 2022, however, she had claimed her first-ever World Cup podium, a bronze medal in the 1.2km sprint classic, in an event in Germany that also doubled as one of the stages of the prestigious Tour de Ski. She added that to the World Championship bronze medal she'd won in March courtesy of the 4x5km women's relay at the same venue.

Turns out those dark early mornings are starting to pay off with Matintalo's additional comment on that same Instagram post proving prescient: "But without the dark we would never see the stars."

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