Winter Cross-training through Cross Country Skiing

If you're a triathlete living in a more northern climate, the odds of keeping in shape to the degree you'd like are somewhat daunting. Each of the separate disciplines are impacted; and the warm outdoors affords you the best opportunities to have longer workouts that will increase endurance and distance. There are indoor possibilities that can be limiting. Indoor pools are crowded and not often the size you'd like; it's not uncommon for gyms to have a mere 10-12m pool. Spinning classes have helped me up my biking endurance, but the technical aspects such as aero-position and gear shifting are lacking. Running on a treadmill is an option; but my main objection to using indoor solutions is boredom. Without a change of scenery, most cardiovascular activity descends into repetitive tedium, and you wind up wondering if the couch potatoes are right.

You do see people braving the elements to run outside, and I applaud these individuals (those that bike in the snow, earn nothing but scathing contempt - it's just not safe). Braving the cold is about having the right number of layers and the right equipment at each layer. Cold temperatures are only part of the problem of running in snowy weather; park trails are closed and poorly maintained, sidewalks can be inconsistently shoveled, and the roads are narrower and more crowded thanks to snowbanks, shorter days mean a lack of sunlight. If you're like me, and find these obstacles ruin the fun of endurance training, allow me to present a solution. The benefits of cross-training are well documented. Using our muscles in different ways makes them more resilient and more efficient, making us faster in races and less prone to injury. A triathlete's free time for training, however, is already split between 3 disciplines, so extra time for sports that don't benefit us directly is thin on the ground. Cross-country skiing (sometimes known as Nordic skiing) is one of the most difficult endurance sports, burning the most calories per hour. Cross-country skiing gives triathletes several benefits that vary depending on the technique used.

Basic Technique for Beginners

The first few times someone straps on a pair of cross-country skis, their motion tends to approximate an exaggerated walk. The skier strides their legs back and forth with opposing motions in the arms (left foot and right pole/arm forward while the right foot and left pole/arm are backwards). The strides use the hip flexors and glutes, while the arm motion creates a nice approximation of the front crawl swimming stroke, exercising the same shoulder muscles needed for a powerful drive forward in the water. With both upper and lower body in use, it's easy to see why cross-country skiing is such a great whole body exercise.

Advanced Classic Technique: Diagonal Stride

Whether through lessons or the comfort that comes with practice, skiers who want to get a little more speed involved in their technique will find themselves leaning further forward, shifting their weight onto the forward ski, and enforcing a glide time with each stride. The forward lean and weight shift result in increased power and friction on the kick, driving the skier forward with more power. This also engages other leg muscles especially the calves and quadriceps. Maintaining balance with the forward lean works the core muscles, especially the lower back. As the skier discovers how to use generated momentum to increase average speed and conserve energy, the fun of the sport really shows itself. You coast after building up a head of steam (or coming off a downhill stretch) and there are techniques that can extend that coast time or increase speed, such as the marathon stride, marathon skate, or simply double-poling. While the former 2 techniques are a little complex to explain here, the double-pole technique involves using the poles to get an extra burst of power by bending at the waist rather than pushing solely with the arms and shoulders. It will use the abdominal muscles, but it's also a good opportunity to fight a cramp building by forcefully exhaling on the bend.

Ultimate Workout: Skating Technique

I think of skating and classic techniques as analogous to front crawl and breast stroke. The former is simply faster and better if you have the strength and fitness to pull it off for the required distance, though it can cause you to run out of gas early and be forced to stop if you don't. The latter is slower and more conservative and well suited to a pace that doesn't up the heart rate toward those aerobic threshold maximums. There are many different sub-techniques for skating, but I'll concentrate on illustrating the benefits of the Gear 4 (V2 alternate, Open Field Skate, 2-Skate) technique where you double pole on every other leg stride. For example, I double pole while my weight is on my left ski, and bring my arms forward again while my weight is back on the right. The skating motion uses the glutes even more and the abductor and adductor hip flexors work through the action of pushing off the skate leg and bringing it back (closing the space between the legs) again. Double poling works the core and shoulders as in the classic technique.

Getting out there
I have long held the view that the only way to really love living in Canada is to embrace the opportunities winter affords us, otherwise it's just 4-5 months of misery. Downhill skiing is fun, but endurance athletes need a bigger, better, badder workout to get the most out of the so-called 'off-season'. Cross-country skiing is cheaper, better exercise, and has a reduced environmental impact by comparison. There is a small (and in my opinion, too well hidden) community of serious cross-country skiers in South and Central Ontario, and they could use some company from the multi-sport community. Find a resort with rentals and take a lesson, or buy an old pair used and go to your nearest provincial or national park one weekend. It's the ultimate cardiovascular exercise, how can you pass it up?


Diagonal Stride illustrated in Video

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