Why we should all be cross country skiing this winter: it’s the perfect boost for your running fitness.
Cross country skiing (a.k.a. Nordic skiing, or ski de fond) is currently enjoying a serious renaissance. Like the boom in road cycling and ultra trail running that’s taken the UK and US by storm in recent years, it’s no longer just nerdy endurance geeks and burly army boys who are hooked on this now-fashionable-again winter sports pursuit.
Unlike their Scandinavian forefathers, today’s Nordic newschoolers are decked out in on-trend, technical gear (from brands such as Oakley, Maloja and Salomon), while events such as the Vasaloppet in Sweden have attracted celebrity participants including Kate Middleton’s sister, Pippa. The Swiss Engadin Marathon – one of the biggest XC Ski events (even looks cool in writing!) has between 11,000 and 13,000 participants every year.
A US report from SIA (Snowsports Industries America) estimated that cross country skiing participation was up 29% from 2013 to 2014. Downhill skiing plummeted by a similar percentage. Possibly a reflection of a poor winter season? Or many defecting to join the free heel skinny ski crew? Probably a combination of both, and for good reason.
So, why is cross country skiing so perfect for runners (as well as for other endurance sports athletes)?
It goes without saying that cross country skiing is one of the best all body work outs around. Not only are you working both lower and upper body simultaneously, but the benefits to your heart and lungs are second to none.
Cardio vascular fitness
Professional cross country skiers consistently rate as having amongst the best cardio vascular fitness levels of all sportspeople. Skiers such as Espen Harald Bjerke have recorded V02 max recordings as high as 96, surpassing the cyclist Greg LeMond (92) and long distance runner Kilian Jornet (89.5). The combination of continual aerobic activity, endurance, bursts of power (when you hit a hill) and keeping warm at altitude make cross country skiing one of the best possible ways to improve your heart and lung capacity.
The kit (skinny skis with free heels, trainer-like boots with rigid soles and long carbon poles) might be lightweight, but it’s pretty clear from looking at the physiques of any serious cross country athlete that the skiing builds not just cardio endurance, but muscle power too. And the beauty is not just in building muscles, but also in that it builds the right muscles. Whether your main sport is running or cycling - or in fact any other endurance activity - the balanced muscle tone you earn from days on the cross country tracks will help you build the optimum base for your next endurance challenge.
The stance of a cross country skier – proudly upright with open chest and poles pushing behind you – is the perfect antidote to modern life’s postural disaster zone. Too many of us spend far too much time sitting slouched at desks, in cars, hunched over our handlebars, or running the same repetitive routes on tarmac. Our shoulders are rounded, our bellies are soft, our hip flexors and hamstrings are over-tight, our glutes don’t work properly, and we often have backache. Enter the cross country ski remedy. It is impossible to Nordic ski without engaging those lazy glutes and fire up your rhomboids and rotator cuff muscles and bring your shoulders back into line. Result: a long-term solution to improved posture.
Balance, proprioception and core strength
Not only does cross country skiing give all your major muscle groups a serious work out, you’re also challenging those little-used muscles that tend to get neglected. In particular, the muscles that keep your ankles and knees strong and safe from twists and sprains. While the uneven surface of trail running also has the same effect, the reality is that most of us switch to tarmac when the nights draw in. We end up in a routine of repetitive pounding without working on proprioception and balance. Core strength is absolutely critical for Nordic skiing too. You can’t ‘get away with it’ on cross country skis as your core is essential for holding form and keeping balanced, while you change weight from one ski to the other.
Joint protection and injury prevention
The smooth motion of cross country skiing is perfect for protecting your joints while you exercise. Although the sport is weight bearing, your skis are in constant contact with the snow, which means you avoid pounding. Any keen runner will know about the effects of impact, no matter how good your shoes and technique. Get into cross country skiing and your knees, hips and lower back will thank you, not just because you’re helping re-build muscle, but you’re also giving your body a well earned rest from being beaten up on winter tarmac. Taking the impact out while you build your fitness and strength helps protect your joints and prevent injuries.
Natural interval training
Most cross country skiing is relatively flat, especially when you’re starting out. But as you progress in the sport, the playground becomes a natural interval work out. Unlike running where you can slow to a walk or even stop, when the track starts to head uphill and you run out of puff you don’t have the same luxury on skis: slow down too much and you’ll start slipping backwards! Undulating terrain provides the perfect interval session as you’re forced to hit the accelerator to make it up each hill. And you’ll be so busy concentrating you’ll hardly even notice that extra effort. Plus of course, what goes up … which is a skill in itself (and a lot of fun, especially when you’re learning) on slightly wobbly cross country skis.
Cross country ski tracks are usually on the lower slopes of ski resorts, ranging from an altitude of 1,000m to around 2,000m in the French Alps. Not high enough to cause a problem with acclimatisation, but definitely high enough to benefit from the effects of altitude training. Spend a few days working hard at around 1500m and you’ll notice your usual sea level run or bike ride feels a whole lot easier when you go home.
Thrills, spills and adrenaline rushes
It might not feel like it when you first start out, Bambi-like with too many arms, legs, skis and poles to coordinate, but you’ll be amazed how quickly you ‘get it’ and can start picking up speed on cross country skis. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of the wind in your hair as you whizz through snowy forests, propelled completely under your own steam. It also goes without saying that anything involving balance and speed will also involve a little dose of adrenaline.
Challenge and fitness
Cross country skiing is simultaneously challenging and accessible for all abilities – from complete beginners to experts. To get going enough to enjoy it and feel the fitness benefit is relatively easy. To become technically expert is an ongoing investment. Learning something new is one of the best ways to improve your fitness, whatever your training goal. If you don’t keep challenging your body in different ways it will never need to change or improve. So, while you might still be doing your usual 10km or clocking up 100km per week on the turbo, you’re not actually getting any fitter or seeing results. Frustratingly, you’re just maintaining your fitness level. Learning a new sport and seeing your own progression and improvement is a fast track (and fun!) way out of that plateau.
Whether or not you wear a heart rate monitor and clock your effort while you ski, your body will pretty quickly tell you it’s hungry! The combination of head to toe exertion, altitude and cold air temperatures make cross country skiing top of the list of fat-burning activities. A boost to your metabolism and absolutely no excuses needed to indulge.
And … Adventure
As a runner, cyclist or other endurance athlete – at whatever level – a large part of why you love your sport is about the journeys that you go on. Travelling, exploring, seeing new places, meeting people, participating in events, improving, spending time alone with your thoughts or connecting with friends. Whether you’re a complete beginner or a seasoned skater, cross country skiing also taps into that sense of journey and adventure. If getting away from it all is your goal, then with minimal kit and a small pack you can spend days travelling point to point under your own steam in some of the most stunning and remote winter environments that Europe has to offer.
Feeling inspired? Then take a look at our Nordic ski holidays.
Winter is here! This week I have been running in fresh snow in Chamonix. The temperatures have been sub zero keeping it light and fluffy underfoot. Over the past few weeks the Alps have been receiving regular snowfalls which enabled the partial opening of the Swiss resort of Verbier to open and this weekend the Grand Montets Ski Area in Chamonix will also be partially open. The expected date for the opening of the cross-country ski tracks is 4th December in most areas. And what with owning brand new XC skis i'm feeling a little impatient! In the meantime, i'm off out on my snowshoes as we don't need lifts to use those.
I have just returned from one of my favorite places on this planet. What better way to end the winter season than to enjoy touring through the remote and seemingly endless hills and mountains of Norway.
I was working on our trip to the Geilo and Finse regions of Norway where skiers from all backgrounds (be it nordic track skiing, alpine or telemark) have an opportunity to come together and learn new skills, advance in the old and then put it all together by going on a traditional hut to hut tour on part of the Hardangervidda Plateau.
This 10 day trip starts with 4 days intensive tuition at Geilo, a peaceful ski resort which holds it's snow late on in the season, where clients were able to develop all aspects of their skiing including the opportunity to begin telemark turning. Then we moved on to Finse, a remote region between Oslo and Bergen, where we based ourselves for the hut to hut 'touring' phase of the trip. Good weather made this even more of an unforgettable experience. It certainly wasn't the cold temperatures you'd normally associate with Norway, it was even possible to get a good sun tan!
I do love the Alps but when you step away from the norm once in a while you are reminded of how beautiful the world is. If you are already a skier and would like to experience a wild, remote, country on skis then perhaps Norway is for you - utter bliss in my book!
2011 trip dates and updated itineraries will soon be available on our ski pages. But for now click here to see some rescent pics:
I'm just back to the Chamonix Valley after another great ski trip to the Jura mountains where the snow continues to fall and the temperature is staying low - keeping the tracks in excellent condition. Our 'extreme team' (The Mackenzies and Janet) have just completed approximately 100km on skis in just four days. We began our ski in Mouthe, at the source of the Doubs river, and enjoyed skiing on pressed tracks all the way to Giron which sits just north of Geneva, making it easy to depart for their late flight home. Our journey took us through a variety of mountain villages, farms & pastures used for grazing in the summer months, hilly forested areas and flat valley bottoms. Travelling with only a small backpack enabled us to enjoy skiing both the ups(!) and the downs along the way. The accommodation we use is in a mixture of rustic farm houses and small family hotels where you can enjoy local dishes, cheese and wine. The trail is also close to many wonderful coffee and cake stops! To add to the ambience of our journey we even caught up with skiers training for one of France's longest cross country ski races, the Transjurassienne which was also held over the weekend.
Last weekend we ran our January cross country ski weekend in Italy. Aimed at beginner level or those wanting to refresh their nordic skiing skills we spend 3 full days skiing the tracks at different locations in the Aosta Valley. The cross country tracks are in perfect condition at the moment. We've had plenty of snow (and continues falling as I type) and as the temperatures stay cool the pistes are pressed into excellent condition.
Cross country skiing can be adapted to suit all levels. But the fitter you are obviously means you can have longer days out. Skiing with me were fell runners from the UK who had tried cross country skiing before but wanted to learn the right technique for future adventures. Once they had gained enough skills to cope with a variety of snow conditions and terrain we went on a 25km journey on day 2! Our last day together was spent on skates but still they had the energy to get some km's in their legs. In total we skied about 70km in 3 days. Nordic skiing is not only fun and an opportunity to enjoy the snow but is also perfect cross training for other sports. And whilst in Italy we benefit from excellent cuisine to top off a great weekend!
Our next ski weekend is 18th-22nd February - Happy New Year.