Benefits Of Cross Country Skiing For Trail Runners

Cross training – also referred to as physical activity(ies) in which athletes participate in addition to their primary sport training – allows runners to supplement their running volume, increase strength and improve their fitness in new and different ways. Common cross training activities for runners include cycling, weight training, ElliptiGo rides, swimming, rock climbing, skimo and cross country skiing. One of the best types of cross training for runners with access to snow is cross country skiing. This discipline of skiing involves moving oneself across groomed or compacted snow typically on flat or gentle hills. Cross country skiers propel themselves by using poles and special skis that easily transfer power generated from leg, shoulder and core muscles to glide.

In the following article, I outline the main benefits of cross country skiing for trail runners and tips for beginners. Watch the videos below for detailed cross country ski tutorials for trail runners from Olympic cross country skier Judy Rabinowitz.

[Editor’s Note: Cross country skiing is also referred to as Nordic skiing. The terms are interchangeable but for this article I will use the term cross country skiing.]

Why is Cross Country Skiing Ideal Cross Training for Trail Runners?
Lower Impact, Higher Volume – Similar to other low-impact physical activities such as swimming or biking (see my article on the best types of low-impact cross training for trail runners here), cross country skiing places almost no impact forces on the body. In contrast to the intense pounding runners take in their muscles and joints with every stride, cross country skiers glide across the snow, saving their legs from the kind of post-run soreness trail runners come to expect after tough runs or intense workouts. This lack of soreness will allow you to be physically active on skis for longer than you could ever be running. For example, you might be able to ski for two hours and still feel fresh for your run the next day, whereas running for two hours might leave your legs feeling tired. Adding more hours of low-impact physical activity to your training will teach your body to get used to being “on your feet” for longer and increase overall fitness. This translates to better running and may give you the confidence you need to run longer distances. If you’re preparing for your first ultra trail race, cross country skiing may help you achieve the higher levels of training you need to complete this race distance.

Increased Strength and Athleticism
Cross country skiing requires high levels of strength and athleticism to generate speed with each glide of your skis. Each pole strike into the snow engages core muscles similar to an “ab-crunch” and your shoulders will be working hard to propel you forward. Your legs will also be on fire! Gliding on your skis engages nearly every muscle in your feet all the way up to your glutes. Small leg stabilizer muscles keep you positioned correctly on your skis and larger muscle groups such as glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves provide power and propulsion. In order to excel at cross country skiing, you will need to learn to be explosive with all of these muscle groups, but also be able to remain dynamic throughout the entire duration of the ski session. If you let yourself relax you won’t glide as efficiently as you could with a dynamic stance. Experienced skiers always maintain an athletic posture, as opposed to standing upright, and achieve long, smooth and powerful glides.

Most trail runners don’t spend enough time working on strength and athleticism. As a result, runners end up with weak muscle groups (gluteus medius and tendons in the foot and ankles are common weak spots) that don’t fire when necessary which can often lead to compensation, imbalances, and even injury. Cross country skiing will keep these muscle groups strong and help you become a better balanced athlete less-prone to injuries. Additionally, improving your ability to be dynamic will give you the “pop” and power your legs need to manage obstacles on trails or stay agile on technical downhills. After consistent practice cross country skiing, you may find yourself leaping over rocks that you previously tip-toed around!

Fueling Practice
Cross country skiing burns more calories than nearly any other sport, including trail running. Cross country skiing engages nearly every major muscle group as well as your lungs. Trail runners may find themselves breathing harder going uphill when cross country skiing than they have on any climb running (especially if they haven’t yet mastered proper technique). This high power output required from cross country skiing means increased energy demands and more calories burned during activity. You will need to fuel more frequently during cross country ski sessions than trail runs to avoid bonking. If you aren’t used to fueling during runs, country skiing can help you get used to carrying water, electrolytes, gels or other energy-dense foods during workouts. Ultrarunners will find this especially useful as they can practice fueling strategies that may carry over into their longer ultramarathon races.

Improved Cardiovascular System
VO2 max, or the measure of maximum oxygen uptake measured during incremental exercise, is often used to describe an elite endurance athlete’s potential in their sport and is a sign of natural talent. Athletes with high VO2 maxes often perform better than those with lower numbers because they are able to provide their muscles with more oxygen during the same efforts. Elite cross country skiers, out of all endurance sports, have the highest VO2 maxes. The next highest sports – cycling, running, rowing and swimming – all come nowhere close to cross country skiing. This is largely because cross country skiers can train for hours at a time (lower impact, higher volume), and engage more muscles than any of the other endurance sports. The full-body nature of this sport requires the heart to pump oxygen-rich blood to more parts of the body than during other sports. In running, for example, your legs might be using high amounts of oxygen, but your arms and shoulders are relatively relaxed. Cross country skiing may improve your VO2 max and will most certainly help you become more comfortable breathing harder and taking in large amounts of oxygen. You may also find that your body becomes more efficient at higher levels of running. Judy Rabinowitz, Olympic cross country skier, shares her thoughts on how cross country skiing can improve cardiovascular fitness for trail runners, “The most important benefit of cross country skiing for trail/ultra runners is the cardiovascular benefit of being able to fully use both legs and arms, equating to extra demand on the cardiovascular system.”

Cross Country Skiing

Cross country skate skiing

After a season of cross country skiing, I suggest signing up for short, steep mountain races such as the Cirque Series. Your body may be very well prepared to handle the intense oxygen demands of this style of trail running.

A visual example of the increased oxygen use in cross country skiing as opposed to running can be seen when you watch the finish of elite cross country ski competitions and Eliud Kipchoge setting a world record in the marathon. Kipchoge seems relatively fresh whereas most of the cross country skiers completely collapse!

More Effective Poling Techniques
Lightweight, collapsible trail running poles are an essential item for many trail runners when navigating steep terrain. Some more challenging mountain races even require poles in their prerace gear checklists. When used properly, poles can help trail runners gain traction and propel themselves upwards on steep terrain. However, many trail runners don’t regularly practice using poles or have never been taught proper form, making the poles more of a hindrance than an advantage. Cross country skiing helps trail runners develop the strength in their shoulders and core needed to pole forcefully and will also aid in the timing of pole strokes. Although poling techniques may be different on skis, cross country ski poling will still help you get used to coordinating leg and arm motions when trail running with poles. Check out our video series on poling to learn proper trail running poling techniques.

Tips For Cross Country Ski Beginners

Should I Choose Classic or Skate Skis?
There are two main types of cross country skiing: classic and skate. Both disciplines are vastly different and involve different skis, poles, and gliding techniques. Classic, as the name might suggest, is the original of the two types. Classic skiing uses a forward, backward motion, similar to running, to propel oneself. Designated cross country ski areas typically create “tracks” in the snow that classic skiers use to glide in. In contrast, skate skiing is performed outside of the tracks on wide groomed paths of snow. Skate skiers glide side to side, in a motion similar to hockey, roller blading, or ice skating. Skate skiers achieve higher speeds than classic skiers on most terrain.

Trail runners are most likely better suited to learn classic skiing before skate skiing. For most cross country ski beginners, classic skiing comes more naturally. The lateral motions of skate skiing are often more difficult to grasp, unless the athlete already has a background in hockey or ice skating. Additionally, the forward, backward motion of classic skiing is more similar to running and may therefore translate better into running fitness. That said, it’s best to experience both types. I prefer skate skiing and it is an essential part of my winter training leading into spring and summer trail races. Ultra Running magazine’s Ultrarunner of the Year, Courtney Dauwalter, also regularly uses skate skiing in her training and has credited it as part of her success in ultrarunning.

Where Should I Ski?
The most common venues for cross country skiing are golf courses (be sure to get permission), frozen lakes (be sure the ice really is frozen), bike paths, dirt roads, and wide trails covered in snow. For beginners, I recommend searching for a designated “Nordic” or cross country ski center that rents equipment, provides coaching, and grooms the snow daily. These centers often have the best maintained snow, which is much easier for learning gliding techniques and staff will be able to size you correctly and provide you with the best gear. You should also spend time researching Nordic or cross country ski clubs in your area to learn about groomed snow areas near you. Many mountain or “winter” towns have snowmobile clubs that groom snow for public use. These areas are often free to ski or pay by donation only. Out of all of the types of skiing, cross country is the most accessible in terms of cost and places to practice it.

Leadville Skiing

The author cross country skiing in Leadville, CO.

How Do I Improve My Technique?
One of the first things you’ll discover when you first put on your cross country skis is how much technique is involved in this sport. Cross country skiing requires both fitness and high levels of technique. Experienced skiers are able to effectively transfer their power and bodyweight onto their skis for maximum glide, with little wasted energy. All momentum should be going in the same direction the ski is gliding for best efficiency. The best way to improve technique is to find coaching either in-person, or through watching videos online. I’d highly recommend watching videos of professional cross country skiers and taking note of the dynamic motions and power they put into each and every glide and pole. Think long, powerful and smooth glides. Another way to improve technique is to learn drills. There are many types of drills you can research such as learning to “double-pole” or skiing without poles. Drills can help you isolate specific parts of your technique you may need to work on.

How Do I Incorporate Cross Country Ski Sessions Into My Training Plan?
When incorporating new activities into your training plan, it’s always important not to overdo it. Cross country skiing will add stress and fatigue to your body in new ways and you must learn to manage this effectively. In general, you can replace any run with a ski during a week in terms of time. Don’t worry about mileage, especially as a beginner you might not be able to ski as far as you can run. If you would normally run for one hour, try replacing that run with an hour ski session. As you become a better skier, you may be able to extend your ski sessions to longer than your normal run as you will produce less soreness from skiing than from running. Let your fatigue be your guide. Another important consideration is energy depletion. Cross country skiing is a full-body activity and you will be burning more calories than running. Fuel accordingly so as not to get in too large of an energy deficit that could negatively impact your next day’s workout or overall health.

Cross Country Skiing

Cross country skate skiing.

[PRO TIP: Dig a little deeper into the connections between cross country skiers and mountain / trail runners in this blog post by ATRA’s Richard Bolt.]

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