As the winter weather settles in, many outdoor athletes are faced with a decision: either tread lightly on slippery roads and snow in your running shoes or take your workouts indoors. On the one hand, you risk injury by trying to run a few miles or bike during the short days on icy surfaces. And in the other, the treadmill or stationary bike can’t be separated from the monotony of no changing surroundings.
In an article posted by one of Team USA's Triathlon coaches, John Spinney, he notes that another option is available. For those who want to continue to train for road races and build new muscles despite the snow piling up, cross-country skiing is an excellent winter option for building muscular endurance and fitness.
"You can build a strong endurance engine by cross-country skiing, and by skiing on groomed tracks that may include hilly courses, you can also work on leg and arm strength and muscle endurance—similar to when you run hill repeats," said Spinney, a Level I Certified Coach who believes adventure is an overlooked aspect of triathlon training.
He points out that Canadian Peter Reid, who won the IRONMAN World Championship three times, also embraced this mindset in his training. Reid was known for cross-country skiing a lot in the winter.
Although trying the sport is dependent on your location and climate, Spinney explains that if you can make it part of your winter training regiment, the development of your muscular endurance is invaluable for a triathlete. Spinney points out how each aspect of cross-country skiing emulates movements within the three aspects of a triathlon:
- Running: “(Cross-country skiing emulates) steep uphill running. Everything I do in my own training and with my athletes involves a consistent dose of workouts that stimulate muscular endurance.
- Swimming: “For improving muscular endurance, it’s (basically) swimming with big paddles.” The same muscles that you use to kick and propel yourself through the water work alternatively on your skis to move you across the snow.
- Cycling: “You can work to improve your bike durability — a type of fitness that makes you more fatigue-resistant and better able to access your pure run fitness off the bike. The hallmark of good bike durability is muscular endurance. You can build this endurance with high-muscle tension, low-cadence work on the bike.”
For those who have not tried the sport, they may not know that there are two different cross-country skiing techniques: classic and skate.
Classic cross-country skiing involves a kick and glide motion in which you move your skis forward in a straight line. It activates major muscles like the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and lower leg muscles. The kick-and-glide technique of classic skiing relies heavily on the quadriceps to provide propulsion and the hamstrings and glutes to drive the hip forward. The lower leg muscles are used for stability and balance.
Skate skiing, on the other hand, resembles a speed skater on ice as your skis form a “V” and you propel yourself forward by shifting your weight from one leg to the other. It is also more of a full-body workout that relies on the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, core muscles, and upper body muscles, including the shoulders, triceps, biceps, and chest.
Learn more about Cross-Country Skiing here: What is Nordic Combined? The Ultimate Guide To The Winter Olympic Sport
There are different skis for skate skiing and for classic, and much like downhill skis, cross-country skis have binding systems and boots. Sizing for skis depends on your weight, but often, you can rent skis at a Nordic center. A local Nordic Center will probably offer more instruction on the sport, as well as maps and miles of groomed terrain for cross-country skiing. To dress for the sport, you’ll want to avoid dressing too warmly since cross-country skiing will cause you to sweat. Layers of winter cycling or running gear can work great for colder weather.
Spinney also notes in his article that other winter sports also offer a great alternative to running and cycling indoors, many of which emulate hill climbs and focus on building valuable muscular endurance in your core and legs. Alpine touring, a mix between cross-country skiing, mountaineering and downhill skiing, is what Spinney claims is the most exciting option:
“If you are already a downhill skier, your best bet to further improve your muscular endurance (and up the fun factor!) is to try alpine touring (AT) skiing. AT skiing arguably stimulates your body to build muscular endurance more than any of the other snow sports I’ve mentioned… When going uphill, your boots have a range of motion and your heels are free so you can stride up the hill. At the top you switch your boots into downhill mode and lock your heel into the binding, so you can make regular alpine turns just like you always have.”
In addition to cross-country skiing and alpine touring, snowshoeing and winter hiking are great low-key, low-barrier-to-entry winter sports that offer excellent cross-training.
If you want to learn more about cross-country skiing or other ski sports, check out the US Ski and Snowboard organization page on GMTM.
And be sure to check the USA Triathlon organization page for more helpful tips like this one on how to get and stay in shape for your next race. You can also see more articles here.