First: silence and sliding, slipping, slipping. Then an explosive push, poles digging in, and you fly past the dappled trees into a snow-covered clearing so still, so serene and untouched that it takes your breath away.
Or maybe it’s the workout that takes your breath away. After all, cross-country skiing is incredible exercise. In fact, a 180-pound man cross-country skiing for an hour burns a whopping 1,200 calories. What’s more, unlike some other types of outdoor endeavors (we’re talking about you, long-distance running) cross-country skiing uses more bodyparts — arms, legs, back, core — to maximum effect.
“In cross-country skiing, energy comes from the legs, but it also comes from the upper body through the use of two poles striking the ground at the same time to propel you forward,” says Alex Moore, strength-and-conditioning coordinator for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, the governing body that fields our Olympic teams. “You want to be strong and powerful in the upper body because a fair amount of the energy produced is done with that.” That’s counter to downhill skiing, which is all about leg and hip action. And gravity.
Cross-country aficionados rely on gym work to help them excel out on the terrain. That’s because double poling — the act of raising ski poles high above one’s head and planting them hard to push off and move forward — requires triceps, biceps, shoulder and lat strength, as well as a finishing “crunch” via the abdominals. To get more out of the great outdoors, consider hitting the weights before hitting the white.
Strength for Skiing
Moore, who develops strength-training regimens for the U.S. Cross Country Ski teams, has his athletes focus on building explosiveness in the arms and legs. To tax the arms, he recommends weighted pull-ups and dips: Do the exercise as you normally would, but hang weight plates from a belt around your waist for extra resistance. The dips are particularly important because the double-pole action in the field finishes with a triceps extension, and you’ll want to maximize the effort.
To that end, Moore recommends doing four sets of four to eight reps of lat pulldowns and adding a triceps extension at the end of the movement, slightly rotating your hands to push the cable handle down with your triceps. He also recommends doing back extensions while holding a medicine ball for added tension (proper skiing technique involves “curling” forward instead of standing straight up), as well as lateral lunges for leg, hamstring and glute endurance.
And while cross-country skiing is infinitely easier techniquewise than downhill, you’ll still want to work on balance and leg strength via plyometrics. Moore recommends finding a hill at least 30 yards long with a 5-degree or more incline. From the bottom, jump forward from one leg, moving at a 45-degree angle to land on the other leg, then immediately spring off that landing leg at another 45-degree angle. You should look like you’re skating uphill. About halfway up, you’ll notice that you’re maxing out your quads … but keep it up, bounding up to the top of the hill, then walking back down to the start.
Now, do 10 sets of that, with a minute’s rest in between. The next time you strap on your skis, you’ll be able to schuss with the best of them.