Winter Cross Training

Hit the slopes this winter to revitalize your running.

It’s cold. It’s dark. It’s gray. You have every reason to bail on your run today. Instead of pitting your sneakers against Old Man Winter, embrace the change in season with cross-training activities that make cold, snowy conditions fun. You’ll find new inspiration—and the change of pace can make you a stronger runner.

“Cross-training lets the muscle groups, joint angles, and planes of motion that are dominant in running have a break,” says Daniel Matheny, senior endurance coach with Carmichael Training Systems in Colorado Springs, Colo. “It’s also a chance to minimize fitness loss, address imbalances, exercise to feel good, change your scenery, or do something if you simply can’t run during this season.”

The primary benefits of cross-training are balancing the body and preventing over-use injuries. Matheny suggests balancing different planes of motion-engaging the coronal and transverse planes to balance the sagittal plane dominance in runners. In other words, he suggests stepping out of the left side/right side patterning that dominates running and moving your upper and lower body in other ways. The best ways to do this in winter? “Nordic skiing, alpine (downhill) skiing, and alpine touring,” says Matheny.

Winter Cross Training: Skiing for runners

Nordic and Skate Skiing

“Nordic skiing is a huge aerobic bang for your buck because it’s quadrupedal—meaning it uses all limbs—so based on the amount of muscle recruitment, you burn quite a bit of energy,” says Matheny. That’s why most of the highest VO2 maxes recorded are by Nordic skiers over runners, cyclists, and swimmers. Matheny says most runners-who tend to be inefficient Nordic skiers-will get a great workout.

Professional trail runner Sari Anderson agrees: “Skate skiing is highly aerobic, especially with imperfect form like mine.” She spends much of her winter cross-training time on skis.

Alpine skiing

“Alpine skiing is less aerobic than Nordic, but the motion is more eccentric than concentric, especially if you hit the moguls or bumps,” explains Matheny. This means the muscles are soaking up the load and lengthening, like in plyometric jump training. No matter how fit you are, using your body in new ways challenges your body to grow stronger and more versatile, which helps ward off overuse injuries.

Alpine touring

Alpine touring (also called randonnée, which means “to walk, hike or ramble to ski”) involves skinning uphill on skis before turning around to ski down. It combines the aerobic training of Nordic skiing with the muscular diversity, balance, and power training of downhill skiing.

“The uphill portions of these races are as aerobic as running and rival any hill-repeat interval session,” says Anderson, who wears a heart rate monitor to ensure she exerts the same level of effort while cross-training. And the descent? Have you seen a ski racer’s gams?

How To Do It

The act of running is simple. As it becomes easier over time, we tend to favor it over other activities. But a new sport, especially one where slippery slopes and gravity intersect, poses new challenges. That’s a good thing, for your brain and your body-but start slow and go easy on yourself so you don’t get frustrated or injured.

“Ease into the new activity and let yourself adapt to the new movement,” advises Matheny. “Doing anything, if it’s safe, is better than nothing because it helps minimize the reduction in training stimulus, aids in maintaining a healthy body composition and, frankly, just keeps the blood pumping and body moving to feel good.”

Many ski resorts offer lessons, equipment rentals, and trails to make it easy to get on snow and go. Randonnee and snowshoe races are increasingly popular at resorts as well, so you can set race goals like you do with running. If you want personal attention or instruction for specific fitness goals, look for programs where experienced guides tailor outdoor fitness workouts to your needs.

Try It: 3 Nordic Centers

The Summit at Snoqualmie, Washington

Less than an hour’s drive from Seattle, Wash., Snoqualmie boasts more than 2,000 skiable acres, four base camps, and a plethora of cross-training opportunities. Its Nordic Center provides over 50km of groomed trails, with plenty of terrain for lessons, and features classes for nordic newbies. 

Whiteface, Lake Placid, New York

In New York’s Adirondacks, Mt. Van Hoevenberg features more than 50km of rolling terrain with groomed trails that are ideal for nordic skiing, snowshoeing and even biathlon training. The nordic center offers lessons and affordable day rates or season passes. Plus, Whiteface gives alpine enthusiasts the greatest vertical drop east of the Rocky Mountains.

Snow Mountain Ranch, Colorado

The YMCA’s Snow Mountain Ranch invites nordic skiers of all levels to explore more than 100km of its trails on 5,100 acres in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. The nordic center offers cheap equipment rentals, learn-to-ski packages, and skiing and snowshoeing races.


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