The best cross country ski workouts for distance runners

skate skiing on a gradual uphill

What it looks like:

Find a hill between 3-5% grade that takes 2-5 minutes to climb. Depending on your strength, use a V2 or a V1 technique to climb the hill at your 5k-10k running race effort. Descend for your recovery. Repeat as many times as you’d like.

Benefits:

All of the aerobic/VO2 max benefits of a mile repeat workout without any wear and tear on the joints from impact.

Other thoughts:

If you live at altitude, you’ll need to likely modify the intensity and the grade. I typically either go “really hard” for 1-2 minutes, and extend my recovery beyond just going downhill if I want to target that 3k-5k feel. And, if I’m looking for a ‘tempo’ run replacement, I’ll find an uphill that lasts for several miles. Just going at a steady pace without stopping will get the heart rate quite high if you are training above 8,000 feet. For those at sea level, it might be more difficult to get a long, 20-40 minute uphill.

double poling Overdistance

What it looks like:

45 minutes – 2.5 hours of steady state, L1-L2 double poling.

For runners, L1 = recovery pace, and L2 = long run pace.

Find a flat, hard packed snow surface, wear your classic (or skate skis), and use your classic ski poles to fulfill this workout. The beauty of double poling is that you don’t need fresh grooming to do it. You can go on a snowmobile trail, a packed down road, or a skate ski deck; as long as the surface is relatively smooth and hard packed (that is the most critical), you can double pole.

Don’t be too scared away by steep hills….trying to double pole up those puts hair on your chest.

Benefits:

  1. aerobic – your heart rate won’t be as high as running, but if you go at a decent clip, you can place it right where it probably should be if you are doubling back from a morning run. Plus, you can go much longer than a double/afternoon run would be.
  2. upper body strength – This type of workout is great for building your endurance pull-up muscles – posture, strength, etc.
  3. Recovery for the lower body joints and ligaments. If you are double poling correctly, it is a full body movement. However, this is a great option to add volume if you struggle with nagging achilles, tendon, joint, or other overuse foot and lower body leg injuries. I prefer this as a double back from a hard run over skate skiing because the amount of balance muscles activated while skating is tremendous. Not so when double poling.

Other thoughts:

Cross country skiers who move to a focus on double pole don’t bring with them the same aerobic capacity background as a distance runner who does the same thing. Thus, if you find a liking to developing this skill, you can excel at many classic ski loppet/marathons. Many of the courses lack steep enough hills to prevent you from double poling most of the course.

classic striding a steep uphill

What it looks like:

  1. Get out your classic skis and apply the wax of the day….
  2. Find a hill that is too steep for you to double pole.
  3. Stride up the hill at your desired intensity
  4. Sample workout: 4x (2-5 minutes) of uphill @ L4 with downhill recovery
  5. Sample workout: 2-4x (8-15 minutes) of uphill @ L3 (50k race pace on skis/marathon run pace effort) with downhill recovery

Benefits:

Hill workout with no downhill running

Save your joints from the impact of running downhill, where they are most likely to be injured, and get all the benefits of an uphill running workout….in the winter no less! Choose an intensity level – anywhere from your mile to your full marathon pace/target heart rate – and complete the workout accordingly. The advantage of being out in the mountains is that we can actually find uphills that last for 15 minutes or longer if we’d like.

Sport specific movement pattern

Another reason to do this as a runner is that the movement pattern more closely mimics an uphill running motion than skate skiing.

Other thoughts:

Research shows that the metabolic cost of classic striding uphill is higher than double poling, too, meaning if you are out there looking solely for what will be the most ‘taxing,’ this is it.

race

What it looks like:

Sign up for a local marathon loppet. Expect to pay between $60-100. Expect to have a great time, overall, but likely endure some standard initiation moments (broken poles, bad wax, slow skis, no grip, embarrassing crashes, etc.). Don’t expect to take the podium, at least not on your first try.

Benefits:

Be humbled. Sometimes, runners think they are invincible. It’s ok to have some swagger, but a fair appreciation of other sports and their complexities is healthy, too. Bike races – road and mountain – will do this, and so will most ski races. I think it is smart for a runner to balance his year with periods where he/she can pursue other types of goals. You don’t want to be thinking about that Boston qualifier 12-months a year. Or rather, you don’t want it at the fore of your mind. Improving your place at the Birkie, getting on the podium at the local loppet, and other ski goals can help you get to Boston, too.

Race experience. Every experience can serve your primary goals. This is true for the doctor who takes a public speaking course at the local college, and for the trail runner who signs up for a 40k skate race. Learning how to use all the tools in your tool box – digging deep, fighting through pain, strategizing, visualizing, etc., – in a sport OTHER than your main one, will make them that much sharper when you really want them.

Samples to try:

This site has a list/description of races across North America.

Crested Butte Alley Loop – 42k skate – this is the crown jewel of the race, and typically attracts a few national level guys and gals. Both of the ‘benefits’ elements will be put to good use.

Leadville Loppet – go for the blueberry soup and the epic post race buffet.

Mora Vasaloppet – classic ski 44k – great to try out all of the work you put into that double pole.

Snow Mountain Stampede – a true man-maker weekend. Not for the faint of heart…They hand you the 100k belt buckle, the award for completing the 50k classic and 50k skate double, BEFORE you begin. I suggest taking that and driving to a doughnut shop and calling it good.

Classic doubles

Long Run in the morning + easy double pole in the afternoon

As a runner, I ascribe to making my long run a key workout, meaning, I want to go far, I don’t want to stop, and at some point, I would love to progress towards something like marathon +15-20 seconds/mile pace. That being said, a hard 15-20 mile run is a lot of pounding on the joints. As you get more fit, you might find you have the capacity for afternoon training. In fact, you might want it to get blood flowing and flush out your legs. A double pole workout, where you will use your upper and lower body but have no impact, is a great way to accomplish this.

Even if you are not running mega-mileage, a double pole session after a morning 60-75 minute run is great.

AM – 60-75 minute run @6:30-7/mile pace (sea level paces; 7:40-8:00 @ 10,500ft)

PM – 80-100 minute double pole, easy.

Standard run in the morning + skate ski in the afternoon

Do this if only if you are running less than 75 minutes. I think skate skiing after a longer, harder effort could be asking too much for those lower ankle, foot, achilles joints. Skate skiing is more dynamic, and the tiny balancing muscles are highly activated. This is more a standard double for runners who maybe used to do 75-90 miles a week, but can’t due to injury. They are maybe better off at 45-50 and replacing those second runs with a workout like skiing.

Hard running intervals in the morning + hard double pole intervals in the afternoon

If you like to make your hard days really hard, then try out a double like this:

AM: Tempo run (25 – 40 minutes of A.T. effort)

PM: L4 double pole intervals. Warm up (10-15 minutes of DP) + 4×4 minutes of uphill double pole at L4 effort (with 2 minutes easy double poling recovery) + cooldown.

Or:
AM: Mile repeats (running)

PM: L3 double pole – same as above except 3×12 minutes of double pole @ L3 effort with 3 minutes easy double pole/classic ski recovery.

Make sure the next day is easy 🙂

All of the makings of a great recovery day…..

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