Work It Out: Nordic ski and ski mountaineering training

A skier climbs the Vail Pass last season. With the popularity of alpine hiking, a group of four Summit residents recently founded the Summit Skimo Club and is hosting the first annual Frisco ski mountaineering race on January 27.
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Nordic ski training doesn’t start on a bike, treadmill, or skate skis. It starts – where else? – on the real deal.

“The best way to prepare for Nordic skiing is to put on skis,” said Olof Hedberg, head coach at Summit Nordic Ski Club for the past two seasons. “Running and cycling, while they provide good heart and lung training, are not everything. Efficiency and muscle memory and all of that can only be trained on skis. If you want to ski fast, ski a lot.

It sounds like a no-brainer, but he says training for an intense cardio sport like Nordic isn’t all about fitness. It also takes finesse and proper technique to get the most out of all that tough aerobic workout. Your heart and lungs don’t differentiate between running and skiing, but your muscles certainly do.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the cardio has to come out the window. Look at Nordic’s relatively new brother, ski mountaineering. Dozens of local triathletes and endurance athletes turn to skimo when the snow falls, in large part thanks to the similarities between summer and winter sports.

“For general fitness, a lot of us run or cycle in the summer, and there are a lot of crossovers there,” said Ram Mikulas, vice president of the Summit Skimo Club. “For some people it might be a spinning class, for others it might be running or whatever you can do at the gym in the winter.”

When it comes to training, Hedberg and Mikulas agree that Nordic skiing and ski mountaineering are sports for the whole body. Athletes shouldn’t focus on one specific muscle group or one type of training program, especially if running is in your future.

And the racing season is already here. The SNSC kicked off the youth season on December 7 with the Snolof Invitational Classic Sprint in Frisco and the statewide ski mountaineering series, Colorado Cup of Ski Mountaineering (COSMIC), kicks off Sunlight outside of Glenwood Springs on January 16. The first COSMIC event, an uphill / downhill race, arrives at Copper Mountain on February 1, just after the very first Ski mountaineering race Frisco.

To prepare for the season, Hedberg and Mikulas discussed the basics of training for everyone – beginners and veterans, young and old – to improve on the snow. Don’t forget your skis.

Practice all disciplines

Practice makes perfect, of course, but Hedberg says a lot of athletes tend to only practice their favorite discipline. Instead, try a mix of classic skiing and skating to fill in the gaps in your technique.

“These two are complementary,” Hedberg said. “You’ll notice that the upper body strength you gain from classic skiing and sticking will turn into power when you put on skate skis. There are advantages to both.

He suggests spending 75% of the time with your favorite gear and 25% with your other gear. Even skimo athletes can benefit from cross training with traditional Nordic disciplines.

Mikulas admits he doesn’t put on his Nordic skis as much these days, but he has often turned to skate skiing as training for skimo and just to stay in shape during off-season triathlon.

“Skate skiing is just a great all-around exercise,” he said. “I like to stay with cross-training throughout the season.”

Know your technique

Just practicing all the disciplines doesn’t necessarily make you better, says Hedberg. When changing gear, make sure you always know how to ski correctly at varying speeds.

“Maintaining good technique at high speed is something we are always working on with our runners,” he said. “It’s easy to get good technique when you go slow and steady. But maintaining good technique at high speed is important, and it will be a shock to your body on race day if you don’t.

Each of the four local Nordic Centers (Frisco, Breckenridge, Keystone and Gold Run in Breck) offers classes for almost all skill levels. The Summit Skimo Club has just concluded a three-class introductory series, but the website ( has plenty of training resources and local clinics for everyone.

Use intervals

Like all cardio sports, Nordic skiing and skimo are heavy on cardio. Interval is one of the fastest and most effective ways to increase cardio capacity. But how? Pretty simple: Changing the tempo forces your body to work more efficiently, while training at a constant pace cradles your body in a groove.

“If your body isn’t used to going fast, you’ll still develop lactic acid, even if you train for hours and at altitude,” Hedberg said. “Your body will be shocked at how fast you are going. “

Change terrain

Skiing is an outdoor sport, which means anything and everything can change at any time. Nordic is a bit more controlled than ski mountaineering – the latter often includes backcountry or sidecountry routes – but even a well-maintained uphill trail can still be a cardio nightmare.

“Sometimes you go down a groomed trail, other times you go down a black trail or something clear with steep inclines,” Mikulas said. He also says it’s important to know how your skimo gear will react on different terrains. Skis tend to be relatively thin, so if you’ve only taken out 120mm monsters in the powder, now is the time to practice on the race kit.

It’s not quite the same for the Nordic – running doesn’t happen after a cool foot – but Hedberg still recommends training on varying inclines and inclines.

“Due to the nature of skiing, the downhills and the flat parts are actually very important to practice because the ski slips,” he said. “If you have a high speed on the flat, you glide longer on the climb and that transition makes the climb shorter. It makes your run better.

Take advantage of the uphill access

For some curious skimo athletes, training begins and ends with the terrain – there is simply nowhere to go. But Mikulas says you don’t need backcountry experience to get into the sport. All local stations allow uphill access, which is the perfect way to train for the fitness part uphill and the technical downhill part of the sport.

“Like cross-country skiing or rowing, you always engage your upper and lower body,” he said. “That will change with the skimo depending on the terrain you’re traveling on, so it’s really about engaging all the different muscles with different inclines.”