Skinny Skis Rule
by Frank Mungeam
Nordic skiers can justifiably claim to be the most aerobically fit athletes in the world. They consistently record the highest VO2 max scores - higher than cyclists, runners and even triathletes. A Scandinavian skier topped out at 93 mil/kg/min. By comparison, running legend Steve Prefontaine recorded a VO2 max of 84.4 mil/kg/min.
It's no wonder that runners looking for winter cross-training are turning to skinny skis. Skating uses muscle groups in both the upper and lower body, engaging major muscles in the back, arms, chest and abs. It's low impact, too.
Depending on effort expended and technique, skate-skiing can offer both hours of low-stress base aerobic exercise and highly intense aerobic threshold training.
Besides, on a winter day, skiing in snow is a lot more fun than cycling indoors or running in the cold and wet.
SKATE SKIING 101
The most common skate skiing technique, called the V1, involves poling while gliding on one side, then gliding on the other ski without poling. A more advanced technique, the V2, involves poling on both gliding sides.
The V1 is commonly used on uphills and on flat terrain as a way to keep heart rate and effort low. The V2, which requires more proficiency and fitness, is used when skiing at higher speed and intensity.
To get started skating, three-time Olympian Justin Wadsworth of the U.S. National Team recommends breaking the technique down between lower body and upper body movements.
"The lower body movements should be like a pendulum," says Wadsworth, "transferring weight from one gliding ski to the other in a fluid motion. Shift your weight fully onto the gliding ski, then transfer smoothly to the new lead, gliding ski until all the weight is fully over that gliding ski."
The motion should feel similar to in-line skating. A great way to get this feeling of weight shifting and gliding is to start by skating without poles. Finish by driving off with the rear ski, weight-shifting and gliding onto the forward, gliding ski; then repeat.
The upper body action for skating is basically the same as double-poling in classic cross country skiing.
"The shoulders should be rolled in and forward, arms bent at 90 degrees," explains Wadsworth. "And keep your head up so you can breathe."
Then "fall down" on the poles by squeezing down with the big ab muscles. Wadsworth cautions against using the arms too early: "You're losing power!" he calls to one of his students, then adds: "Keep the arms at 90 degrees as you compress the torso, driving the poles, then finish the pole drive by extending your arms at the end."
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
1. Plant the "hang pole" and begin shifting weight onto the poling ski, kicking with the trailing ski.
2. Compress from the abs, driving the pole straight back along the line of travel, centering your weight over the lead/weighted ski, keeping your head up.
3. Glide over the lead ski, finish pole, and begin shifting your weight to the glide ski.
4. Complete weight shift until your full weight is on the glide ski; prepare your arms for the next pole plant.
5. Begin transferring your weight back to the hang pole side, and repeat from #1.
"In the beginning, it's all about technique," emphasizes Wadsworth's coach, J.D. Downing, who organizes an annual June ski camp in Bend, Oregon. Downing recommends four workouts to practice the skate technique, beginning with lower body, then the upper body, and finally integrating poling with skating.
FOUR SKATE TECHNIQUE WORKOUTS
1. Skate on flats without poles, practicing weight transfer and leg/arm drive.
2. Skate without poles going up gentle inclines to practice body angle and lean.
3. Double pole in tracks (without skating) to practice upper body motion and poling technique.
4. Skate with poles at an easy pace and heart rate, concentrating on smooth technique, not speed or effort.
SHAPE UP FOR SKATING
First-time cross country skiers, even those who are fit runners, can be surprised by the technical and physical challenges of Nordic skiing. Coach Downing has helped lots of fit runners learn skiing as a cross training sport.
"The biggest mistake I see cross-over athletes make is that they come out and hammer right away," says Downing. "You need to go easy at first to master the technique."
Downing urges first-timers to focus on easy, aerobic base workouts initially. He points out that even elite skiers spend at least 80% o f their training time doing aerobic base work, not intensity training.
As technique and fitness improve, Downing suggests adding in ten minutes of harder-effort skiing, then back to base effort. Each week, over 6-8 weeks, increase the length of the hard efforts by five minutes. Using this schedule, you can develop ski technique, build a strong winter aerobic base, and be ready to roll for those springtime runs.
- A ski package (skis, boots, and poles) rents for about $25 per day.
- Entry-level skate ski packages cost about $200.
- Skate skis average 10 cm shorter than classic skis, and require waxing.
- Skate boots are stiffer than classic boots to transfer force to ski.
- Skate poles are about 10 cm longer than classic poles.
- Proper fit for skis and poles depends on your height, weight, and style of skiing.