Winter represents a time for triathletes to take a break from swimming, biking and running, but that doesn’t mean you should sit on the couch. The key is to find a way to build your fitness in alternate ways so you improve physically while not burning out mentally. Luckily, there exists a single sport that can help you build aerobic fitness, aerobic threshold, as well as power and stamina in your legs, core and arms and you can do it outside, typically in beautiful surrounding—it’s called nordic skiing.
Nordic skiing, often referred to as cross country or nordorking, has become the off-season sport of choice for many endurance athletes during the winter months. Nordic skiing is a unique sport in that it gives you an opportunity to make use of your existing endurance in a new and fun way, while also still providing a significant boost to your ability to swim, bike and run. The list of professional triathletes getting on the skinny skis includes both long-course and short-course specialists. The likes of Heather Jackson, Cameron Dye, Lisa Norden, Joe Gambles, Paula Findlay and Daniela Ryf (the reigning two-time Ironman world champion) have all posted photos on social media showing them on their skis to gain both the physical and mental benefits that this sport has to offer.
The Physical Benefits
“Cross country skiing is the hardest overall body workout out there,” says Brett Sutton, the legendary coach of many world champions, including Ryf. “It is excellent for strengthening swim muscles, it is super for cardio fitness for the run and downhill skiing is great for bike strength work.”
In terms of building your cardiovascular fitness, you’d be hard pressed to find any sport that is as demanding as nordic skiing. As a group, nordic skiers outperform every other endurance sport in their VO2 max capacity.
Nordic skiing also helps train your ability to handle lactic acid. This byproduct of intense effort is what causes the “burn” feeling when you go hard. Since you work the biggest muscle groups at once when you nordic—like your lats and quads—your body will produce a lot of lactic acid as your effort increases.
Done right, nordic skiing requires a lot of power from your entire body, and it must be coordinated in the right rhythm to get the most from your effort. Imagine having the upper body output of swimming with paddles combined with the lower body output of riding in a big gear. That is part of the bonus, you can build power that translates to all three sports by doing a single activity.
The Mental Benefits
As something new and different, Nordic skiing brings an element of fun to your training and some welcome mental relief. Plus, simply mixing up your routine keeps you from getting stuck in a motivation-sapping rut.
Since most centers are located in parks and other open spaces, the views—combined with the quiet and solitude—can provide a peacefulness that is hard to find when you’re sharing the road with cars or running through a city.
There are two types of nordic skiing: classic and skate. Classic is what looks like a standard run, with your legs staying in line, while skate skiing looks like a skating motion. Most athletes choose skate skiing since it is faster, more dynamic and does not require as much attention to detail with regards to your equipment, specifically the wax.
The best way to get started is to go to your nearest nordic center, rent the gear (typically about $20) and take a lesson. Like swimming, cross-country skiing requires solid technique to get a sense of efficiency and glide. Unlike swimming, nordic skiing does not have the equivalent of a buoy or paddles to correct your mistakes.
Nordic skiing is typically hard enough on its own to not require any set workout, especially for beginners, but Sutton does use specific intervals on occasion. “We use interval-based workouts, such as 1 minute on, 2 minutes easy, as well as 2 hours ski ‘as you feel,’” he says.
Working it into Your Schedule
The multisport balance is tough enough, so trying to add another “must do” sport may seem like too much to handle. Keep in mind that nordic skiing can often replace a workout and does not necessarily have to be in addition to what you are already doing. Sutton says that the most natural fit is for nordic skiing to take the place of a bike workout. He also adds that he has had athletes skiing up to four weeks before an “A” priority race with good results, so it can take you well into your triathlon-specific prep.
Like any sport, as you progress in your technique you’ll find you can ski longer and faster—making it even more fun.