Even though it was a shorter winter in Park City than we all would have liked, those of us who are eternal optimists are convinced that it just means deeper snow for next winter. Regardless of what Mother Nature has in store, spring is the time to get in shape for next season. Not later this summer or sometime in October. Off-season training holds an enormous amount of sway over your winter performance level.
Professional distance athletes will do 80-85% of their training at or below 80% of their maximum heart rate. What this means is that a lot of training is done moving really slowly. While this type of training is time consuming, it’s also incredibly important to the overall improvement of your fitness. As winter athletes, we need to commit lots of time to training between May and September. Sport-specific exercise is great, but as mere mortals we have the freedom to mix it up with different activities and not worry so much about sticking to a super strict training regimen.
Quick disclaimer: I think of training on a Level I-V scale, and use percentage of max heart rate to determine these zones. These are merely suggestions! Listen to your body before becoming a slave to your heart rate monitor. You know what easy should feel like, so just listen to your body.
What Needs to Be Done
In the off-season, volume is key. In order to keep in touch with the higher gears and leg strength needed for downhill skiing and Nordic skiing, some attention needs to be paid to specific workouts; but the focus should really be on exercising for longer amounts of time to build endurance. Scheduling long workouts can be difficult with commitments from work, family, and everyday life. If you can’t find the time on any given day, don’t just go hard for a shorter amount of time. Pushing hard for short distances can improve your strength, but will compromise your overall endurance and top-end speed. If you have an easy workout planned, cut the time but don’t increase the intensity.
If you like doing strength-specific workouts in the gym, try not to overdo it. Strength conditioning throughout an entire year training cycle should look like a bell curve – with the highest number of workouts occurring around September for winter athletes.
Volume training increases your endurance, but engine capacity and speed still need to be developed. For threshold workouts (82-87% of max heart rate) and intensity workouts (87-92% of max heart rate) I am a fan of setting a target goal for total amount of time to be achieved at the end of an interval. For example, when I was coaching, I wanted my athletes to be able to hold 60 minutes at their threshold and 40 minutes at intensity. For the rest of us, I prefer to start with more frequent, shorter intervals for intensity at the start of a training season – 6 x 4 minute intervals as opposed to 3 x 8 minutes. As your training season progresses, plan to move towards fewer and longer intervals.
Why We Need to Do It
Longer volume workouts increase our endurance; threshold workouts increase our capacity; intensity workouts increase our race pace and top-end speed; and strength workouts increase our strength and power. Simple, right? In reality, it’s not necessarily quite that simple, but leave the complicated stuff to the physiology brainiacs.
The most important concept is to have a reasonable mix of all of these types of exercises. And it’s OK to have your favorites. The more serious you are about racing, for example, the closer attention you should pay to implementing intensity and strength workouts into your training. If you’re more of a casual athlete, don’t sweat the small stuff. Get out, be active and healthy, and use this information to get a little more out of your summer training.
What We Can Do
Now this is the really fun part! I love to mix it up when the warm weather hits. Clearly the most relevant form of summer training that you can do for Nordic skiing is roller skiing. It is completely sport-specific, and you can use it to accomplish any type of training. Roller skiing without poles is also great for building strength and improving technique. If you are a downhill skier who also enjoys Nordic skiing, getting on roller skis is a great way to improve balance and coordination.
Road biking is an excellent way to get in some hours without beating up your body. This sport is ideal cross training for both Nordic and downhill skiing because it helps build those all-important quad muscles. I would suggest using road biking as a tool for volume training – especially if you are already logging tons of miles on the bike.
Swimming is another fantastic training option since it is a full-body workout that is also low impact, like road biking. For me personally, swimming is not a great option since I can’t be in the pool without maxing out my heart rate. But for those more well-rounded athletes, go hop in the pool or a lake and enjoy!
Mountain biking is just a ton of fun. Long or short rides are a great way to pack on some hours, and riding on technical terrain will help to enhance the core strength and balance that is critical for any type of skiing.
Trail running is another activity to use for volume as well as threshold or intensity training. Long runs are a great way to explore and be outside – never be afraid to hike for a while if that is what your body needs. You don’t have to be experienced or at a high skill level to get great results when running. It is easy to regulate your output with running, which means that running intervals can be very effective if you are new to implementing a training program.
Backpacking is my favorite way to get in a high-volume workout. Wandering in the woods for hours with a pack on is a rewarding way to train without even knowing you are doing it. Pack up your tent, your sleeping bag, and your sense of adventure and get out of town! I’m particularly partial to this idea since the mental benefits of leaving it all behind are also a huge payoff from hiking and backpacking.
The term ‘off-season’ is a bit of a misnomer. A huge percentage of training can – and should – happen during this time. Go play! Ski season will be here soon enough, so now is the time to be a year-round lover of outdoor exercise and activity. Long days, warm temperatures, and a world without snow can make you more fit – even if that first day back on skis is what we are all really craving.