Are cross-country skiers the fittest of all athletes?

Alex Harvey (3) competes in 30K race at the World Cup on Jan. 29. Skate style skiing and double poling have changed the sport.

We’re used to celebrating the performances of Canada’s alpine skiers, but recent big wins on the World Cup Circuit have catapulted Canadian cross-country skiers into the spotlight.

Long considered the fittest of all athletes, cross-country skiers already are known for their impressive aerobic capacity.

Improvements in equipment and track preparation and new styles of racing have added a boost of speed to an already physically demanding sport. So while previous generations of skiers were defined by their VO2 max, today’s skiers need both anaerobic and muscle power to make it to the podium.

Without a doubt, the most dramatic change in cross-country skiing, an Olympic sport since the first winter games in 1924, has been the introduction of skate skiing in the 1980s. Different from the traditional classic style that features a kick and glide with both skis staying parallel to each other, the skate technique pushes the skis away from the body’s centre line, similar to the movement used for ice skating, with the skis kept in a V-shape.

Also different from traditional cross-country skiing is the poling technique. Double poling is now standard in both classic and skate styles. It’s estimated that 50 per cent of forward propulsion is generated by the upper body, with most skiers double poling from race start to finish. Combine upper body strength and endurance, with the ability to maintain high levels of intensity over long distances, and you’ve got the basics of what it takes to be an elite cross country skier.

Varied terrain

What kind of intensity are we talking about?

“It’s not unusual for cross-country skiers to compete at 95 per cent of their maximum heart rate,” said Jessica Krysk, the exercise physiologist for the Canadian National Cross Country Ski Team.

Keep in mind that cross-country ski trails feature varied terrain. Elite skiers need to power up hills, recover on the way down and pick up speed on the flats. Each terrain change demands modifications in skiing style and pace, which adds technical and tactical aspects to the sport. Then there’s the sport’s demand for athletes to compete in drastically different distances, from sprint to endurance, each of which appeals to different physiological capacities.

“It’s a balancing act between the physiological and technical to be successful in this sport,” Krysk said.

Alex Harvey, Canada’s golden boy of cross-country skiing — who recently won World Cup gold on back-to-back weekends and was part of the 4 x 7.5 kilometre sprint relay team that won bronze — is one of the rare athletes who excels in both.

The 28-year-old from St-Férréol-les-Neiges is competitive in classic and skate techniques and has earned podium finishes in endurance and sprint races. Ranked third among the distance athletes on the World Cup Circuit and fourth overall (a combination of points earned in distance and sprint events), Harvey may well have inherited some of his substantial aerobic power from his father, Pierre, who competed in both summer and winter Olympic Games in distance cycling and cross-country ski events.

“Alex is a phenomenal athlete,” Krysk said. “He’s successful in the sprint and the 50K, which is very impressive. He also has the work ethic and professionalism that it takes to be successful.”

How do cross-country skiers like Harvey prepare for the World Cup Circuit? Low intensity distance training on skis is still at the core of most training programs. Relatively new to the mix is a greater emphasis on upper body strength training, interval training that focuses on improving speed and terrain-specific workouts that mimic the ascents, descents and flats skiers face when competing on the international competitive circuit. It’s a year-round effort that includes time on roller skis, on a bike and in the weight room during the off-season.

For cross-country skiers who tackle local trails on weekends, a scaled down version of the ski team’s training program can work for you, too. Long skis performed at a moderate intensity remain the core of your training program. Add some shorter, speedier workouts (around 5K) that push you to sustain an intensity at the upper end of your maximum heart rate. If double-poling isn’t in your repertoire, it’s time to start. Make a commitment to double-poll on the flats, keeping in mind your body is sure to protest the first few times you make the extra effort.

Then head into the gym, where you can strengthen your upper body to meet the increased demand on the neglected smaller muscles that are now doing a lot more work. As for the off-season: cycling, swimming and paddling are easy ways to maintain your ski fitness. While most of us can only dream of having the lungs of an Alex Harvey, better fitness on the trails can make you feel like an Olympian.


Article Source: Montreal Gazette

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