Contributing Editor for The Master Skier
Jeff is the coach of the Far West Nordic Junior Team and the Auburn Ski Club Junior Team. He is the former head coach of the University of Nevada Nordic Team. Jeff is an active master racer.
I am a big proponent of specificity. If you want to be fast at cross-country skiing the best thing you can do is ski a lot. However most of us can't ski at all in the summer and many of us are even limited in our on-snow access during the winter.
The traditional approach to cross training for Nordic skiers has been a reliance on rollerskiing with a good amount of running and cycling thrown in. I would like to make a bold suggestion that many master skiers will greatly benefit from adding swimming to their weekly training schedule.
Swimming? Yes I know all of the criticisms of swimming: its not specific enough, it isn't weight bearing and it's boring.
I used to think these things ruled out swimming as a top-notch Nordic workout but I have had a change of heart.
As a junior cross-country ski coach I have often noticed that a disproportionate number of my top skiers come from a swimming background.
At first I thought this was coincidence but I soon realized that for youngsters, swimming provides training with lots of structured intensity without harmful breaking down of the body.
The athletes who come from running or soccer backgrounds are constantly complaining about knee or back problems while most of those from the swimming ranks are tough, used to pushing themselves and don't seem to have so many aches and pains.
Swimming is definitely a great base for young Nordic skiers but I also think it is very useful for master racers.
One of the biggest limiters to performance in racing is upper body endurance. Human beings have evolved to be very endurance oriented in the legs but not in the upper body.
Therefore when we ask our bodies to provide constant effort from the whole body, it is almost always the upper body that is the weak link.
Swimming is a great way to build upper body endurance as more than 90% of the propulsion in swimming freestyle comes from the arms and upper body.
I think freestyle and butterfly (for those who can do it!) are the strokes that transfer the best to skiing. Another great benefit of swim training is that it is low impact. For master skiers it is often the aches and pains of training that limit our training volume.
By adding two swim workouts per week master skiers can greatly increase their training volume (and intensity!) without feeling worn down.
Swim training for Nordic skiing should always have an intensity component.
Top swimmers do some sort of intervals everyday without getting over-trained.
For skiers, we can add in some extra intensity in the water and still feel fresh for our specific skiing workouts of over-distance and on-snow intervals. The magic of the pool is that we can recover from the intervals much easier than from weight bearing intervals.
Swim workouts don't need to be long. My favorite session takes about 45 minutes. Here are two workouts that I think will really help most skiers.
Swim 500 yards (20 laps) freestyle at easy warm up pace. Think about being long in the water, reach far forward with each stroke and feel yourself glide. Then do 4-5x200 yard intervals at medium hard pace with about 20 to 30 seconds rest between intervals.
For me this is to repeat each 200 every 3:15. Next swim 2x100 yards at an easy pace using either butterfly or breaststroke. Finally cool down with 300-500 yards freestyle.
500 yard warm up freestyle, again think about long glide and reaching forward. Then do 8- 10x100 yards at a good pace with 30 seconds rest between intervals. (I do mine on the two minutes.) Next do 2x50 yards butterfly or breaststroke easy, then do 2x50 yards freestyle very hard with about 30 seconds rest, and finally cool down with 300-500 yards easy.
These sessions are for those who are pretty good swimmers. If you are not a strong swimmer modify the sessions with fewer intervals and more emphasis on technique. Think about keeping your body flat on the water by pushing your upper body down while you swim, and try to make your body sleek as it cuts through the water by rotating your torso with each stroke.
I know it sounds unconventional but swim training can improve ski racing significantly without the pounding of more traditional cross training.
Don't skip the rollerskiing and running but add swimming. Give it a try; all you have to lose is some time off your PR!
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