Pre-Season Strength Training
for Cross Country Skiing

By Pete McCall, Exercise Physiologist, the American Council on Exercise

See the chart of this 16-week
strength training program.

See the detailed workouts with many links to exercise examples.

Even though many parts of the country still have temperate conditions this time of year, the change of seasons and the return of snow will soon signal a return to cross country skiing.

Don’t wait until the snow starts falling to prepare for your favorite winter activity. It is never too early to start training for a winter sport, especially one as physically demanding as cross country skiing.

In general, sport-specific training programs should develop the muscular and cardiovascular systems with exercises that mimic the movements and physiological demands required for that particular sport or activity. Cross country skiing depends on a number of muscles working at the same time, requiring high levels of cardiovascular and muscular strength and endurance. An effective Nordic skiing conditioning program should consist of workouts that challenge your body in the same manner as skiing.

Following this specific strength-training program for cross country skiing will have you ready to hit the trails as soon as conditions allow.

A well-designed program includes stretching exercises to enhance joint flexibility, core-conditioning exercises to provide a solid foundation for movement at the arms and legs and strength-training exercises for the specific muscles used.

This program will focus on training muscular strength and endurance, strengthening the specific muscles used in skiing and enhancing the ability of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to those muscles.

Pre-season preparation for cross country skiing should begin with general conditioning that gradually progresses in intensity over specific periods of time – or periodization. Workouts become progressively more challenging as the body adapts to the stresses of exercise.

Let’s say (for the sake of simplicity) that the winter solstice, December 21, is the start of ski season. Working backward from that date, a 16-week program would begin on September 1, and gradually increase in training intensity, peaking at the start of the season. You can adjust the dates according to your local climate. This is our “macrocycle” or long-term training phase.

You can see the macrocycle program (PDF) in chart form here.

A macrocycle can be subdivided into smaller periods of time, or mesocycles. We can divide our 16-week macrocycle into four four-week mesocycles. Each mesocycle is further subdivided into two-week microcycles, so that our training gets progressively more challenging every two weeks, with a culmination of intensity prior to the actual start of the season. This will allow your body to adapt to the physical demands of training, while taking care not to become mired in a plateau or risk an injury due to overtraining.

Each strength-training session is divided into three parts: the warm-up, the actual workout and the cool-down. Allow at least two days’ rest between workouts. The warm-up is a series of low-intensity exercises to increase heart-rate and blood flow, and to prepare the muscles that will be challenged with the actual workout. The cool-down will focus on stretching exercises to flush out metabolic waste such as lactic acid and return the muscles to their pre-exercise resting length.

In order to receive the greatest benefit from this program, use enough weight so the last two repetitions are difficult–to-challenging. If the last repetition is not difficult, the muscles will not be sufficiently challenged.

A general overview of a 16-week training plan (PDF) accompanies this article, as well as detailed and specific week-by-week workouts (PDF).

This periodized strength-training program should provide you with muscular strength and endurance, as well as enhanced aerobic fitness, thanks to the high number of weightlifting repetitions in the final training phase. You will hit the trails with a full tank of gas once there is enough snow.

You can continue to do the final two workouts to maintain the strength and endurance for the duration of the ski season. That should keep you trail-ready all season long.