Train uphill and you’ll have more fun downhill

Erik Wickström

Erik Wickström is the managing editor of the “Vasalöparen” magazine and also works as a lecturer, cross-country ski instructor, personal trainer, writer and photographer. He has authored the books “Längdskidåkning för dig” and “Smart konditionsträning”. Erik’s specialist area is training optimisation for non-professional athletes and he’s a sought-after coach and lecturer. On Erik’s list of athletic achievements there is a first place in the Engelbrektsloppet and a 25th place in Vasaloppet itself. He’s represented Sweden in roller ski, duathlon and winter triathlon.

When ski touring, you walk uphill for several hours, only to ski down again in a fraction of that time. It follows that the larger part of your training should involve improving your ability to walk uphill. But how should you best train to prepare for your ski touring winter? Here are some tips!

Train like a cross-country skier

Traditional cross country training can benefit you as a ski tourer. But as you won’t get as  much use of the poling technique, and the fact that a fair few other details are different, don’t simply copy any cross country training program you can find. Arguably, the two main training forms that are relevant to ski tourers are ski walking and the diagonal stride, but with some significant differences:

  • The equipment for ski touring is considerably heavier, which amongst other things places higher demands on the hip flexors (iliopsoas)
  • You don’t lift the skis at the back end of the stride as for cross country, which reduces the demands for balance and weight transfer
  • The poles are shorter, and you don’t generate as much power from them, meaning that your upper body strength isn’t as important
  • The terrain isn’t as varied as a cross country track, meaning that the uphills are longer
  • You carry a backpack, which places stringent demands on your posture

Off-season training is of course not just about ski training. As you’ll see from the training programme below, it’s also vital to strengthen your musculature in order to carry yourself and your equipment uphill. If you are already training in ways you enjoy, don’t stop doing what you’re doing, but don’t forget a few high intensity sessions each week to heighten your heart rate, and a couple of strength sessions for your legs each week.

Walk with poles uphill

“Ski walking” is probably the most relevant training form for the ski tourer. The only equipment you need is a pair of running shoes and normal ski poles, ideally 35cm shorter than body length for those of you that are short, and 40cm shorter for those of you that are taller. There are multiple gains from ski walking. Firstly, it’s a simple way to get worked out: regardless how you do it, walking up a long uphill is tiring. This means that it’s a simple way to collect high intensity training minutes with elevated heart rate. Secondly, it’s a good way to build strength, primarily in the legs, but also in the upper body. Thirdly, the movement pattern mimics that of the uphill element of ski touring. Fourthly, the low impact nature of this training form means that it’s benign on the body, and many athletes with injuries preventing them from running find that they’re fine walking up and down a hill.

Ski walking technique tips

On a ski tour you don’t extend the motions in the same way as you do in cross country skiing. You also don’t have to push so hard with the poles. In order to activate larger muscle groups when ski walking, try to imagine that you have a pair of cross country skis under your feet. Strive to extend forward the lower part of the leg, and work on your hip rotation just like you do in the diagonal stride when cross country skiing. Ensure you put effort in with your arms. Really pull through, and release the pole backwards by opening up your hands behind the body.

Three ski walking variants

  1. To vary the technique you can actually simulate the poling action when ski walking, by pulling the poles in parallel every third stride. For this exercise, “poling ski walk”, it’s better if your poles are slightly longer. It is a great workout for your abs. Your legs still work as for the diagonal stride, so you might need to try it a few times to get the coordination right. 
  2. The “mincing ski walk” is a variant which is best performed with bounce and explosivity in 10-15s intervals followed by at least a minute of rest in between. You “bounce” forward with max effort on a gentle gradient with a technique similar to the diagonal stride. This approach usually generates an inordinate amount of lactic acid which can be a useful reminder for the coming winter’s downhilling. 
  3. The “moosey amble” is a mix between the normal and mincing ski walks. Amble (like a moose) in a ski-like fashion up the hill, which should feel more taxing than the normal ski walk style.

Choose the right hill for your training

Ideally, try to find long hills for your ski walking, so that you can walk uphill for at least three minutes before turning around for the next repetition. If you live in a flat area you can instead use the mincing form, or the moosey amble, or mix in  these forms more in the intervals. If your chosen hill is steep, you can also zig-zag your way up the hill, just like in winter.

Training programme, even weeks

Day 1 – Ski walking
15 mins warm-up, followed by 5x4min intervals (more if your hill is shorter). Alternate between ski walk, poling ski walk and moosey amble. Recover between intervals by walking or a gentle jog down. Carry a backpack weighted with 5-10kg throughout the whole session, except the warm-up and cooldown phases. Finish with a gentle 10min of cooldown. 

Day 2 – Strength conditioning
30 mins of strength training (pushups, deadlifts, squats, situps), followed by 30 mins in a ski-erg/cross trainer/rowing machine in a gentle pace but with heavy resistance. Add in a 10s sprint every 5 mins. 

Day 3 – Running
90 mins of semi-hard cross country run in rolling terrain, carrying poles (or equivalent session on rollerskis).

Training programme, odd weeks

Day 1 – Ski walking
10 mins warm-up followed by short intervals, ambling for 15s and 15s of gentle jogging back down. Carry on with this for 10 mins, followed by 5 minutes of jogging before another 10 mins of 15-15s intervals. Finish with 5 mins gentle jog for your cooldown (with or without poles)

Day 2 – Indoor intervals (erg training)
10 mins warm-up, followed by 10x500m intervals on a ski-erg/cross trainer/rowing machine with heavy resistance and 1 min rest between intervals. Finish with 5 mins cooldown on easy resistance.  

Day 3 – Explosivity
90 mins brisk walk, carrying a backpack weighing 5-10kg and poles in rolling terrain. At the half-way point, stop and perform the following exercises for 20 mins (with a 1 min rest between sets):

  1. 20x one-legged jumps, alternating sets left and right leg
  2. 10x lunges, alternating the leading leg. Let the trailing leg’s knee touch the ground on every repetition
  3. Three consecutive bunny hops. Measure the total distance, and feel free to compete against your own results or those of a training partner
  4. 10x skate jumps. Jump upwards and sidewards with one leg, landing on the other. Remain standing on the landing leg for a few seconds to find the proper balance point. Bend down deeply to start the next jump.
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