Training for Ski Touring

Mikael Mattsson

Mikael Mattson is a scientist, author, lecturer, coach and active athlete. He holds a doctorate in physiology from Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and holds research positions at RISE (Research Institutes of Sweden) and Stanford University, Ca. Mikael’s research is focused on individualisation of physical training, specifically the individual adaptation for cardio-vascular fitness training, the effect of genetic foundations plus computational models and algorithms.

Training for Ski Touring

Ski touring can be seen as a combination of cross country skiing and alpine skiing. Fundamentally, these two forms place very different physical demands on the body, where cross country skiing requires mainly cardiovascular conditioning and alpine skiing requires muscular strength and lactic acid tolerance. If you come at this with a “whatever, I can bomb up and down all day at the ski hill, it’s no problem” attitude, you’ve missed the point that ski touring is materially different. The difference is of course that you have to make it to the summit by your own steam before you get to ski down. The fatigue this inevitably induces will worsen your downhill skiing capability. In other words, the better your fitness, the more power, energy and capability you’ll have left for the downhill.

What should you train?

The first thing you need to be aware of are the requirements. For example, on Pure Ski Touring’s trips, you’ll typically be expected to cover 600-1,700 vertical meters of ascent per day. As a reference, that’s roughly equivalent to 20 laps of Stockholm’s Hammarbybacken, or 16 laps of Yxbacken in Norrköping, 5 laps of Tärnaby, or just over 3 laps valley floor to summit in Sälenfjällen. The first step should always be to pick a trip with a load that’s suitable for you, and secondly, ensure that you’re sufficiently fit in order to be able to enjoy the downhills.

Local and central fitness

Fitness can be split into local and central levels. When we talk about the local level we refer to, amongst other things, the muscles and blood vessels at work in a specific movement. The central level is the heart, lungs and blood volume only available centrally, and so used for any activity. Local adaptation is specific solely to the muscles working, meaning that you improve what you work, so it follows that the best training for ski touring is doing more ski touring. Hence, in terms of fitness training, we want to ensure that we mimic as closely as possible the demands that ski touring places on the body. Even if your local ski hill is a tiny bump it will prove valuable to walk up and down it as soon as the snow cannons have sprayed it white. A more positive aspect is that central level training effects are transferable, meaning that if you’ve spent the time working your cardiovascular fitness through running, cycling or on a rowing machine on your local trails or in your garage you will reap the benefits on your ski tours, too. In order to make the training effective you need to work your heart properly, which means activating a large total muscle mass (corresponding to at least both legs working, as for example, when cycling), and that the training intensity is sufficient, meaning that the heart is worked, your heart rate is elevated and you’re properly out of breath.

Sprints and distance

Regardless of your fitness level, training variation is vital to ensure development. You need three different types of fitness training in your plan. The first is sprint or explosivity (max effort, 10-60s) for improving strength and speed (this also improves the strength and lactic acid tolerance you need for the downhill). The second is interval training (2-3 reps of 8-10 mins each) for improving your oxygen-transporting systems (central level, VO2-max and threshold). The third is distance or endurance training (steady effort for extended time periods) to get the body conditioned to heavy loads for long stretches (local factors), perhaps in the form of whole days of hill walking, ideally carrying a pack.

Strength conditioning

In addition to the strength effects from the explosivity training mentioned above, your strength should ideally be adapted to your specific needs. If you feel that your legs aren’t sufficiently strong, traditional strength training in the form of deep squats or similar might be appropriate. As you will be carrying around 10kgs on your back, plus ski gear on a ski tour, the demands on core stability and upper body strength are higher when ski touring compared with alpine skiing. Depending on your status, you may need to find exercises targeting specific muscle groups, but in general, look to exercises that improve full-body stability, like circuit training, crossfit or any other set-up that works for you.

Lactic acid

When it comes to downhill skiing and lactic acid tolerance, the training effect is specific, meaning that we want the training to match as closely as possible the required situations. You can of course sit in a 90-degree squat for as long as possible until your thighs are quivering in pain, but it’s more effective simply to go skiing. The more ski days you can accrue in the piste prior to your ski touring, the better your ability and experience will be.


If you want to get more out of your ski touring experience, and the fitness to tick off more summits, ensure that you lay the foundations with your pre-season training at home. Ensure you cover all physical aspects, such as cardiovascular fitness, strength and lactic acid tolerance. Cardiovascular fitness is the least specific and can be improved with just about any activity, provided that a large part of the body’s muscle mass is activated and that the intensity is high enough to raise your heart rate appropriately. Strength is more specific and should be adapted for your needs. If you think your legs are weaker, place extra focus on improvements there. Similarly, you can prioritise other exercises if you have a problem carrying a rucksack for extended time periods. The ability to handle downhill skiing and tolerate lactic acid requires the most specific training. This means that you’ll benefit from scheduling piste skiing days prior to your ski touring trips.

Reading tips

“Kondition & Uthållighet” by Mikael Mattsson & Filip Larsen. Published 2013 by SISU Idrottsböcker
“Träningsplanering” by Mikael Mattsson. Published 2014 by SISU Idrottsböcker
“Uthållighet – De tänjbara gränserna för din fysiska förmåga” by Alex Hutchinson. Published 2019 by Natur & Kultur
“Training for the Uphill Athlete” by Steve House, Scott Johnston & Kilian Jornet. Published 2019 by Patagonia

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