If your list of excuses to skip the gym grows with the daylight hours, pick up some skis and go cross-country.There's a reason they call them skinny skis: Cross-country ski workouts burn upwards of 500 calories per hour. Compare that to running (370 calories), biking uphill (330 calories) and downhill skiing (290 calories), and you'll discover an ideal way to stay fit this spring without ever leaving the snow.
"In terms of cardio fitness, cross-country's awesome," says Sue Robson, sport science director for the U.S. Ski Team. But the heart and lungs aren't the only beneficiaries. The skis' narrow platform underfoot helps fine-tune balance. And for a full-body workout, cross-country skiing dwarfs other cardio activities, using 80 percent of your muscle mass-compared to 60 percent for running and 40 percent for cycling-without taxing your joints.
Build aerobic endurance with a cross-country trek, or make your training more alpine-specific with the following workouts. Each targets muscles or skills you'll need to stay sharp on the slopes until the last flake flies.
Terrain> Flat or slightly downhill
How to Do It> If your poles are adjustable, make them armpit or shoulder height. Place the baskets next to your feet so that the pole shafts angle backward. Tighten your abs, fall onto your poles, and push hard without using your legs. As you push, bend forward at the hips until your torso is nearly parallel to the ground. Allow your hands to brush past your lower thighs, extending backward for a complete follow-through. Use your abs to lift your upper body to the starting position, and repeat the drill.
Technique Tip> Relax your hands and arms, and use your core to generate power. "Most people get into trouble with double poling because they try too hard," says Steve Hindman, manager of the ski and snowboard school at Stevens Pass, Wash., and a 12-year veteran of the PSIA National Nordic Demonstration Team. "Don't try to muscle your way along with your arms."
Duration> Five 30-second intervals, with one minute of rest between each
Why Do It> Think about the last time you tried to propel yourself across the long stretch from the lodge to the lift, and the benefits of double poling will be obvious. Less obvious is the strength you'll gain in your core. "Double poling is a great way to activate your abs," says Scott McGee, nordic manager at Jackson Hole, Wyo., and a PSIA National Nordic Demonstration Team member. "It's like doing a bunch of stomach crunches." Considering that core strength is a downhill skier's lifeline, providing the stability to stay upright in any snow condition, this drill is excellent training for navigating spring slush.
As You Improve> Build up to five three-minute sessions.
How to Do It> Leave your poles behind, and focus on your balance and technique as you propel yourself solely with your legs, using either skating or classical technique. Keep your knees slightly bent, your ankles flexed, your hips aligned over your knees and your upper body angled slightly forward from your hips.
Technique Tip> If you're skating, make sure you don't simply lift the ski you're not gliding on; instead, shift your body weight to the ski that's on the snow.
Duration> 15 minutes for skate skiing, 25 minutes for classic
Why Do It> "This is one of the first things that most cross-country skiers learn to do," McGee says. That's because taking your poles out of the equation hones your balance skills. It also isolates your quads, hamstrings, inner thighs and glutes, keeping your lower body strong and toned.
As You Improve> Build up to 30 minutes for skate skiing and 40 for classic. Mix in some gently rolling terrain.
How to Do It> Ski hard for four minutes, then easy for two minutes.
Technique Tip> As you tire, focus on your form: ankles flexed, knees slightly bent, shooulders relaxed.
Duration> Four four-minute intervals at 85- to 90-percent effort, with a two-minute recovery between each interval. "There's been a lot of research about how to increase your VO2max (a measure of anaerobic fitness), and it seems to show that the intervals should be at least three minutes," says Vidar Loefshus, sprint coach for the U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team. "We've been doing a lot of four-minute intervals."
Why Do It> You need muscle endurance to get the most out of a day on the hill. Squats and other gym training strengthen your legs, but interval training enables you to use that strength longer.
As You Improve> Build up to six four-minute intervals.
How to Do It> Between last chair and first après-ski cocktail, head to the nordic center and cruise the trails at a moderate pace.
Technique Tip> Stay relaxed and work on loosening up your muscles.
Duration> 20 minutes
Why Do It> It may seem counterintuitive, but aerobic activity at the end of a hard ski day can make you feel better, not worse. Downhill skiing shortens your muscles and builds up lactic acid in your system (think quad burn). A quick aerobic spin can lengthen your muscles and flush out the lactic acid. "It's a nice balance to alpine skiing," Hindman says.
As You Improve> Increase the session to 30 minutes, but don't wear yourself out.
Skate or classic? While both techniques can whip you into shape, we suggest you go with skate. You'll be somewhat familiar with the technique from skating across flats, the equipment is more similar to downhill gear, and it works your lower body more for a greater alpine crossover. "Skating is more intuitive for an alpine skier and it involves more speed," Hindman says. "Alpine skiers are more likely to be intrigued by it."