Training Planning Part IV – Strength Training for the Aging Endurance Athlete

Training Planning Part IV – Strength Training for the Aging Endurance Athlete

By Betsy and Bob Youngman

Strength training for endurance sport in general, and particularly for cross country skiing, is of critical importance for any athlete that wants to perform at a high level. The development and maintenance of excellent technique, increases in power, fast-start capacity, sprinting ability, double pole excellence, and many other important aspects of cross country ski racing are all highly dependent on execution of a well-designed strength training program. For the aging athlete, strength training becomes even more critical due to natural physiologic processes that lead to muscle loss – a process called sarcopenia. In fact, muscle loss is one of the “Big Three” performance limiters for masters athletes. Yet the singular activity that typically takes a back seat in a masters competitor’s training program is strength training. Strength training should be central to a training program- year round. Based on personal experience and interaction with many masters athletes, we assert that strength training is of primary importance for aging cross country skiers. If there is a single most important aspect of training for aging athletes, it is sport-specific strength training. This is where the largest gains are to be made and where the impacts of these gains on endurance, technique, economy, injury prevention, and race performance are greatest. Here is a short video with some introductory comments on the series of videos provided below:

As in any training program, and particularly with high-intensity workouts and strength programs, one should be very careful about what one does as individual needs and abilities are unique. This is where the guidance of a professional is valuable. What is described here is what works for us and we do not recommend any of these workouts or test protocols for anyone; the intent is to outline some examples — not offer a prescription or recommendation. Think descriptive not prescriptive.

Strength Training – The Foundation of Good Cross Country Skiing Technique

In the sport of cross country skiing, it is impossible to have good (let alone excellent) technique with out requisite upper-body and core strength. Collapsing cores and flailing arms prevent proper body position, reduce developed power, and lead to highly diminished efficiency in any cross country skiing technique- classic and skate. It is commonplace to see skiers who are spending significant time and money in clinics and individual lessons with “experts” to improve their technique when their lack of upper-body and core strength prevents them from making any improvements. When teaching in a one-on-one environment, we first evaluate where the skier is from a strength perspective by skiing with and watching them through 3-5 km with hills. It becomes immediately obvious if there are any strength issues, and, in our experience, for an overwhelming majority there are significant strength deficiencies. Any technique teaching in such instances is of limited value to the skier. Rather, we suggest that the skier embark on an intensive strength program and then resume lessons thereafter. Repetition of technique drills with insufficient upper-body and core strength only leads to increasingly bad technique whereas the same drills performed with well-developed upper-body and core strength allows the skier to “feel” how proper technique results in substantial power and optimal efficiency. This developed “feel” empowers the skier to refine their technique every time they ski, thereby utilizing a power and efficiency feedback loop that is essential for tweaking one’s technique. No coach or teacher can be there all the time and it is critical that one develop this “feel” in order to facilitate continuous improvement. But it all starts with upper-body and core strength.

Synchrony – the Most Important Aspect of Strength Training

When working on strength development for a sport it is important to realize that strength increases are most effective when they translate directly to the whole-body motions involved with the particular sport at hand. This is most efficiently and effectively accomplished when the exercises themselves replicate the positions and timing required in the sport. For cross country skiing this means that strength exercises should involve whole-body motions that connect the upper body muscle group with the lower body muscle group through the core. This is because all motions involved with good cross country skiing technique simultaneously recruit all three of these muscle groups (motor unit systems) and the highest levels of power can only be attained when the full set of necessary muscle groups are used in synchrony. In practical terms, it does not actually matter how strong each individual muscle group is if they cannot act together, in a sychronous way, to translate that strength to delivered power on skis.

Additionally, well-developed muscle group synchrony perhaps has the greatest effect on endurance- yes, endurance. Studies of high-level cross country skiers have shown that time to exhaustion in a double poling exercise can be increased by as much as 100% through a nine-week program of 30 minutes per week of maximum strength training. The operative theory and supporting data behind such improvements is that engagement in a well-designed maximum strength training protocol will allow the athlete to develop the ability to draw upon an increasing pool of motor units that can be routinely accessed during training and competition. It is a neuro-muscular adaptation that gets “wired” into your system (and psyche) and becomes the basis for increases in endurance. This means that strength training is an important aspect of cross country skiing endurance.

Strength exercises that involve whole-body motions that are similar to (or, preferably, exactly like) those in good cross country skiing technique are by far the best exercises to focus on. The neuro-muscular adaptations alone, even with just small strength increases, are sufficiently important that even marginally challenging exercises that map well onto cross country skiing will lead to significant improvements in skiing power and efficiency. Add some challenging weight to the equation and you have a recipe for getting the most out of your aging body.

An excellent source for information on strength training is the book “Training for the New Alpinisim” by Johnston and House. Scott Johnston has been a coach for numerous US Cross Country Skiing Olympians over the past decade. The strength training portions of his book, although pointed toward the demands of alpine climbing, are directly applicable, with minor modifications, to cross country skiing. As indicated in our introductory posts, we highly recommend that you read this book as it is a great guide not only for strength training but also for cardio aspects as well. All of Chapters 4 and 5 and portions of Chapters 7 and 8 are of great value to understanding the physiologic basis for strength training for endurance sport, the types of strength exercises an endurance athlete should be doing, and for guidance in designing a personal strength training program. Johnston, et al. have followed up with another book, “Training for the Uphill Athlete”, that has additional strength training material and, again, this book is a recommended read.

In summary, the two guiding principles for making strength training a core part of your cross country skiing training program are:

  1. Strength training is the foundation of good cross country skiing technique.
  2. Strength training is a fundamental element in cross country skiing endurance.

The Central Importance of Double Poling

As a result of a focus on strength training by World Cup athletes and the many equipment improvements that have taken place over the last decade, double poling has become an increasingly important part of the sport. Efficient and powerful double poling (DP) as seen in World Cup competition is a direct consequence of rigorous, highly challenging strength programs that are currently in place with all of the competitive national teams. As mentioned previously, this focus on strength has resulted in an increasing number of competitors choosing to go waxless and DP entire FIS homologated classic races- sometimes to victory. The same thing is occurring in masters races where, given a suitable course profile, age-group winners have DP’d the entire race. Even as the ravages of sarcopenia are at work, older skiers can improve their DP power and endurance with intensive sport-specific strength training programs.

The double pole motion is the one motion that cuts across both classic and skate technique. The V2 poling motion is essentially a DP, utilizing all of the same muscle groups in the same way with the same timing. Similarly, in V1 the poling motion, when executed correctly, is again a DP motion albeit with a slightly trailing “off” arm. From pure DP to Kick-DP, to V2 and V1, the DP motion and all of the associated muscle group development and timing aspects are similar and therefore the DP motion plays a central, foundational role in cross country skiing. Having a well-developed DP ability is a critical part of skiing well.

Although many lament the potential demise of the classic stride technique, no sport will survive if innovation and progress is squelched. We assert that DP technique is an important part of the future of the sport and that further technique development (both classic and skate) will be partly due to improved DP technique and the associated upper body and core strength that is critical to any powerful and efficient double poling movement. Although their have been many studies on double pole performance, we direct the reader to a recent one that provides background, references, and additional results. All of these data and studies lead to a conclusive position on the central role that DP plays in modern cross country skiing and the importance of strength training, upper body development, and upper body max strength.

For the masters competitor, our experience has shown that the single most important technique and ability improvement that will result in the largest improvements in competition is the DP. Just look at the start of any masters classic race and you will see those competitors that will be winning their respective age groups are leaving the rest of the field behind by efficiently and powerfully double poling away and up to a racing pace and stride (or poling) frequency in a fraction of the time of other competitors. Add to this the fact that the V2 poling motion is essentially a DP motion, and the same thing occurs in skate races. Improve your DP and you will quickly become much more competitive. This is partly due to the fact that so few masters skiers include intensive, DP-specific strength training in their training programs. We will have a separate, more comprehensive, article on DP technique and training for modern cross country skiing.

An uphill double poling interval session- perfect training to enhance your classic (and skate) skiing competitiveness — combined with specific strength training  your DP will improve significantly.

Since a powerful and efficient DP is critically dependent on upper body and core strength, any masters competitor should be prioritizing a strength program specifically aimed at improving DP ability. From improved DP capacity will flow improvements across the spectrum of abilities needed for being competitive in cross country skiing races.

Strength Training for Masters Cross Country Skiers

Let’s revisit the “Big 3” performance limiters for the masters endurance athlete:

  1. loss of muscle
  2. decreased aerobic capacity (VO2max)
  3. increased body fat

Arguments have been previously presented that support the ordinal listing above as most applicable to masters cross country skiing- meaning that the number one issue that we, as masters cross country skiing athletes, need to attend to is loss of muscle. This can only be sufficiently addressed with a well-designed strength training program and a detailed plan for execution. Such a program should ideally be developed with a professional that understands the unique demands of cross country skiing. It is not straightforward to find such an expert in strength training for cross country skiing given the small number of US participants.

But do not let the lack of a strength coach, strength professional, or other “expert” prevent you from developing your own program. The basic concepts are not complex and a reasonable amount of research and experimentation should allow for the development of a safe and effective personal program that one can have confidence in.

Remember that in a strength program, it is important to obtain guidance from strength professionals. All exercises require proper progression to avoid overload and possible injury and this is where the guidance of a professional is valuable. What is described here is what works for us and we do not recommend any of these exercises for anyone; the intent is to outline a strength program example- not a prescription or recommendation.

A Simple Strength Program for Cross Country Skiing

We (Betsy and Bob) disagree on the utility of local gyms for strength training. Betsy likes the quality and variety of equipment available in most gyms whereas Bob finds gyms to be expensive, inconvenient, inflexible, and, due to other users, disruptive of the flow of a workout. As a result of this divergent perspective, we have put together a home-based gym in our garage that is used throughout the year for strength training for cross country skiing. Bob uses the gym exclusively and Betsy comes and goes with a supplemental local gym membership for the variety and the use of a pool for swimming. We describe the home gym here and five key exercises that we do to develop and maintain strength for cross country skiing. These are examples of exercises that we do and, as always, are descriptive not prescriptive. It is important to work with a strength professional when engaging in any strength training program. Here is a short video introduction to strength training for masters cross country skiers:

It is simple to set up a home gym for cross country skiing-specific strength training in either a garage, a basement, or a shed. You do not need a lot of room, just a few simple pieces of equipment and some motivation. A basic operative premise is that any strength exercise should map as closely as possible onto the whole-body movements in cross country skiing. As reviewed above, isolated working of muscle groups, while perhaps required for full development, do not activate the very important neuromuscular adaptations that are key to powerful and efficient cross country skiing and endurance. Synchrony is “King” and your strength program should be designed around ensuring that proper muscle group synchrony is developed.

Setting-up a home gym will provide substantial time efficiencies compared to a gym membership. Time efficiency is an important part of training for the masters athlete given the broad range of other activities and duties that are typical. Your gym is always open, involves no commute, and can be tailored to those exercises relevant to cross country skiing. All of this can be done for a minimal investment. Here is brief video tour of our gym set-up:

Another important aspect of strength training for cross country skiing is the development of maximum strength that will, in time, translate to muscular endurance and power delivery on skis. Here again, synchrony plays a central role and addressing a maximum strength improvement program is one of the largest levers that one has with respect to significantly increased power and endurance on snow. Maximum strength exercises are central to the development of the required neuromuscular adaptations that allow for proper synchrony and that, with training, will be “wired-in” every time a skier plants a pole. The incremental additional power development on each stroke is often what makes the difference in races – both when keeping pace and for surges.

Five Key Strength Exercises for the Aging Cross Country Ski Athlete

The following five key exercises that we have found to be functional for developing good technique, generating high power, and increasing skiing economy. These do not form a complete matrix but rather represent a portion of a core set of exercises that we engage in year-round and that are augmented with many additional exercises*. This group hits all of the basic muscle groups in a way that is specific to cross country skiing; they also do not require much of an investment in equipment. All of the exercises are considered “advanced” and therefore should be conducted only with the guidance of a strength professional.

We review the following:

  • pull-ups and weighted pull-ups (advanced)
  • Garhammers
  • L-sit pull ups
  • “Tuck” squats
  • “Double Pole” squats

Disclaimer: Strength and cardiovascular training presents inherent risks and hazards, and the content contained herein is not intended in any way to be a substitute for instruction from a certified strength and conditioning professional. Always seek the advice and supervision of a certified strength and conditioning professional before attempting any of the activities, techniques, or skills described herein.

  • Pull Ups – a foundational exercise for cross country skiing

Overhand pull-ups are a foundational upper body strength exercise that all cross country skiers should engage in. Without development of the muscles and the neuromuscular coordination needed to perform overhand pull-ups, all poling motions will be compromised and an athlete will never possess good technique, economy, and power.

Beginners will find pull-ups to be daunting, but with proper progression and a few tools most will succeed in becoming quite competent and will find immediate impact on their skiing.

Buy a pull-up bar and mount it your garage/basement/shed.

Buy elastic bands of this type.

If you cannot do a full body-weight overhand pull up, use one of the elastic bands to provide assistance as shown below. The band will reduce the amount of weight needed to be lifted when doing the pull-up – the firmer (higher durometer) the band the higher the reduction in weight. Using the various durometer resistance bands, work toward 10 pull ups and move to a lower assistance (lower durometer) band until you can easily do 10 pull ups without any assistance. It may take some time to achieve this goal, but the increase in performance and technique are well worth the effort. Here is a short video showing the exercise and the technique described above for weight reduction:

More advanced skiers will find significant development by utilizing additional resistance weight.

  • Weighted pull ups – this is a key exercise that, in the right progression, will quickly and safely allow one to attain a maximum strength goal.

Buy a pull up bar and mount it your garage/basement/shed.

Buy a weight vest and use it to provide increasing resistance as you proceedthrough a progressive program of overhand pull ups. An example of such a program follows. It is taken from Scott Johnston’s book Training for the New Alpinism that we recommended at the outset of this series. He calls it a “Special Max Strength Plan” (page 228) and is shown below. Here is a brief video of the weight vests that we use:

  • 2 sessions per week
  • Adjust the load so that you can only just do the required number of repeats

You will see from the table that the program involves escalating total work with a couple of level weeks to allow your body to catch up to the stimulus. The rest time after each set is needed to allow for best efforts (creatine phosphate regeneration) but it also allows one to include this work in a circuit program of alternating muscle group focus. You will be amazed at how much weight (as measured by percent of body weight) you can load into your weight vest by the end of this sequence. After the terminal session, we maintain this exercise in the circuit program at the 3 sets of 3 reps at the terminal vest weight throughout the race and off-season. The following year we go through the build progression again adding additional weight to a new plateau and then maintain that new, higher, level through the race and off-season. We are now entering the fifth year of using this protocol and we are approaching what appears to be a stiff plateau. You might think that such weighted pull-ups are an upper body intensive exercise but you will find that in order to complete the pull-ups you will be using all the major muscle groups including the core and some leg muscle groups. Force generation in the pull up exercise requires synchronous recruitment from all three major muscle groups in way very similar to what one does in a good double pole motion and this is why this exercise is such a good one for cross country skiers. Here is a short video showing the exercise:

  • Garhammers – some call this exercise a hanging leg lift but it is actually quite different

Going back to the pull-up bar, hang off the bar and bring your legs up flexing at the knees and bringing your knees to your chest and up towards the bar, then fold your legs out parallel  to the ground, hold, and then slowly lower your legs down- this is one rep. I add a slightly less than 90 degree lock-off in the arms to mimic the position of the arms during the power portion of the double poling motion to simulate the full body motion used during cross country skiing. What you will feel in this exercise is very much like what you feel when you are double poling on snow with good technique. Here is short video showing the exercise:

  • L-sit pull-ups – essential core work for double pole

Using the pull-up bar, conduct an overhand pull-up while holding your lower body parallel to the floor. Your body will be in the shape of an “L”. This exercise simulates the double pole upper body motion along with the fully engaged core and leg muscles all while adding body-weight resistance for both muscle development and synchrony. Here is short video showing the exercise:

  • “Tuck” Squats

This is an exercise that uniquely prepares one for the stresses that develop when a skier is in a tuck for extended periods of time, typically on downhills. When in a tuck one has to efficiently support the body in a predominantly static fashion – one of the few instances in cross country skiing where a static posture is taken. To build strength and efficiency for the tuck position, this exercise utilizes hand weights held together in a position that approximates where one’s hands would be while holding poles during a tuck. One then bends into a tuck position and holds the weights for a suitable period of 10 seconds or so and then rises and repeats. This exercise requires significant engagement of the core for support and provides an excellent stimulus for core development. Here is a short video showing the exercise:

  • “Double Pole” Squats

Although traditional squats are a great general strength exercise, adding elements to a squat motion that help replicate what one will do on skis is very advantageous. Here we add a “double pole” element with hand weights to ensure core engagement that is similar to what is done during the double pole motion. Here is short video showing the exercise:

Additional Exercises for General Strength

These are a few other exercises that can easily be done in a home gym (or at any commercial gym) that are highly functional for general strength and balance.

  • Weighted Step-ups– immediately after the weighted pull-up outlined above, while you still have the weight vest on, do a set of step-ups

Buy an adjustable work out step device

With the weight vest on step up onto the platform with one foot and balance (make sure the step is not too tall, otherwise you will be loading your knees in a position that is dissimilar to skiing). Then step down and return both feet to the ground and then step up with the other foot and balance again. Do as many repeats as you see fit. Video is forthcoming.

  • Resistance Band Exercises– for minimal equipment cost one can work upper and lower body muscle groups in a way that recruits the core and simulates cross country skiing-specific body motions

Buy a quiver of resistance bands with a range of elasticity (durometer) and securely mount a robust, properly sized eyelet in a wall at about 12″ above head height and another one about 4″ above ground level. Slip a large carabiner through the eyelet and then slip the elastic part of the resistance band through the gate in the carabiner. Now you can use the resistance bands to do a large variety of exercises. Typical exercises include forward facing pull downs, pull to’s, overhead pull downs, abductor and adductor laterals, among many, many others.  Video is forthcoming.

You can also use the pull-down exercise combined with a tether around the waist anchored to an opposing wall that allows you to lean forward and pull down just as one does in the double pole in skiing (this is illustrated in the Johnston video where they utilize a pulleyed weight stack on guide poles for resistance).  If you have extra money, a TRX strap can also be used for these exercises but realize that you need a lot of room to use a TRX strap properly. If you have even more money (like about $800) the SkiErg by Concept 2 is a very nice cross country skiing-specific exercise machine. I find that you need to employ a tether with the SkiErg to get the proper poling position and muscle recruitment. Nearly all of the National Teams are now using the SkiErg (or something very similar) in circuit training both with and without tethers.

Other elastic band exercises include the use of a simple elastic band loop that wraps around your ankles which you can then do side steps across a given distance or for a specific number of reps.


“Real” Terrain Strength Programs

Getting out of the “gym” and onto terra firma and actual cross country skiing-type equipment is critical to translate any strength improvements in the “gym” to the ground or snow. We cover two possible pathways to accomplish this:

  1. Rollerskiing
  2. Hill bounding with poles

Rollerskiing as Strength Training

We know this is not conventional thinking, but our experience leaves no doubt: skate and classic stride roller skiing on varying terrain is of minimal use to the master skier. This is because of numerous factors starting with the inherent danger associated with rollerskiing on pavement. A masters skier just cannot afford to go down on the hard pavement given their typical state of connective tissue and bone density. A good friend of ours (and rheumatologist) once put the life of connective tissue and joints like this- you start out as “jello” as an infant, progress to “rubber” through your teens and into your 20’s, then “leather” through to your 40’s, and finally to “glass” at about 50+. We all know what happens to glass when it hits a hard surface! And diving off the road at 25-30 mph in reaction to some random texting driver is not a situation you want to deal with.  An entire ski season can be ruined just trying to get in some roller skiing in the summer and fall. We think the danger, for many masters skiers, outweighs the reward for skate and stride roller skiing over varied terrain, even with the currently available (and difficult to use) brakes. “Speed reducers” are a viable option and one you might look into. Betsy, having a long history (35 years) with roller skis, is much more comfortable on roller skis than Bob, a neophyte (6 years). Betsy regularly does hill interval workouts (classic and skate) on roller skis but Bob is not confident enough on the downhills to participate and substitutes DP roller skiing in gradual terrain, as discussed below. Know your limits and be very careful while roller skiing; there is inherent risk.

The danger, Ms. Randall says, is the (roller) skis don't come 
with brakes, and skiers can reach 45 miles per hour on them. 
"If you have to stop suddenly, you pretty much have to dive off the road," she says. "That's why you wear a helmet."

Kikkan Randall interview in The Wall Street Journal 23 May 2012 

Another reason not to focus on varied terrain roller skiing is that  without continual coaching it is all too common for athletes to develop technique issues. Stride and skate roller skiing is actually not that similar to on-snow skiing. This is particularly the case for classic striding. Many a skier with good technique has been derailed by too much stride roller skiing with perfect (i.e. not-attainable on-snow) kick only to find that their timing, weighting, and body position have changed for the worse once on snow. It can take some valuable time and effort to get your technique back once you have gone down this rabbit hole.

Finally, rollerskiing, according to long time Sun Valley Ski Educational Foundation (SVEF) head coach Rick Kapala, is the first thing that retiring elite-level athletes stop doing. Why? Because of the danger of injury weighed against the training stimulus and “sort-of” ski-like dynamics favors not roller skiing unless it is critical to your success.

As argued earlier, the single most important motion in cross country skiing is the double pole. This is because the double pole is the motion that cuts across both classic and skate technique and it is the motion that, due to technique, strength, and equipment developments, has been enabled as a primary motion for many racers. Masters skiers can most advantageously utilize a well developed double pole to increase their speed and competitiveness in both classic and skate races. Combined with a well planned strength program, double pole technique development will have the greatest impact on your skiing. This is why we advocate for double pole roller skiing on gradual terrain.

Contrary to stride and skate roller skiing, double pole rollerskiing is a reliable surrogate of what one does on-snow. Body position, pole planting, timing, and weight shift in double pole rollerskiing is exactly what you will do on-snow and therefore translates well once the season starts. When done for long distances and/or on uphill grades it is a challenging workout. Double pole rollerskiing is also safe so long as you stay away from steep downhill grades. We stick to 1.5-2% grades and have no issues with control on the downhills.

One approach is to find a 2-3 km 1.5-2% grade uphill on a nicely paved road (such roads can often be found in local low-density US subdivisions with very few (or no) cross streets). Then do repeats on this uphill for whatever length workout you have planned. We typically do 45-90 minutes which involves a lot of repeats, something that may be too “boring” for some. Bob, having spent his teens and early 20’s as a competitive tennis player, finds the repetition constructive as it allows one to hone in on the details of the technique and to “feel” the feedback loop that is essential for positive technique development and power generation. Just as hitting 200-300 serves per hour in practicing for tennis is essential to developing a “killer” serve, double poling at 60-90 rpm for 1-1.5 hours is similarly essential for developing a “killer” double pole. The repeats also allow you to measure your progress by using a GPS watch for pace. With some of the newer watches you can also monitor your poling rate, stride length, and ground contact time (stride time). All of these parameters can feed back into helping you develop your double pole technique toward excellence, even without a coach. There are also significant strength and muscular endurance improvements from regular uphill double pole roller skiing that are hard (or impossible) to replicate in the gym.

We will also add a weight vest for additional challenge, something that is becoming more common. Noah Hoffman spotted Sundby one early morning a few years ago before a 30 km Wolrd Cup classic race double poling uphill with a weight vest- not something that I would recommend for a masters skier before competition but something to possibly include in your dryland and on-snow workouts if you are up to it. The key is to ensure that the added weight does not adversely affect your double pole technique. Any weight should be added very progressively and conservatively. With proper use of a weight vest you can straightforwardly turn a 1.5% grade into a 3% or even 5% grade- and stay safe as well. Again, just as with the “gym” workouts, be sure to work with a strength professional for guidance with such resistance training exercises.

Another approach, particularly aimed at muscle synchrony, muscle strength, and muscular endurance, is to find a challenging, long uphill grade and do an uphill-only workout. We have one of these in the Sun Valley area- the climb from Galena Lodge to Galena Pass. This road section was recently repaved and represents a 10 km, 4% grade, 400 m (1300 feet) continuous ascent with a wide, smooth shoulder. This is a challenging higher altitude double pole workout that, at 50-60 minutes duration, takes significant muscle endurance to complete. The altitude ranges from 2250 m (7400 feet) up to 2650 m (8700 feet). Here is the profile:

Galena Climb

Elevation profile for the 10 km 400 meter (4% grade) climb from Galena Lodge to Galena Pass in Idaho. A great double pole workout at steady state or threshold.

We do this workout by taking a vehicle and a bike to the top, leaving the vehicle, riding the bike down, and then roller skiing up to get the vehicle. Repeat as desired.

We find uphill roller skiing, specifically double pole roller skiing, to be a great addition to a strength program and one that also uniquely allows for technique and muscular endurance development as well.

Betsy finishing up on the last curve to Galena Pass mixing in some striding to an otherwise double pole uphill session of 10km and 400 m (1300 feet) elevation gain.

Hill Bounding

Hill bounding, particularly with poles is one of the most effective whole-body exercises you can do as a competitive cross country ski racer. There is much written about hill bounding but the following video by Green Mountain Valley School Coach, Colin Rodgers, is about as thorough in 8 minutes as we could be in about 2000 words, i.e. watch the video- it is a great resource for incorporating hill bounding exercises into your training plan. Colin demonstrates on the same hill that we use extensively starting in September and throughout the fall where we also include longer (20 minute) threshold and supra threshold (VO2 max) workouts up the cat tracks to the top of the mountain (Dollar Mountain). We are fortunate to have this hill (and mountain) right in our back yard about 5 minutes walk from the front door!

Once again the whole-body, cross country skiing-like motions are central to getting the most out of hill bounding. Cardio, strength, endurance and technique come together in these sessions and they should be a regular part of your training plan. This is not strictly a strength activity but can have significant impact.


How much strength training should one do? It’s a big question and one that is entirely individual. Some general guidelines include doing strength focused sessions twice per week for 45-75 minutes per session, making sure the work is safely progressive, and to be patient with results. Although you may experience significant improvements in the first few months of strength training, additional increases come more gradually. For the masters skier this process is even slower since both human growth hormone (HGH) and testosterone (T) levels are waning. It is best to have a longer-term horizon of expectation for strength development- more like 18 months than the  9 month expectation when you were a 20-something.

Daily Stretching – Daily Strength

It should go without mentioning but we will emphasize the importance of post-workout stretching for anyone who is participating in a rigorous and challenging training regimen. This is especially important for masters skiers whose connective tissue is becoming more and more brittle every day.

Another activity that can help not only with strength development but also with balance is a daily lunge matrix. There are a lot of possibilities here but we have found that the simpler the matrix the more likely one is to consistently do this. Once again the lunges should map onto cross country skiing motions as closely as possible. We do 4-5 different lunge types in 10 reps per leg for three sets daily after the primary workout. Although you will feel these lunges in the activated muscle groups, the real challenge becomes balance- in a way very similar to cross country skiing. The important thing here is activation of the smaller stabilizer muscles which are critical to good balance and skiing skill. Here is a lunge matrix from Jay Johnson, a well respected running coach. He describes this as a warm-up matrix but we use it as a stand alone post-workout daily strength/balance routine (with the exception of the backwards side lunge as this exercise bears no similarity to any motion or position that one will be in while cross country skiing).

And a final suggested daily exercise is the simple (though difficult for some) act of putting your socks on (or taking them off) without leaning against something, crossing your leg, or holding on to something. Give it a try and you will discover what balance is all about. Do the same when you put your running shoes on and continue by tying them without stepping down. These are good balance/strength challenges that, again, focus on the smaller stabilizer muscles- and they can naturally and consistently be done on a daily basis.


Strength training is a critical training component for competitive cross country skiing. It is also important for general enjoyment of the sport for recreational skiers. Technique, power, and economy all flow from sufficient specific-strength capabilities on skis. Therefore strength exercises that closely replicate cross country skiing motions will most positively impact one’s on-snow performance. The aging athlete faces additional challenges due to the natural process of muscle loss with increasing age (sarcopenia). All of this underscores the primary importance of strength training for aging cross country skiers — competitive skiers as well as recreationalists. We hope that we have convinced readers to make sport-specific strength training a core part of their respective training programs.

Coming Up

Utilizing Parts I-IV as the foundational elements, we finally get to the important subject of actual training planning – putting pen to paper (or pixels to display) and developing a robust training plan.


*Just as cardiovascular training is periodized (changes in volume and focus dependent on seasonal goals) throughout the year, so is strength training. We will cover much more about periodization in upcoming articles.

6 thoughts on “Training Planning Part IV – Strength Training for the Aging Endurance Athlete

  1. Thanks again for all of this – I agree on having a home gym setup not only for the convenience, long-term cost savings but also the greater commitment it enables by being able to get to the training right away. Besides Amazon for equipment, I have found Craigslist an excellent source for 2nd hand equipment at pennies on the dollar.

    Your descriptive discussion of progressing to a weighted vest for pull ups makes me wonder why performing more reps instead is not mentioned as an alternative. No doubt maximum weight training seems to be a staple of elite cross country training across national teams. But say for the hypothetical example of a 150 lb individual with a 50 lb vest performing 5 pull ups, why is the training effect different/better from that person performing 7+ pull-ups? Thanks.


    • Hi Chris,

      Look up “strength-endurance continuum” on google and you will find some answers and supporting research. Unfortunately the majority of what is written (aside from some of the published peer-reviewed papers) is aimed at body builders, but there is some valuable information there. The bottom line is that we are after strength with a minimum (or optimal) of hypertrophy– we call this “strength not show”. It’s important for endurance sports like cross country skiing where, although endurance is the base, skiers need very high instantaneous directional force-generation capability (aka “strength” or ability to do work) for proper power development (work per unit time) while utilizing the poling motion. The neuromuscular adaptations that sport-specific max strength workouts provide are thought to be essential for maximizing instantaneous directional force generation and that with sufficient dose will result in a natural (habitual) “wiring” system (aka myelination) of synchronous firing of available motor units (muscle groups). It’s argued that there is, for each individual, an optimal ratio of force generation/unit of hypertrophy. Too much muscle mass and endurance is adversely affected, too little force generation and power is adversely affected. There are a lot of non-linearities in there and body weight and body type (ecto-, meso-, mega-morph) play roles as well. Hope this helps.


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