Strength Training for the Aging Endurance Athlete – Reprise

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.

“Strength without flexibility is rigidity; flexibility without strength is instability.”

The quote above is a common Yoga-culture maxim, often repeated by yogis and acolytes alike. It is a true statement and it holds significant relevance for endurance athletes in general and particularly for any aging athlete, whether they be competitive or recreational. The maxim emphasizes the importance of not just strength development but for concurrent development of flexibility (aka, mobility). A rigid and unstable skier is one who will have diminished performance, be susceptible to injury, and will likely not attain full enjoyment of the sport.

Being nimble and stable on skis requires both strength and flexibility. Of course strength and flexibility are attributes that must be actively developed and constantly maintained. This means that strength and flexibility training should be a core part of any skier’s training program.

These elements are even more critical for the aging athlete. With the challenges of natural muscle loss and compromised connective tissue, maintaining strength and flexibility is a very important task. Yet it is commonly observed that many masters skiers do not include integrated strength and flexibility into their training. The following is intended to serve as a basis of the why, the what, the how, and the how much of strength and flexibility training needed for aging athletes, specific to the cross country skier.

Three Areas of Focus

 To attain sufficient (and hopefully increasing) levels of strength and flexibility for cross country skiing, it is important to engage in a multi-mode strength program that challenges the athlete in all relevant movements. These modes consist of the following:

  • Max Strength & General Strength
  • Flexibility/Mobility
  • Plyometrics (Dynamic Sport-specific Coordinated Movements)

We will address each of these below, but first let’s speak to our current situation here in the U.S. and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our training programs.

Timelines for Return to “Normalcy” in the U.S.

 It’s not clear yet what the timeframe will be for a return to a somewhat normal, but clearly changed, social environment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Estimates range from 3 months to 18 months and, based on current information, we are planning on a 4 to 12 month period of very limited social interaction, particularly for any group greater than about 2-4 individuals. What this means is: there will very likely be no competitive endurance sporting events through the summer and fall; there is the possibility of no competitive cross country skiing races in the 2020-2021 season; and that all gyms and other training facilities that attract multiple users at any given time will be closed throughout the summer and, possibly, fall (even if gyms do open you may choose to not go based on health concerns). We hope that such a situation does not come to be, but since training for a sport like cross country skiing is a long-term (many months-to-years) endeavor, it is imperative that we adjust our “normal” training program to accommodate the new restrictions. Although the existence of our upcoming competitive season is in doubt, it will be best to assume that we will be racing in 2020-2021 and that, at this juncture, we go forward with our training as if the season is going to happen.

One of the most important adjustments for a competitive skier will be our response to the impacts of social restrictions on strength training. Access to gyms will be limited or eliminated for months, yet skiers will need to address not only strength maintenance but, as we move through our training programs, strength progressions as well. Many skiers have become accustomed to utilization of extensive commercial gym set-ups and equipment and have developed strength routines and progressions dependent upon such facilities. Given the likelihood of the unavailability of gym facilities throughout the summer (and possibly longer), alternative approaches need to be developed. As outlined previously, we advocate for skiers to set up a home gym to facilitate regular strength sessions where limited time and resources are available, i.e. for the typical masters skier. Given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, if ever there was time to put the effort into assembling a home gym, now would be that time.

A Simple Home Gym

 Having a simple home gym is an enabler for masters skiers to make strength/flexibility training the necessary centerpiece of their ski training that it should be. A home gym is always open, never crowded, and does not require a commute to get there. Additionally, with a home gym, one can design exercises that best replicate those motions that are fundamental good cross country skiing technique and put them into a strength routine that will build sport-specific strength capacities that will directly impact one’s skiing efficiency and power. This is not to say that similar exercises and set-ups cannot be replicated in a commercial gym, but rather that one can dedicate one’s gym to these set-ups and not need to continually adjust and re-arrange gym equipment that is being used by many others. It’s efficient and it allows for flexibility in designing exercises that perhaps cannot be accommodated at one’s local gym. And, importantly, in this time of pandemic, a home gym is the only way to safely go forward with strength training. We never thought that we would be writing that last sentence but it is the reality, at least for now. Even though some gyms may open up in the next month or so, they could very well be shut down again with possible “second waves” or other circumstances related to the pandemic. We think that the best approach during this time of pandemic is to proactively set-up a functional gym at home.

In a prior article on strength training we provided a short tour of our home gym and outlined some of the essential equipment elements needed for effective, cross country skiing-specific, strength routines. The tour is presented below and serves only as an example of what a home gym might look like, it is not prescriptive and certainly much superior set-ups can be accomplished in the same floor area. The only limits are with one’s imagination.

A home gym in concert with dynamic outdoor exercises utilizing common terrain elements will allow an athlete to fully develop and maintain strength capacities that are essential for powerful and efficient cross country skiing.

The Importance of Strength Training for Aging Athletes

In prior articles we’ve addressed the central importance of strength training as an integral part of any training program for aging athletes. Let’s review the main aspects of why this is the case.

Firstly, the aging human body undergoes many changes and one of the most impactful changes is a continuous drop in certain hormone production rates. Specifically, as we age we experience decreased levels of important hormones that are critical to the production of muscle. These hormones include human growth hormone, insulin-like growth hormone, and testosterone. This means that not only is it difficult to add muscle mass, but our ability to retain existing muscle mass is compromised as well. The process is known as sarcopenia, and it is a major challenge for aging athletes whether they be competitive or recreational. Fortunately, studies have found that an effective way to combat this natural loss of muscle is to embark on a consistent and rigorous strength training program year-round. It is thought that this approach works because such regular strength training stimulates production of the declining hormones mentioned above and allows for retention of existing and (with proper strength programming) addition of new muscle mass that would otherwise not occur. It is important to point out that sarcopenia has no “off” season and the negative impacts of this natural process will proceed without an intervention such as a consistent and rigorous strength training program. Making strength training a central part of your year-round training program is critical not only to maintain current levels of performance, but also to allow for any potential improvements in performance.

Secondly, the same natural muscle loss process will adversely affect our ability to prevent injuries. Strength, flexibility/mobility, and the combination of these that results in dynamic, coordinated body movement is critical to allowing the aging athlete to engage in a highly dynamic sport like cross country skiing with a minimized propensity toward injury. This is because strength and flexibility capacities will provide significant protection from injuries due to mis-steps and mistakes along the trail. Being able to safely support one’s body in unusual and awkward positions is critical to prevent injuries while skiing. No skier makes perfect steps always and it is important to have a “safety net” of strength and flexibility in reserve to ensure that a small slip or attempt to correct an imbalance does not lead to a strained or pulled muscle.

As we have aged and attempted to improve our performances, strength training has become a larger and larger part of our personal training programs. This is partly due to technique developments that rely on significant levels of specific strength (e.g. double poling in classic skiing) but also in response to the natural decline in our muscle-making capacity. Although this works for us and is not generally applicable, we include three specific-strength workouts, daily flexibility sessions, and two-to-three plyometric sessions per week in our year-round training programs. This amounts to an average of between 25% and 30% of our total training time, year-round. Others will have different proportions, but it is a general rule that as one ages, strength and flexibility/mobility should play an increasing role in one’s training program.

Strength & Flexibility – Essential Synergies

 As the quote offered at the outset of this article indicates, the synergy between strength development and capacity for flexibility is the basis for being a powerful, nimble, and stable skier. We highly recommend the book Becoming a Supple Leopard, that thoroughly and exhaustively addresses this subject. We provide a few essential elements of immediate relevance to the masters skier here.

Engaging in a well-designed and challenging strength and flexibility program is a “game changer” for all masters athletes. As a result of the ravages of sarcopenia discussed above, there is no continuing “status quo” in strength for any aging athlete, just a slow decline in performance. But by consistently and thoroughly addressing strength and flexibility year-round, one will find substantial increases in on-snow performance, less injury, and a lot more enjoyment of our sport. We encourage the reader to work with a strength professional to help guide development of and execution upon a well-designed, safe, and effective strength and stability program. In this time of pandemic there are many strength professionals looking for clients since many commercial gyms are closed. It may be an ideal time to find the right professional for you.

Let’s review the three fundamental modes that make up a complete and effective program – Max Strength/General Strength, Flexibility/Mobility, and Plyometrics.

Max Strength & General Strength

 These are exercises aimed at optimized skeletal support, muscular efficiency, strength gains, muscular endurance, and development of our neuromuscular systems to take full advantage of all available motor units. This part of a program should be designed to include exercises that most closely replicate the movements that we make in cross country skiing. Different from exercises intended to develop specific muscle groups (such as that engaged in by weight lifters and body builders) these skiing-specific exercises involve coordinated movements involving many (and, most preferably, all) relevant muscle groups for the motions utilized during skiing. Included in this group are exercises like the Garhammer, pull-ups and weighted pull-ups, L-sit pull-ups, and “double pole” squats, along with many others. Some of these exercises are conducted as “max strength” elements and others as “general strength” elements.

Max strength exercises utilize added weight that will allow the athlete to complete only 1-3 reps or generally about 90-95% of maximum capacity. Here both strength gains and neuromuscular adaptations that train one’s body to recruit all available motor units to complete the exercise are the focus. These exercises are critical for both power development and efficiency. General Strength exercises utilize higher reps and lower (or body) weight to elicit fundamental skeletal muscular support, movement efficiency, and muscular endurance. Included in this group are push-ups, core-rows, split squats, lunges, leg ab/adductors, and pull-downs, among many others. Nordic Team Solutions has extensive coverage of many of these skiing-specific exercises along with excellent videos that demonstrate how to do the exercises correctly.

Progression in strength training is essential to achievement of durable improvements. Including a number of challenging progression periods during the training year is critical. Just like the “base-build-peak” periodization of one’s cardiovascular training, periodizing your strength training by including one or more strength “build” periods during the year is necessary for improvement. This is hypercritical for the masters athlete where sarcopenia will be working counterproductively.

Progressions are programmed, increasing resistance schedules that, when properly designed, allow the athlete to safely and efficiently make durable strength improvements. Typically, a progression will include increasing resistance along with increasing “sets” to achieve a new, higher plateau of strength. It is important to work with a strength professional when actively engaging in progressions as overload and potential injury are possible when a progression is overly aggressive.

It is straightforward to design a training program that incorporates these types of Max Strength and General Strength exercises but it is recommended that, again, engaging with a strength professional will help the athlete to ensure that any program is targeted, safe, and specific to one’s individual needs. We don’t recommend following any “canned” strength plans that might be available. Max strength/General strength is so important in cross country skiing that it is imperative that one spend the time and effort on development of an effective program that includes appropriate progressions.

The timeframe for substantial improvements in strength is about 12-18 months. Shorter-term expectations will lead to disappointment and doubt in one’s program. Although some improvements will be experienced within about 6 months, full development will not come until at least a year of consistent and challenging strength work (including progressions) is completed.

Flexibility/Mobility

As pointed out at the outset, flexibility/mobility are essential elements that will allow one to progress to a powerful and efficient skier. Flexibility/mobility (and the associated stability in athletic motions) has origins in development of all of the relevant “stabilizer” muscle groups — these are the small muscles in and around our joints at the knees, ankles, hips, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. Exemplary of the results of well-developed stability is the ability to sequentially stand on one foot, to flex the knee and bend down, to jump up off the ground, and to land solidly on that foot without imbalance. Sounds easy, but it isn’t for most athletes. Effectively and efficiently doing this simple thing depends on the development of hundreds of “stabilizer” muscles in and around the knee, ankle, and hip. Flexibility/mobility exercises are aimed at developing these “stabilizer” systems.

Flexibility/mobility exercises are generally simple, body weight movements that challenge the “stabilizer” muscle groups. These exercises can be completed almost anywhere and can be integrated as a part of one’s regular cardiovascular or strength training or completed as a stand-alone session. Typically such exercises are done at high reps (up to about 100 in a single session) with only body weight. Repeated challenge of stability via specific movements not only develops the muscles but it also elicits neuromuscular adaptations that allow for proper sequential firing of muscles to enable a stable movement. These neuromuscular adaptations are also called myelination and require repeated, high rep stimuli for efficient development. Examples of these exercises include walking lunges (forward, reverse, and lateral), air squats, step-downs, “hinge’ movements, rotational movements, various “agility” movements, and stretches, among many others (see the book Becoming a Supple Leopard, above).

Fitting stability/mobility work into the busy schedule of a masters skier is a challenge and it is best to be creative with how to incorporate such exercises into one’s routine. Betsy combines her daily morning walk with our Labrador, Olive, with a series of flexibility/mobility exercises along the way. This is an efficient approach that makes good use of limited time and provides an environment that helps ensure that the work is consistently engaged in. Many will start a flexibility/mobility program only to find it fades away; combining a regular activity with flexibility/mobility exercises is one way to help with consistency. Here is a short video of Betsy on her dog walk doing a series of exercises she finds useful. Note: this video is of an actual old person and, when compared to similar exercises being done by young athletes, demonstrates the challenges we face as aging athletes when it comes to flexibility/mobility. We bend less, we step shorter, and we jump lower. The important thing is to do these types of exercises on a regular basis to limit the natural tendency we all have to become rigid and unstable. As evidenced in the video, Betsy also includes some general strength and plyometric exercises in her daily “flexibility” routine. These can be included on an as-needed basis, in cases where time will be limited (later in the day or during the week) to engage in a dedicated Max strength/general strength or plyometric session.

The timeframe for substantial improvements in flexibility/mobility are in the 3-6 month timeframe. This relatively short timeframe is because the muscle groups involved are smaller and therefore can develop more quickly than the larger muscle groups. It is also relatively easier to challenge the stabilizer systems in a progressive way and these stimuli can be engaged in on a daily basis. A daily stimulus is the quickest way to improvements, however as few as 3 sessions per week is also very functional.

Plyometrics (for old people)

 Plyometrics are strength exercises aimed at development of instantaneous power in highly dynamic movements. Plyometric exercises are typified by the “box jump” where one jumps up onto a box in one two-legged leap. This requires the development of high power (high work (force X distance) over a short duration) in order to enable one to lift their bodyweight up some distance into the air and onto the box. Because of the short timeframe over which work is conducted, these exercises elicit recruitment of primarily type 2 (fast twitch) muscle fibers. Development of such high power capacities is important in many of the fundamental movements in cross country skiing such as “kick” in classic skiing, “push-off” in freestyle, and classic double poling. In addition to the use and strengthening of type 2 fibers, the “stabilizer” muscle systems are developed. These small muscle groups are the origin of good balance and are essential in proper skiing technique and skiing economy.

Also, with plyometric exercises, neuromuscular adaptations (myelination) associated with the specific movements occurs. This is why it is important to design exercises that replicate or mimic the motions that are utilized in cross country skiing. Studies have shown that incorporation of regular plyometric sessions results in increased economy in distance running. Utilization of plyometrics for training has long been applied in cross country skiing since the same types of movement and application of impulse forces is occurring. Although more difficult to measure analytically, skiing economy is observed to increase when athletes include consistent plyometric training in their programs. The neuromuscular adaptations that provide high instantaneous power and associated coordinated timing lead to very efficient power delivery on snow and therefore positively affect skiing efficiency.

As a result of these adaptations, properly designed plyometric exercises provide a “triple whammy” training stimulus that, on a minute-for-minute comparison with other training modes, is a very efficient spend of training time.

Aging athletes tend to gravitate away from such dynamic, high impact exercises such as plyometrics. With compromised connective tissue that is not as pliable as it once was and, often, a lack of integrated strength work, many older athletes find the risk to be greater than the reward. However with well-designed and monitored progressions utilizing the skill of a strength professional, many older athletes can successfully incorporate plyometrics into their strength programs and reap the benefits noted above. After a sustained period away from plyometrics, we have found re-introduction of this modality into our training programs have yielded astounding results on snow. We provide an introductory video on plyometrics here:

In the videos below two plyometric exercises are demonstrated that give examples of how such exercises can be designed to have direct mapping onto motions utilized in cross country skiing. The first exercise is a modified “box jump” that uses a hemispherical bosu ball as a central landing point to minimize the impact forces when jumping and landing. Doing this exercise on a soft surface (like turf or a padded foam surface) further helps minimize impact forces for those who have issues with tendons and connective tissue (cartilage). This exercise develops the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteus max along with hip flexors and many of the stabilizer groups around the ankles, knees, and hips. The forward leap replicates a double pole motion and the sideways leaps engage many of the same muscle groups in a way similar as one does in freestyle V1 and V2. Advanced versions of this exercise include increasing the height of the bosu ball and progressing toward fewer reps but using just one leg. One “round” of the cross pattern (over and back) gives 12 jumps and 5 repeats of that gives 60 jumps. Progression to 5 sets of the 5 repeats yields 300 jumps and a very good training stimulus.

The second exercise involves leaps, first with both legs and then, sequentially with each leg alone. The effort should be focused on leap length, not height since this motion is most aligned with those during skiing. Just as with the “box” jump this exercise develops the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteus max along with hip flexors and many of the stabilizer groups around the ankles, knees, and hips. The two legged leap replicates the lower body portion of double pole motion and the single leg leaps replicate the timing and force generation needed for efficient and powerful classic “kick” and freestyle “push-off.”  Progressions include starting with flat terrain and then moving to increasing degrees of slope up a hill. Five to ten repeats of the three variants (two single leg, one both legs) makes a “set” and then work toward 5-10 “sets.” The single leg leaps in this exercise will elicit dramatic increases in development of the stabilizer groups and result in large improvement in balance and stability on snow as well as increased control on challenging downhills. Note: Again, this video shows an actual old person and demonstrates some of the deficiencies that will develop as we age. When younger, the box would be much higher and the jumps would be much longer. But in the absence of doing these plyometrics, capacities would be even more compromised and both power and efficiency on snow would be significantly lower.

In all plyometrics one should progress toward rep rates that mimic those in cross country skiing. So as you hop up a shallow hill on one leg, consider increasing your rep rate to something similar to the rate at which you will be “kicking” in classic, “pushing off” in freestyle, or double poling in classic (typically 30-90 rpm). This is essential in developing the proper timing sequences for muscle firing into the myelination that will naturally occur.

It is important to point out that plyometrics are advanced exercises and should be completed under the supervision of a strength professional familiar with this exercise type. Some masters skiers will have difficulty completing plyometrics but with proper design and supervision, many will be able to incorporate these into their strength programs.

The timeframe for improvements with plyometrics are in the 3-6 month range, again, because much of the challenge here is aimed toward the smaller stabilizer muscle groups that can quickly develop and yield significant results in a short time. The development of the larger muscle groups is longer term, but all developments will befit from the significant neuromuscular “wiring” (myelination) that will pay big dividends on snow.

We suggest starting with one plyometric session per week and progressing toward three sessions per week. A well-planned and designed session will take about 30 minutes and therefore should generally allow enough schedule flexibility to ensure consistency. As with the flexibility/mobility modality, combining a plyometric session with some other activity can be a functional atmosphere to excel. Bob combines 3-per-week plyometric sessions with a daily active recovery session where the active recovery serves as the warm-up. Betsy incorporates much of her plyometrics into flexibility sessions as seen in the video above. Creativity is the operative word when trying to accommodate these specific-strength sessions.

Strength Training – How Much?

This question, of course, always comes up. And the answer is “it depends” and “it will change.” We advocate for year-round strength training since, as noted above, sarcopenia has no “off season.” But further, your strength goals should be a function of what you want to get from skiing, be it for increased fitness, increased performance in a competitive setting, or the simple pleasure of moving fast and smooth through the forest. And these goals will change as we progress through our lives with life’s many other aspects playing bigger or lesser roles along the way. But fundamental to all good skiing is strength and without it, one’s skiing, and therefore one’s enjoyment of skiing, will be compromised.

For athletes with expectations for moderate improvements a single Max Strength/General Strength session per week may suffice. However, for anyone with goals that include being competitive in their respective age groups in regional/national races, two sessions per week is a minimum. Your fellow competitors will likely be doing at least this level of strength training and you will too if you expect to be competitive. At the highest levels, at events like the World Masters Championships, three sessions per week will be optimal. The three session protocol allows for much faster progressions and will allow an athlete to approach “plateau” strength levels quicker. These “plateaus” represent significant increases in strength and associated on-snow performance. More than three sessions per week will be adverse as one’s body can only accommodate so much stimulus before over-training and injury susceptibility begin to have significant negative effects.

Flexibility/mobility can be as frequent as daily but many may have difficulty getting this amount of work into their schedules. A three session per week protocol will suffice to elicit significant development but it will likely not be optimal. The flexibility portion of the strength equation outlined at the outset is critical to becoming a nimble, powerful, and efficient skier and a daily regimen is recommended for those who have the time.

Similar to the Max Strength/General Strength modality, plyometrics are most effective at two sessions per week with advanced athletes moving toward three sessions per week. Here is an example of a typical week of strength training for a committed athlete to be completed in addition to cardiovascular training elements:

At the high end, this schedule amounts to about 7h of strength training per week and at the low end, 4-5h of strength training per week. This can be scaled back according to fitness objectives and time constraints. It is important, however, to realize how central strength training is for the aging endurance athlete (and for cross country skiers in particular) and to allocate sufficient time in your training to include all the necessary strength elements with large enough stimuli to allow for progression. Once you are on snow you will be glad that you did.

Strength Training for Aging Athletes – the Key to Increased Performance and Comfort on Skis

 Although the above statement is generally true for skiers of all ages, it is critical for the aging skier. With the strength challenges that we face from natural processes like sarcopenia as well as challenges due to limited available time to devote to strength training, the aging skier typically experiences a general decline in performance and enjoyment of skiing. With a bit of focus, creativity, and shifts of priority, performance declines can be reversed and enjoyment significantly increased. And for those who dedicate themselves to a broad-based compliment of year-round strength training modalities, performances never thought possible become real — even with limited time on snow.

Make strength training a central part of your ski training program and the performance benefits will be plentiful, injury will become rare, and your enjoyment will increase. And after all is said and done, enjoyment (at whatever level) is the point!

One thought on “Strength Training for the Aging Endurance Athlete – Reprise

  1. Pingback: May Nordic Report - JHNordic blog

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