Slip Sliding Away - Page 2
Skiing 101 for Trail Runners
Of the two genres, cross-country skiing, which is practiced on flat to rolling terrain, is more popular, easier to learn and generally more accessible than alpine touring (AT). There are two separate techniques within cross country: the traditional "diagonal stride," in which you alternate kicking off one ski and gliding on the other with the skis running parallel, also gaining momentum from your poles; and skate skiing, in which you propel yourself on a smooth track like an ice skater, again using poles for more speed (and training).
For the most consistent conditions, cross-country ski areas offer groomed trails, which allow for more efficient technique and workouts. Traditional skiers place each ski into one of two parallel grooves etched into the snow by a machine, while skaters use an adjacent smooth track.
AT raises the bar in terms of startup costs and prerequisite skills, the latter of which requires a background in alpine skiing and, if you're skiing in the backcountry, a solid foundation in avalanche awareness. AT consists of skiing up and down steep slopes wearing skis with bindings that allow the heel to be free for uphill treks and locked down for descents. On the uphills, you attach a removable climbing "skin" (it adheres to the ski base with a permanent glue that does not stick to the ski upon removal), which allows you to climb surprisingly steep grades. To get started, try AT by "skinning" up a ski area, provided uphill traffic is allowed, which is much safer (i.e. no avalanche concerns) and convenient than backcountry skiing.
Both cross-country and AT skiing offer racing options. Like trail races, most cross-country ski races feature mass starts. Someone's pole might land in your path or you may step on a competitor's ski, but after the first kilometer or so the main difference is that, on skis, you can rest more on the downhills than runners. Hence, you can climb with higher intensity than you would on foot, knowing that a rest period awaits.
Most AT races last one to four hours and require extremely high cardiovascular output on the climbs, and a great deal of lower-extremity strength on the generally steep, technical downs.
I began racing trail ultramarathons 13 years ago and have since run an average of six to eight ultras a year along with many stage races and marathons. Despite consistently high running race mileage, my body resists many of the cumulative-trauma running injuries. Why? Skiing.
For trail runners, the benefits of either skiing type are numerous. Says Dan Heil, PhD, professor of physiology at Montana State University, and an avid endurance athlete, "Cross-country skiing is the single best complementary aerobic exercise to running." He notes that the cardiovascular stresses of skiing mirror the physical stresses of running. Because skiing utilizes the same large, lower-body muscle groups that are used in running plus more of the upper body and core, it is generally more cardiovascularly demanding than running, making it an excellent choice for interval training and other speed work.
Also, the side-to-side motion of skating and the uphill running-like motion of ski mountaineering develop hip strength. Having strong core and hip-girdle muscles decreases your chance of lower-extremity injuries, as common knee, ankle and foot injuries strongly correlate to weak hips. Strong hip and core muscles also allow you to maintain proper form during a race's later miles.
Although runners mitigate risks of osteoporosis in the lower extremities and spine through extensive weight-bearing exercise, their lean bodies tend to be at fairly high bone-loss risk in the upper extremities. The stress ski-pole use places on the upper extremities encourages bone growth.
In addition, pole use can strengthen abdominal and back muscles. I have finished ski races with abdominal muscles so fatigued that they hurt when I laugh two days later.