cross-country ski training

Cross-Country Ski Training: 4 Tips And A Workout To Improve Fitness

By Pro CTS Coach Kirk Nordgren

Later summer and early fall are the times that many endurance athletes start thinking about cross-country skiing as a winter alternative to their current summer sports.  Maybe you’re burnt out on cycling or running, or maybe you just can’t wait to hit the trails with your skis this winter. If you do have plans to incorporate Nordic skiing into your training this winter or want to tackle some xc-ski races or events in the coming months, then read on for some of my tips for preparing for a great transition to snow.  

Fitness Is King For Cross-Country Skiing

With the exception of swimming, there is no other endurance sport where performance is so heavily reliant on technical proficiency.  But it’s an easy mistake to focus on ski technique to the detriment of strength and endurance. Just like any endurance sport, the best predictor of xc-ski success is good fitness.

I was a high school ski coach in Minnesota when future Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins was racing as a 7th grader.  She was skiing with and in many cases beating 11th and 12th-grade competition with technique that made you cringe at the inefficiency.  But the engine that would propel her to future World Championship wins and Olympic Gold was clearly evident, and it was this fitness that made her fast despite the poor technique.  No doubt it was important for Jessie’s career to develop into a technically proficient skier, but the opposite of this example definitely does not true. If your fitness is lacking, you won’t reach your skiing goals or maximize your potential even if you have perfect technique.  

Don’t Skip Arm Day

If you’re transitioning to skiing after a summer of other aerobic activity like running or cycling, the good news is that you already have a head start on the fitness you’ll need to have a good winter on the snow.  There is significant overlap with most other endurance sports in developing the aerobic engine that is fundamental to success as a nordic skier. But you only have to watch a minute of any pro cycling or endurance running race to realize that success in these sports is inversely correlated to upper body muscle mass.  Elite level Nordic Skiers, on the other hand, rely on upper body power for up to 50% of their total power output. So if you haven’t been focusing on core and upper body strength throughout the summer, making gains in these areas should be one of your main priorities as you start focusing on your xc-ski goals. I asked my brother (2x Olympic Biathlete Leif Nordgren) to recommend some of his favorite upper body strength exercises and I’ll share them with you below.  

Nordic skiing also incorporates a unique combination of strength and endurance requirements.  You need explosive strength (legs, arms and core) for each cycle of either skate or classic skiing technique (think of the strength needed for skate skiing up a steep climb) and then you need the endurance to repeat those contractions for hundreds of repetitions.  Get specific with your training by rollerskiing, running or hill-bounding with poles, and developing upper body strength and power. Just remember that general upper body strength is a prerequisite for explosive or specific ski strength. Don’t move right into upper body plyometrics training if your arms look like Chris Froome’s after a summer of cycling!


Good Technique Is Free Speed

If you thought I just dismissed the need to spend time developing good ski technique, you either weren’t reading carefully, or I failed to clearly communicate that while Fitness is King, technique plays a huge role in skiing proficiency.  And of the technical points you must master as a skier, no one is more important than balance. The two ends of the skiing balance spectrum are effortlessly gliding over the snow on one hand and hopelessly flailing around (with lots of falling) on the other.  Most skiers are somewhere in between those extremes, but almost all can benefit from improving their balance. I recommend roller skiing throughout the summer or at least the fall for anyone with even semi-serious winter ski goals. Roller skiing forces you to practice balance while training in the most specific format possible without snow.  And even if you don’t rollerski in the fall, you will want to make sure your first few on-snow training sessions of the year include a significant focus on balance drills including skiing without poles.  

Beyond balance, another technical point to emphasis is muscle relaxation at any point of the ski stroke where you aren’t applying force.  My former ski coach would describe “wooden legs” or “wooden arms” as the opposite of a relaxed skier. This unnecessary tension throughout the recovery phase of either a skate or classic ski stroke is nothing more than wasted energy.  

We can’t cover all ski technique fundamentals in a short blog post, but focusing on good balance (think long glide time on a flat ski when skating) and relaxation in the recovery phase will provide significant efficiency benefits as you transition onto snow this winter.


Apply Your Experience

You might be relatively new to skiing, but there is a good chance you have experience in other endurance sports that can provide some crossover benefits to your skiing this winter.  I’m talking here about using the lessons you’ve learned in areas like sports nutrition, training for specific event demands, good equipment preparation, etc and applying them to your ski training and competitions.  Sports nutrition is a good example and an easy place for most skiers to improve their habits. Many cyclists have at least a base level understanding that eating and drinking correctly on the bike leads to successful rides and races.  And your bike has convenient bottle cages within easy reach! But for skiers, good nutrition during training and racing is an often overlooked way to improve performance. There are the practical issues to overcome, like frozen bottles and trying to grab food despite gloves and poles in your hand, but the fluid and calorie demands of skiing are as much or greater than your summer sport demands.  Just like with those other activities, consuming 200-300 calories per hour and at least 20 oz of water per hour (a must for workouts longer than 60-75 minutes) can improve the quality of training sessions and your performance in events or races.  

Training for the specific demands of an event is another crossover lesson to apply to skiing.  Are you doing the Birkie this February? It’s a hilly course, and you will have much better success if you build the upper and lower body strength needed to grind up endless climbs for several hours.  Is your event a 10 km skate race? You need to train for higher intensity efforts and teach your body to adapt to the high levels of blood lactate you’ll experience in a short and hard race that includes significant time spent above your lactate threshold intensity.  

The lesson here is that while skiing might not be your year-round focus, in many cases the experience you’ve gained from your other endurance sports can easily be applied.

Whether you simply want to include some xc-skiing this winter to mix up your training and burn some calories outdoors, or you have specific ski races you are focusing on, it’s not too early to start incorporating ski-specific training.  And if you want expert advice and professional guidance, CTS has a number of great coaches with extensive xc-ski experience that can help you reach your goals this winter.

olympic nordic ski race

Leif Nordgren’s Cross-Country Ski Upperbody And Core Workout

 Core strength is possibly the most important aspect of fitness when it comes to xc-skiing.  Think of it as the glue that allows you to hold your technique together and apply your upper and lower body strength to propel you down the track.  Below are some simple exercises for your core and upper body that will allow for more powerful movement this winter. I strongly recommend investing in a TRX or RedCord mini for home and travel use.  Don’t forget, a strong core goes a long way in cycling and running as well!


Core Warmup: 15-20 minutes

– Planks:  Front and sides, 2-3x each position.  Very important to make sure your body is straight, like a… wait for it… plank!  Make sure that your pelvis is tucked. Hold for 30-60 seconds each, build up to a continuous effort with no pause or rest while switching positions, that means 4-6 minutes straight!

– Crunches/V-Ups:  There’s no need to ruin your back, so make sure you get a good abdominal activation at first, 20-40 slow and controlled crunches for starters. Graduate to V-Ups when you’re strong and explosive enough, goal is to go for 3×15-20 V-Ups.

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– Windshield wipers:  Lay on your back with feet in the air, move your feet slowly from left to right, all the way to the ground. 10-20 in each direction

– Supine Leg Lift:  Lie on your back, simply raise your legs off the ground and hold for 30-60 seconds.  Make sure your pelvis is tucked so that your lower back remains in contact with the ground. Try for 3-4 x 60 seconds.

– Russian Twist: Wait until the core is completely warmed up before any twisting movement…  3x 15-20 reps to each side, add weight up to 10kg for extra difficulty

– Supermans:  Lay on the stomach with arms stretched overhead, activate the back by lifting both the head/shoulders and legs off the ground, hold for 2-3 seconds then release, repeat for 10-15 reps.


UpperBody:  20-30 minutes

You don’t have to head to the gym to get a great upper body workout.  Most of the exercises below you can do in your home with minimal equipment. You don’t have to kill yourself, 20-30 minutes a few times a week will go a long way this winter.

– Pullups: Self-explanatory, but try a wider grip to get a good lat activation. Go for 3 x your maximum amount.

– Dips:  Using a chair or bench, keep your feet on the ground or get them their own bench for added difficulty.  3×20-30 reps. This can be done using the TRX or RedCord which adds in an additional stability aspect.

Prone Row: Using a RedCord or TRX, set up the prone row by laying on your back and reaching up to the handles, pull your body weight up explosively and release down more slowly.  Shoot for 3×10-15 reps.

– Pushups:  Simple and effective, go for 3x maximum reps using your triceps by keeping your elbows as close to your body as possible.  For extra shoulder stability try this on the TRX or RC.


Ski Specific Strength:

If you have roller skis and can find a nice gradual uphill with smooth pavement, add in some strength to your ski workout with double poling intervals.  Double poling is as specific as it comes and will benefit both skate and classic technique. If you’re skating, ski without poles for a 3 x 5-10 minutes to develop more leg and glute strength as well as balance.


Looking to work with a coach to improve your cross-country skiing fitness this year? We have several coaches who have extensive experience racing and coaching beginner to advanced xc-skiers – read more about them here and schedule your free coach consultation.

Ready to get started today? Sign up here and use coupon code XCSKI to waive your coaching registration fee.

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Comments 7

  1. Pingback: Our Ten Best Winter Fitness Activities - GYMSIDER

  2. Pingback: Our Ten Best Winter Fitness Activities - RIGHTPATHFITNESS

  3. Hi,
    I am 57, and training for the Engadin ski marathon on 3/12/23. I live in Maryland so I can’t really train on snow but I am a triathlete and also do yoga. I have completed a half ski marathon before, classic skiing. I would like to know how to up my training between now and the race.
    Longer swims, runs? More core and arm exercises? I’m more worried about upper body strength than lower. I don’t belong to a gym but do have a home workout area with free weights, mats etc. I usually swim a mile, run a 5k. Not biking now just because it’s winter.

  4. Comments from Canada…75 yrs. young and gearing up for, hopefully, a great ski season following two years of “down time” from nordic racing.
    Great read from Leif’s overview.
    Looking for a program that’s geared for an “older”, upper intermediate, nordic skier who enjoys triathlon, swimming, cycling and ultra running events in spring and summer along with teaching yoga.
    Anything to fit the bill?

  5. 62 years old, and want to begin training for 1000 km. March 2022 expedition. 43 years ago was my last race, as I competed for about 4 years. Now 50 pounds over weight and have had a desk job for over 4 decades.

    Please advise

    1. Hi James,

      I am really impressed by your new objective, this is really exciting!!

      Best of luck from a 27 year old in Switzerland, i wish you to reach all your goals.

      Ps: do not underestimate the importance of nutrition.

  6. I’ve been a cyclist and cross country skier for 35 years +. I’m 68 years old and retired. I have some heart issues but I’ve found ways to continue despite the issues. (E-Bike, meds,etc.) I just tried Roller Skiing yesterday for the first time in 3 years and I found that I can still do it. Just waiting for snow.

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