Entering a cross-country skiing race is one thing, training for it – when you live hundreds of miles from the nearest reliable snow – is quite another
“Never mind,” laughs my 80-year-old cheerleader-come-critic. “You’re doing better than you were last week.”
Picking myself up from the floor (not an easy, or graceful, procedure when you have a 50cm-long appendage attached to each foot), I thank her, rearrange my ruffled dignity, straighten my helmet and pole onwards – along the seafront of the small Devon town that I call home, and which has never before been treated to the sight of a grown man roller-skiing.
I time my training to avoid school turnout, but around our way, the gangs of grannies are far more merciless than packs of teenagers would ever be. Some point and snigger, others openly laugh and heckle, and I’m sure one is deliberately racing me in her electric wheelchair. And winning. No bloody respect, that’s the problem with old people these days.
Training was always going to be tricky – from the minute I signed up to do Norway’s famous Birkebeinerrennet, during a sudden rush of blood to the head after completing the mountain-bike equivalent of the race a few months earlier.
This 54km event between Rena and Lillehammer is more than a race in Norway. It’s a rite of passage, a tradition – phenomenon even – that sees 17,000 skiers take part every year. Having experienced the bike race, I jumped at the chance to do the original event, and in all the beer-assisted excitement I overlooked a salient point. I can’t ski. Not even a little bit.
I’ve snowboarded, a handful of times, but aside from a half-hearted crack at waterskiing when I was a kid, I’ve never been on a pair of skis in my life. Let alone cross-country skis, which – when I finally clap eyes on them – do not look like the sort of thing absolute beginners should be let anywhere near.
They’re outrageously skinny – like toothpicks. From this feet-in-wet-concrete standing start, I have three months to get myself skilled-up and ski fit enough to complete an ultra-length marathon on snow. The good news is, winter’s coming. The bad news is, I live in the sunny Southwest of England.
Fortunately, I have a great coach in the shape of Jean-Francois. A former ski instructor, JF takes me under his wing and brings a Jedi master approach to proceedings. He’s confident I can do it but, like a Jedi master, demands commitment – “Do, or do not”. There is no try. I choose do – but where to begin?
There’s only one place to start: Sjusjøen, in the beautiful Norwegian Alps. This is my one chance to actually ski on snow before the week of the race itself, and over fours days JF puts me (and photographer Henry) through an ultra-condensed crash course in classic Nordic skiing.
Unlike skate-style, classic cross-country skiing makes use of groomed parallel tracks, like inverted small-gauge railway lines. Technique is, of course, crucial. You’re not going to get far – certainly not 54km – by shuffling or trying to run with skis on, and the most important element to perfect is the glide, where you push off your back foot and glide on the front one.
Like all endurance sports, economy of effort is essential and the objective is to turn each movement into maximum forward motion – every metre you slide takes you several steps closer to the finish line. It’s all about harnessing kinetic energy.
This element can only be taught on snow, so we concentrate on the basics. After four days I still feel as though I’m moving around like a newborn giraffe, but JF remains confident. Before I leave, he gives me a pair of roller-skis and outlines a plan for how to train on concrete – and that’s where the hard work begins.
Effective gliding involves shifting your weight onto one leg and then the other, as you push and slide – which all requires balance. You also need
to be able to take one leg out of the tracks in order to do a half-plough and control your speed when descending steep slopes, which demands confidence and stability.
To improve balance, the most basic technique is to spend time standing on one leg. As you stand, gently bend and then straighten your knee, so you’re essentially doing one-legged squats. This is an exercise that can be done at any time. “Try and build it into your daily routine,” JF advises me. “So, while you’re brushing your teeth each morning and evening, stand on one leg and do some squats. Of course, your wife might laugh at you [he’s right,
she does], but it all helps.”
Double-poling is a technique used on flat and slightly descending terrain, where you rise up on your toes, position both poles slightly ahead of you and push yourself through, crunching down into a streamlined squat until your arms are behind you. Performed correctly, this action provides rapid acceleration while giving your leg muscles a rest, with the thrust coming from your core.
Exercises that improve abdominal strength – including sit-ups, crunches, leg flutters and planking – all help with double-poling. This is also where my roller-skis come in. Doublepoling is the only classic cross-country technique you can really practise on wheels, and I know that if I build up some endurance, it might get me out of jail on race day – so I brave the sniggers and sarcastic comments from the blue-rinse brigade and hit the seafront
esplanade several times a week.
While I’m clearly going to be behind roughly 16,999 of my fellow racers in terms of technique, I’m hoping I can make up ground with reasonable aerobic fitness and some experience in endurance events. The best cross-training you can do for cross-country skiing is long-distance trail running. The muscle groups used, fitness levels required and the mental ability to go the distance while constantly reading the undulations of the off-camber terrain are all very similar. The Birkebeinerrennet course goes uphill for the first 20km, and this is where good leg strength will be imperative.
One of Britain’s top cross-country racers, Andrew Young, tells me that elite skiers should be trail running 30 hours a month during summer, and punching out 3,000 metres in under 9 minutes. They also seek out the steepest and muddiest terrain to train on, for better returns.
At last, I’m on familiar ground. Trail running is what I do, mud is my element, and there’s no shortage of testing trails in the Southwest. As the race approaches, I up my mileage and hope this might be my saving grace.
Beat the burn
While it’s important to train hard for the uphills, the descents can be surprisingly fatiguing when you are not used to assuming the downhill position (a streamlined crouch, with your knees bent and your head low), for extended periods. The last 8km of the Birken course is all downhill, and I know I’m going to be feeling the burn big time by then. The best exercise for this, unsurprisingly, is squats. You don’t necessarily need to use weights, just do plenty of reps and holds.
To glide correctly, you must perfect your arm swing and pole placement. To help with cadence, forward propulsion and balance, your arms need to swing forward (off-set to your legs) as though you’re doing an over exaggerated military march. Although your forward arm is outstretched, your pole should point backwards slightly, so it makes contact with the ground close to your feet, where you can get proper purchase. It’s essential to complete the full arc of the arm swing, letting the pole go out behind you, and it’s important to keep your arm virtually straight, so that you’re using your core muscles to push yourself along (otherwise your arms will very quickly tire). Strangely enough, this is similar (in its science, at least) to proper kayaking technique.
To bring it all together – foot technique, arm movement, pole positioning and fitness training – JF sets me one last bit of homework: ski striding and ski bounding. These exercises are done on grassy slopes, and they’re the best way to practise your cross-country technique on dry land.
First, you need to learn to fall uphill, without over extending your advancing leg. So, instead of striding, you take small steps up the hill, landing on your front foot (a common technique in trail running too). Then, you preload a bounce into your step, mimicking the kick you would use if you were on snow. Get your arm swing happening, and when that’s all coming together, add poles to the equation, and really attack the climb. Repeatedly.
I quickly discover that Devon is made for ski bounding. There are steep hills everywhere, covered in lush grass – perfect for practising this technique. Better still, the grannies don’t venture up this high, so it’s only the quizzical looks I get from early morning dog walkers that I have to endure as I bound up the slopes, swinging my poles like a demented four-legged spider.
But will all my bouncing and blushing be enough come race day? Only time will tell.