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Cross County Skiing: The Best Off-Season Cross-Training for Triathletes

xc-skiing endurance training

In the winter of 2012, I took-up cross country (skate) skiing. As a northern Michigan triathlete who’s accustomed to long winters, I had a good feeling that experimenting with skate skiing would evolve into something special.

Sure enough, I discovered a new addiction and hobby for the cold season. Beyond offering an incredible cardio workout, cross country skiing involves a series of graceful and synchronous  movements that utilize similar muscles in swimming, biking, and running.

Cross country skate skiing was both technical and engaging, yet just as liberating as opening up in the aero position on the bike. I quickly learned that cross country skate skiing offers an ideal outlet for off-season triathlon training.

Below I share a few reasons why any open-minded triathlete (with exposure to the snow) should add skate skiing to their off-season training routine.


xc-skiing triathlon endurance training

Don’t Just Maintain Your Endurance. Build It.

Your body requires a lot of oxygen to sufficiently sustain the various muscles being activating while cross country skiing – especially if you’re using a skate technique or incorporating hills and elevation. With proper technique, your legs, abdominals, hips, back, and arm muscles are all being taxed. To sum it up – you can reach your zone 5 heart rate rather easily with the help of an incline and a burst of effort.

Almost all of my ski/cycling friends will attest: when it’s time to get back on the bike in Spring, strength and endurance levels are prime after a solid season of cross country skiing.


Improve Strength & From for Swimming, Biking, & Running

There are numerous muscles that are used for Nordic and skate skiing that are primary for swimming, biking, and running.

  • Swimming – A significant amount of power and burst in cross country skiing derives from the back and core muscles. The deltoids (shoulder,) latissimus dorsi, and trapezius (back) are primary muscle groups that are used for swimming as well as skate skiing.
  • Biking – Throughout the skating motion, you’re using several primary muscle groups for cycling. These include the transverse abdominis and iliopsoas (inner core,) gluteus maximus (butt,) adductor, and inner thigh muscles (legs.) These muscles are the powerhouse to becoming a stronger triathlete. For me personally, my cycling endurance and power-output gains during the off-season were attributable to logging about 50-70K a week (and a lot of hills) in 3-4 sessions.
  • Running – In addition to your powerhouse muslce groups above, you can also strengthen the running muscles while cross country skiing. These include the hamstrings, calves, and stabilizer muscles (especially around your ankles, knees, and hips – which is ideal for injury prevention.)


Restore Sanity & Embrace the Cold Season

nordic xc skiing for triathlonA wise friend once asked me during a conversation about indoor cycling training:

“Trainer? Why are you on a trainer when you have skate skis?” 

His words didn’t fully sink-in until I learned proper technique and really got after it. Cross country skiing can truly replace your trainer with trails, without too much sacrifice in terms of tri-specific training benefits.

Additionally, cross country skiing can restore your mental health and well-being, in addition to the physical benefits of working new muscle groups and minimizing impact on your knees and joints.

Although I’ve been a long-time snowboarder, cross country skiing gives me a newfound excitement for the cold season. The sensation of achievement and physical expenditure after conquering 25K of hilly trail is reminiscent of a solid brick session off the bike.

Not only that but the views are breathtaking.

xc-skiing multisport endurance training

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Head of Content at Better Triathlete | Website

Endurance athlete, professional off-road cyclist, and avid blogger, Tyler Tafelsky participates in long-course multisport and cycling events. Today, Tyler competes in ultra-distance cycling races at the professional level. Since starting Better Triathlete in 2014, he has been the head of content for the site's editorial team. Learn more about Tyler