Training program for cross-country skiing: Become a better skier

Read Hans Christer Holund and Petter Skinstad’s training program if you want to train four to five times a week, and aim to do a competition this winter.

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Guests: Through the Skisporet podcast, we have received guidance from two of the most enthusiastic skiers out there, Hans Christer Holund and Petter Skinstad, to set up a training program for recreational skiers who want to ski faster this winter. Listen to the full training discussion in the episode available on Apple podcast, Spotify and Youtube.

Hans Christer Holund is one of the world’s best long-distance cross-country skiers. He won World Cup gold at femmila, among other wins. During the autumn, he puts in some crazy training weeks. At the time of writing, we can see that he has logged over 500 km on roller skis – in just one week. This is an average of 7.1 kilometers a day. Petter Skinstad, on the other hand, is a skier who prefers long-distance skiing. This has evolved into a ski run where you pole the whole distance on shiny skis. This places completely different demands on strength and physique compared to traditional cross-country skiing in the World Cup, which Holund competes in.

What can we as recreational athletes learn from these two training geeks? Well, we wanted to take the best of both worlds and put it together to create a training program that you can follow in the lead up to Birken, Vasaloppet, Skarverennet or other ski races that tyou're planning to enter.

Training program for the ski season

We recommend that you listen to the entire episode of the Skisporet podcast for the full insight into what Holund and Skinstad put into their various sessions. They believe this is the “perfect” build-up training week for those who train 4–5 times a week:

Monday: Rest to recover after the weekend’s long sessions.
Tuesday: Light session. Such as on a ski machine or treadmill.
Wednesday: Key session: Intervals. Running on a treadmill elghufs (moose trot) or ski machine.
Thursday: Rest
Friday: Light training. Feel free to do some strength training on this day, but don't lift so heavy that you get stiff for the weekend’s important long sessions.
Saturday: Key session: Long hard session.*
Sunday: Key session: Long easy session.*

*Optimally you get two long weekend sessions, but obviously you don't do this every weekend. Holund suggests prioritizing your hard session if you have to choose between that and the other runs in a weekend.

This training program is designed to give you the best possible preparation for your key sessions, intervals on Wednesdays and long weekend sessions. On the other days, it’s important that you focus on your workout and keep your body moving but without sacrificing your resources that you need for the so-called key sessions.

Intensity of the intervals

You can run intervals on a treadmill or ski machine (Skierg). See our suggestions for sessions further on in the article. First, we have an important question to ask the World Champion in cross-country skiing:

How hard should you train in your interval sessions? Should you go all out or stay controlled and avoid reaching peak heart rate?
"The amount of time you spend in the cardio zone is more important than how fast your heart rate is. I’d rather have you running at a slightly lower intensity that lasts for six minutes, than have you giving your all in a four-minute run. So the answer is that you need to control it," says Holund.

So why does Holund recommend interval training without going at your maximum pace?
"You might feel like you've trained more if you're really tired and feel the lactic acid burning, but the training effect is just as good if, during the intervals, you lower your heart rate a couple of beats. Ideally, you should be able to walk off the treadmill feeling that you have more to give. I like to say that it should be comfortably hard. You should be breathing heavily, but not be out of breath. I never train in zone 5, which is close to peak heart rate.

How steep should the treadmill be? On social media, professional skiers tend to have a 10% incline when they run intervals.
I would recommend a recreational skier to run on a 5–6% incline. If you've set the incline too steeply without having trained for it, your muscles will stiffen before you get your heart rate sufficiently up. Then you'll lose a lot of the interval effect, where the goal is to train your heart.

Holund has a good reason for why you don't want your muscles to become stiff during exercise, if the goal is to ski in winter. "You want to go skiing as soon as possible without burning acid or your body becoming stiff. If you always train at acid burning intensity during intervals, you're training something that you won't need this winter.

The same also applies if you are going to do intervals on a ski machine: You need to avoid your muscles becoming stiff.
If you notice that the intensity drops towards the end of the interval, you probably started off too hard. Then start the next interval at a slower pace. The resistance of the ski machine also helps to control the intensity. Do not set your resistance so high that you don't get your heart rate up. Many skiers put it somewhere between five and seven.

Intervals for treadmills, ski machines and outdoor training

6x6 intervals on a treadmill
Set the treadmill at a 5-6% incline and run an intervals of six minutes. Repeat a total of six times with a two- minute break between each interval.

Intervals on a ski machine
10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 min.
The first interval lasts for ten minutes, the next one for nine minutes, the next eight minutes, and then proceed all the way to the final interval, which is “only” one minute. Pause for 60–90 seconds.

Elghufs
Elghufs are intervals where you run on steep uphill slopes with poles. Here too, you can run 6x6 minutes. Read more about elghufs in this article.

Rollerskiing
6x6 or 6x8min where you are poling on roller skis. Preferably on a long uphill slope.

Hans Christer Holund stresses that it is not what activity you do that matters most, but that you reach a high heart rate during the interval. Swim, use a rowing machine, run in thick mud or do any other form of exercise that will help keep your heart rate at 90% of its max.

Long-distance roller skiing

It's the weekend, you’ve got time off and are going on a long ski run. Ideally both days if you have the time and opportunity to do so, but the most important thing is to have at least one ski run of up to three hours. These should be on roller skis if the aim is to train for the winter.

Long, easy ski run

Roller skis are the most ski-like form of training you can do, and probably the activity that will best prepare you for the forthcoming ski season. This long session should be easy and preferably last for 2–3 hours. Intensity: Talking pace.

Hard long session

According to Holund and Skinstad, this is the most important session in the program. A hard session should last 2–3 hours, starting slowly and gradually speeding up. Feel free to finish it off by giving your all as though you’re doing Vasaloppet. “Remember that you’re training for what you’re going to be good at, and it’s the hard run that most resembles the ski race you’re going to do,” says Holund.

Strength training for skiers

Hans Christer Holund makes a surprise revelation when it comes to his own strength training. Click here to listen to him talk about this in the podcast.

For recreational and keen skiers, he and Petter Skinstad recommend focusing on strength training that only involves your own body growth, and that you focus on core training. You need to be able to ski well technically, maintaining a strong and stable position during thousands of pole strokes for several hours. For Petter Skinstad, who poles for miles on shiny skis, you need to be strong in everything from your wrists and elbows to your back, abs and hips. He emphasizes that regularly ski-specific strength training needn't be overly complicated.

Different versions of sit-ups, hip thrusts, planks, body lifts and dips are good, simple exercises that make you better prepared for winter skiing. 

How heavy should you lift? According to Holund and Skinstad, this depends on how strong you are already. If you are light and weak, they recommend adding a little extra weight. If you’re already big and strong, it’s enough to just exercise with your own body weight.

Also, remember to avoid this common mistake that several recreational skiers make: "Many skiers strength train in spring, summer and autumn, but stop in winter. This is the opposite of what you should do, because you want to be as strong as possible during the winter. You should therefore remember to get some strength training in between ski sessions," says Holund, who keeps his strength training to 5–10 minutes a day on his abs and back throughout the winter.

Both agree that strength training should not come at the expense of the key sessions in the program.

Snow Training

You’ve been training well in autumn with weekly interval sessions, but now you want to take the time to enjoy some nice, easy skiing. Should you swap these out so that you continue focusing on intervals or can you do a few easy sessions where you just focus on your skiing? Hans Christer Holund believes that you can easily benefit from the latter if your goal is speed in Birken or Vasaloppet in March. "I think your body will benefit from a period of up to a month in December or January, when you take a break from intervals and focus on long, easy skiing. Occasionally, you can do add in a tougher cross-country skiing session," he says.

In the weeks leading up to the competition, he recommends that you sharpen your fitness as follows: "Hopefully, you'll get plenty of distance in with your long ski sessions in December and January. In the three weeks leading up to the competition, reduce the distance and increase the intensity of some of the sessions. This means that you step up the interval training again. This is a safe and secure recipe for getting into shape, and something that will work for most people," says Hans Christer Holund in the podcast.

Summary: How to be optimally prepared for the ski season

  • Use autumn to train hard with intervals and long ski sessions. Focus on being the best you can be in these sessions.
  • Vary between roller skiing, running and ski machines in the autumn. Roller skis are the most important form of training.
  • Add in some light strength training, focusing on the muscles you use when skiing.
  • Prioritize getting as many miles in as possible on your skis in December and January.
  • In the last few weeks before the competition, taper the distance and increase the intensity of the sessions.

Listen to the full episode with Hans Christer Holund and Petter Skinstad in the Skisporet podcast. Happy training.