The days are short and it’s cold outside. Most trail runners are tempted to take a break and not run much in the winter months. The temptation is to curl up next to a warm fire and grab a good book, rather than get out the door to work out. However, this strategy doesn’t help the fitness you’ve worked so hard to build. Time to mix it up. Cross-training is the perfect remedy to keep your fitness and recharge while embracing winter. Here are four cross-training activities for when the rain and snow start falling in the Pacific Northwest.
Ski mountaineering (or SkiMo) has gained a lot of popularity over the past few years in the United States. It involves ascending a slope with alpine skis and climbing skins, taking off the skins at the top, clicking in your heels and skiing down. The gear is dependent on the type of skiing you want to pursue. Whether light gear and skinnier skis for racing, or my personal preference — chasing backcountry powder stashes with fatter skis. And, there are more advanced approaches involving strapping the skis to your pack and climbing steeper terrain with ice axe and crampons, mountaineering-style.
SkiMo is a great compliment to off-season training because you’re working hard (usually at altitude) climbing up, and then strengthening your legs on the descents. This activity can be risky and usually requires a partner in out-of-bounds skiing terrain due to risk of avalanche and other unmarked obstacles that go along with the sport. Most ski areas and ski towns offer avalanche safety training, and will show you the ins and outs of how to be safe in the backcountry. You’ll need a partner, beacon, shovel, and probe. And you’ll need to know how to use them. Also, some ski resorts allow you to earn your own turns in certain designated areas within the resort boundaries, and can be a safer option for those not wanting to risk backcountry travel on skis.
Other risks with SkiMo include injury on the downhills since speed, trees, mixed snow conditions and ability level can all add to the variability. Take it easy at first, and err on the side of caution. Also, if you’re venturing off-piste, be sure to take an avalanche course, check avalanche reports, and learn how to safely travel in the backcountry.
Much more accessible than SkiMo, cross-country skiing or “Nordic” skiing has two variations. In classic skiing, you are scissoring your skis in parallel tracks in the snow. Skate skiing involves pushing off the inside edge of the ski to propel yourself forward. I personally recommend starting with classic skiing, as the motion will be a familiar hiking/running motion for runners. Also, it is easy to pick up compared to skating, which is a very technique-specific activity, making it difficult to stay aerobic in your effort.
The downside is cost. Although not quite as expensive as SkiMo, it will still take an initial investment in skis, poles and boots. Clothing is very similar to what you’d wear in the winter for running, with a little more windproof protection needed and maybe a little more layering. Living in Bend, I’ve used Nordic skiing in big snow years where running regularly was more difficult.
Fat Tire Biking
Big, low-pressure tires make fat tire bikes ideal for a solid cross-training workout in the winter. They’re pretty darn stable, and with the resistance of riding in snow, you’ll get a solid workout without having to go too far. The overall pace will be slower than a normal bike, but you can’t really coast in the snow, as the bike will slow down quickly or come to a stop.
Like skiing, the downside is cost, but you can also use this bike year-round or better yet, add bikepacking gear for summer backcountry human-powered camping adventures. Also, fat bikes are ideal for softer surfaces like mud or sand. If using in the winter, gear matters. You’ll need some wind protection as well as warm gloves and footwear. Don’t forget a helmet too. Try ski or snowboard helmets for a little more warmth.
If you have a gym membership, this is probably the easiest cross-training to get into. Variety is the spice of life, and utilizing all the various equipment at a gym can be a great way to mix in solid cross-training in the off-season. Try using multiple aerobic tools to get a workout. For example, ride a stationary bike for 15 minutes, then switch to a elliptical trainer for 15 minutes, followed by a 15-minute stint on a stair climber. Then, add in a quick functional strength routine of pushups, pull-ups, air squats, and planks of 3 sets of 1 minute each for a solid one hour workout. Let creativity and mood dictate what you do and in what order.
Hitting the gym three days per week in the winter can really get you strong and work on muscle imbalances. Don’t forget to give yourself 48 hours between strength workouts for optimal recovery. I recommend sneaking in a couple of easy outside runs with this routine. Then, when spring hits, you’ll be stronger for it.
Get out there and have fun this winter by mixing it up. Or better yet, pick up a new cross-training regimen to get you through those cold, gray winter months. I’m ready for the snowflakes to fall. Powder is calling —giddyup.