Turning Winter into Spring Training

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside Magazine, February 1995

Turning Winter into Spring Training

Forget about waiting for the thaw. There's a foot of fresh resistance out there.
By Mark Jannot

Ray Browning takes the same approach to winter training as every other world-class triathlete: He heads outside most mornings to work on his strength. Or his stamina. Or his technique. But unlike his colleagues who winter-train in warmer climes, Browning seldom reaches for his running shoes or his road bike. Instead, he stays home to navigate the slush in Nederland, Colorado.

So Browning prepares for the three-sport season by working out on snowshoes and skis. Three years ago, he worked the local Mountain Man Winter Triathlon (25 kilometers of cross-country skiing, 15 kilometers of snowshoeing, and 20 kilometers of speed skating) into his winter schedule and emerged fit for the spring and summer. "I came out of that race with an excellent foundation and had one of my better campaigns ever," he says. "I was second in three ironman-distance races and finished in the top ten in Hawaii."

Even if an all-day sufferfest in Kona isn't your ultimate goal, Browning's approach has merit: One of the best ways to prepare for warm-weather sports is to make up a regimen using the cold-weather ones -- nordic skiing, alpine skiing, and snowshoeing. The positive effects don't come just from the snow's resistance against your muscles; your body and psyche also get a break from the rigors of your primary sports. Call winter the season of cross-training.

Also call it the season to do your fitness homework. For those of us who are reluctant to get out in the cold -- but don't, like many of Browning's peers, have the freedom to fly south for the winter -- remember that it takes at least 12 weeks to adequately prepare for a marathon, century, or standard-distance mountain-bike race or triathlon. Pull the calendar off the wall and count back the weeks from that springtime event. If you're going to survive the thing, you have to start training now -- in the white stuff.

Choose a Method for the Medium
There isn't a whole lot of science behind snow's exercise benefits: "You could basically encounter the same challenge if you threw three feet of Styrofoam peanuts on the floor and started working out," says Andrew Young, an environmental physiologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. "Snow simply makes it harder to move your limbs, and that increases the work."

Of course, adds Young, you can control the resistance of your workout by deciding how you're going to slog through the snow. "Cross-country skiing is going to be less demanding than snowshoeing," he says, "which is going to be less demanding than simply postholing -- stepping through the deep snow in a pair of boots." That doesn't mean you can't get good exercise while gliding. Downhill skiing, with its high speeds and big bumps, helps build explosive power (see "No Time (and Temperature) Like the Present"), and skating on cross-country skis offers one of the best full-body endurance workouts around.

"That's because you're recruiting more muscles in cross-country skiing than in almost any other sport," says Steve Johnson, director of sports science for the U.S. Ski Team. In fact, competitive nordic skiers are known to have the highest VO2 max -- the measure of the body's ability to take in and use oxygen -- of any group of elite athletes. "For a top cyclist, such a figure would be in the mid to upper seventies," says Johnson. "For a cross-country skier at the same level, who's employing both his upper and lower body, it's probably 80 to 85."

Diversify for Your Health
Perhaps even better than the exercise that winter sports offer is the fact that they take you out of a one-sport rut. "A lot of people dig themselves a huge hole by doing the same thing much of the year," says Johnson. "It gets boring. And you get so efficient at that mode of exercise that the parts of your body that have auxiliary roles don't get stressed enough and start to deteriorate."

Those "auxiliary roles" are usually things you ask your body to do every time you're not doing your sport. For instance, a hard-core cyclist may have powerful legs, but those muscles are developed to shorten -- not lengthen, as they do when you run. "Take him out on a five-mile hike," says Johnson, "and he can't even get out of a chair the next day." Downhill skiing relies heavily on lengthening, or eccentric, leg movements and is therefore a perfect complement to cycling.

There are other valid reasons to mix things up now. Inflexible knees, hips, and ankles -- often a problem for runners, who consistently call on a limited range of motion -- are more susceptible to sprains. A solution: the high-stepping demands of snowshoeing. Underdeveloped medial quads (and overdeveloped outer ones), which cause knee pain for many hikers, runners, and cyclists, can be cured with groin-taxing skate-skiing. And working your upper body when your sport of choice is lower-body oriented can even help you develop a greater tolerance for lactic acid, that by-product of anaerobic exercise that can prevent working muscles from working. "The muscles you're not using in your sport function like lactate sinks," says Johnson. "If you're a cyclist and you do a lot of cross-country skiing, you'll train your upper body to pull lactic acid out of your blood. Get back on the bike and your legs can go harder and faster and longer."

Concentrate on the Long and the Slow
Browning recommends that, in winter, athletes spend about three times as much time on snow as they do on dry land. A good 50 to 70 percent of that training time should be spent going long (for at least an hour) and easy (at a clip at which you can hold a conversation), especially if you're preparing for an endurance event. The rest of your time can be spent doing short stretches of intensity work and the occasional foray into your summer sport, just to stay sharp.

According to Browning, you won't get too lonely in the back hills -- he says his winter cross-training gospel is catching on even with the snowbird triathletes. "Every year, more and more of these folks are commenting to me, 'I've got to try skiing' and 'Where do I get snowshoes?'" he says. "And all the while I've been out there saying, 'I can't wait until it snows again.'"

Mark Jannot wrote about tiredness in the October issue.

Filed To: Snow Sports

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