A cross country skier in a blue jacket makes his way down a beautiful snow-covered trail.

How to Train for Cross Country Skiing

A top cross country skiing coach breaks down the best exercises to get in shape for cross country skiing
Cross country skiing is a fantastic winter activity that lets you enjoy beautiful scenery while getting an excellent full-body workout. And while it requires some degree of strength and fitness, there are ways to start training off the trails before the winter season even starts.

To get some tips on how to get in shape for your cross country skiing adventures, we reached out to Emma Garrard, cross country director at Park City Ski & Snowboard, who says the best training for cross country skiing is to actually go cross country skiing. But if you’re looking to get a jump-start on the season, there are some things you can do to help prepare. The main thing is to be in good shape overall.

“With our top-level athletes, the majority of what they're doing is long and slow, easy distance, and then they're also going into the gym two or three times a week,” she says.

It’s also important to have a balanced diet and make sure you're fueling yourself well for your exercise and hydrating, she notes. This is especially important for longer workouts. “You’ll train better if you feel well, and you’ll see those improvements.”

Garrard shared with us her list of recommendations for the best exercises for cross country skiing.
A cross country skier can be seen in the distance next to a snow-covered field on a sunny day.

Skate versus classic style skiing

Before getting into specific cross country skiing workouts, Garrard says it’s helpful to first understand the two types of cross country skiing: classic and skate. The training is basically the same, but it’s useful to know the distinctions when deciding which style to start with.

  • Classic skiing: This is the traditional style that you’re likely to imagine when you think of cross country skiing. The motions look more like walking, and it's what Garrard says she’d recommend beginners start with. “It's a little bit easier to balance and get the feel for the skis,” she says. “Then, as you get more comfortable and the technique is a little bit more intuitive, you can learn how to skate ski.”
  • Skate skiing: This style of skiing has become popular in recent years. It involves more of a lateral motion that resembles ice skating, where a skier pushes off on alternating skis over a packed-down snow trail.
Both techniques employ poles that allow the upper body to aid in the propulsion.

“You're going to move faster on skate skis and it’s harder to control your effort, especially for those who are newer to cross country skiing,” she says. “A lot of people new to the sport are eager to get into skate skiing right away, but I recommend the classic style first until you're comfortable gliding on one leg.”
“When you're talking about that long-distance cross country skiing fitness, you're talking about being able to keep your lungs up for long periods of time.”
Emma Garrard,  Cross Country Ski Director

Exercises for cross country skiing

Now that you're more familiar with the different styles of cross country skiing, let’s discuss specific exercises. Garrard recommends focusing on six main areas of training:

  1. Easy distance cardio
  2. High intensity interval training (HIIT)
  3. Balance and mobility
  4. Upper body strength
  5. Lower body strength
  6. Technique
Below, we’ve summarized why each of these are important for cross country skiing, and offered a few of her favorites in each category.

1. Easy distance cardio

Cardio is key when it comes to cross country skiing, Garrard explains, and easy distance cardio, or Zone One, is important for getting prepared. In this type of easy distance training, your heart rate should be about 50% to 60% of your maximum. Activities like hiking, running, or cycling for more than an hour at a time are ideal ways to achieve this and prep your body for extended workouts on the trails.

“When you're talking about that long-distance cross country skiing fitness, you're talking about being able to keep your lungs up for long periods of time,” Garrard says. “Eighty percent of what you're doing is Zone One training. You need to build up your endurance and get comfortable going at an easy pace.”

Here are a few that she likes best:

Trail running
Trail running is great training for cross country skiing not only because it offers that long-distance cardio you need, but also helps with the strength and balance necessary for traversing snow-covered trails. On top of that, it mimics some of the movements. “There are similarities between trail running and the classic cross country ski technique,” Garrard says. “Your weight is on one foot at a time and then it's on the other foot, and you move the opposite arm, opposite leg. I prefer trail running [over road running] because it's undulating too. If you're cross country skiing, you're going to be encountering some hills. Plus, it's accessible. You can do it anywhere. Even just running for 20 minutes is great.”

Swimming is another great workout for cross country long-distance training. It builds endurance with low impact. And most swimming motions require upper body and core strength, both of which are important for cross country skiing.

“Swimming is pretty good too because there’s a lot of upper body. You use many of the same muscles—it’s a lot of lats and things like that,” Garrard says.

Mountain Biking
If you’re fit enough to pedal up a rocky trail on a mountain bike, it's likely that you have enough stamina to cross country ski this winter. It is great training, and in addition to the cardio, mountain biking hones your legs for skating and gliding.

“Riding a bike is an easy way to get two hours of endurance training, and it's great long-distance cardio,” Garrard says.

2. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

As important as long-distance cardio training is, shorter HIIT-style workouts are also valuable for your exercise routine and should make up the other 20% of your training. A HIIT workout entails shorter bursts of energy and effort that push your body beyond the Zone One workout, expanding your lung capacity and increasing endurance and strength.

“Cross country skiing is challenging,” Garrard says. “You’re climbing hills and your heart rate is going to go up. That’s where interval training will help you.”

“That said, you have to mix it up,” she adds. “If you're a hundred-mile person and you're always going at an easy, steady pace, it would be beneficial for you to do some easy distance training. The same goes if you’re a shorter-distance runner—in that case, it's beneficial to do those longer paces. It comes back to what I said about being a well-rounded athlete.”

Garrard recommends the following for exercises:

Hill repeats
Repeatedly running up and down a hill is an excellent way to build both your cardiovascular capactity and strength level.

“Hill repeats are great because, in addition to cardio, they build up some of that lower body strength you need. You’re feeling that burn in your legs. You can even do it with poles. Run up the hill 10 times, sprinting up and walking/recovering on the downhill,” she says.

Burpees are simple yet effective. You drop down, do a push-up, then pop back up to repeat the process all over again. They can be done anywhere, and are core exercises that help build cardio and upper body strength, both of which are key for cross country skiing. “Burpees are a great way to train,” she says.

Skate jumps
This exercise involves a lateral side-to-side jumping movement that mimics the skate skiing style. Garrard recommends five repetitions of jumping side-to-side for 30 seconds. It’s a great workout for cross country ski training because, on top of the easy distance training, it improves your balance too.

“You’re balancing on one leg, jumping off it onto the other leg. That helps with the classic technique. You're essentially being explosive off of one ski onto the other,” Garrard says.
A man trains for cross country skiing in the winter by doing stretches in a snow-covered park.

3. Balance and mobility

Balance and mobility are the cornerstones of cross country skiing. Unlike many sports, when you’re cross country skiing you’re in a constant state of motion that’s keeping you off balance while moving forward. Your body is continually transitioning as you propel yourself forward down the trail. Mastering this part of your fitness is integral to the sport.

“Very fit people that try cross country skiing—even those who are already good downhill skiers—are caught off guard by the amount of balance needed for cross country,” says Garrard. “In cross country skiing, all of your weight is on one ski at a time and you're gliding on it. If you're not comfortable standing on one leg on top of something that's moving, you're not going to be very efficient.”

There are among her favorites:

BOSU ball exercises
Garrard notes that a BOSU ball is a wonderful tool to incorporate into your workout routine when trainng for cross country skiing. Most of the exercises offer the double benefit of strengthening your core while also honing your balance.

A BOSU ball can be incorporated into almost any exercise, including squats, push-ups, and burpees. Lateral BOSU ball step-ups make a great choice—simply step up onto the ball from the side with one foot, then bring the other foot up and balance before stepping off the other side of the ball. Repeat the exercise in the other direction.

Yoga is all about balance and strength, and any type of yoga will be helpful for cross country skiing. Garrard suggests single-leg poses such as the pigeon, dancer, tree, and pistol squat, to help build that one-footed strength and balance. The powerful plank position with lateral movement is also a great exercise for core conditioning, while the more relaxing yoga moves help strengthen breathing, posture, and flexibility.

Hip openers
The hips and hip flexors get a continuous workout during cross country skiing, so exercises that open up the hips are very helpful to do before hitting the trail. “You want to have a good stride, so you need flexibility in your hips and hip flexors. People spend so much time sitting in cars and at desks where you tend to tighten up your hip flexors. The more you can do to stretch that out, the better off you’ll be when you're out there,” Garrard says.

Some common hip-opening stretches and exercises you can incorporate into your workout include leg lifts, bridge pose, happy baby pose, pigeon pose, and butterfly stretch.

4. Upper body strength

Most people think of cross country skiing as a lower body exercise; however, there’s a fair amount of upper body movement required to use the poles that help balance and propel you forward. Having solid upper body and shoulder strength will help you be a better cross country skier.

“A lot of the power in cross country skiing comes from your upper body. You’re using your poles to give you momentum on the snow, pushing off of them, and then gliding on your ski. So you should be doing upper body strength training, and a lot of core too.”

Garrard likes these ones:

Hiking with poles
For a solid cross country ski training plan, one of the easiest ways to build up some upper body strength is to simply hike with poles. This motion is comparable to what you’ll be doing in the winter on snow, and hiking with poles in the summer or fall gets the body accustomed to that movement.

“I do a lot of hiking with poles in the mountains with my team. When you’re using trekking poles, you utilize your upper body a little more and you're emulating what you're doing when you're cross country skiing. Pushing off your poles like you would in classic skiing,” she says.

Push-ups and pull-ups
The classic bodyweight exercise of push-ups and pull-ups is simple but effective. You can do these almost anywhere—at home, in your backyard, or at a park. For pull-ups, just find a sturdy bar to pull yourself up on. You can modify either exercise by dropping to your knees or using a band to make them a bit easier.

Other simple upper body exercises work great too. Anything you can do to increase strength in biceps, triceps, forearms, deltoids, and pectoral muscles is helpful for cross country skiing.

Core strength is necessary for cross country skiing because it’s where all of your power and balance originates and fires the rest of your body forward. A plank is a great way to build core strength. By holding your back and body up with your elbows and toes you build abdominal muscles, glutes, quads, hamstrings, ankles, and even biceps.

5. Lower body strength

It’s no surprise that lower body strength is important for cross country skiing. The legs are constantly shifting to move the skis forward in the snow. So as you strength train your lower body, look for exercises that involve putting your weight on one leg to help with balance along with building muscle.

“Anything that's making you comfortable being on one leg at a time,” Garrard says.

Single-leg squats
Garrard suggests a single-leg squat to build leg strength and balance. This is like a normal squat, but you lift one leg off the floor and extend it in front of you while lowering your body with the other leg. Hold it for a few seconds before standing back up and then repeat the process.

Walking lunges
Walking lunges build strength in the lower body while also helping to stretch your glutes and hamstrings. It’s an easy exercise that Garrard recommends for cross country training. Simply propel a leg out in front of you and lower your body down before pushing back up and repeating. You can do it in one location, walking back and forth, or continue walking forward.

Olympic lifts
There are six types of Olympic lifts, all of which involve a weighted barbell: power clean, front squat, squat clean, push jerk, power snatch, and squat snatch. They make great full body exercises that build upper body strength. Just note that these are more advanced exercises that require training for proper execution. Proceed slowly and carefully—and get professional guidance, if needed.
A cross country skier is pictured in front of a beautiful mountain and patch of trees.

6. Technique

Beyond standard exercises that physically train you to be in shape for cross country skiing, it’s also helpful to work on technique when you're not skiing. There are a number of simple techniques to train your body in preparation for hitting the trail.

Here are a few of Garrard’s favorites.

Bounding is exactly what it sounds like—a reflexive movement where you bound repeatedly from foot to foot, quickly building power and speed.

“You're basically doing the exact same body positioning you would on snow but just on foot, and you're working on essentially pushing off your ski,” she says. “You’re not gliding, but you're still doing that motion that mimics how you get from one ski to the other ski.”

Ski trainer machine
Ski trainers, which use overhead arm pulls to simulate the cross country ski movement of propelling yourself forward, offer excellent off-trail training for ski season. They’re frequently referred to as “SkiErgs” after the brand name of the original machine, however, many other versions now exist too.

“I see a lot of these popping up in gyms, and they are great,” Garrard says. “They really mimic that poling motion. If you use them, I would recommend looking at some technique videos for double poling before you start.That’s because they’re intended to help with technique in addition to strength, she explains, and if you don’t already understand the mechanisms of double poling, you won’t be very proficient.

Ice skating
Like cross country skiing, ice skating propels you forward with an off-balance lateral movement as well. Although the movement doesn’t exactly replicate cross country skiing, it will help prepare you to go from ice to snow.

“Not only balance, but there's that lateral gliding motion. And again, you’re balancing on one foot at a time."

Roller skating or rollerblading
Roller skating and rollerblading are both sports that involve similar motions as cross country skiing—they’re like ice skating, but on concrete.There’s also a newer sport known called roller skiing, which employs short cross country skis with wheels attached to your ski boots. And while roller skiing can be good for off-season training too, Garrard doesn't recommend it for beginners.

Downhill skiing
Downhill skiing isn’t a perfect replication of cross country skiing, as there are a number of key differences; however, it can help you get used to maneuvering on skis.

“It’s a great way to get comfortable going faster on skis, especially at the younger age,” Garrard says. “A lot of the top cross country skiers in the U.S. have come from an alpine skiing background. They have a good feel for the snow and they tend to pick up skate skiing particularly well.”

Cross country skis don’t have metal edges and are very skinny, so the turning technique is different, but it’s nevertheless a good way to cross-train.

“Overall, if you're new to the sport I wouldn't get overwhelmed with trying to have the perfect routine,” Garrad explains. “There are so many things you can do that will help you ski in the wintertime. Whatever you do to improve your fitness, your balance, and your strength is going to help you see improvements. The most important thing is to be consistent with what you're doing.”
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