Learning from Other Sports: CC Skiing:

If you’ve been watching the Olympics at all, and since you are reading this blog and presumably have an interest in training, I bet the question of “I wonder how they train” has crossed your mind. It certainly has mine. To help scratch this interest, I’m going to start a regular feature here on the blog entitled: Learning from other Sports.

My plan is to look at other sports and see what they do better or worse than us runners to see if maybe we can learn anything from them. I’ve always tried to look outside the box when looking at training so I have a good background of how other sports train. In no way am I an expert on the other sports, so if any of you readers want to chime in and through your two cents in, feel free. Also, if you are reading this blog and are an expert in some other sport that might not be mainstream feel free to e-mail me and I’d love to have some guest posts.

What qualifies me to write such posts? I assure you that each post on other sports training will be well researched. I feel relatively comfortable with the sports I will cover because I have read at least a book or two on training plus many more research articles on each. My initial plan will be to cover sports such as swimming, rowing, weight lifting, baseball, Cross Country skiing, cycling and a few others. Beyond that, I might be out of my comfort zone a bit. I hope you enjoy this new feature. This won’t be a one after another feature, but rather spread out between other posts. Without further ado, What we can learn from CC skiing:

CC skiing

If you’ve watched the Olympics, you quickly notice how intense the CC skiing is. It’s an incredibly demanding event requiring both incredible endurance and power endurance. In particular the sprint events remind me of the middle distance events on the track, except they have to race 3 times during the day before the final!

We’ve all probably heard of how CC skiers have the highest VO2max values, but who cares about that, VO2max is overrated, how do they actually train to compete in such grueling competitions?


Not surprisingly, CC skiers perform massive volumes of work. The average world class CC skier does 700-800hrs of training per year. For a point of comparison, world-class marathoner Ingrid Kristiansen did around 550 hrs per year of training (Seiler & Tonnesson, 2009). You’ll notice in almost every endurance sport, high volumes of training are a must. This goes against the common physiologist view that high volumes of training are overrated.

For sprint CC skiers, the volume is slightly lower but still high. As I said earlier sprint CC skiing can be thought of as comparable to middle distance running as they are similar in energetic demands. Sprint CC skiers generally do 600-650hrs per year of training.


Thankfully there is a lot of data out there on the training distribution of their training. Not surprisingly, it seems very similar to runners.

XC Skiers -1  XC skiers-2     Moses Mosop     Kenyan runners
Low intensity         71%          83%                  80%                      80%
Medium                    7%             7%                 11%                       10%
High Intensity        22%         4.6%                   9%                       10%

The training comparison isn’t exact because all of the athletes are training for slightly different events, but the interesting thing to note is that despite the differences in total volume, the training distribution is pretty similar among all groups. One group of XC skiers did slightly more high-intensity work. My guess is that they can handle slightly higher volumes of training work at that intensity due to the nature of the sport. Running at high intensities seems like it may require longer recovery than for other sports. This is likely due to the impact factor and the fact that running requires a lot of eccentric work.

Not surprisingly, the specifics of XC skier’s workouts look very similar to runners. A couple interesting points I saw were that the coach of U.S. Olympian Kikkan Randall focused their periodization on not just a season to season or year to year approach but looking long term to the Olympics. In addition, they made two crucial points which runners should take note of:

-work on all fibers year round.

-Increase specificity of training as the athlete develops.

Lastly, the Sprint XC skiers switched from a traditional VO2/LT/etc. classification of training to a velocity based system. Most of the time you see that the “minor” sports tend to focus more on traditional physiological variables, while sports with more participation such as running or swimming might also use speed or velocity based classification systems. Just my opinion, but I think a velocity based system makes a lot more sense.

World Class vs. National Class

The difference between world class and national class skiers is another topic that’s been investigated that might be of interest to other sports training. In particular, it was found that world-class skiers spent about 100 hours more training per 6 months, and of that, the world-class skiers spent more time skiing easy, medium, and pure speed work, while national class skiers spent more time doing high-intensity work. In fact, despite doing 100hrs less work during the period of time, they did the same total amount of training in the high-intensity category.

Additionally, the lactate dynamics were slightly different. Following a short, all out bout of exercise, peak lactate values were very similar, but the world-class athlete’s lactate recovery was significantly faster than the national class athletes. This shows that the world-class athletes most likely had a better ability to take up and use lactate, or in other words there lactate shuttle mechanisms were working better.

Organizational Approach:

The Norwegian approach featured some interesting organization approaches. First, they seem to integrate the coach, athlete, and sports scientist much better than most. In addition, their sports system is set up to provide coaches for the coach too.
The sports science work seems like they do work that is more practical and beneficial to the athletes, instead of being bogged down in the physiology. Or instance, Stephen Seiler, one of the top researchers who does a lot of work with CC skiers, has stated the following:
“Observing the training methods of the world’s best endurance athletes represent a more valid picture of “best practice” than we can develop from short-term laboratory studies of untrained or moderately trained subjects.”
“ Training ideas that sound good but don’t work in practice will fade away. Given these conditions, we argue that any consistent pattern of training intensity distribution emerging across sports disciplines is likely to be a result of a successful self-organization (evolution) towards a “population optimum.” High-performance training is an individualized process for sure, but by population optimum, we mean an approach to training organization that results in most athletes staying healthy, making good progress, and performing well in their most important events. “
These words are the opposite of what you’ll hear from a lot of research-based physiologists who continue to fall in love with the high-intensity training model.

Skiing has an interesting development program. If you look at several different models (U.S., Norway, Sweden) they all seem to have a long-term plan in place of how to train athletes from their young developing years to the top level.

Another interesting thing is the development of U.S. Ski schools for High Schoolers. Basically, it’s a HS built for top CC skiers. It allows skiers to get their HS work in and train at a pretty high level. While it may seem extreme from the running perspective it’s a pretty intriguing idea. You have a top-notch coach take the athletes from the junior levels to as high as they are going to go. Or at least you have a top-notch coach shape an athlete during his formative years.

The top HS junior athletes also put in a large volume of training. One group mentioned that their 17yr old skier’s spent 550hrs per year of training.

Takeaway message:
Not surprisingly, XC skiers focus heavily on aerobic development.  However, there training does not just consist of long steady training.  As pointed out by Kikkan Randall’s coaches and what can be seen from other presentations, the focus is on keeping in touch with many different intensities.  If you look at the training that the best Norwegian CC skiers do, yes they spend a lot of time at easy intensities, but they also spend significant time at moderate, high intensity, speed training, and strength training.  Creating a nice diverse amount of training that seems to hit all the muscle fibers and all the energy systems.

Secondly, I think we could learn a lot from the long-term development plan that skiers tend to take.  Also, the integration of sports science and training would be nice in running.  It seems like the sports scientists know their role is to assist athletes and coaches, not to tell them how to do their job.  Reading through many articles, you didn’t see researchers making comments on how the skiers should switch to high-intensity training, instead, it was quiet the opposite.  Of course, there were a few who stuck with the typical sports scientist decree of all High intensity, all day, but at least to me, it seemed like there was less of that then with runners.

Get My New Guide on: The Science of Creating Workouts


    1. Marcos Apene do Amaral-TriPhiloSophia on February 25, 2010 at 2:25 am

      Good points! Cheers, Marcos

    2. EFESOR on February 25, 2010 at 8:05 am

      really interesting article, thanks for sharing these ideas!
      taking notes!

    3. Ben on February 25, 2010 at 11:04 pm

      good read!
      how about an article comparing speed skating (long and short track) w/ running? that'd be interesting cuz they're totally different planes of movement

    4. Anonymous on February 26, 2010 at 3:25 am

      Hey steve could you do an article maybe in the future of summer training for cross country kids in high school. It would be cool to see a plan or how much of each sort of training someone should do


    5. Eric Richey on February 26, 2010 at 3:10 pm

      FYI – Steve has posted extensive information regarding his philosophy on HS cross country training.

      Look here:

    6. Anonymous on February 26, 2010 at 11:40 pm

      Great information. Keep it up.Thanks.

    7. Anonymous on May 11, 2010 at 5:21 pm


      I am interested in reading more about ski training. I have been trying to dig up articles online about it and am having no luck. I am particularly interested in Randall's coach, Erik Flora. There is a lot of information online about him, but few publications by him or training articles mentioning him. Any guidance would be appreciated. Really am enjoying the different perspective. Man those guys train hard.

    8. Kiersten on October 31, 2011 at 3:05 am

      Very interesting. My sister is a Nordic skier and the conditioning she developed in the sport allowed her to also do very well in running. How about focusing on gymnastics for one of these? I'm a runner turned gymnast and although many people don't see a comparison between the sports I do. Both sports require a high level of personal motivation, dedication and strength.

    9. Anonymous on December 19, 2012 at 2:48 pm

      Former US Track olympian Libbie Hickman did a LOT of her winter training on CC skis. The aerobic base transferred over to running in the spring, and she never got injured. Must have worked, she ran 15:08 I think.

    10. Richard C. Lambert on August 5, 2015 at 10:06 am

      Article comparing speed skating (long and short track) w/ running? that'd be interesting cuz they're totally different planes of movement. Deflategate

    11. Mani on May 11, 2017 at 3:28 am

      Interesting article, always great to see an exchange of learning between sports! It’s interesting to see also what has happened in cc training over the years since this was posted.

      Looking at least on the trend among Scandinavian skiers, the volume figures are if anything a bit higher today among the top athletes (especially on the sprint side), primarily through an increase in low intensity work. Important also to note that the stated figures probably are volume of aerobic training; strength work would be in addition to this.

      A velocity based system to describe intensity has not developed to become the norm, at least not internationally. I’d say this is not due to a lack of seeing its potential value but more due to practical aspects of the sport. Different snow conditions have huge impact on race/training speeds, so it’s difficult to compare velocities from one day to the next. Also, a majority of training during the year is done on dry land, i.e. more or less as cross training. Roller skiing (with different resistance wheels to give different types of stimulus) and running make up a majority of annual volume for most skiers (of course depending on where they’re based geographically).

      An interesting aspect of the sport is that everyone races the two main techniques, classic and free style (skating). It makes the event more complex from a motor perspective, but also physiologically. Looking for example at the the leg work in the diagonal stride (part of classic technique) it’s quite similar to running with a short period of time in each movement cycle where the leg can apply propulsive force to the snow. In skating on the other hand this period is much longer, and the work in terms of time to apply force is more similar to ice skating and maybe cycling. The rise of the skating technique, starting in earnest in the 80s, coupled with an increased relience of upper body work/double poling in the classic technique, might be one reason why the average elite skier is not quite as fast a runner as they were some years ago?

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