How to get fit for cross country skiing, pre-season preparation

Cross country ski fitness

Cross country skiing is an activity enjoyed for many different reasons: the fun and excitement of skiing, the enjoyment of a journey through a beautiful winter landscape, the athletic challenge, the enjoyment of sharing a holiday with active, like-minded people.

In this article I’ll outline how and why we might prepare for cross country skiing. I give links to online resources plus we have arranged an offer on a ski preparation programme for our readers. 

Principles underlying training

As a Nordic ski instructor and Pilates teacher I spend a lot of time watching and thinking about the way people move. I find it fascinating and love that we have so much potential. Here are three principles that I find encouraging: our bodies respond and change according to the demands we put on them (or not) and, given good health, there is no age at which we stop improving our fitness with training. We can also improve our skiing using ‘dryland exercises’. It may even be that an issue is better addressed off our skis, before we start skiing, for example our balance/standing on one leg, more to follow. 

All ski athletes train away from their skis as an essential part of their preparation, so if you do some pre-season prep you'll be in good company and we can use many of the same principles, tailored to our own ski ambitions.

Before we start, if you have any health concerns please discuss them with your GP.

Skiing efficiently feels good and is less effort. So what helps us to ski smoothly, glide along the tracks and enjoy a ski tour? 

The different elements of fitness for cross country skiing

Training is specific: we get better at what we practice ☺ this can help us to understand which activities benefit us, and the intensity we are aiming for. 

Fitness has different components, including: cardio vascular or aerobic fitness, endurance, strength, power, ‘core stability’, balance, flexibility and let’s not forget: skill. There is quite an overlap between these elements so a well thought out programme enables us work on these simultaneously, which is the first bonus.

Let’s consider these elements in relation to cross country skiing:

Cardio vascular – getting out of breath, endurance and fatigue, enjoying skiing with a group, feeling comfortable versus being at your limit much of the time.

Strength – propulsion on our skis (legs and arms), getting up after a tumble, stamina, skiing up and down an incline, coping with different types of snow.

Core stability – the foundation of good ski technique, closely related to balance, reduces the risk of injury and aches and pains e.g. low back pain – if that’s an issue you recognise then working on your core stability with professional guidance from a physiotherapist may help. For example, many APPI Pilates teachers are also Chartered Physiotherapists.

Balance – training proprioception (the sense of knowing where we are in space). Good balance is another fundamental: it allows for effective weight transfer and the ability to be stable on a gliding ski. Good balance also helps us to cope with different snow conditions and changes in speed.

Range of movement – flexibility supports effective technique and reduces the likelihood of injury, remembering that we want to be strong through range and not just bendy.

Skill – learning efficient movement patterns and good ski technique has its own reward: good technique feels really good ☺

OK, so how to go about this preparation?

Aerobic fitness

At Venabu the tours in our weekly guiding programme range from a few kilometres up to about 18 kms, and longer for our offtrack Ski Safaris. Some of this distance we are getting ‘for free’ gliding downhill but mostly we are actively skiing. This gives us a good starting point for our preparation. 

Are we, as a minimum, regularly walking the distance that we plan to ski? Are we just walking on the flat or do we take in some hills too? Do we sometimes walk at a pace where we feel out of breath? 

If we think logically we can see how we might start to prepare for our skiing holiday, and there is an added bonus – regular walking or other aerobic activity has many benefits for our physical and mental health. Even better news: time spent exercising in nature is now recognised to be even more positive, as described in this article from The Woodland Trust.

To improve aerobic endurance, exercising at a level where you are breathing more heavily but able to maintain a conversation is often given as a guide to intensity. More information can be found in the following link: NHS guidance on intensity. 

Strength, core stability and balance  

There are definite overlaps here and we don’t have to go to a gym to improve these elements. Home programmes, classes and exercises using only our body weight can be very effective – such as SkiFit (more below), Pilates and some styles of yoga.

Again if we think about skiing: progressing from a beginner to an intermediate skier and to ski well (classic or skate) requires weight transfer from one ski to the next. We balance on one leg as the ski glides – so, how well can we stand and balance on one leg indoors, on a carpet? If this is a challenge then we can practice and with practice we will get better. If we struggle to stand on one leg then lack of strength may be a factor, happily this is also something we can change with Pilates and/or other forms of exercise. The classic exercise quoted to improve balance is to stand on one leg every time you clean your teeth. We decided to take this a step further and challenge Wenche, you can see what happened in the photo in the gallery to the right, video to appear on Facebook soon (and remember don't try this at home, folks).

Injury prevention and more fun

Being prepared for our holiday and fitter can also reduce the chances of injury, for example, having the stamina to continue skiing with good technique towards the end of your tour.

When we are less tired we have more energy to notice the beautiful landscape, the special winter light and to enjoy the company of others, along with the sense of being on holiday! 

When to start?

In terms of the time scale, we should notice changes after a couple of weeks though it will take longer to make lasting changes. So consistency and staying motivated is important. Choosing aerobic exercise and activities that you enjoy, and therefore do regularly, are likely to have the most lasting benefit.

To improve our fitness whether that’s aerobic, strength or another element we should follow a progressive plan so that, in sensible steps, we do more over time, rather than just repeating the same distance or routine – one cause of reaching a ‘plateau’ and then feeling disheartened with a lack of progress.

A note on injury prevention: sometimes with great enthusiasm people make changes too quickly or in too large increments. They ‘overload’ their body too quickly and get injured. Giving yourself more time to prepare and doing so in a progressive manner will reduce the chances of injury and make for more sustainable lifestyle changes.

Staying motivated and having fun

We can make it social: clubs, dance class, fitness class, meet ups.

Having goals: having some goals to work towards in our plan can help to keep us motivated eg Park Run (walk or run, it’s up to you), a 10k or a longer walk that you’ve always wanted to do. 

Not everyone is goal-orientated. Perhaps getting ready for a ski holiday is a good excuse for exploring places on foot that you’ve intended to visit but never got round to? 

Athletic skiing

If we want to ski more athletically then following a structured, progressive plan with increasing time or distance and including some ‘interval training’ will support that result. If athletic skiing appeals to you it’s likely that you are already participating in sport or regular activity. Modifying your regular programme to be more ski specific in the lead up to your holiday can work wonders and changing a routine (progressively) can bring many cross training benefits.

Working with a personal trainer. I have worked with a couple of different coaches online – following specific programmes towards specific goals. These have been my most effective training periods, when I’ve made the biggest changes and achieved more than I thought I could. These coaches' guidance and motivation got me out of the door in the worst weather or when I was just feeling ‘meh’.

Our Become a Better Skier week combines top level ski coaching with Pilates-based dryland training, an individual action plan to take away and coaching follow up to give an all round package designed to help you become the skier you want to be.

A personal story

Some years ago I had a direct experience of the difference pre-season preparation can make and it made a big impression. This is speaking as a physio and someone who has completed ultramarathons, I know that training works…. I was preparing for my Pilates teaching exam, doing a lot of Pilates, it was also autumn. That winter when I got onto my skis the change was extraordinary. I had the strength and core stability to be way more effective using ski techniques I had learned at a whole different level. Skiing suddenly became even more fun! Now, as I said, this was something I knew but having such a direct, clear experience in relation to skiing was something else. I was a convert, a true believer in pre-season preparation. 


At Venabu we run yoga classes throughout and season and our Pilates classes bring in the movements of cross country skiing to help develop awareness plus there’s lots of stretching to promote recovery.

When I had my ski preparation epiphany I was living in Chamonix, France and had the opportunity to attend SkiFit classes at La Clinique du Sport. This programme is now available online, although aimed primarily at alpine skiers following it will help to prepare you for cross country skiing. We have arranged 20% discount for Venabu guests, to take advantage of this offer follow this link to membership checkout which includes the discount. There are programmes for BikeFit, RunFit and TriFit on there too.

We don’t earn any commission on these links I just mention SkiFit (repeatedly, along with Pilates) because I’m a fan.

If you have any comments or questions I'll be delighted to hear from you, email me, Joy O'Flanagan, at the address below:

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