Training for Ski Mountaineering Races by Luke Nelson

I’ve employed my buddy (and amazing LaSportiva mountain runner) Luke Nelson to blog about the training for Ski Mountaineering races, formerly known as Randonee Racing. He was nice enough to oblige. It should also be pointed out that Luke just made the US Ski Mountaineering Team by taking 3rd overall and being the 2nd American at the National Championship in Jackson Hole.


Training for Ski Mountaineering Races by Luke Nelson

Many of you may be wondering a couple things as you begin to read this article. First, what the heck is ski mountaineering racing? Ski Mountaineering Racing (skimo) is a very demanding sport that requires its competitors to start at the base of some mountain with skis on their feet, who then race up the mountain (with the help of climbing skins attached to the ski) to some designated point. Competitors then remove the skins, lock down their bindings and ski down, just to repeat the whole process over and over again. Additionally, to spice it up there is always a mandatory boot pack mixed in, where the competitors have to remove their skis, attach them to a backpack and boot up, and once again, ski back down. Fun, right? Another question you may be asking is how does this relate to running (since it is being published on an primarily ultrarunning related blog)? Well, I think that it is a perfect compliment to trail racing. Skimo generally occurs when the trails we all love to run on are buried under snow, also the movements of skimo are very similar to running, at least the uphill portion is. As a matter of fact in Europe it is commonly referred to as ski running. Finally skimo is an incredible way to get in hard workouts in the winter, it adds variation to the day in day out training for running, and gives the body relative rest from running. The final question that you may be asking after reading what skimo is, is how would I train to be a skimo race which in turn would make me a faster runner? Well that’s what I plan on explaining in the rest of this article.

I think there are several steps to training for Skimo. First and foremost is to have a solid base fitness, this may come from any multitude of sports including, but clearly not limited to: running, trail running, road biking, mountain biking, nordic skiing, BC skiing, swimming, kayaking, rock climbing or whatever else gets you moving. You may not have any base fitness to start with, and training for skimo may be were you start (though it will take longer to be competitive).

Equally as important as base fitness is being proficient at skiing downhill in all types of conditions. You do not have to be the best skier out there, but you need to have confidence to drop into just about anything the mountain can dish up. The majority of the time spent during skimo races is spent on the uphill, but almost any advantage gained on the up can be squandered with poor descending abilities. To build your ability to ski better the best training is to ski. One thing to consider when skiing for training is the terrain you tend to ski. If you are like me, you tend to ski the conditions and areas of the mountain that favor you current abilities. So for training ski the parts of the mountains that push your abilities, that make you uncomfortable. Also to mimic skimo racing, ski top to bottom without stopping. You want to maintain constant forward (downward) motion during a race no matter how wrecked you legs feel, and non-stop top to bottom will quickly build your endurance.

Now to the meat and potatoes of training for skimo, the uphill. Technique plays an important role in getting ready to race uphill during a skimo race. Before you can move quickly while skinning uphill you need to learn how to move efficiently on skins. One of the biggest pitfalls of people fall into is relying very heavily on some type of televates while skinning. The problem with televates is that they shorten your stride when hiking uphill, they also lead to putting too much pressure on your toes as you tend to lean forward more. To get very good purchase with your skins there needs to be pressure on the heel piece of your binding. Standing upright will increase the power transferred to the skin from your boot. To improve this technique do as they old adage says, practice makes perfect! Once you are moving uphill efficiently it is time to work on moving faster. There are surely lots of theories on how to train to move faster, ranging from sport to sport. Given that I am a runner I chose some of the workouts that I feel most useful while training for mountain running. Intervals, tempo and long skimo training sessions. I do one of each of those workouts a week. Intervals vary from week to week depending on what races I have coming up sooner, but some of my favorites on 30 seconds max effort, 30 seconds recovery at times doing up to 40 sets. Other intervals that I dread to do but I think are very effective are 3:00-4:00 max efforts with a full recovery in between. They key to intervals is a good and complete recovery in between sets. The tempo workout also varies in time and intensity depending on upcoming events but typically done at 80-90% of max HR for 1-2 hour efforts. During the long sessions I try to be out for double the vertical of the next race at 70-75% of race pace, which is comfortable but not quite conversational pace. My typical training week will have a day of recovery workouts between the intervals, tempo, and long workouts. I also take a day completely off once a week to let the system “reset”. The recovery workout days have to be EASY, they workout is kind of an anti-workout, it helps your body adjust to working under fatigue but without taking yourself too deep into an overtrained hole. One word of caution to the program I outline above, is that I have worked through this for quite some time and have found that it is what works for me, it may not be ideal for you, but it may be a place to start.

The next piece of the puzzle for skimo racing is putting the above together with quick transitions in between. There are lots of videos on the internet that show racing transitions, the best of which found on the USSMA site under technique ( http://www.ussma.org/cosmic/learn ). Again practice is the key to a quick and smooth transition, which may be the make or break point during a race. I use a mantra to assure the same transition every time “boots, bindings, skins”. I transition in that order every time to make sure that I don’t miss or skip a step. It works for both the up and down transitions. Lock/unlock your boots, lock/unlock bindings, remove/place skins. I always start with the same foot as well to assure consistency.

After you have tried a few races I am fairly certain that you will get the bug. It is incredibly invigorating to know that after some specific training you can become very efficient and fast while moving through the mountains. That speed and efficiency then starts to translate to BC skiing and interestingly as I have found also to mountain running. One additional aspect of skimo racing that can really help speed things up, after technique, is equipment. Very light skimo racing skis and boots can make a tremendous difference, even over relatively “light” BC ski equipment. I am lucky enough to be able to race in the La Sportiva Stratos boot ( http://www.lasportiva.com/microsites/English/stratos/presentazione.html ), which is truly a work of art. It is feather light and skis like a DH race boot. For a several years I was quite skeptical of the truely light race gear, but after now spending the better part of a season skiing and racing on it I can say that it makes a much larger difference than I could have anticipated. Of course that type of gear comes at a cost, but I use new gear as a payment for time spent training. If you are going to put a substantial amount of work into preparing your body for an event, you might as well outfit it properly for the endeavor.

The author leading the 2011 National Championships.
Climbing Corbets Couloir, Jackson Hole, WY (how freakin’ cool is that!?)

At this point if you are intereseted in learning more about skimo racing, to find a race near you, or to support the US Ski Mountaineering Team as we prepare to represent the USA at the World Championships in a few weeks, please visit www.ussma.org