There are numerous reasons why cyclists should take time off from riding their bikes during an off season, and they range from physiological to psychological.
Importantly, it’s well documented by leading experts in the field of cycling biomechanics and medicine, including Dr. Andy Pruitt, that things like osteopenia and osteoporosis (two stages of the loss of bone mass or bone mineral density) can become dangerous in the “chronic cyclist” if those athletes do not incorporate an off season into their annual training schedule.
Activities that provide an impact to stimulate our skeleton (i.e., weightlifting, hiking, running, skiing) help us maintain skeletal strength. This is not only true when done in the off season, but is also similarly beneficial when incorporated throughout the training and race season.
One of the best ways for cyclists to maintain some of the cardiovascular adaptations that they’ve worked so hard to accumulate, while using their musculoskeletal system in a novel way, is to include a consistent amount of Nordic skiing (AKA cross-country skiing) in their offseason. If you don’t live in a place where it snows, rollerblading or roller skiing is an alternative that offers many of the same benefits.
Benefits of Nordic skiing
One of the greatest benefits of Nordic skiing—or other activities that involve sideward movement—is that it strengthens the gluteus medius. This muscle, which comprises the sidewall of the upper buttocks, is critical to avoiding knee injury since it helps to stabilize the knee in a vertical manner while pedaling.
Skiing and these other ways of exercising also help with hamstring strength. Cycling is a quadriceps-dominant activity, and many cyclists are often heavily imbalanced—the strength of their quads is far greater than that of their hamstrings. Any activity that helps bring about better balance between these two major muscle groups has a host of benefits.
Finally, Nordic skiing helps build core strength, without you having to stare at the floor as you do planks or stare at the ceiling as you perform crunches. Good core strength is critical to cycling performance in numerous ways, including maintaining stability (e.g., while climbing out of the saddle), which improves efficiency and reduces the risk of injuries. A strong core of abdominal and lower back musculature decreases lateral movement, particularly when under power, so the energy you put into the pedals more effectively propels you forward.
Nordic skiing is said to be a power endurance sport. Unlike running or cycling where there is a relatively steady power output throughout the stride or pedal stroke, skiers apply a lot of power very quickly. Then there is a glide phase. In that way, skiing acts as a form of plyometric training. Furthermore, the emphasis on technique improves balance—if you are unable to balance on a gliding ski, the power you put into the ski will be wasted.
Nordic skiing, therefore, provides an opportunity to combine aerobic training with the neurological and neuromuscular aspects of training that are often ignored by cyclists.
So, how does a cyclist start to incorporate skiing into their off-season routine? For starters, there is a lot of technique involved in becoming a proficient skate or classic skier. Lessons help, since without proper technique you can find yourself working tremendously hard without going particularly fast. That’s called flailing, and flailing isn’t much fun.
So take a lesson or ask an experienced friend to help you work on your technique. Second, get out on some groomed trails and practice. Don’t try to go fast; instead, try to refine your skills, improve balance, and practice that glide. Finally, make it a habit to get out on the trails as consistently as possible. The learning curve can be a hurdle, but once you overcome it, efficiency and—hopefully—enjoyment await.
Adjust your expectations
Some things to keep in mind as you plan and track any workouts: Nordic skiing utilizes a greater percentage of the total musculature of the body when compared to cycling—it’s not just the legs, but there is also a significant contribution from the core, shoulders, triceps, and lats.
“Purely because of a greater amount of muscle mass being used, you will see higher VO2 utilization in cross-country skiing than cycling,” says Adam St. Pierre, head Nordic coach at Montana State University. “Often that correlates to a higher heart rate at a similar effort. So your Z1 or your L1 endurance bike ride may be 5 or 10 beats per minute lower than a Z1 or an L1 endurance ski.”
Thus, it’s important to adjust your training zones or your expectations of what feels easy. Adding to the increased demand is the technique component, which may further elevate the discrepancy between cycling and skiing (assuming you are not proficient at skate or classic technique).
“I don’t believe any data exists on this, but maybe you could use skiing not just as a way to get some endurance work off the trainer during the winter months, but actually to get a specific physiological gain from skiing that, yes, you could get from cycling, but maybe you could get it to a larger extent from skiing,” St. Pierre adds.
Workout of the Week: Nordic Skiing for Cyclists
As the cycling season draws nearer, consider a multi-modal workout. For those lucky enough to be able to ski out the backdoor, set up your bike on the trainer before you head out to ski. Hit the ski trails for 2-3 hours, come home, and then immediately jump on the bike.
This will turn the two sport modes into one, long endurance effort. It can also help you focus on recruiting fatigued muscles to pedal efficiently, without the risk of riding outside on the ice or in the cold.
Set up your bike on a bike trainer.
Cross-country ski for 2-3 hrs.
Spin on the bike for 30 min.