Healthy and Active: Exercises for cross country and downhill skiing

Winter is coming! The days are short and snow is packing the slopes. If you’re the kind of snow bird that heads north for winter then this is your season. It’s time to ready your muscles and cardiovascular system for our Cascade winter wonderland.

Preparing your muscles and cardiovascular system for downhill and cross country skiing should start in October and November. It can take four to eight weeks of a consistent exercise program to achieve the body adaptations needed for skiing. If you prepare well you will have both more stamina and decrease your risk for injury.

Carving turns down Stevens Pass or Snoqualmie stresses the hamstrings, quadriceps and hips. Many people tend to have weak hamstrings which can increase the risk for knee injury. Performing a deadlift, starting with light weight, will activate the hips and hamstrings. For a more challenging approach a one-legged deadlift with a kettlebell can add balance demands into the exercise. If you are not accustomed to using free weights, or if it’s been awhile since you’ve worked your legs, you may want to start on a leg curl machine. Start with three to four sets of eight to 12 repetitions using a light weight. After a few sessions, you can increase the weight and repetitions.

Hip strengthening can be done from the floor with a bridging exercise. Start facing up with your knees bent to ninety degrees and your feet flat on the floor. Lift your hips up by driving your feet into the floor. Hold the bridge position for three to five seconds then slowly lower your hips. If you have difficulty keeping your pelvis level during this exercise it may indicate weakness of core muscles.  For an added challenge start the bridge with one leg straight out and use a single leg to raise your hips. The single leg bridge is hard!

Lunges and step-ups strengthen the hamstrings, quadriceps and hips. Place one foot on a box or step so your thigh is level with the floor. Step-up and slowly lower back down in a controlled motion. Starting with a smaller step or box may be needed until you get enough strength in these muscles. For an added challenge, you can hold dumbbells for resistance, but this should not be done if your form gets unstable or if there is any pain in the knees or back. As with the exercises noted above, three to four sets of eight to twelve repetitions is enough to get the benefit from this exercise. If you’ve spent the summer or fall running the Leschi stairs then you are probably ahead of the game on these.

Cross-country skiing is lower impact than downhill skiing but requires more cardiovascular fitness. Performing 30 or more minutes of cardio exercise, such as the elliptical machine, three to four days a week will improve endurance. Cross country skiing also requires more shoulder and arm strength. Deltoid raises, bicep curls and triceps extensions will prepare your pole pushers for a day on the trails of the Methow Valley. If you plan longer days on the snow you should be performing an hour or more of cardio exercise several times a week.

The skating motion of cross-country skiing demands hip strength and stamina. Place an oval exercise band around the legs below the knees. Squat down as if you were about to sit in a chair and while holding this position walk sideways like a crab. The resistance and “crabbie” motion will activate the same muscles that work during the push-off phase of cross-country skiing. You will want to call Seattle Massage Pro or Glow Natural Health Center to schedule your recovery massage after this workout.

If it’s been awhile since you’ve done these exercises get some guidance on your form from a personal trainer. The frequency of exercise, number of repetitions and amount of resistance is a little different for everyone. If you have past injuries that limit performance you should check with your physician or physical therapist before starting a training program or hitting the slopes.

For handouts or videos of the exercises mentioned send name and email to the contact information below.

Aaron Shaw is an Occupational Therapist, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and founder of MoveMend in Madison Valley. Contact him at 206-641-7733 or visit