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Get fit for cross-country skiing

Strong legs, strong arms are a good place to start

The tentative opening day for cross-country skiing at Whistler Olympic Park (WOP) is Nov. 22 depending on conditions, although based on past years it could be December before there is skiing in the Callaghan and Lost Lake. Either way, skinny skiers have four to six weeks to prepare for the coming season.

Most dedicated skinny skiers stay active through the summer, biking and running, and get into cross-country as a way to stay in shape through the long winter. However, the sport has grown into its own in Sea to Sky with local clubs increasing membership, competitive teams for all ages and more coaching and camps. It was only two seasons ago that the Whistler Nordics sent a team to the cross-country nationals for the first time ever and now we have athletes holding their own against the best in the country.

We also have the Callaghan Valley Training Centre, one of four national training centres for athletes working towards international competition. Chris Manhard has been the coach for that CVTC the past three years, and his current crop of athletes will be gunning for NorAm podiums and a chance to race for Canada in the World Junior and U23 World Championships.

Manhard's athletes train for their sport year-round, but if you're a recreational or casually competitive skier, he has provided Pique with a list of exercises that people can do at home or at the gym to prepare for the season. Kimberley's Stefan Sander-Green, a sprinter with the CVTC who is looking to qualify for the world juniors this year, agreed to show how those exercises should look.

The entire workout takes about an hour and 15 minutes, although you can go longer or shorter by adjusting the number of reps and sets that you do. Most exercises can be done at home, although you will need a bar to do chin-ups and a medicine ball — something you can buy for around $50.


If you experience pain or discomfort doing these exercises then stop and consult a physician or physiotherapist immediately. Ditto if you have any health issues or are unsure whether you should be exercising.

Step 1 — The Warm-up

Manhard's skinny ski primer is geared to building muscle endurance and power rather than endurance. As a result he only recommends around five minutes of cardio before getting into the warm-up — running, biking or another activity to get your heart rate up and your muscles warmed up.

Walking Lunges (pictured) — Take a medium step forward and lower your back knee towards the floor, pausing to push hips forward and stretch your hip flexors. Continue forward so both hands are planted on the ground and straighten your rear leg. Leave one hand on the ground while turning your body and lifting your other arm so it's perpendicular to the floor. Rotate in the other direction to continue the stretch before turning back, standing up and initiating the next lunge.

"Do about 10 to 12 (five or six on each side) to open up your hips, stretch out your back and stretch out your hip flexors as well," said Manhard.

Dowel Stretch #1 — Pick up your dowel/broomstick, and place your hands as far apart as possible. Keeping your arms straight, lift the dowel over your head and behind your back as far as you can go — all the way to your hips if you can do it — before bringing forward again. Do 10 to 12 times to open up your shoulders. "Cross-country skiers have very poor shoulder flexibility," explained Manhard, "so much that it affects the rest of their upper body. Cross-country athletes get a lot of back injuries especially, as a sport it's second only to rowing. You have to take care of your back and your shoulders to stay healthy."

Dowel Stretch #2 — Grip the doweling as wide as possible, and while keeping arms straight dip one end down to the floor while lifting the other hand high over your head. This continues the work of opening up your shoulders while stretching out your back and obliques as well.

The Clock — For the warm-up, pick a medicine ball that's on the light side — no more than 10 pounds for men and five to seven pounds for women. If you don't have a medicine ball you can use any kind of weight, whether it's a dumbbell or a rock. With feet about shoulder width apart, lower the ball to the floor and lift it out to the side, then over your head, then to your other side and then back to the ground, keeping your movement as fluid as possible. Do 10 to 12 times each side. "This activates different parts of the core, your obliques and some of the major muscle groups in your arms and legs. The key is keeping your hips stable to open up your lower back. Don't rotate your hips too much."

The Pendulum — In the same stance, lift the medicine ball forward and up over your head before dropping down again and moving it through your legs. No jerky movements, try to keep things as stable and smooth as possible. "This warms up your mid back and lower back," Manhard explained. "Start with your upper body and work down so you can feel the curve of your spine. You can slouch into this one to get used to that feeling." Do 10 to 12.

Rotations — Hold the medicine ball out from your body, arms parallel to the floor and twist as far as you can to one side without moving your feet and then back to the other side, pausing in the middle position with the ball out front. "Your body rotates when you reach out with your ski poles, so building those muscles is very important," said Manhard.

Hurdles — Find something that's between your knee and hip in height and walk up to it. Put your hands on your hips to keep your body stable, and step over this object by lifting your leg high and rotating your hip over it sideways. Do 10 to 12 times for each leg, stepping over the object and back. The primary goal of this exercise is to continue to open up your hips. If you have problems with the movement, try using a clock instead of counting out steps; see how many you can do in 15 to 30 seconds.

Stepovers — Place your dowel/broomstick on two chairs or boxes of equal height and face it head on. Lift your leg up and over the dowel while keeping your hands on your hips to ensure you're not tilting your hip while lifting your leg up and over 10 to 12 times. "Most people don't realize how hard this one is," said Manhard. "Most people will probably need to start a little lower and work their way up."

Step 2 — The Workout

There are a lot of exercises that cross-country skiers should do at every opportunity. During his workouts his athletes always do chin-ups and some sort of squatting exercise.

Manhard has condensed the workout into three pairings. Usually sets are also divided so that one exercise works the upper body and the second the lower body. Go from one to the other and back again until you've completed the full number of sets. Then take a three-minute break before the next pairing.

First Pairing

Chin-ups (Not pictured) — If you don't have a chin-up bar or something to chin-up on, a trip to the nearest park or schoolyard will usually suffice. Any chin-up style (palms facing away) will work, and if you have to place a leg or a couple of toes on the ground to assist your arms and shoulders then that's okay — everybody has to start somewhere. Try for eight to 10 reps.

Primary Goal: strengthen shoulders and upper back.

Reps: eight to 12, three sets.

Box Jumps — The box jump is a slightly different take on the exercise as you take off from the ground with your legs together but balance on one foot. Jump for the box and land on the same leg as you started on before hopping back off. "

You may have to land on both feet or use one foot to help the other as you work up to it," said Manhard.

Start with a low platform and go higher as you get stronger. If you don't have a box, most playgrounds will have an elevated platform to use.

Primary Goal — strengthen quads, calves and core.

Reps — 15 to 30 seconds, three sets.

Second Pairing

Medicine Ball Smash — Use a heavier weight medicine ball, about 12 to 20 pounds, and if possible one that will bounce if it's thrown to the ground. For this exercise, picture a sprint cross-country event and the athletes furiously poling their way to the finish line. With feet a little wider than shoulder width apart, lift the ball over your head and then, bending knees, slam the ball onto the ground. Catch the ball as it bounces upwards, lift up with your legs and arms, and then initiate the next throw.

Primary Goal: Work the muscle groups used to pole their skis forward.

Reps: 25 reps, three sets.

Lateral Box Jumps (Not Pictured) — Start this exercise a good step away from the box or platform and jump sideways onto the box, landing on one foot before jumping back to your start position. "That's the skating stride," explained Manhard. "It's especially important for Whistler where almost everyone skate skis, and it's one of the most important exercises you'll do to get ready."

Primary Goal: Strengthen glutes and quads, muscle endurance.

Reps: 15 reps, three sets.

Third Pairing

Bench Pushups — Use a raised surface like a box or sofa, and do fast pushups to build "explosive shoulders," explains Manhard. Push off the bench if it's too easy or do it for longer. See how many you can do in 15 to 30 seconds.

Jumps — In the gym, Manhard finishes this pairing by having athletes do two-legged jumps over hurdles. At home, you can do high jumps, lifting your knees as high as you can, to simulate this exercise, or more box jumps. Try to do it for time, 15 to 30 seconds to build muscle endurance.

Primary Goal: Explosive strength in shoulders and legs.

Reps: 15 to 30 seconds, three sets.

Step 3 — The Cooldown

Manhard recommends at least 10 to 15 minutes of light cardio to cool down, spinning on the bike or going for a light jog, before stretching.

"You should feel as flexible as you were when you started so you don't feel tight or sore the next day," said Manhard.

When stretching, you should pay particular attention to your hip flexors and quads. "We are a quad-based sport, to the point where our hamstrings get atrophied during the winter," he said. "Quads and hip flexors are the muscles you use the most in classic technique and quads and hips in skating, and the ones that are going to feel stiff and sore the next day after a ski."

Also be sure to stretch out your shoulders, back and hips.