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Resistance Training Strategies for Cross-Country Skiers

Are you a recreational or competitive cross-country skier seeking to maximize your performance this winter? Did you know resistance training may be the missing link for your training program? And we’re not talking about light weight/high repetition schemes, but rather maximal strength training and power forms of exercise.

Benefits of Cross-Country Skiing

Chances are you’ve already experienced an array of physiological benefits such as increased stamina and muscular endurance. When compared with other forms of aerobic exercise (i.e. running, stair stepping, rowing, rider and cycle ergometer), cross-country skiing ranks second, only behind running in caloric expenditure (1). In fact, a 200 pound individual can burn 619 calories in a single hour of cross-country skiing (2). This form of exercise is phenomenal for improving aerobic fitness, managing heart health and improving overall body composition. But if you’re looking to perform your best across the snow covered terrain this winter, including resistance training in your overall training regimen can help.

Resistance Training

It is fairly common for many ultra-endurance athletes, including cross-country skiers, to avoid resistance training as part of their in-season training program. If the athlete does any resistance training then it is usually at a very low intensity and volume, typically avoiding the legs because “my legs get enough work in my training.” But does the research support this theory? Is resistance training advantageous or harmful for cross-country skiers?

Cross-country skiing events require a tremendous amount of drive and determination. In addition to mental toughness, cross-country skiers require high levels of cardiorespiratory and muscular endurance. An efficient cardiorespiratory system will improve peak oxygen uptake, stroke volume, and overall cardiac output. Collectively, this enables the heart to pump more blood to working tissues supplying them with oxygen and nutrients. Similarly, a healthy neuromuscular system will help ensure proper strength, muscular endurance, and rate of force production (power). In order to improve both performance aspects a combination of aerobic and resistance training activities is the best approach. Unfortunately, some cross-country skiers may avoid resistance training out of fear it may hamper their VO2max or result in unwanted muscle hypertrophy (bigger muscles) and weight gain. However, research does not support the claim that resistance training will hamper endurance performance if performed in a systematic and periodized fashion (3).

There is convincing evidence that resistance training may not significantly improve VO2max or lactate threshold for previously trained endurance athletes because the aerobic duration and intensity is too low (4). However, resistance training may improve work economy and cross-country skiing performance (3-5). According to Jung, VO2max is not compromised when resistance training is added to an endurance program (4). Additionally, work economy has been shown to improve as much as eight percent following a resistance training program, which may have a large impact given the extremes endured during cross-country events (4). However, there is still much debate on how resistance training actually improves work economy. Some experts speculate it is caused by improved neuromuscular efficiency (coordinated movement) and force production (3,5). (Learn more about this in the NASM-CPT Programs.)

In addition to improving neuromuscular efficiency, explosive resistance training has been shown to improve anaerobic power output for endurance athletes. A study performed by Mikkola et al., demonstrated a simultaneous explosive resistance training and endurance program improved power output of the quadriceps muscles for cross-country skiers (6). Additionally, the subjects did not display a reduction in V02max even though endurance training was reduced by 20%. This is significant for cross-country skiers who must draw on their anaerobic capabilities such as a sprint to the finish line.

According to Saunders et al., heavy weight training and plyometrics improves the ability of muscles to utilize more elastic energy and reduce the amount of energy wasted in braking forces. By enhancing the stretch-shortening cycle and limiting braking forces, resistance training has the potential to improve work economy (7).

Similarly, a study by Hoff et al., concluded that “maximal strength training in the upper-body improved the double-poling performance by improved work economy” (8). In other words, maximal strength training helped increase force production of the upper extremities and improved work economy for the athlete, enhancing overall performance.


Given the evidence presented, cross-country skiers can benefit by incorporating a resistance training program into their overall workout regimen. Resistance training has been shown to improve work economy, reduce braking forces, and enhance power without negatively effecting VO2max. Given these advantages, an integrated training program (as seen in NASM’s Optimum Performance Training™ model) blending resistance, plyometric, and cardiorespiratory exercises may hold the key to enhanced performance for elite cross-country skiers.

Below is an sample power training program to improve rate of force production for cross- country skiers. It is important to note, individuals new to resistance exercise should begin with a lower intensity (stabilization endurance) program to first address potential muscle imbalances and improve joint stability and mobility before embarking on an aggressive power training regimen. It may be best to perform cardiorespiratory exercise on separate days from a power training program to allow sufficient rest and recovery.

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1. Moyna NM, Robertson RJ, Meckes CL, Peoples JA, Millich NB, Thompson PD. Intermodal comparison of energy expenditure at exercise intensities corresponding to the perceptual preference range. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Aug;33(8):1404-10.

2. Millet GP, Boissiere D, Candau R. Energy cost of different skating techniques in cross-country skiing. J Sports Sci. 2003 Jan;21(1):3-11.

3. Østerås H, Helgerud J, Hoff J. Maximal strength-training effects on force-velocity and force-power relationships explain increases in aerobic performance in humans. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002 Dec;88(3):255-63. Epub 2002 Oct 17.

4. Jung AP. The impact of resistance training on distance running performance. Sports Med. 2003;33(7):539-552.

5. Hoff J, Gran A, Helgerud J. Maximal strength training improves aerobic endurance performance. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2002 Oct;12(5):288-95.

6. Mikkola JS, Rusko HK, Nummela AT, Paavolainen LM, Hakkinen K. Concurrent endurance and explosive type strength training increases activation and fast force production of leg extensor muscles in endurance athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2007;21(2):613-620. 10.1519/R-20045.1.

7. Saunders PU, Pyne DB, Telford RD, Hawley JA. Factors affecting running economy in trained distance runners. Sports Med. 2004;34(7):465-485.

8. Hoff J, Helgerud J, Wisløff U. Maximal strength training improves work economy in trained female cross-country skiers. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1999 Jun;31(6):870-7.

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The Author



Brian Sutton is a 20-year veteran in the health and fitness industry, working as a personal trainer, author, and content manager. He’s earned an MA in Sport Management from the University of San Francisco, an MS in Exercise Science from the California University of Pennsylvania, and several certifications from NASM and NSCA. He’s was an adjunct faculty member for California University Pennsylvania (2010-2018) teaching graduate-level courses in Corrective Exercise, Performance Enhancement, and Health and Fitness and currently serves as a Content and Production Manager for NASM.

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