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  • Can Alpine Skiing Preserve Cycling Fitness?

     

    There were many years where I avoided alpine skiing because I thought spending time on an indoor trainer was better cross-training for my triathlon or cycling training. Turns out I was wrong. Let me explain.

    We have a local non-race race (The Four Seasons of Horsetooth) that is a timed loop done on the same course at each solstice and equinox. It is a good measure of fitness for each quarter of the year. In 2018, the December weather was cooperative (read: mostly dry trails and not a giant snowstorm, as is typical) and I logged a time of 2:59:58 on the loop.

    Then Colorado proceeded to have a most wonderful winter ski season, one of the best in many years. I did a lot of skiing between the December stage and the March stage – about 38 hours in the eight weeks prior to the spring stage. In the same time period, I had 29 cycling hours. My total cycling and ski hours were 67.  

    In the eight weeks prior to the winter stage, I had 50 hours of cycling – or roughly 73% MORE bike time than prior to the spring stage. In science terms, I had 73% more sport-specific (specificity) training prior to the winter stage than I did prior to the spring stage. (Weekly hours at the end of the column.) 

    My winter stage time was 2:59:58. When I began my spring stage time trial, I was hoping to be no more than 10 minutes slower than the winter stage due to my serious decrease in cycling time. With roughly 5 miles to go before the finish line, I began to realize I wasn’t going to be slower at all. In fact, I thought I might go a little faster. I finished the spring stage with a time of 2:46:25 – just over 13 minutes FASTER?!

    How is that possible?

    I think several factors are in play. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

    Volume

    For me, living in Colorado, cycling volume does not often – if ever – hit the six-hour mark in December, January, February. In rare years I’ll try a century ride in late March, but this has not been the case for several years. As you can see in the chart below, a big ski day can total six hours. It is not unusual for me to ski some four to six hours, for one to three days in a row. That is definitely not happening for bike volume in the winter.

     

    Heart Rate

    I track heart rate when I ski and I spend a fair amount of time at Zone 1 intensity. The red bar on the ski graph above shows nearly all of the workout time is in Zone 1. In the chart below you can see a bike ride done the same season, and most of the time was also in Zone 1. Take note of how the heart rate response is completely different between cycling and skiing. Skiing is very interval oriented, cycling heart rate is steady.

    I could certainly do intervals to make the cycling heart rate more variable, but I would not get the strength training I achieve in skiing – without exceeding Zone 1 heart rate.

     

    Strength

    In the next graph below, it was a big powder day. Those of you that ski know that even “just sliding downhill,” powder skiing is hard. Your legs burn from the work in a shorter distance than if you are skiing groomed slopes. This intensity is some combination of strength training, balance, and high-end power training. It is not easily visible on a heart rate graph.

    Balance

    I believe skiing helps me maintain my ability to balance on the bike.

    Visual cues and line selection

    Similar to mountain biking, skiing requires fast decision making on the best line to take down the mountain. Just like cycling, sometimes the desired line is not achieved and fast adjustments must be made to correct the situation. The faster I can make correction decisions, the better the result.

    Bottom line

    Certainly, there are other reasons to hit the slopes than those listed here. The pure enjoyment of taking a break from a normal cycling routine shouldn’t be underestimated. Too often cyclists believe that the only way to create and preserve off-season fitness is by spending two or three hours on an indoor trainer. That is an incorrect thought process.

    For those of you that love to alpine ski, one “long” ride of two to three hours, every two or three weeks is enough to maintain cycling-specific training within your off-season training plan. Spend the rest of your base fitness training time enjoying the slopes!

    If you have questions about how to fold skiing (alpine or Nordic) into your training, let me know. gale@galebernhardt.com

     

     Ski and bike hours chart in the weeks before each stage race

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