Today’s weekly workout is brought to you by Audrey Weber, a Minneapolis-based former elite nordic racer. In her first year of dental school, the 27 year old has less time for ski-specific training and instead shifted her focus to the gym, where she’s found success with the CrossFit method. While this high-intensity, strength training regimen isn’t for everyone, Weber offers a closer look at what it’s all about.
Graduate school might be the first time where ‘real life’ has seriously impeded my ability to get outside and exercise as much as I would like to. I went back to school and that was really the end of my motivation to get out and ski in any but the most-tolerable conditions. Rollerskiing and running were out of the question. Between all the free pizza they serve at Lunch and Learns, and my shortage of time and energy, I might as well have resigned myself to the couch and an early grave.
Thankfully, in the nine months before starting school, I had become immersed in this new sport that seems to be really catching on. The sport is CrossFit, maybe you have heard of it. Currently, I am 13 months into my own personal case study called, “How Fit Can an Ex-Cross Country Ski Racer Stay on Four Hours of Training Per Week?” Some preliminary results are in, and the findings are quite interesting.
A quick rundown on CrossFit, save the cultish doctrine. There is a lot to like about CrossFit as a competitive athlete. CrossFit strives to address the “ten general physical skills required of optimal physical competence.” It basically focuses on making you the most-prepared well-rounded athlete possible. Now, of course, that is a arbitrary definition, which some would argue fails to emphasize endurance and glycogen storage capacity, but so far, my experience is that it is actually a highly-efficient and enjoyable way to get yourself physically and mental prepared for many of life’s challenges.
CrossFit is not ski training, so why should a skier be interested in something that is expressly not skiing? Here is a quick test: sit on the floor with your legs crossed. Sit up straight and tall and extend your arms straight over head. Have someone take a picture from the lateral view to see if you are actually sitting straight up and down. If you have trouble achieving this position without severely straining yourself, congratulations, that means you are a true skier!
And that is why you might need CrossFit. The repetitive motions of cross country skiing will steadily erode your body’s ability to work in a full range of motion, which typically means tight shoulders, tight hips, and tight psoas muscles. And when mobility is limited, bad things start to happen.
CrossFit’s emphasis on proper body mechanics and mobility may be even more important that the strength and fitness gains that come with the training. One of the reasons, in my opinion, that Jessie Diggins has been such a successful athlete, is because she has the intrinsic quality of being extremely flexible and bendy. I have seen the girl do dynamic leg swings, she is built like Gumby. And that is a sign of long, healthy muscles that can work at maximum efficiency.
So unless you are born with the gift of great flexibility, you have to put a concentrated effort on a daily basis to gaining that mobility. And let’s be honest, who among us is as faithful to our foam roller as we should be? It is hard to do without expert guidance and a structured, motivational environment. Simple human psychology. CrossFit provides that guidance (a coach) and environment (the gym community).
Disclaimer: CrossFit alone does not constitute ski training. Obviously, if you want to ski a race of any duration, you need to add volume with distance training. You also need ski-specific technique training. In an ideal world, you would have the time and means to incorporate CrossFit two to four times per week, while also getting distance, over-distance, and steady state workouts in.
The Workout: 7:30-8:30 PM Friday, January 18th at CrossFit Kingfield in South Minneapolis
The coaches: Danny Yeager, Amanda Sullivan, and Tony “The Librarian” Christopherson
The Team: range of individuals, men and women, ages 24 to 55, elite to recreational athletes
The Warm Up (20 minutes): At my gym (or “box” as the lingo goes), CrossFit Kingfield in south Minneapolis, the workout starts with some combination of active warm up and dynamic stretching. Some days it is a classic track warm up with running drills done across the gym floor. Today’s warm up was a partner activity that involved three quick couplets of exercises completed at “medium” intensity (whatever . . . my team still won).
- Three rounds of 15 wall balls and 10 overhead kettlebell swings (both partners work on opposite exercises simultaneously and then switch).
- Three rounds of 10 med ball slams and 5 burpees
- One round of 15 hand release push ups while the other performs a prying goblet squat and then switch.
The next part of the warm up is specific to the day’s workout. The Ballistic Squat Warm Up is a series of squat drills performed with light weight to build technique, range of motion, and speed coming out of the bottom of a squat. One would typically start with just the weight of the barbell (we have some as light at 25 lbs) and then work up over several weeks to what feels like a moderate load that you can still move quickly (in the video I am performing a shortened version of the drill using 95 lbs). The whole thing can be done in under a minute like this:
- One full depth squat held at the bottom with weight in the heels, chest up, lumbar spine in a neutral position, and knees out. This position is held 5-10 seconds.
- Next is three full depth squats performed in quick succession and at high speed
- Third comes three squats with a pause at parallel (higher than full depth) and then a bounce out of the bottom all the way up to the top.
- Finally, is a squat to parallel, pause, bounce out of the bottom back to parallel (repeated three times) and then bounce all the way to the top.
The strength workout (20 minutes): The next portion of the workout is also variable. Sometimes it is a max lift and other times it is working with one of the Olympic lifts (clean & jerk or snatch). This day was our second-to-last day in a three-week squat cycle. During this cycle we high-bar back squatted multiple days per week at increasingly high percentages of our one-rep max. Coach Danny says,
“The idea of this training is to stimulate the nervous system response in which our bodies adapt to squatting heavy weight on a regular basis. Once that three-week cycle is complete, it is important to deload for one week, and then begin a standard 8-12 week linear regression cycle, which will allow our bodies to make the correct adaptation and convert the gains made during the 3-week cycle into real top-end strength.”
- High bar back squat: 8 sets of 4 at 80% of athlete’s 1-rep max -or- as heavy as possible without compromising form, speed, or safety. (example for me: 0.8 x 255lbs = 225lbs, which I dropped down to a manageable but tough 185lbs)
This being the end of the cycle, weights got pretty heavy for people, so there were three coaches on hand to supervise and spot the 12 athletes. Remarkably, within the same space, these 12 people squatted 12 different weights that ranged from 75 lbs to 265 lbs. Pretty wild.
The biggest concern I had for doing this type of training is that I would have to start purchasing the dreaded “size medium” scrubs for school, and I was terrified of the idea of “getting too big.” I am happy to report, however, that after one year of heavy training, I have made huge gains in strength, while I weigh no more than I did when I was ski racing, and my size 4 jeans feel only minimally snugger.
The Workout of the Day (WOD) (15 minutes, 40 seconds): Huge variety of formats and rep schemes for this portion of the workout. Duration can range from as short as 5 minutes as long as 25 minutes.
Every minute, on the minute (EMOM) for 8 rounds or 15 minutes and 40 seconds
– Even minute: 15/30 (women/men) hand release push ups, or as many as you can do in 40 seconds
– Odd minute: 50 double unders (no scaling) (or as many as you can do in 40 seconds)
The last 20 seconds of every minute is for transition.
The genius of this workout is just how torturous such a simple-sounding combination of push ups and jumping rope becomes after you do it nearly continuously for 15 minutes. The number of push ups is designed so you are blowing your arms out for at least 35 seconds of the first minute, and then mustering all your hand coordination and forearm strength to rotate a jump rope at at least 150 RPM in the second minute (that is the speed you need to get 100 rotations or 50 double under’s in 40 seconds).
It wasn’t until the VERY last round that I finally did all 50 double unders in the allotted time. The fatigue has an amazing way of building such that you can push yourself continuously and ride the upper limit of your work capacity for an extended time. You find little ways to recover within the movements and are forced to achieve a high level of efficiency in order to do so. Sounds kind of like ski racing.
The cool down (20 minutes): The post-workout usually consists of lying on the floor for a few minutes, drinking some water, and then smashing or stretching. It is a nice social time to catch up and maybe help a sister out with some myofacial gunk in a hard-to-reach place.
Skiers, its time to graduate from the foam roller to the Battlestar (see photo at right).
Heading home to refuel and continue to rehydrate is next priority, of course.
And if the workout is completed in the evening, and you hope to get a good night’s sleep, I would recommend spending 10-15 minutes draining the legs with some legs-up-the-wall.
I believe that skiers in general have a lot to learn about mobility work and basic athletic movement, both of which are highly developed and emphasized within the CrossFit framework. CrossFit is great for staying in shape for people with limited time to train, as well as for providing a structured and motivational atmosphere.
About the author: Audrey Weber is a former racer and is currently in her first year at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.