To Roll or Not to Roll…

FasterSkierMay 28, 2008

As the summer training season kicks into high gear, FasterSkier will be presenting a series of articles revolving around different aspects of roller-skiing. Today we start with a look at when to start roller-skiing in the spring. Upcoming highlights include a piece by Pepa Miloucheva on technique and the transition from snow to dryland and vice versa, and a critique of skate technique by Dick Taylor.

June is almost upon us, and if you haven’t been out roller-skiing yet, it is certainly time. Some people have been lucky enough to have access to snow — either crust-cruising at high elevations or skiing groomed trails at locations like the 2010 Olympic Venue in Whistler, B.C. But for most of us dry-land is the only option — biking, running, hiking, kayaking, strength work in the gym — one of the great aspects of the sport of cross-country skiing is the variety of activities that make up training. And while there is no substitute for skiing on snow, we all know that there is one way to get close — roller-skiing. Many skiers have a complex emotional reaction to roller-skiing — some love it, some tolerate it, and some do their best to avoid it. Any way you spin it, pounding the pavement on a pair of roller-skis is critical to success on snow. There is no other dryland method that so closely engages the neuromuscular systems used in skiing. No other activity gets you the specificity of strength and balance. So there is no question that you have to do it; when to start is another matter.

Do you scrape off the coating of early December grit, give a once-over to make sure the wheels still spin, and throw down for a late April roller-ski interval session a la Andy Newell? Or do you use that training time for alternative activities and hold off until June? The answer? As with most any question of training — it depends.

There are many factors to consider when determining the best time to start roller-skiing — goals, level, roller-ski experience, and physical issues.

The US Ski Team hits the road right away in April — roller-skiing just enough to maintain the specificity and strength of double poling, says US Continental Team Coach Matt Whitcomb. Of course, these athletes also may have access to snow at this time, so they are less dependent on roller-skiing for ski-specific training.

Similarly, in Sun Valley, Idaho, Rick Kapala, Head Coach of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, starts Olympic Development team skiers on roller-skis at the beginning of May — initially athletes roll 2-3 workouts per week, but are up to 3-6 by the end of the month. “Don't wait for June to break out your skis” says Whitcomb.

At the collegiate level, University of Utah skiers roll once per week throughout May. Says U of U Director of Skiing Eli Brown, “the most important thing is to not get too out of touch with ski movements and muscle groups.”

That is well and good for the top skiers in the country — elite senior level racers. But what about Juniors? Whitcomb recommends that junior athletes get out a few times in April — noting that many of these racers are done skiing in mid March. Waiting two months to get back to ski specific training is too long. “Some will argue that April and May is too early to do a little roller-skiing. That's fine if you don't like winning. You must train a lot, and with specific ski focus to [maximize] your potential as an athlete,” he continues.

The major advantage of rolling — as mentioned above, is the specificity — there is no other way to so closely imitate ski motions. It is much easier to lose fitness than to gain it, so waiting to roller-ski until June means you will have that much more ground to make up in terms of ski-specific fitness. There is also often a transition period when starting up an activity after months away — you are not going to be your most efficient your first day on roller-skis, just as the first day on snow in the fall can be an adjustment. This should be taken into account when deciding when to get started – you may not be maximizing training efficiency for a week or two.

There are other advantages to rolling early. Compared to running, it is easy on the body (as long as you stay on your feet). For those with knee issues, roller-skiing is a perfect complement to running and even biking. Even for those with healthy joints, the transition from skiing to running can be challenging on the muscles. Roller-skiing can help keep your muscles long and loose.
Additionally, roller-skiing (like skiing) provides high fitness benefit, and skate roller-skiing makes significant use of both upper and lower body. If you have limited training time, and a 4 hour bike ride or both a run and some time in the gym are not options, roller-skiing gives you excellent bang for your buck.

But not everyone believes early season rolling is necessary, or even desirable. Pepa Miloucheva, the head coach of the Craftsbury Nordic Ski Club — home to FasterSkier Junior skier of the Year Ida Sargent among others – does not have her elite skiers start on rollers until June. She notes the length of the season and uses alternative activities to build aerobic capacity, introducing roller-skiing as they increase to two workouts per day and look for more specificity. Additionally, for the first two weeks on roller-skis, Miloucheva limits her athletes to easy skiing with lots of technique and video work.

Kapala at SVSEF waits until June to get the high school skiers roller-skiing, starting with 2-3 times per week and building to 3-5. He notes that many younger skiers are still learning how to become effective roller-skiers — learning how to train efficiently and take advantage of a roller-skiing workout.

For Masters and Juniors Miloucheva recommends even more focus on easy training and technique, with skating being the discipline of choice for those who are not experienced classic skiers — “Also, I don’t use classic roller skis with the younger juniors or masters that have trouble with classic technique. It takes too much time on snow to get rid of the bad habit from the ratchets, so only skating and double polling using skate roller-skis.”

One of the most frequently cited reasons for limiting roller-skiing is the “mental stress.” Many people find it more difficult to get out and roller-ski than to run, bike, or hike. If you are looking to be a champion, you will need to get over that aspect and spend significant time on wheeled skis. But despite the benefits, Kapala of SVSEF believes it is important not to overdo roller-skiing. The Sun Valley program keeps roller-skiing to roughly 45-50% of total endurance training hours and mixes in lots of trail running, long uphill hiking in the mountains as well as some biking and swimming. “This is especially true for younger Juniors,” he says, “as we feel that they will ultimately develop bigger aerobic capacities if the blend of aerobic training includes regular foot training in hilly terrain 2-4 times per week.”

Kapala also points out that SVSEF makes a concerted effort to teach roller-ski safety to beginning skiers — working on appropriate hazard avoidance skills and the safest ways to bail out. And like Miloucheva, he stresses the need for constant technique supervision and work.

Back to the original question — when to start? Have you already missed the boat with June just around the corner? If you are looking to be the best in the world, you had better be roller-skiing by the beginning of May at the latest. After that there is no clear consensus. Spend some time thinking about your individual weaknesses — technically and fitness-wise. Would more roller-skiing help overcome this? If you are focused and have specific goals that roller-skiing will help you achieve, don’t wait too long. There are not many negatives to early roller-skiing, as long as your mind is ready.

As a parting note, Kapala offers some advice to Master skiers (though it is certainly applicable to athletes of all ages) to focus roller-skiing workouts. The benefit of churning out kilometers is limited. “It is extremely important for all skiers, but especially masters, to use roller-skiing to develop improved specific capacities like Double Pole Endurance, Double Pole Power, Lower Body Specific Strength in Skating as well as working hard to develop technique. It is far better to pick a ten-minute loop with the correct kind of terrain that matches the goal of the session and bring more focus to that workout rather than mindlessly cranking out kilometers.”


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