This week’s workout comes from Bill Nurge, head coach and owner of the HardCore Training Center in Ketchum, Idaho, who has a master’s degree in exercise physiology. Starting July 28, Nurge and Matt Liebsch will be serving up a week of nordic-specific fitness training and technique work at the Sun Valley Nordic Fitness Academy. With a maximum of only 12 participants, they recommend signing up early. Click on this link for more information.
You can blame Matt Liebsch for this workout … and for making me a better skier!
Last August, my wife and I joined Coach Matt, and 25 other nordic tribe-mates, on the Haig Glacier for what turned out to be a bucket-list topper in every regard. One of the biggest takeaways from skating a dozen hours behind the terminally affable Birkie winner and World Cup skier was how annoyingly powerful and stable he is on one ski. Whether he was single-ski double poling up a hill, or gliding effortlessly on a long descent, he was always solid and skilled while perched atop a single Salomon S/Lab skate ski. As much as I’d like to blame the fact that I didn’t start skiing until I was almost 30, and my equipment wasn’t as good (Matt promptly set me up with shorter poles, better boots, and hand-picked stable skis), the stark reality was simple: Matt possessed more power, greater dynamic stability, and better balance than I did.
So once my 56-year-old brain got over being tweaked by my body’s inability to match his single-ski prowess, I set to work on developing a program to take my balance, core stability and functional power to a higher level. And the best part is that it worked! Prior to consistently performing the workout I’m about to share with you, my posture, balance, and power output would predictably spiral downward halfway into a 50k skate race. But this past March, I was able to string together two of my best back to back 50 k’s (10th overall at the West Yellowstone Rendezvous; 4th overall at the Cascade Crest Marathon) with no appreciable diminution in performance.
It’s no secret that nordic skiing — particularly skating — is a single-leg sport. Unless you’re double poling or flying downhill in a tuck, the vast majority of time is spent balancing and producing “ground force” with one ski, and one or two poles. This is why single-leg power, core stability, and balance play such major roles in sustainable speed. Every powerful stride must be accompanied by a dynamic, and sometimes high-speed balancing act requiring huge amounts of stabilization at the hip, knee and ankle joints. In the 2 hours and 15 minutes — of mostly single-leg Pain Cave time — it took me to complete the relatively flat Cascade Crest 50 k in Bend, Oregon, I ended up doing roughly 4,000 V2 strokes on each leg. That’s a lot of time performing single-leg squats with hip abduction and balancing and repeating every second!
So here’s the deal, most nordic athletes do a great job of cranking out lots of cardio hours, weighted pullups, dips, box jumps, and heavy squats. The problem is that some of the hard-earned endurance and strength will be squandered unless it’s matched with equal amounts of balance and stability training. With regard to function, the muscles of the hip can be separated into two groups: movers and stabilizers. Though they all technically perform both, it’s easier to think of them in these two distinct categories. Because strength and stability are two sides of the same coin, having strong “movers” (lats and glutes) and weak “stabilizers” not only compromises performance, but may contribute to shoulder, lower-back, knee, and ankle injuries. Bottom line: nordic skiers are only as “strong” as their weakest stabilizers. Just like their big-brother primary movers, the myriad behind-the-scenes stabilizer muscles need strength, stamina, power, AND intelligence to do their “balancing act” effectively. No stability, no balance, no fun.
Here are five pairs of exercises you can add to your existing program to help improve single-leg balance and functional power (with links to demo videos):
The Workout: Nordic-specific exercises to improve balance, core stability and functional power
Warmup: About 20 minutes
Before getting into high-intensity unilateral exercises, it’s always best to do a progressive and comprehensive warmup. I like to start with 2 minutes of Level 1-2 cardio on the AirDyne standing, treadmill forward run with pulsers, and SkiErg double-poling. I would then recommend doing 60 seconds of alternating single-leg squat dips, alternating side-skip med-ball slams, and alternating split-squat rope pulls.
Then do a second set of 2 minutes of Level 2 cardio standing on the AirDyne, all directions on treadmill, and V2 on the SkiErg. Follow this up with 80 seconds of alternating dips, side-skip slams, and lateral skip rope pulls.
Finally, a third set of 2 minutes alternating 10 seconds easy/10 seconds “harder” on AirDyne (hands on rings pulsing up and down), treadmill (forward only), and SkiErg V2 with jump, followed up by 90 seconds of tuck-jump dips, single-leg BOSU hop rope pulls, and side-skip slams.
Paired Exercises: About 25 minutes for one set of each
For each of the paired exercises, I would recommend starting with a medium-hard 60-second first set with 30 seconds rest between each leg, and no rest between pairs. Note that on all but the first set you will be performing each of the paired exercises on the dominant leg first (left leg for most right handers), and then the non-dominant leg. I like to have the less coordinated/“weaker” leg follow the lead and learn from the smarter/stronger leg.
So for example you would do (#2a) left-leg inverted SkiErg step ups, immediately followed by (#2b) left-leg single-leg slideboard double pole. After 30 seconds of rest, switch to the right leg of the same exercises. Then move on immediately to the next (#3) set. Try to build into each set and maintain form as you get fatigued. The demo videos are very helpful in showing proper form and body position.
Performing one set of the 5 pairs equals 8 minutes (not counting the first pair which alternates legs) of total time-under-tension for each leg: roughly a hilly 10 k’s worth of single-leg balance for an elite skate-skier. After several weeks of this twice-weekly regimen you can add a second, more aggressive 75-second set of each exercise. This would amount to about 18 minutes of overload on each leg plus up to about 4 minutes of sandbag push and hip bridge swings. Total workout time (including 20 minute warmup) is approximately 1 hour.
1) a. Sandbag Push: The key on this brutally effective, anterior-core exercise is to push the bag — or something heavy that slides — with your body, not your arm. Use your legs and side-flexion muscles to “shove” the bag forward. It should be heavy enough that you can’t push it with your arm alone. If you have a strong core you can do this exercise for two minutes alternating arms and directions. Make sure your push arm is on the same side as your lead leg.
b. Hip Bridge Monkey Swings: This is essentially a dynamic hip bridge with isometric abduction, and posterior chain muscle tension. Keep the hips up, knees pushing “out” against the rubber band, and arms bent at 90 degrees. This can also be done — without the swinging — on a single TRX strap in single-handle mode walking your feet forward and backward. This exercise can be performed for up to two minutes.
2) a. Inverted SkiErg Step Ups: The flywheel resistance provides a uniquely effective eccentric overload to the quads, hip extensors and lower back. This can also be done with weights or a heavy rubber band. The key is to use only the upper/loaded leg to pulse aggressively out of the bottom position. Use a cadence of about 60 strokes/minute and pause/glide for half a second at the top of each rep.
b. Single-leg slideboard double-pole hops: Your primary hip-and-knee movers — quad and glute — should feel like they just did a breakaway on a big climb, but you still need your stabilizers to negotiate the technical downhill to the finish! While maintaining constant tension on the poling muscles you can hop or pull yourself up the slideboard and then allow yourself to glide backwards resulting in a big eccentric hit on the double-pole initiators. This can also be done using a TRX strap and performing partial pistol-squat pull-ups; although it’s not as intense on the balance muscles.
3) a. Single-leg squat jump double pullup: The key on this exercise is start with a 90-degree knee-angle and no countermovement. Explode up and do one pullup while touching foot to bar, and then as quickly as possible do a halfway down pullup and repeat as quickly as possible. High-tempo partial range of motion/upper-half pullups are more nordic-specific because of the shoulder-joint angle and eccentric loading.
b. Single-leg stomps on BOSU with high-tempo SkiErg double pole: Now that your big primary poling and leg muscles are hammered, similar to the end or a race, you have to sprint and produce lots of “ground force” with the tired arms and leg. Keep the cadence high (80-90 spm), stomp your foot on the BOSU, and sprint for the finish!
4) a. Single-leg TRX squats with arm extensions: Get in a position where you’re maximally dorsi-flexed at the ankle and the triceps are loaded. Perform about 1 rep per second with the arms extending only two-thirds of the way out (just like most of your V2 poling strokes). Make sure your hands go fully behind your head on every rep and you’ve got heavy tension on your triceps.
b. Single-leg BOSU squats holding front-plank on slideboard: With your triceps dynamically fatigued this exercise will take them even deeper isometrically and help build integrity at the “bottom” of their functional range of motion. Maintain anterior core and tricep tension the entire time you’re single-leg squatting and pulling yourself backwards with the hip flexors. This can also be performed on the floor with sliders.
5) a. Single-leg ball bounce on Slackline: Having the slack line inclined simulates an uphill ski and forces more pressure on the ball of the foot resulting in ankle flexion. Hold off on actually throwing the balls until your able to balance for at least 30 seconds without falling. You want to get to the point where you can get 20-30 ball tosses in a minute without tipping over. This exercise can also be done on a balance disc; but it doesn’t feel the same as a skinny ski.
b. Single-leg push and slide on zipline TRX strap: With your stabilizers statically fatigued, now it’s time to see how they perform dynamically … Pushing and gliding in a forward-leaning, front-plank position simulates the start position of most nordic strokes. Make sure you have vertical-hip displacement and are head over foot on every rep. This can also be done without the “zipline” (a ceiling-mounted track with a chain hanging down from it and a Core Flyte Dynamic Stability Trainer under your foot) but it’s not as FUNctional 🙂
So there you have it … Try to hit the unilateral balance work 1-2 times/week and you should find yourself feeling significantly more solid and confident in your ability to powerfully push, and effortlessly glide!
About Bill Nurge: For more than three decades Bill has helped a multitude of athletes reach their fitness and performance goals. In addition to a top-10 finish at the ’92 Olympic Trials for biathlon, Bill earned silver medals at the Summer Biathlon National Championships, and Nordic Masters National Championships. His previous life as a mountain goat served him well in racking up the most race victories (16 total) up Sun Valley’s 3,260 foot Bald Mountain. He loves anything with pizza on it, and secretly wants to coach and race full time on the World Cup Circuit. Contact him at HardCoreTrainingCenter@gmail.com or 208.720.1829.