Saturday, November 20, 2004

Maintaining Training

This is a tough time of year. I admire anyone with the self discipline to train on indoor machines. I envy anyone with the schedule flexibility to train outdoors every day during the meager hours of daylight.

Training methods vary from very specific, high-intensity workouts with roller skis and other dry-land simulation to high-intensity snacking on comfort foods while desperately scanning the sky for snow.

Roller skiing is great. It trains most of the muscles used in actual cross-country skiing, in ways much like they are used on snow. But it isn’t perfect. Very adept, competitive roller skiers may fall short on actual snow because they haven’t mastered the subtleties of on-snow technique.
Hey, if it isn’t perfect, there’s my excuse to save the expense. Roller skis aren’t cheap, upwards of $300 for a good set. Why buy anything but a good set? If you’re into it, go for it. But you don’t need it just to carry fitness into the first part of the season.

Walk, don’t run. Use poles to start adding upper-body conditioning. Better yet, mix walking and running. Running can give you a quick aerobic or interval workout. Walking or ski striding, where you consciously spend more time supporting yourself with one leg at a time, will help condition your muscles for skiing. Hiking uphill helps slow the tempo to be more like ski timing.
Ice skate to develop skating muscles. You can’t do much poling when you ice skate, but you can train your legs and supporting muscles.

Weight-train to develop specific muscles you want to target. You can figure out what these are by going through the motions of striding, skating or poling and paying attention to which muscles engage. Weight training is not an ideal method, because you risk developing unhelpful bulk, but it is better than nothing. The kinds of small weights and resistance devices you will use fit neatly into a home exercise space.

Racers in days of yore used roller boards to train for poling. You basically haul yourself up an incline over and over again using your arms. Roller boards are coming back. Sometimes even the roller ski crowd has to make it through a period where the roads are too messy for roller skiing, but the trails aren’t ready to groom.

Like many nordic enthusiasts, I’m still cycling. This time of year I spend a lot of time on the fixed-gear bike. It keeps me in a medium sized gear and functions well in wet weather. Because it can’t coast, it keeps my legs moving, which not only helps keep me warm, it keeps me from slacking off. I get a lot of workout in a short ride.

Working in the bike and nordic ski business, I get good deals on gear, but my retirement plan consists of either strategically-timed hypothermia when I’m finally too old to work, or a large cardboard box in a warm climate until I succumb to some disease for which I cannot afford the prescription drugs. So I know about trying to keep it cheap. But some cost-cutting moves are false economy. Buy decent gear. Cheap gear might actually hurt you.

My el-cheapo workout plan includes running, pole running, hiking, cycling and indoor exercises with and without weights. I have an old Nordic Track for times of absolute desperation. Anyone who can stand more than about 40 minutes on that deserves a medal.

The fixed gear cost about $50 to build. In today’s dollars it might be more like $100, but try to buy any other kind of lightweight bike for $100. That’s pretty reasonable. The frame is a classic now, but it was just a beater in 1980. Find a yard-sale road bike. Strip it down to one chainring in the front, one cog in the back and a single brake. You or your mechanic might need to make some other adjustments to get the chain line right, but you’re really just subtracting the parts you don’t need and adjusting for their absence.

Track cogs thread onto the same threads as old-style freewheels. If your yard sale junker has a modern cassette-hub rear wheel you have to buy a Surly adapter, available through bike shops, or find an old style wheel.

Real track hubs use a smaller, left-hand thread for the lockring holding the cog in place. Some of them have threads on both sides, so you can have two gears. That can be very helpful in hilly country.

Functional running shoes might cost $40.

If you ski, you already own poles. If you run in the woods, you shouldn’t bash them up too badly. Inexpensive touring poles can take some abuse. If you have nicer poles you should pick up some cheap ones to use for running.

The shorter days, cloudy skies and leafless trees really drain the energy out of a lot of people. I know I like to nap and snack more during this season. That’s probably why so many of the holidays involve feasting. Stuff yourself, drink some wine and wait for the sun to start moving north again. But remember that all of calendar winter takes place during that opening flower of daylight. The energy you manage to generate now will be returned to you with interest once ski season really gets started.

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