Hey there! My name is Zak Ketterson, and I am a professional cross-country skier from Bloomington, Minnesota. I currently reside in Minneapolis as a member of Team Birkie, the Midwest’s own professional ski team. I am also a member of the U.S. Ski Team and have had the privilege of participating in several World Cup races this season. For today’s blog, I thought it would be interesting to identify and discuss the five most critical factors for success in cross-country ski racing.
Aerobic Capacity (Fitness)
A high level of aerobic fitness allows you to sustain your energy output throughout a race. The ability to efficiently utilize oxygen during exercise is essential for producing energy in the form of ATP, which fuels the muscle contractions required for skiing. Simply put, skiers with the best aerobic capacity can ski faster, maintain their pace over longer distances, and recover more quickly between races. This ability to recover quickly is vital for World Cup skiers, as it enables them to maintain a high level of performance throughout a long season. This is particularly important for events like the Tour de Ski (7 races in 9 days) or in Olympic formats where racers may have to compete three or four times in a week. There is no shortcut to improving aerobic fitness!
There is no shortcut to improving aerobic fitness! The only way to attain an elite level of aerobic capacity is through consistent training over many years. For those seeking to improve their fitness, I suggest starting by challenging yourself to go for at least one long session (2 or more hours) per week. Personally, I do a three-hour workout or longer at least once every Sunday in the summer and fall.
I must emphasize the importance of consistency in your training; no single workout will make the difference between being fit or unfit. Rather, it is the consistent training over weeks, months, and years that will take you to the next level. Therefore, I recommend creating a training plan that is both challenging and realistic based on your current fitness level.
In my opinion, technique is arguably the most crucial factor for success in cross-country skiing. Good technique leads to efficiency and, in turn, less energy expenditure. This is how elite skiers are able to ski fast for long periods of time. You can be the fittest person in the world and still be a slow cross-country skier if your technique is poor. There are several World Cup skiers who have incredible fitness levels but are held back by poor technique.
My best advice for improving your technique is to record yourself skiing. With Team Birkie and the U.S. Ski Team, coaches take videos of me during every interval workout or race. By analyzing the footage afterwards, I can identify areas for improvement and come up with things to think about the next time I ski.
Additionally, I recommend familiarizing yourself with good technique by watching World Cup races and observing the fastest skiers. Although we may not all be able to ski like Klaebo, even beginners can make huge improvements by watching the world’s best. Try to be a visual learner and find technique cues you can apply to your own skiing!
Skis, boots, poles, clothing, and everything in between play a significant role in reaching the highest level possible in cross-country skiing. This is not to say that you can’t enjoy skiing and racing without top-notch equipment, but as you become more competitive, the importance of having the right gear increases. This is a reality I have experienced competing on the World Cup, where every athlete has access to the best and most finely-tuned equipment.
The majority of attention and effort is directed towards skis because having good skis is essential for peak performance. As a World Cup athlete, I have a large collection of skis to ensure I have the best skis for any temperature or snow conditions. The quality of your skis can make or break your race, and it’s non-negotiable that they must be top-notch.
At the very least, I firmly believe that competitive skiers should possess two pairs of classic skis and two pairs of skate skis – one cold ski for each technique, and one warm ski for each technique. Selecting the appropriate ski for the current conditions will greatly influence the speed of your skis. Skis with a “universal” grind and structure can usually still perform acceptably in extremely cold temperatures, but when the snow becomes wet and above freezing, having a warm ski is imperative if you aim to maximize your performance.
For poles, lighter and stiffer is better. Carbon fiber poles are excellent and once you get used to them, you’ll never want to use anything else. I believe poles have greatly advanced as a category in recent years. The second or third tier poles from most companies today are significantly better than the best poles that were available just a decade ago.
With boots, fit is definitely the most important factor, but the same principle applies as with poles: better boots are lighter, stiffer, and provide an much improved skiing experience. The advancements in boot technology in the last 10 years have been remarkable, and there are now many great options available. However, it’s important to remember that different boots fit different feet, so I would always recommend trying on multiple pairs in-store before making a decision.