Can You Ski the Birkie or Korte with
Limited Experience or On-Snow Time?
For the average fit person, participating in an endurance marathon in any sport is a huge undertaking and commitment. Add almost 4,600 feet of vertical climb, temperatures below freezing, and a pair of skis to the equation, and you now have a great challenge and adventure!
Tens of thousands of athletes have skied the American Birkebeiner ski marathon over the last four decades, and they have come in all different shapes, sizes, and abilities. Some have done it as a challenge or bet, some have been encouraged by a family member, and some do it year in and year out to see old friends and to rise to the physical challenge that the Birkie presents.
Over the years of coaching and working with the American Birkebeiner, the topic of skiing the event with limited on-snow training time has been mentioned to me more many times. And recently, the topic of how a beginner that has little or no ski experience should train for one of the Birkie events has been brought to my attention.
Even the Best Skiers Train Off-Snow Most of the Year
Here is one way to look at that. Even professional Nordic athletes train 11-12 months a year for a race season on snow that is only 4 months long. The other 8 months, they are refining their technique and raising their fitness levels off of snow. Citizen athletes can do the same. It is my belief and my experience as a coach that a Nordic ski athlete can have a very successful Birkie and do it with limited or almost no on-snow training time. And, a raw beginner can develop enough ski skills and fitness off of snow to successfully finish one of our shorter events, like the 23K Kortelopet or the 12K Prince Haakon.
Most citizen athletes that participate in Nordic skiing do it as only one of many sports during the course of a year. Many are runners, road bikers, mountain bikers, cycle-crossers, canoeists, triathletes, swimmers, recreational hikers, etc. Most have goals of recreational participation/challenge, health, fitness development, and just plain old enjoyment.
In Nordic skiing, there are three general areas you can focus on to improve performance and enjoyment. In order of importance they are: physical fitness, technical ski efficiency, and performance equipment.
Nordic skiing and specifically Nordic ski racing is the single most demanding athletic activity there is. It is a weight-bearing activity that requires full body motion along with the skills of body balance and agility. Nordic skiing can be broken down into two distinct phases--power/force application (tension) and glide/balance (relaxation). The fitter that you are and the greater your skill and agility on a pair of boards, the faster you will go.
So, for a first time skier or a skier that has very limited or no opportunity to train on snow, you should focus on your abilities and goals. First, determine where you stand. Be realistic in your goal-setting and your ability to commit to a training plan that can comfortably fit into your daily schedule and your lifestyle priorities. If you have never skied and have no time to be on snow, a 12k or 23k distance for the experience and the feel of Nordic competition will be a high enough goal for the first year. If you have some recreational ski experience and can train 1-3 times a week on snow, then a full Birkie marathon can be your goal.
The focus for both of these goals would be developing ski-skill movement patterns and dynamic balance while developing ski-specific fitness and strength. While on-snow skiing is the best activity for increasing ski fitness, you can look to other fitness activities or exercises that will mimic on-snow skiing as closely as possible. In developing ski fitness we focus on four types of physical training; endurance, strength, intensity, and agility/balance. For the two specific goals that we have mentioned and with the limited amount of time to the event, we will focus on all except intensity. Balance work can and should be incorporated into almost every type of work out.
If you are just getting started now, in November, on pursuing your Birkie goal, you have about 15 weeks left to fulfill the process. Whether your training background is running, biking, paddling, or in some other endurance sport, your heart does not know what you have been doing and you should have the aerobic base to jump into a ski-specific training plan. What you may lack is ski-specific muscle development and movement patterns. Activities that will closely mimic snow technique that we use in our plans are roller skiing, ski walking and bounding, double poling machines, and running. Balance, agility, and jumping skills should also be worked on to help develop the skills necessary to balance and apply power.
_ Get Some Coaching:
If you have never skied before, get a coach or some level of guidance and instruction on basic ski technique and movement patterns. Dynamic Nordic skiing is a skill sport that I compare to golf. Many people partake in it without the guidance or help of a coach or lesson. Most of the time they have limited success in the skill development and refinement needed to improve their performance or enjoyment of the sport. So, look to get started with some guidance, commit to the goal and plan, and most of all, enjoy your time Outside preparing for the Birkie!!
Check out the month-by-month Birkie Training Plan developed by Coach Bill Pierce on the Birkie website.