Every spring, a swarm of outdoorspeople converge on Bellingham, Washington, an artsy college town located roughly 20 miles from the Canadian border, to take part in the annual ‘Ski to Sea’ race. The competition (which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year) consists of a 100-mile route that stretches from the slopes of Mt. Baker Ski Area to the waters of Bellingham Bay. The race is divided into seven legs: cross-country skiing, downhill skiing/snowboarding, running, cycling, canoeing, mountain biking, and sea kayaking. In other words, Ski to Sea is a relay race of epic proportions; if you’d like to take part in the 2013 competition (which will be held Sunday, May 26), here are a few training tips to get you started.
Leg 1: Cross-country Skiing
The cross-country skiing leg of Ski to Sea involves two loop trails that cover roughly 4.5 miles of terrain. According to Andrew Newell, a member of the American cross-country team who competed in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Nordic skiers can supplement their workouts with cardiovascular conditioning. He says his typical off-season workouts include mountain biking, street cycling, and running. In addition to skiing during heavy snowfall months, he recommends using ‘roller skis’, strap-on devices equipped with wheels that allow the wearer to mimic cross-country techniques on hard surfaces. He also encourages racers to master the double-pole sprinting technique, which involves standing on the balls of one’s feet with hips upright and pushing off with as much exertion as possible, using both poles at once. The ‘V’ technique, used to climb hills, is also crucial. Newell (who competes in numerous competitions throughout the year) says that his typical week during race season involves 15 to 25 hours of aerobic exercise and a diet that consists of 4,000 to 5,000 calories per day.
When it comes to gear, he urges rookie cross-country skiers to invest wisely in equipment. In addition to proper racing skis (which typically cost at least $300), he says comfortable boots, secure bindings, and a Spandex racing suit should be included on the shopping list. There are two types of cross-country poles: classic poles — which extend to the user’s armpit, and freestyle poles — which are considerably longer. First-time Nordic skiers should experiment with both styles in order to determine which poles suit them best. But when it comes to racing, longer poles have a significant advantage.
Leg 2: Downhill Skiing/Snowboarding
The downhill skiing/snowboarding leg of Ski to Sea involves a sizable uphill climb, followed by a downhill route that deposits each skier/snowboarder at the starting point.
Proper training for alpine ski races can be broken up into three categories: flexibility, conditioning, and agility. Flexibility is key because long stretches of downhill movement are hard on the skier’s joints and tendons. Exercises to help achieve optimal flexibility include running in place, torso rotations, and arm circles. Thorough stretching of the hips, knees, and ankles before and after the workout is also crucial. Conditioning for downhill skiing should focus primarily on the torso and upper leg muscles. Core upper-body exercises will improve one’s center of gravity, which in turn boosts his or her speed, while mogul exercises will develop the muscles that surround the knee and improve his or her balance. Agility training should primarily take place on the slopes. Common drills involve moving down a gradual slope and turning without poles, or bending over to retrieve objects from the ground while strapped into a pair of skis. Other exercises include crossover steps and log-hopping, which improve the skier’s ability to recover without falling if he or she loses balance during a downhill competition.
For snowboarders, leg workouts, such as repetitive standing single leg bends, build endurance and improve flexibility. Plank exercises, as well as routines that target specific muscle groups (such as curls or tricep dips), strengthen one’s core and boost balance. Leading up to the race, snowboarders should also work on tightening their turning techniques; there may be less room to carve during the competition, so mastering the sharp, successive turn is crucial for excelling in the race and avoiding a nasty collision. Finally, both skiers and snowboarders must climb uphill as part of Ski to Sea — so some cardio training prior to the race is definitely in order.
Leg 3: Running
The running leg of Ski to Sea involves an eight-mile route that originates at the upper Mount Baker Highway and ends at the Shuksan Department of Transportation in the town of Maple Falls.
Training for downhill races should consist of routines that alternate between flat and steep ground. Dr. Jason Harp of Active.com suggests exercises that boost speed while allowing the body to acclimate to downhill grades. These include ‘4 x 2’ drills (four minutes running on flat ground, followed by two minutes downhill) and ‘up and down’ drills that alternate between uphill, flat, and downhill terrain in two to three-minute increments. Beginners should start small and gradually increase distance and time spent running downhill in relation to time spent on flat ground. Eventually, the racer will be ready to trail with ‘hill medleys’ (10-mile courses that consist of six miles downhill, two miles uphill, and two miles on flat terrain).
Ski to Sea runners must contend with an elevation drop of roughly 3,000 feet. Downhill running can wreak havoc on the entire body, namely the knees and quadraceps. Jené Shaw of Triathlete encourages downhill racers to lean forward from the hips (rather than the shoulders) to improve center of gravity, while literally flailing one’s arms will help achieve balance when moving down a steep grade. To preserve knee strength, keep the feet close to the body and avoid taking long strides. During the race, runners should keep their eyes focused downhill, rather than at their feet; this prevents the neck flexors from straining. Steps should be short and light, with the feet always parallel to the ground; Shaw suggests running as though the surface is covered with hot coals.
Leg 4: Cycling
At just over 40 miles, cycling comprises the longest leg of the Ski to Sea. The route travels through the small towns of Glacier and Maple Falls, eventually ending at the Nooksack River in Everson.
Like the running leg, the key to the road cycling leg is not so much about completing the distance (which is relatively short) as it is about maintaining optimal speed and contending with other racers. According to Gale Bernhardt of Active.com, increasing one’s lactate threshold is key to improving speed. Conditioned cyclists can sustain their threshold for 60 to 90 minutes — more than enough time to complete the 42-mile course. Cruise interval exercises, which consist of between three and eight minutes of peak speed separated by brief rest periods, are an effective method of increasing threshold time. These routines should gradually build to 20-minute ‘criss-cross’ exercises, during which the cyclist increases his or her heart rate to Zone 4, then fluctuates between Zone 4 and Zone 5a throughout the rest of the workout. Bernhardt adds that any lactate threshold workout should begin with a 20–30-minute warm-up phase and conclude with 15 minutes of cool-down.
To prepare for a first race, cyclists must familiarize themselves with proper competition etiquette. According to Road Bike Review, good form during a cycling competition includes:
- Alerting trailing cyclists of potholes, bumps, or other obstructions in the road
- Using hand signals to show that riders ahead have slowed down
- Not making any abrupt changes in regard to speed or direction
- Refraining from overlapping wheels until handlebars are evenly paced and the other cyclist has made visual contact
- Yelling, ‘flat!’ and using hand signals to indicate a deflated tire
- Pedaling and standing simultaneously when cycling out of the saddle to avoid collisions from the rear
Leg 5: Canoeing
The canoe leg of Ski to Sea stretches 18 miles, making it the second longest section. The route travels along the Nooksack River, from Everson to the town of Ferndale. This is the only two-person leg of the race.
Forget the notions of pleasantly dipping oars into the water and gliding downstream; the canoe portion is considered the most dangerous part of Ski to Sea. The Nooksack is a sizable river with strong currents; in fact, the canoeing leg was cancelled in 1997 (and nearly called off in 2009) after excessive swelling caused unsafe water levels. Tragically, a woman drowned in 2002 while training for Ski to Sea. For these reasons, anyone who participates in the canoeing leg of the race should be familiar with swiftwater safety techniques.
Graham Ulmer notes two key components of canoe race training: strength and speed. Workout routines should target muscle groups primarily used to paddle a canoe, such as the triceps, biceps, pectorals, lower abdomen, back, and shoulders. Curling, bench pressing, lat-pulldowns, and crunches are all effective methods of conditioning the body for a long-distance paddle. Speed training should consist of interval exercises (70 seconds of energy bursts) and 250-meter sprints, both accompanied with full rest periods. Use resistance techniques (i.e., tying the canoe to a dock) to further build speed.
Because two paddlers are required for this leg, it is essential to train with that person several times prior to the race. Practice runs help each paddler become familiar with the other person’s pace, speed, and style.
Leg 6: Mountain Biking
The mountain biking leg of Ski to Sea consists of a route that travels from the banks of the Nooksack River to Squallicum Park, which is located in Bellingham Bay. The distance may vary; the course covered 20 miles in 2011, and 13 miles in 2012. The mountain bike course is “complicated,” according to race officials. “Much of this course is over spongy open fields, single track, double track, and varying urban elements, so be prepared.”
Rather than focusing on what might be found on the Ski to Sea course, amateur mountain bikers should build skills related to form and riding in groups. Jennifer Eblin of Trails.com notes that group rides and mountain bike clubs offer plenty of training opportunities, as well as a social component; in many cases, organized rides will cover courses that are also used in competitions. Once the mountain biker is comfortable riding trails with other people, they can advance to solo excursions to improve speed and reaction time — arguably the two most important aspects of mountain bike racing. Time spent on the track should be supplemented with a core muscle exercise routine that emphasizes the legs and shoulders.
Out-of-town participants in this leg should note that the Pacific Northwest receives abundant rainfall throughout the spring months, and the surfaces may be slick and covered with slippery obstacles, like tree roots.
Leg 7: Sea Kayaking
The kayaking leg of Ski to Sea involves a five-mile route that travels across Bellingham Bay, from Squallicum Harbor to the Marine Park in Bellingham’s Fairhaven neighborhood. This is the final leg of the competition. Upon reaching the Marine Park, kayakers ring the bell to determine their team’s overall placement.
Almost…there. To prepare for a sea kayaking race, Ulmer suggests a full-body workout; paddling a kayak requires heavy upper-body exertion and intermittent bursts of leg strength, so bench presses, tricep curls, and leg lifts should all play a role in the exercise regimen. To build ‘kayak-specific strength’, Ulmer encourages a routine that also consists of pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, and squats to properly build the core. And in order to achieve powerful energy bursts, he recommends power cleans and snatches.
In addition to physical strength, another key component of kayaking is balance; the vessels are much wobblier than canoes, and can easily overturn. The use of physio balls is one effective method of building balance required to keep a kayak upright. But kayakers should also familiarize themselves with proper techniques for righting the vessel if it does overturn. When done correctly, these maneuvers save lives.
Best of luck to all the 2013 Ski to Sea participants! Teams can currently register online; the current fee is $440 for race teams and $480 for corporate teams, and these prices will increase for teams that register after May 1. For more information about the race, please visit the official Ski to Sea website.