27 March, 2010

Skimo Cadence Training

After talking to the rest of the Canadian Skimo Team, individuals from the US, other countries, and trainers from all over, one very prodominent theme has come up.  Cadence.  Having an insanely fast cadence (foot turnover rate), is what seperates the ridiculously fast people out there and the rest of the pack.  If I take 10 strides per minute more than someone else, over a 2 hour course, thats a lot of ground that gets covered.  But it's one thing to be able to produce really fast cadence, but a whole other thing to maintain it, especially over steeper terrain where more muscles and systems are recruited to continue moving at this rate.  So how is one to train this cadence?  Here's what I've found so far.  (Photo Right:  Kilian Jornet the man with the fastest cadence, on the 2010 Relay World Championships course)

The first thing to begin with, after your base training period, is to start training your legs turnover rate or "cadence" on flat ground.  You aren't trying to do this over steeper terrain, purely flat, or a slight uphill.  Using intervals of 20 seconds, and extending these as you progress, to train is the first step.  By training on flat ground your body is learning how to turn each leg over faster, and by slowly increasing the amount of interval time, to maintain that faster cadence.  Flat ground also makes sure you are training this alone, and that other muscles and systems, are not being recruited which may hinder the quality of your workout.  On flat ground you are training your forward propulsion, whereas training on hills you are training your vertical propulsion.  You must train these separately.
(Photo Above:  Jeff Colvin brings vertical and forward momentum into one, 2010 WC Vertical Race)
Since you have to go up in ski mountaineering races, it would be silly to not train your uphill aerobic capacity, so continue doing so.  Easy as that.  This is your vertical propulsion training.  You will not notice an increase in speed right away, training takes time, and remember patience is a virtue.  Continuing with these two main training modalities, your cadence will naturally begin to increase, as the flatland training will begin to transfer over to the uphill training.

Now there is a trump card that can factor into this, which may slow some peoples improvement down, and that one thing is powder.  Skiing in the backcountry as many of us do, in search of beautiful powder, and bottomless blower does actually limit our training.  Yes it does help build power, breaking trail is a lot of hard work, but slows our cadence down.  Your body is constantly learning, and breaking trail solely as an aerobic workout, won't stop you from progressing but will slow your progression.  The reason is you cannot swing and move your feet as quickly, as if they were in a skintrack.  Racing is done in a slightly more artificial ampitheater than backcountry skiing.  It is in the backcountry, but there is a skintrack and bootpack put in for you, and although you may find the odd skintrack in the backcountry you are primarily breaking trail.  But hey, we can't neglect powder now can we.

Gear is also a large factor when it comes to cadence.  Being able to turn your feet over quickly, and efficiently, is hard work.  The weight from your skis and boots, are limiting, so having the lightest weight setup as possible allows you to move your feet faster and with less energy.  (Photo Below Right:  Our room mates boot at Pierra Menta, trying to find more speed with less weight)

Now this is the simplest way you can look at cadence training.  There are so many different modalities to speed training, and not just flat.  Racing will improve your cadence, as training fast will help you to race fast.  A race pace training day is good to throw into the mix as it will sew all the pieces together.  Strength training, and cross training will be important as well.  Other cadence training workouts can be a 30-40 minute run, and classic cross country skiing.  I would recommend that while training with your rando race gear on the flats, that your skins are nicely waxed, so that your glide is trained at the same time.  Remember efficiency is the key, and your body is constantly learning, so repeating race day style strides while training will create fast race day strides. If you are turning your stride over faster, but aslo gliding 5 centimeters as well, that equates to a 300m elevation gain over 1000m.   

In the end, do what works for you, and monitor your training well.  Ski Mountaineering Race training is still developing, and finding new and better ways of training.  But to give you an idea on how fast some racers are, top World Cup athletes are climbing at approximately 114 steps per minute (measured from the first ascent of the 2010 WC Individual Course).  How many steps are you taking?  


  1. Thanks Colvin! I've been out canvasing all my training partners and consultants for info on building speed. It is such a complex thing to train, hopefully will have another post out again soon.

  2. Good article Alex. Hit the nail on the head. One thing I would add is for people to look at the stride of world class speed walkers (Don't laugh). Not only the way they turn their feet over quickly but at the fact that this high rate of turnover is initiated through a type of rolling through the whole body, particularly the hips. When watching the really fast guys and gals in Europe I couldn't help but be reminded of speed walking. In both speed walking and skimo the goal is the same fast turnover (horizontal movement) without lifting your foot any further off the ground than is absolutely necessary. In speed walking these are the rules whereas in Skimo, you're just trying to avoid fatigue for as long as possible. Again...good article.

  3. Thanks James. As funny as speed walking can be, pulling training from everything similar and that can transfer over is important, in order to find what works best for training. Still don't think I am going to start speed walking anytime soon though for cross training, lol.

  4. Ah..come on Al....break out the nut-shot short-shorts, dust off the old Adidas Gazelles, and light the village up with some aggressive arm swinging!

    Seriously though, if anyone does any training on a treadmill, throw on some ankle weights, raise the incline to about 12ish degrees, maintain a speed-hike pace. The advantage of the treadmill is that you can't slow your cadence subconsiously to make it easy on yourself, you have maintain that turnover unless you push that button. Harder to cheat.

  5. Haha, yeah nothing cooler than short shorts! Especially with the knee high socks, striped golf shirt, and sweet headband!

    As for the training, that is a fantastic idea for training. Not only does your cadence remain the same, you can dial in your heart rate, and also mimic the weight of your boots on your feet. The next hurtle to overcome is the poling at the same time, hard to use poles on the treadmill.

  6. That pesky cold smoke always ruins my training down here! Nice article Alex. Please DON'T post pics of you or James speed walking ;-). I've done a lot more classic skiing on my XC gear for easy days as well as some interval days...it really promotes a quicker cadance. Some days I will pick "flatter" tours with the rando gear with this in mind. ...but its tough when there's powder to ski! Wick

  7. Don't worry Wick, there won't be any pics, just video - kidding. There has been a lot of good discussions lately on classic xc skiing. I'll have to try and throw that into the mix now that we have some verified results!

  8. Hey Alex...great article. You've alluded to these concepts in recent discussions we've had. I think we need to think year round on these ideas. My old xc coach used to say, "skiers are made in the summer." James has taken some pneumatic wheeled roller skied and made them into rando machines. I was thinking about this today on my long ski up to Skoki lodge and back. I don't think we can afford to blow off the summer months when it comes to training the motion and cadence.

  9. I agree Steve. I will be concentrating running on flat, and only rolling terrain. And concentrating my uphill training as only long slow distance, hiking and not running, with poles. To add to this, I want to put a good effort into getting up on the mountain and skinning when I can. I am currently putting together another article on other things other than intervals, such as strength and power training, will help with cadence. Any thoughts?