Success Factors for Olympic Cross-Country Skiing


Alyssa Bialowas


On a mission to find best-practice training programs for both sprint and distance cross-country skiing, I came across research from Norway and Sweden that reappraised success factors for Olympic cross-country skiing. Cross-country skiing has been an event in the Olympics since the first winter games Olympics in France in 1924. Due to improvements in equipment, track preparation, and science that surround the sport, the average speed of the races has increased more than any other endurance sport in the Olympic games.

Mass-starts and sprint races were introduced over the years since it’s inception, requiring cross-country skier athletes to employ tactics throughout their race to push their max in the final sprint. The variation in the range of a cross-country ski course requires athletes to alternate between different physiological functions during a race. High aerobic capacity (VO2 max) demands measured on contemporary cross-country skier Olympic athletes remain similar to the demands measured decades ago. However, cross-country skier athletes have increased their endurance training on roller skis, igniting their upper-body power and strength training to levels previously unseen.

Changes Found and Explained

Distance skiers from Sweden and Norway in the elite class have an aerobic capacity similar to their Olympic predecessors. In both sprint and distance XC skiing, athletes must transform metabolic energy into speed, and their ability to do this leads to their podium success or failure. Demands on anaerobic capacity, upper-body strength, have all increased over the last few decades. Sprint skiers have a higher anaerobic capacity than distance skiers but have a very slightly lower VO2 max.

Related Article: Headaches and VO2 max

cc-bodyTactical techniques have played a role in the speed increase of XC ski races, such as double-push skating on flat terrain, which can attain higher peak force and speed while you are on flat rather than uphill terrain. On uphill terrain, maximal work for a given metabolic cost can be achieved, and these sections require the highest aerobic output on the course terrain. XC skiers must utilize downhill sections for recovery. Faster skiers utilize downhill turns to apply the step-turn technique to increase their acceleration.

Endurance training has always been a major component of an XC skier’s training program. The amount of endurance training has remained relatively unchanged in the last three decades, and athletes participate primarily in low-intensity interval training and low-to-moderate amounts of high-intensity training in regard to endurance. The most dominant types of endurance training remain skiing, roller skiing, and cross-country running on a difficult variant terrain.

Related Article: Get in Shape for Backcountry Ski Touring

Compared with their predecessors, contemporary XC skiers incorporate strength, power and speed training for optimal race results. Training programs focus on endurance and strength of the upper body, and skiers that specialize in sprint racing emphasize training on the competition-specific terrain.


Future areas of research may consider the ability to measure these same variables in a variety of outdoor races, especially in an Olympic XC ski race conditions. This will enhance future observations made that track changes that occur due to variations in temperature, variations in snow conditions, and variations in track profiles. Observations from competitions in the future will provide the data necessary to enhance best practice training guidelines that will lead to podium success at the Olympics.

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Holmberg, H-C., & Sandbakk, Ø. (2013). “A Reappraisal Of Success Factors For Olympic Cross-Country Skiing.” International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 9,1, 117-121.

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