You have probably seen them roll by. Dressed in tights, helmets, and orange safety vests, there they go again. It’s the Middlebury College cross-country ski team on roller skis.
Often in groups of 10 or 12, the men and women skiers take to the paved roads around the College for demanding workouts starting in September and continuing until, well, until there’s enough snow on the ground for actual skiing.
Like a short ski on two wheels, roller skis have been used for Nordic dry-land training for decades. And because the action is almost identical to cross-country skiing on snow, Middlebury athletes on roller skis develop balance, rhythm, muscle strength, and cardio-vascular capacity in the weeks and months leading up to the skiing season. They can also refine their techniques since there are two types of roller skis: one with wider wheels for classic skiing and another with narrower wheels for the newer style known as “skate” skiing.
“Roller skis offer us the best training we can do without snow,” says Andrew Gardner, coach of the Middlebury cross-country ski team. “It’s roughly the equivalent of working out on a stationary bicycle in the off season for competitive cycling.”
“But,” Gardner cautions, “you can’t roller ski every day. If you did, you’d just end up tired when it comes time to race. So we develop workout plans in four-week cycles in order to combine roller skiing with weight training and running.”
Sometimes the skiers roller-ski with poles and sometimes they train without them. Sometimes they run on the roads and sometimes they “bound” (i.e., run) up hills. Some days they rest and others they push hard. Each athlete’s exercise program is charted out weeks in advance on a white board in Gardner’s office. And the number next to each skier’s name on the board—575, 625, etc.—is the target number of training hours expected of each athlete per year.
“Like in any endurance sport, it’s all about how efficiently you are getting oxygen to your muscles,” he explains. “And of course the goal for us is to peak at our races.” Two critical factors for Nordic skiers are “VO2 max,” or the highest rate of oxygen consumption attainable during maximal exercise, and lactate threshold, or the point at which lactate starts to accumulate in the blood stream. Gardner and assistant coach Patty Ross monitor both variables, and create individual workouts, for all 19 members of their team.
But exercise physiology aside, it’s clear that roller skiing has helped Middlebury’s skiers excel at the highest level against NCAA Division 1 schools like Colorado, Utah, UVM and Dartmouth. The team has a long and storied history. Most recently, Garrott Kuzzy ’06 and Simeon Hamilton ’09 represented the United States at the 2010 Winter Olympics and, according to Gardner, almost every returning member of this year’s squad has had a top-10 finish in a major college race.