You push and push as the top gets ever closer. That peak you saw from the road less than an hour ago is now right in front of you. All around is blue sky, except for the sun, which warms the back of your neck. You gasp for air while continuing to put one foot in front of the other. The climb is hard, really hard, but the conditions are perfect. The sun’s rays bounce off the snow and hit you in the face. The sweat pours from your forehead but you are near, so very near. And then you make it. The mountain summit is yours. You stop for a minute and marvel at the powerful view before taking a big sip of icy water. You are alone… you are free… you are enjoying life. It doesn’t get much better than this… or does it? Within a minute you have switched from uphill hiker to downhill skier. The slope ahead is untouched. It will be your skies that cut the first turns in the fresh powder. The adrenalin super-charges its way through your body as you propel downwards back towards the road from where you started. Wow. What a day. That, my friends, is ski mountaineering, or skimo.
But why write about this for a blog site filled with running and training articles? Well it’s simple really – because the sport of ski mountaineering / randonee / skimo is seen by many top mountain and trail runners as the perfect way to cross-train during the winter. My first taste of skimo here in Norway came five years ago. Prior to that I’d banked a lot of experience in cross-country skiing, normal ski touring and ski alpinism, while always using heavier equipment to get the most out of downhill runs. I’ve learnt a lot in those past five years, and while the profile of the sport has rocketed, I’m still regularly asked the same question: ‘If I spend a winter doing skimo will it make me a better mountain runner come the summer?’
First lets take a more technical look at what skimo is. You start by investing in a super lightweight slalom boot that has a flexible ankle joint. Next you take a lighter, shorter version of slalom skis and put some adhesive nylon skins underneath them for increased grip. Finally you grab short cross-country ski poles and off you go to skin up the nearest mountain. On reaching the summit you rip off the adhesive skins on the underside of your skis, lock the boot at the ankle joint and click the heels into the special bindings. All that remains now is to ski back down. Simple really… providing you can ski of course!
The benefits of skimo directly related to running
The equipment is specifically made for the activity, and while the sports stores obviously don’t give it away for free, there’s now a lot more high quality skimo gear at reasonable prices. So what are the benefits directly relating skimo to running?
1. Skimo is a low impact sport (if you don’t crash on the downhill!) so it gives tired running legs a break during the winter.
2. It’s a sport where, just like in mountain running, you transport your body uphill fast, and it therefore it gives your heart and lungs a good workout.
3. All the downhills provide good strength training for your legs, while also helping you practice fighting the onset of lactic acid.
4. It takes you to lots of beautiful places in the mountains, which you can revisit when running in the summer.
5. The downhill is fun, which is important for both the spirit and the mind! It also helps you build up a resistance to fear when running downhill.
The drawbacks of skimo
With all these benefits it’s easy to see why skimo is viewed as a perfect winter training alternative to running, but as for every cross-training method it also has it drawbacks, for example:
1. It takes lots more time to prepare and then partake in a skimo session than it does running. This can be a challenge if, like me, you have a busy family and work life.
2. The downhills can cause injuries!
3. There is a risk that you might gain too much leg muscle.
4. The mountains can be a dangerous place, especially in winter with avalanche hazards hiding beneath the beautiful white surface.
So you’ve read the pros and cons and you’ll obviously now want to know if skimo is worth it… The simple answer is a big yes! Of course it’s easy for me to say that given I’m already in love with the sport, have a lot of past skiing experience and live in a place where winter lasts for six months, but I would have no hesitation in recommending skimo.
Get out and explore the mountains and backcountry
The best way is to try it. Ok, so it won’t make you a better runner overnight and it takes a lot of hard work, but I believe it is the perfect way to compliment your running training during the winter months, plus it provides a great way to explore the mountains and backcountry.
If possible, head out to somewhere like The Alps where there is a great choice of mountains to practice on and where it’s easier to get up and down them in comparison to wilder hills in the backcountry. Practice, practice, practice… and as your skills improve head out onto starter hills on days when the conditions are good. Don’t risk it in bad conditions! So what are you waiting for? Get out there and enjoy your winter training… either with or without skis on your feet.