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Winter as a means

By Anna Gibson

Professional runner, Anna Gibson, discusses how days on skis elevate her running career.

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Photo by Elise Sterck

People who have spent time in mountain towns know that as soon as the crisp fall air begins to color the foliage, it’s time to get ready for the winter season. When the first flakes fly, bikes are hung and skis are pulled from the shed. Future powder-seekers start talking about how to gain some last minute “ski fitness”. Extra visits to the gym? Some more miles on the running shoes?

It goes unnoticed, but a related phenomenon happens on the other side of winter too, when the sun turns strong and begins to bake the snow away. Humans challenge themselves, skiing peaks until there’s no snowpack left to slide on. So many snow-lovers, without intentionally trying to build “run fitness”, have laid the physical foundation for an epic trail running season in the months to come.

Even as a professional runner, it took me years to realize how significantly my skiing habits throughout the winter and spring were contributing to my summer fitness. I grew up ski racing in Jackson, Wyoming—first alpine, then nordic. I retired from competing on skis as my running career blossomed, but I continued to explore the backcountry through touring because it brought me so much joy and community. 

At times, I felt pressure from running coaches and competitors to ski less and run more: how could you ever get fit and fast without running more and more miles per week? For a while, I didn’t have an answer. I just kept skiing. I see clearly now that spending time in the snowy mountains can be both something you love and something you use as a means for fitness. I am no sports scientist, but my own experience has proven to me that skiing is physiologically more like running than we give it credit for. Here are a few key ways in which skiing prepares the body and mind for a summer full of running.

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Photo by Dylan Harris

Altitude training

Many runners go to altitude to gain aerobic adaptations. Exercising at altitude increases plasma and red blood cell volume, strengthens your heart, and teaches your body how to function efficiently in a low-oxygen environment. If you ski, you have given your body the pleasure of random altitude stimuli all winter. Consistent altitude exposure means your body will know exactly what to do when you start logging miles in the mountains on foot this summer. 

Sharpening mental acuity

Regardless of whether you are in the resort or the backcountry, skiing is far from just physical. Keeping yourself and your friends safe in the mountains requires significant mental fortitude, as you simultaneously navigate geography, terrain features, and social relationships. You can, of course, develop strong mental acuity in other areas of life, but skiing forces you to exercise this muscle while also physically exerting yourself. A winter full of time in the mountains means that when it is time to make sure you stay on your feet running through a boulder field or a rooty forest trail, your brain is up for the challenge.

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Photo by Dylan Harris

Uphill work equals aerobic and strength gains

If skiing takes the form of touring for you, there are even more benefits to be reaped. Perhaps the most obvious is the aerobic effort it takes to climb the skin track or boot pack. Your lungs don’t know the difference between this type of exercise and running. Furthermore, propelling yourself uphill while wearing a backpack is like repeatedly doing a weighted single-leg step-up in the gym. A common exercise for runners, step-ups build stability and strengthen your posterior chain. This same system of muscles is responsible for generating power when you run.   

So whether your running goal this summer is to start getting out on the trails or to push the boundaries of the sport, don’t forget to account for all that training you did on skis this winter. It might not have been a conventional training program, but you are one step closer to a summer of trail running adventures.

Anna Gibson is a professional runner who competes globally on the track, road, and trails. She formerly competed for the University of Washington, where she helped break an NCAA relay record while earning a Masters in environmental law. She now balances her running career with winters on skis and serving as a grassroots advocate for the Teton Backcountry Alliance in Jackson, Wyoming.

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