If you’re planning on running an ultra-marathon this summer – whether in the mountains or in the UK – then ski touring is a popular choice for winter training.
Kilian Jornet uses extensive ski touring to build his endurance base during the off-season and trail runners have increasingly taken to this great form of cross training.
Using ‘skins’ to ski uphill
Ski touring – also known as Ski Mountaineering – is simply uphill skiing, made possible by attaching ‘skins’ to the base of your skis. The skins are man-made with synthetic fibres but are modelled on the original seal skins and allow the ski to pass over the snow smoothly in one direction, but grip firmly in the other.
You can hire touring skis and boots from most hire shops in the Alps. If you’re on holiday many shops will let you trade in your regular skis for a day and try touring.
And if you happen to be on a ski holiday, but missing your local park run or the need to get competitive and race, then many resorts hold races, giving you a chance to test your lungs at altitude.
I recently took part in the Millet Ski Touring Race, which takes place weekly in Courchevel in the French Alps.
They say you learn from your mistakes, so with that in mind, here are my ‘7 Tips for your First Ski Touring Race’:
Treat your ski touring race with more respect than any normal running race. You need to leave enough time to get your kit ready, go to the loo, get to the start, warm up and get in the start gate.
If you’ve only just picked up your skis from the hire shop and like me, don’t have a lot of ski touring experience, then I strongly recommend you put your skins on your skis beforehand.
It can be tricky peeling the protective cover off the sticky side of the skin and you have to make sure they are a tight fit on the bottom of your ski or they will come off once you start touring.
Although some touring skis have hybrid bindings that will fit a normal ski boot, touring-specific ski bindings have two pins that clip into your touring boots. It can take a bit of practice to master this slightly different skill.
Even more importantly you then need to put the bindings and boots into ‘Walk’ mode. This means your heel will be free, allowing you to climb easily. On the way back down, you can set them into ‘Ski’ mode so your foot is held firm in the binding.
Some races can be mass starts, but most races send skiers off at 15 or 30-second intervals. Make sure you know the start process for your race, as racers tend to be seeded with the most inexperienced starting first.
If you miss your slot, it can be a depressing start as all the fastest racers will over-take you before you’ve even got round the first corner (and yes, this happened to me!)
It can be difficult knowing what to wear when the air temperature is less then zero, yet you’re going to be working hard. Your regular ski jacket and pants are not the right choice for this type of event. Instead choose warm, breathable and wickable layers, with a Buff instead of a woolly hat.
All ski touring races are point-to-point from the bottom of a hill to the top, so if you don’t have a support team who can meet you at the finish, then you’ll need a backpack with warmer kit to ski down in. Many races organise a bag drop so you can collect it at the top when you’ve finished.
It’s worth getting a feel for what you’re going to have to go through before you start. Is the course a steady, even ascent or are there super-steep sections?
For the latter, most ski bindings have different heel settings to make it easier for you when the gradient hits its peak. Make sure you know how to activate them before you start and you’ll find it much easier.
A classic beginner’s mistake is to ‘walk’ your way up the mountain. Instead you want to keep your skis in contact with the snow the whole time and ‘slide’ your way up the mountain.
Depending on your mobility and how fast you want to finish, you’ll probably be better focusing on smaller movements and maintaining a good rhythm.
Best of luck wherever you do your first ski touring race. The course record in Courchevel is held by Kilian Jornet at 23m36s. I clocked in at over fifty minutes, so I guess I’ll be chasing Kilian for a while yet!
See you on the mountain.