Kikkan’s Nordic Marathon Tips

Hello, and welcome to winter! If you’re a snow enthusiast like me, the winter brings a chance to spend time outside, gliding on the snow, enjoying the crisp winter air, and the opportunity to challenge your body and mind in the full-body sport of cross-country skiing.

A highlight for many skiers during the season is building up to participate in a Nordic marathon ski race. Like running marathons, these events bring great energy and a tough challenge.

When racing professionally on the World Cup for the U.S. Ski Team, I raced all distances and techniques, but my best events were the sprints. All-out efforts over 2-3 minutes, with repeated heats until the winner was crowned in the big Final. Sprints are hard, fast, and painful but also short. I found I would rather be in a lot of pain for a short time rather than less pain carried out over a longer duration. Once I concluded my World Cup career and jumped into regular life, I soon discovered the allure of nordic marathon racing and started signing up for a few.

The first two years after I stopped my elite racing career, I still carried a fair amount of fitness and could get away with hammering out race efforts without consistent training to back me up. Without maintaining a rigorous and consistent training schedule, the lack of exercise has become a more limiting factor. So instead of just jumping into a race, I’ve realized some tips come in handy to better prepare for these events, to have a good experience on the trail, and, in some cases, help ensure I make it to the finish line.

I’ve had to learn the hard way. So I thought I would share what I’ve learned and help others not repeat some of the same mistakes.

  1. Plan ahead! Picking a race far enough off in the distance (min 2-3 months) allows enough time to put in several vital workouts to prepare for the longer duration of the race. I found having 8-12 weeks gives me a chance to ski enough and build up a few longer distance workouts to get my body ready for the effort in the race. I also try to find a day each week to get in a more extended session. That seems to be the most critical and consistent workout in the schedule.
  2. It’s worth the wax job! I have to admit I’ve gotten a little lazy when waxing my skis—both for workouts and races. As I tackle these longer events, I’ve come to appreciate how beneficial taking the extra 10-15 min to wax my skis really is. Every push costs energy and the better the skis can glide on the snow, the more energy is available later in the race! When tight for time, I always figure I will be fine out there on whatever happens to be on my skis already.
  3. Bring your snacks with you! The first couple of times racing the American Birkie 50km ski race, I decided not to wear a water bottle or bring any gels or energy food with me. I figured I could grab stuff at the feed stations and would see plenty of people out on the course that could give me something if I needed it. In my 2022 Birkie, however, I didn’t take the time to hit the feed stations early in the race, and I had nothing with me. So when the bottom (of my energy) dropped out around 25km, I suddenly slowed to a crawl and was at the mercy of my depleted energy stores. It was so painful and humbling! Thankfully, I got a packet of UnTapped Pure Maple Syrup at 26km and brought myself back to life. It was still a struggle to finish but I made it. After that experience, I vowed I would never jump into a long race again without coordinating a feeding plan ahead of the race and bringing some energy food with me! One of my favorite energy food products to carry with me is the UnTapped packets of syrup. Easy to swish down, they don’t freeze in the cold and the maple syrup provides a boost of energy without the intense sugar rush of some other products.
  4. Layer up! Racing 50km or more can span several hours, during which weather conditions and temperatures can change. I’ve found it helpful to think about different ways to layer so that I can manage colder temps in the beginning of the race and not be cooked and overheated by the end. Wearing quality moisture-wicking materials for the base layer helps regulate body temperature and efficiently manages sweat so you don’t get too sweaty early in the race and then freeze. I’ve also used the tactic of putting a hat over a headband so I can be warm at the start and then tossing off the hat during the race once I’ve heated up.
  5. Make plans with friends! Invite your friends to sign up and do the race with you. Knowing that others depend on me has helped me get out the door numerous times and stay committed to getting workouts in. Inviting friends also makes it about more than just a race and is an experience I crave after years of traveling on the World Cup with a tight-knit team. I love talking through the preparation, the performance, and the post-racing feelings after the race. 

There are already too many stories to tell where I didn’t follow this advice and got burned. Now I have a little more distance racing experience under my belt and will be a little more organized and strategic for the next race I take.

To quote one of my favorite movies, A League of Their Own, “The hard is what makes it great”  is a mantra I use during these long-distance events to keep myself calm and make forward progress. With a little more attention and prep, I think I can save a little of the hard part and really focus on soaking in the great experience of these longer events.

Happy training for your next nordic marathon!

Kikkan 🙂