Ruslan Reiter competes in the Cross-Country Skiing 4x2.5km Mixed Relay at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games on March 18, 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Training doesn’t stop when the snow melts for the top U.S. Para Nordic skiers. The summer offseason simply brings new training methods, and coaches must think outside the box and find ways for skiers with spinal cord injuries, vision loss and limb impairments to train away from snow.
Ruslan Reiter, for example, was born with an underdeveloped right arm. In the summertime, when it’s harder for Reiter to get on snow, the youngest member of the 2018 U.S. Nordic skiing team in PyeongChang stays in shape by riding a mountain bike. His bike first had to get modified to account for his impairment.
“We met with a mechanic in town to try to figure out how to set up those brakes on one of his handlebars,” said Nick Michaud, the development team coach for U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing. “And so we just have to be a little bit more creative about those things.”
Creativity is the name of the game when working with athletes who have a range of unique impairments, especially during the warmer summer months.
Athletes often work out with an exercise machine called a SkiErg that simulates the Nordic skiing motion. They also stay prepared by roller skiing, which is similar to cross-country skiing with wheels attached to skis for riding on hard surfaces.
In addition, Para Nordic skiers often mix up their training in the summertime, giving them a mental break from ski training. Some also participate in other sports, such as track, swimming and surfing.
“The most committed athletes always find a way to train effectively in the summer, and it’s one aspect that sets the best athletes apart from their peers,” said Martin Benes, the U.S. Paralympics cross-country skiing coach. “Creativity is a natural part of Para Nordic skiing, and the training is no different.
“With athletes on the national team, we’re always having conversations about ways that we can adjust workouts and learn from their feedback.”
Benes said Nordic skiing is a sport that requires year-round training. Athletes must maintain their fitness levels and be prepared for the grueling race schedule in the winter.
“Our race series typically consists of six races in eight days for the athletes, and to stay healthy and ready to race throughout, they need to be used to consistent training,” Benes
said. “There are many different elements to our sport, and a good summer of preparation allows athletes to make the most of their time on snow in the winter.”
However, the coronavirus pandemic made it more difficult for Para Nordic skiers to train this past summer compared to previous years.
U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing typically holds three offseason training camps — one in Oregon in May, another in New Zealand in August and the final one in Sweden or Germany in October. The training camps give skiers an opportunity to get on snow during the long layoff.
This year’s offseason training camps had to be canceled, though, because of the pandemic. As a result, athletes were more responsible than usual for their own training.
“In these times where travel to get on snow over the summer is limited, it’s about getting creative and thinking up ways to recreate specific pieces the athletes can get from being in an on-snow environment,” Benes said.
Heather Galeotalanza, who sustained a spinal cord injury during a rock climbing accident in 2016, takes part in sit skiing. She sits in a bucket seat attached to skis, called a sit ski, and uses ski poles to propel herself across the snow.
Galeotalanza said her summer training regimen includes lifting weights and training indoors on a SkiErg. She regularly rides her recumbent trike and goes on hikes to maintain her cardio fitness and strengthen her legs and hip.
“I train a lot on my bike in the summer. I go on a lot of long bike rides,” Galeotalanza said. “Usually 1-2 times a week I’ll go on a bike ride.”
Benes said U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing coaches typically ask athletes to do 1-2 high-intensity training sessions per week in addition to two strength sessions, one speed session and one longer distance session that lasts more than two hours.
Benes said that training plan often continues throughout the year, with a few small adjustments made along the way to keep things fresh and challenging for athletes.
“We just make sure we do enough specific work on a SkiErg and in the weight room, so that when there’s the addition of snow, (athletes) are ready to rock,” Michaud said. “So that part is a little bit more creative than non-adaptive athletes.”