Skiing to Zero: A Zen Approach to Cross-Country Skiing

Updated on February 23, 2018

Focusing the mind on being aware of our thoughts and actions is a basic tenet of the practice of Buddism.

In the world today it takes conscious effort to back up and examine how we think and how we act.

In these modern times we are overwhelmed with information in all areas of our life - and cross country skiing is no exception.

As skiers we can allow ourselves to be bombarded with technical information. A partial list includes training plans, technique analysis, equipment specs, wax recommendations, snow conditions - the list is endless when you examine the sub categories of even this short list.

I am the first to admit both my fixation and fascination with all of the technical aspects of skiing. The absorption in the details and minutiae of the sport can be truly intoxicating.

While I cannot claim to be a Buddist, I do recognize a need to clear my
mind on a regular basis. Sometimes the combination of work and family responsibilities meshed with skiing ambitions leaves me emotionally, spiritually, and physically drained.

This is when I feel the need for a cleanse I call Skiing to Zero.


Skiing to Zero is a quest for rejuvenation via thought and action awareness. Much of it is focused on manipulating the physical environment which can be controlled in order to clear a path for the mind to be left empty. While manipulating the physical environment is crucial, equally important is developing a mental discipline that requires a shift of focus from our usual ways of thinking.

The physical environment has several factors including venue, the bodies' physical state, equipment, technique, workload, and human interaction.

The venue is important as illustrated by the contrast between a few different choices. In the Twin Cities metro, we have been blessed with the development of man made snowmaking loops which provide training venues during low natural snow periods. During low snow, these areas are naturally packed with people. It can
be really fun and social to ski at these areas and to take advantage of the opportunity to ski and catch up with old friends. It is also energizing to be there on high school race days, and to pick up on the vibe of young people passionate about racing.

When you live in the city it takes mental energy and patience to deal with traffic, human foibles and closeness. The same is true with a crowded ski loop.

A better choice for your Ski to Zero is a rural trail through the woods. My favorite is the North End Trail system in Cable, Wisconsin. It is not a wide trail, which leaves a mental impression of personal size within the context of the world. (Contrasted by the beautiful and amazing American Birkebeiner Trail which is very wide and can leave a skier feeling somewhat dwarfed by it). The feeling of physical size leaves a mental impression of importance in the world, a factor in the end goal of Skiing to Zero.

The idea is that if you feel like you matter, chances are you will be left with the idea that others matter as well, and thus your actions will be more mindful.

In addition to width, the North End Trail has excellent flow and rhythm. This is directly related to the pleasure experienced during the ski. This trail is aesthetically very pleasing, as it takes you through pine forest, hardwoods, glacial valleys-beautiful! Lots of variety in terms of vegetation and richly populated by woodland creatures as well, all of which help you get to Zero.

Your physical state when Skiing to Zero includes being rested, fed, and hydrated. A "bonk" throws your mind into a state of confusion. I have never done it, but I imagine skiing with a hangover would be pretty distracting and painful. So the bottom line is get plenty of rest the night before, limit your alcohol consumption, and hydrate and fuel at least every 45 minutes during your ski. Stay ahead of it, but don't obsess. The food and water are to keep you physically comfortable so it is easy to clear your mind.

When choosing gear for the day, give yourself a break. If the trail is less than perfect, grab a pair of "B" skis. This way you remove any obsessive thought of preserving those two precious strips of race perfect ptex under your feet.

Leave the lycra race suit at home. Your sponsors will forgive you. You are not a racer today. None of that matters today.

Wax should be a huge non-issue other than assuring you have decent kick if classic skiing. For one day, stop obsessing. You are not setting pr's or chasing anyone so it won't matter. Throw them down and go.

If there is one word that describes the sought after technique, it is "relaxed".
The second word would be "slow". If you are tempted to use a heart rate monitor during this ski, pray for a release of temptation. You as an athlete know how to keep your heart rate low all on your own. Be focused on your body.
Learn to listen.

When you feel your legs building lactate, double pole until it clears. When you feel your core tiring, stride or skate again. When in doubt, slow down. Resist the urge to push much into the pain zone.

Someone will surely overtake you on the trail. It may even be someone less fit or with poor technique. Worse, it may be a competitive rival. Your urge will be to chase them down. Let them go. Today is for you, not your ego. On the North End Trail, unlike a city loop, your chances of such an interaction are way lower.

So as a competitor you of course are asking "is there any training benefit in this workout?" Great question. It has been shown that long, slow efforts have the effect of building capillary density within the muscle, which of course increases their capacity to carry and absorb oxygen. So now you know. Now put that out of your mind. It is simply not important.

The duration of the ski should be very long for you. Assess your longest workouts, and stretch this one just past them. Mentally if you know you are going long, if you have a brain you will naturally slow down. As an intuitive athlete you know you cannot focus on too many factors at once. (Ask yourself - "can I do a level 4 interval for 45 minutes?")Of course not!

Breathing should be consciously very deep and very low in terms of rate of breaths per minute. Research shows that deep, slow breathing delivers more 02 to the tissues that shallow rapid breathing. Your goal is to bathe in oxygen without getting too out of breath.

A few years ago I was on a group rollerski aiming for 50 k that day. This was a pretty high level group of skiers, the best being a national caliber olympic hopeful. I noticed that she was well off the back all day, skiing excruciatingly slow. Curious, I dropped back to see if she was ok. She replied that she was feeling great...just keeping at level 1 per her training plan. Her interval days were so hard, she said, that she needed this type of day to recover physically and mentally. She and everyone else there knew that she could easily smoke the entire group and
"win" the training session. The lesson that day was that she had her ego and mental discipline firmly under control, much to her own benefit.

I love social skis with groups of my buddies. These are a time to catch up, joke around, tease each other, and bond. When Skiing to Zero it is probably best to either ski with people who are on the same page for that workout and can ski silently, or to just ski alone. Minimal outside input or personal output is a requirement of getting into a meditative skiing state. This is to be a quiet ski by design, as it takes mental focus to empty your mind of the usual distractions inherent to the sport.

For the first few times, be aware of your thinking in terms of just ski related thoughts. When a technique thought pops up, clear it. When workout parameters come to mind, banish them. If you start to wonder if you waxed too cold, too warm, or think about if you chose the proper grind or flex of ski, stop. Release thought of your race times, wave placements, finishing places-all of it.Your goal is to focus on breathing, being relaxed and clearing your mind.

As you get more experience, you can branch out to eliminate thoughts of work, school, financial, world and other issues. With practice it will be all breathing and moving relaxed without thinking of anything at all. Your mind will be clear the entire time.

You will be Skiing to Zero.

© 2018 Dale Vaillancourt


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