Culture

Olympic Gold Medal Skier Jessie Diggins Loves Trail Running

An exclusive interview with the 2018 cross-country gold medalist.

Minnesota native Jessie Diggins, with teammate Kikkan Randall, put cross-country skiing in the spotlight (for basically the first time, ever, in America) when they skied their hearts out on our televisions during the Team Sprint Free event at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. By the tip of Diggin’s ski at the end of a gutsy sprint, the pair won the first-ever Nordic skiing Olympic gold medal for the United States.

The 29-year-old professional skier races on the FIS Cross-Country World Cup in Europe all winter (COVID-era pending, for this coming season), but trains as a high-level athlete all year. As part of that training, Diggins and teammates take to the trails to run. (Not only is it great cross-training: There’s no snow on the ground most of the year in Stratton, Vermont.)

Our sister publication Women’s Running caught up with Diggins to hear more about trail running, her favorite shoes, and why she thinks she was an ultrarunner in another life.

Women’s Running: How much trail running do you do and what are your favorite kinds of trails, or your favorite trail?

Jessie Diggins: In the summer I live and train out of Stratton. I’m so fortunate because I’m a few minutes away from the Appalachian Trail, where you can basically pick a direction and go as long as you want. It’s definitely more technical than the state park in Minnesota where I used to run. But rocks and roots are the bread and butter of the Appalachian Trail, where you definitely have to be pretty sprightly and look out for where you’re stepping.

I actually really love it because you have to be so present. It makes the time fly by for sure.

You can run the same trail and come back the other way, and it feels like a totally different experience. And right now with the fall leaves down, it looks like a totally different trail. That’s really cool because you’re never bored.

I also run on gravel roads, and on paved roads sometimes, but not so much because my body’s not used to that kind of pounding.

We sometimes run the West River Trail, which is flatter and wider and with easier footing, where you can run two or three people across which is nice because it’s social.

Can you talk a little more about how the technical footing forces you to be present?

Sometimes you do your best thinking when you’re out running. If I’m writing a blog on eating disorders, and I’m like, “How can I write what I’m thinking and feeling to get this message out?” I’ll think, “Alright I’ll go on a training run by myself without my phone, without a podcast,” and that’s when I compose my best thoughts. That’s where my best thinking occurs.

I have a good relationship with running. It makes me feel good. Running itself doesn’t always feel good. But running always makes me feel good after and even during.

How often do you run, and how do you use trail running as cross-training for Nordic skiing?

Trail running is an amazing way of cross-training. We’re lucky in that basically anything you do that makes you sweat is probably great training for cross-country skiing. We’re training six days a week, twice a day. At least every other day, we do some kind of running. Sometimes it’s just a half-hour run for warm-up.

This morning, we did a 2.5-hour trail run. People who are into training sometimes say, “You’re running so slow!” because we stay in a Zone 1 heart rate, which means we’re running slow enough that we can carry on a conversation. We do that because when it’s time to go hard, then we go really, really hard. And you can’t do that if all your runs are hard.

We also don’t log miles. We don’t do, say, 10 miles at hard tempo because if we don’t want to commit to certain mileage that would make us do a longer effort at a higher heart rate.

I can’t tell you what my weekly mileage is. In a way it’s harder to keep track of the amount of pounding you’re putting on your body.

Skiing is weight-bearing but it’s gliding, so with running and not tracking mileage, you do have to be careful in terms of rotating shoes, keeping an eye on how your knee or other parts of your body are doing… Not tracking mileage sort of forces you to be in tune with your body.

Jessie Diggins rests while trail running
Photo: Pete O’Brien

You’re a Salomon-sponsored athlete. Which shoes do you run in?

I have difficult feet. They’re beat up from being in a ski boot. I like the Sense Pro line for trail running. They’re super-comfortable. The shoe flexes with me so it doesn’t aggravate bone spurs, and it has the kind of grip that works for me.

I like the new Predict SOC. They’re cute, so I can go for run, then grocery store, and have what I need if I’m going out the door for a quick run on the roads.

For cross training in the gym, I like the Sonic 3 Confidence, and Sonic 3 Balance. I’ll go run a warm-up on gravel, or roads, or trails, and the shoes have enough there that I feel confident. They also have a good platform for me to do jumps and lifts in the gym.

I find all their shoes to be incredibly cute, which might sound shallow but it does give you motivation to get to out the door. With cute apparel, and shoes, if you’re excited about your gear and you love what it looks like and how you feel in it, you’re more likely to go run. There has to be something there.

Can you talk about your recent 30-ish mile run you called, “The Big Stupid” in your blog ? How do adventures like that fuel you?

In my heart I think maybe I was an ultramarathoner in another life. I really truly love these adventures where I’m like, “Oh I really don’t know if I can do it.” And I do it just to finish it, not to race. I get enough racing in my normal, everyday job. I happen to love running. I did a marathon on the Appalachian Trail just to do it. It was in a beautiful place, with cool people. And people I meet on the trail are always so inspiring.

The reason I don’t do these all the time in terms of training is because they’re “expensive” to my training. If you run 10 hours over eight different peaks, that takes something out of your training sessions. My coach is like, “It’s fine if you do one or two of those a year.” My coach and I plan out, “When does this make sense?” I wouldn’t go do a 30-mile trail run with multiple peaks if I wasn’t confident running over five hours… if I wasn’t confident I could go do more. That run had like, 9,000 feet of vertical climbing or something. It’s just, on a beautiful day, the views are jaw-dropping… It’s inspiring. It makes you feel so alive. Those sorts of things keep me so excited.

In my heart I love to train. Once in a while I have to let loose and do the epic adventure.

We read that you rolled your ankle on that run. What happened?

That’s the only time I rolled my foot. I inherited a very high pain tolerance (thanks, Mom and Dad!). And I also didn’t have a lot of options [to bail out]. I had to get back, so I ran the last 18 miles on a badly sprained ankle. The nurses thought it was broken and were like, “How did you run on that?” It was badly swollen from the running. But even with a sprained ankle, I remember being just like, “Wow!” The views were so great. I was running these ridgelines… Seeing people out. I had a mask with me and there was room to step off the trail, so it felt really safe. But seeing how many people were out enjoying nature in the midst of a pandemic and in nature to let that lift their spirits. All the families, kids… It was really awesome.

There are a lot more people taking to the trails these days because of COVID. More people seem to be discovering the joys of sports they didn’t do before.

Yes, [I hope it’s the same with] Nordic skiing, too. It’s low-impact. You take a one-hour lesson and you can do it. It’s awesome when you see so many people out there.

[Exercising in nature is] one of the best ways to boost ways to immune system. Nature is so calming, so restorative. Exercise boosts your immune system, assuming you have a safe way to do it. Just get out and do it.

What does your race season look like this year with the pandemic?

We’re a few days away from another meeting to confirm the World Cup Calendar, in terms of logistics. There will be a season, with lots of safety protocols in place, which makes me feel good. We will be over in Europe.

I love the process of training. I love the way I get to run, do workouts, and the people I get to do them with. I’ve definitely trained to race and to win this year, and it’s been worth it. I have the best job in the world and I feel like even if there isn’t racing, the training gets carried over in to the Olympic year. Coming in as the defending gold medalist, there’s some pressure there. I train like I’m gonna get the chance to race.

I think if you train like you’re gonna get the chance to race, and mentally be prepared to be adaptable, it’s not, “Oh, it’s such a waste” if you don’t get to race. When people say that, I’m kind of like, “Well, didn’t you enjoy it at all?” It’s not for nothing. I feel lucky, I have this really great team. And with running, I get excited I get to do all these different modes of training. All the options keep me hungry for years to come.

You have a great Instagram feed. The “It’s Jess” TV show intro remake as part of the #jessiemikaeladanceoff with alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin was awesome. Who won that danceoff?

No one was really supposed to win. Mikaela texted me and was like, “Hey you wanna do another round?” and we happened to be sitting on the couch watching “New Girl.” We definitely try to not take ourselves too seriously. Social media is everyone’s highlight reel, which is why I posted about my sprained ankle, my past eating disorder.

I think it’s important for young girls reading this that you can find success in doing something even if it’s not perfect. Nobody’s perfect, even if you think that they are on social. Just enjoy what you’re doing. Get out with your friends [safely]. It doesn’t have to be too perfect. Perfect like you see on social is not the real story anyway. Perfect usually isn’t going to leave you happy.

Check out Jessie Diggins’ autobiography, Brave Enough (University of Minnesota Press, 2020).