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Beginner's guide to Cross-Country Skiing

From: Scott
Sent on: Monday, December 13, 2010 8:41 PM
For those of you who might want to try X-skiing this winter (and we do go up to Eldora for classes) here's a starter's guide I found on the 'net.

Nordic skiing: Trail glide
By Linda J. Buch
Special to The Denver Post
Posted: 12/24/[masked]:00:00 AM MSTUpdated: 12/24/[masked]:01:07 AM MST

A skier makes a trail across the countryside near Gunnison. Cross country skiing, an excellent aerobic sport, incorporates several styles. (Gunnison-Crested Butte Nordic Association)Alpine skiing gets good press because no camera can resist those action images of coiled bodies snaking through mogul fields or the dazzling athletics of catching air over a bump. Recreational cross country skiing invites a visual impression that is less explosive, more bucolic. Instead of steep fall lines, the backdrop is wide-open spaces, stands of pine trees and deep tranquility.

But those images belie the fact that cross country skiing can be a great workout. Nordic skiing is praised by exercise physiologists and researchers as one of the best aerobic activities. The sport requires constant and rhythmic movement of the arms and legs to push, propel and glide the body over the terrain. Continuous motion of this sort engages the heart, lungs and muscles in a more aerobic way than downhill skiing, which is quicker and more intense in a shorter time period, or more anaerobic. But cross country isn't just a sport for tranquil glides through the wilderness; it is also an intense Olympic sport.

There are enough styles of cross country skiing to accommodate most any ability. In addition to the classic mode, which involves straight-ahead gliding, there is also ski-skating, which utilizes a shorter ski and requires racing moves that are more like ice-skating or in-line skating. Telemark (see story below) combines cross country with downhill.

Getting started

"The coolest thing about cross country skiing is that anyone at any age can do it," says REI sales specialist Pam Clark. "Someone new to the sport can go out for a short period of time or for several hours."

For those who want to check out this sport, the best place to start is at one of the Nordic ski centers located throughout Colorado. Virtually every ski area has one nearby. Most offer equipment rentals, lessons, and guided tours and trails for all ability levels.

Chris Frado, president of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, says cross country skiing is the equivalent of walking, jogging or running because, as with these activities, you can choose your own pace from casual to aggressive. "However," Frado points out, "since cross country skiing involves the use of poles, the experience becomes a full-body workout, unlike simply walking."

Frado has three recommendations for those who want to try cross country:

1. Don't overdress. Since this is a sport that depends on self-propulsion, the body heats up quickly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cross country skiing burns an average of 650 calories per hour, compared with fitness cycling that averages 540, exercise walking at about 450 calories and downhill skiing at 520 per hour.

2. Take a lesson at a Nordic center. Certified professional instructors know the best way to teach you the rhythm of gliding, sliding, and arm/leg coordination. They can teach you to turn, stop, how to get up if you fall and relax in a professional, nonjudgmental fashion. "Rather than taxing relationships and friendships, let an expert do the instructing. In two hours or less you can acquire skills for a lifetime of fun," says Frado, "and you will keep coming back to enjoy the natural movement that is cross country skiing."

3. Rent equipment from the Nordic center to experience the latest improvements in gear. The old days of leather shoes attached only at the toe with the three-pin binding have given way to a boot and binding system that holds and stabilizes the foot better. "It is much easier to put different pressures and turns onto the skis because the boot fits into the binding more securely," Frado says. "The boot, binding and ski are more of an entire system that stabilizes the foot when the heel is down."

Ski style options

The classic form of Nordic skiing is like walking, only you are on long, skinny skis and slide over the snow. While this is a good aerobic workout, the classic method of cross country is mostly a pleasant glide over any terrain that you choose. "You have the choice of going on groomed track or in the backcountry, on bike trails, golf courses or breaking your own trail," says Beth Buehler, public relations director of the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association.

Skate skiing

Those who want a challenge should try skate skiing. "It has become the technique of choice for those who like a fast experience and are looking for something different from alpine," Frado says.

The skis are shorter, and the technique is more like speed skating, says Keith Bauer, director of the Crested Butte Nordic Council. "A person needs to be in better shape to do it," he says.

REI's Clark says cyclists who want to stay in shape during the winter often get into skate skiing. "Skate skiing is very fast, and skiers can go for hours," she says.


Telemark is for those who enjoy the "free heel" freedom of cross country skiing, yet want to also ski alpine downhill runs. Telemark skiing is characterized by the distinctive turn where the uphill heel lifts up, the knees bend low, and the inside ski gets pulled beneath the skier's body. The graceful, curving turns characterize the telemark skiers from the alpine skiers, whose skis are generally parallel.


The gear for cross country is very different from alpine, or downhill, skiing, with the major departure beginning at the feet. In alpine skiing the participant's foot is completely attached to the ski, which allows explosive activity and sharply edged turns down a snowy hill. With cross country skiing in general, the participant's foot is attached at the toe of the boot, leaving the heel free. This gives the skiers much more flexibility, allowing them to descend, ascend and glide across a variety of snowy terrain. Each style has its own gear nuances, but one of the nice things about cross country gear is that it is inexpensive relative to that of alpine skiing.

Beginners, who probably will be comfortable on the flatter, groomed trails, will use skis that are narrow and light where waxing is not required. More advanced skiers who may want to get into the backcountry will require a wider, stiffer ski with metal edges for better control. If you decide to pursue this sport, using skis that require waxing is the next step. Learning the nuances of the different waxes for the different conditions and temperatures for that particular day will enhance the skiing experience and improve your performance.

Boots and bindings are where the greatest improvement has occurred. The new boots are warmer, lighter and fit more securely into a binding that stabilizes the foot much better on the slide while still giving the heel the freedom that makes the sport so appealing. As for poles, they should fit right under your armpits.

Skate skiing is the muscular opposite from the perceived mellowness of classic skiing. If you have a need for speed, or are an avid inline skater, cyclist, or ice skater, this is for you. Skate skis are shorter and generally have a stiffer flex than classic skis. Skating poles are much longer, coming up to the chin, and the boots are taller and stiffer for added stability.

Telemark is primarily a technique for descending hills, which means you can get on the lifts with the alpine skiers or go into the backcountry. Today's telemark skis closely resemble alpine skis, but have bindings that secure the toe only. The boots flex at the ball of the foot to allow for the specific telemark turn.

Getting ready to cross-country ski

Because you control your speed, distance and terrain in cross country skiing, even if you are not in the best shape you can still get out and enjoy the sport. But there is no getting around the fact that this is a total body activity involving heart, lungs, legs, core muscles of the gluteus, back and abdominals, as well as shoulder and arm muscles. Hiking and walking with walking poles are good ways to assess your conditioning, especially at altitude. The good news is that you do not have to know how to downhill ski in order to get into cross-country skiing.

Runners, inline skaters, and cyclists have a good base to build upon for cross-country skiing. If you do not have a good aerobic conditioning base, start training now, and you could be ready to do some longer trails in six weeks or so. Flexibility and strength also are a big part of the mix, so a well-rounded fitness program is best. For those who are interested in getting further into the backcountry, however, physical pre-conditioning is required.


Performing 30-40 minutes of continuous cardiovascular activity four to five times a week is a good place to start. The best choices are any, all or a combination of the "big four:" running, walking, bicycling and swimming. Since outdoor terrain is all about variety, your workout should reflect that, as well. Mix up endurance training workout (where your time is prolonged and more rhythmic) with interval training (where sprints are mixed into the session).

Keep boredom at bay by mixing it up with spinning classes, cross-country skiing machines, stair climbers and elliptical cross-trainers. Inline skating is another excellent choice. If you do a lot of walking, add walking poles.


Stretching and warming up always are advised before heading out on any prolonged activity. Yoga classes are great places to learn proper stretching, breathing and mental focus. About five minutes a day of general stretching should be plenty. Some basic stretches include those for the shoulders, back, hip flexors, calves, quadriceps and hamstrings.


Strength training workouts should be employed two to three times per week. Performing two to three sets with 10-12 repetitions per set is a good general program for most activities. Strength exercises for the upper body should include chest presses, rowing and lat pulldowns for the back, exercises for the deltoids, and a variety of abdominal crunches for the rectus abdominis and the obliques. Leg presses, lunges, hamstring curls, and calf raises should be included for the lower torso.

Winter Trails Day, Jan. 12. Check out cross country skiing for free. Participating events and locations at

Cross Country Ski Areas Association,,[masked]

Colorado Cross Country Ski Association, P.O. Box 5688, Keystone, CO 80435,

US Ski Mountaineering Association,


"Cross-Country Skiing: Building Skills for Fun and Fitness," by Steve Hindman (The Mountaineers Books, 2005, $19.95)

"Ski Skating With Champions: How to Ski With Least Energy," by Einar Svensson (Einar Svensson, 1995, $39.95.)

"Free-Heel Skiing: Telemark and Parallel Techniques for All Conditions," by Paul Parker (Mountaineers Outdoor, 2001, $19.95)

Linda J. Buch is a certified fitness trainer in Denver; linda@LJbalance .com

Read more: Nordic skiing: Trail glide - The Denver Post
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