Written by Julia Tregaskis-Allen
24 September 2016
Why we should all be cross country skiing this winter: it’s the perfect boost for your running fitness.
Cross country skiing (a.k.a. Nordic skiing, or ski de fond) is currently enjoying a serious renaissance. Like the boom in road cycling and ultra trail running that’s taken the UK and US by storm in recent years, it’s no longer just nerdy endurance geeks and burly army boys who are hooked on this now-fashionable-again winter sports pursuit.
Unlike their Scandinavian forefathers, today’s Nordic newschoolers are decked out in on-trend, technical gear (from brands such as Oakley, Maloja and Salomon), while events such as the Vasaloppet in Sweden have attracted celebrity participants including Kate Middleton’s sister, Pippa. The Swiss Engadin Marathon – one of the biggest XC Ski events (even looks cool in writing!) has between 11,000 and 13,000 participants every year.
A US report from SIA (Snowsports Industries America) estimated that cross country skiing participation was up 29% from 2013 to 2014. Downhill skiing plummeted by a similar percentage. Possibly a reflection of a poor winter season? Or many defecting to join the free heel skinny ski crew? Probably a combination of both, and for good reason.
So, why is cross country skiing so perfect for runners (as well as for other endurance sports athletes)?
It goes without saying that cross country skiing is one of the best all body work outs around. Not only are you working both lower and upper body simultaneously, but the benefits to your heart and lungs are second to none.
Cardio vascular fitness Professional cross country skiers consistently rate as having amongst the best cardio vascular fitness levels of all sportspeople. Skiers such as Espen Harald Bjerke have recorded V02 max recordings as high as 96, surpassing the cyclist Greg LeMond (92) and long distance runner Kilian Jornet (89.5). The combination of continual aerobic activity, endurance, bursts of power (when you hit a hill) and keeping warm at altitude make cross country skiing one of the best possible ways to improve your heart and lung capacity.
Strength The kit (skinny skis with free heels, trainer-like boots with rigid soles and long carbon poles) might be lightweight, but it’s pretty clear from looking at the physiques of any serious cross country athlete that the skiing builds not just cardio endurance, but muscle power too. And the beauty is not just in building muscles, but also in that it builds the right muscles. Whether your main sport is running or cycling - or in fact any other endurance activity - the balanced muscle tone you earn from days on the cross country tracks will help you build the optimum base for your next endurance challenge.
Posture The stance of a cross country skier – proudly upright with open chest and poles pushing behind you – is the perfect antidote to modern life’s postural disaster zone. Too many of us spend far too much time sitting slouched at desks, in cars, hunched over our handlebars, or running the same repetitive routes on tarmac. Our shoulders are rounded, our bellies are soft, our hip flexors and hamstrings are over-tight, our glutes don’t work properly, and we often have backache. Enter the cross country ski remedy. It is impossible to Nordic ski without engaging those lazy glutes and fire up your rhomboids and rotator cuff muscles and bring your shoulders back into line. Result: a long-term solution to improved posture.
Balance, proprioception and core strength Not only does cross country skiing give all your major muscle groups a serious work out, you’re also challenging those little-used muscles that tend to get neglected. In particular, the muscles that keep your ankles and knees strong and safe from twists and sprains. While the uneven surface of trail running also has the same effect, the reality is that most of us switch to tarmac when the nights draw in. We end up in a routine of repetitive pounding without working on proprioception and balance. Core strength is absolutely critical for Nordic skiing too. You can’t ‘get away with it’ on cross country skis as your core is essential for holding form and keeping balanced, while you change weight from one ski to the other.
Joint protection and injury prevention The smooth motion of cross country skiing is perfect for protecting your joints while you exercise. Although the sport is weight bearing, your skis are in constant contact with the snow, which means you avoid pounding. Any keen runner will know about the effects of impact, no matter how good your shoes and technique. Get into cross country skiing and your knees, hips and lower back will thank you, not just because you’re helping re-build muscle, but you’re also giving your body a well earned rest from being beaten up on winter tarmac. Taking the impact out while you build your fitness and strength helps protect your joints and prevent injuries.
Natural interval training Most cross country skiing is relatively flat, especially when you’re starting out. But as you progress in the sport, the playground becomes a natural interval work out. Unlike running where you can slow to a walk or even stop, when the track starts to head uphill and you run out of puff you don’t have the same luxury on skis: slow down too much and you’ll start slipping backwards! Undulating terrain provides the perfect interval session as you’re forced to hit the accelerator to make it up each hill. And you’ll be so busy concentrating you’ll hardly even notice that extra effort. Plus of course, what goes up … which is a skill in itself (and a lot of fun, especially when you’re learning) on slightly wobbly cross country skis.
Altitude Cross country ski tracks are usually on the lower slopes of ski resorts, ranging from an altitude of 1,000m to around 2,000m in the French Alps. Not high enough to cause a problem with acclimatisation, but definitely high enough to benefit from the effects of altitude training. Spend a few days working hard at around 1500m and you’ll notice your usual sea level run or bike ride feels a whole lot easier when you go home. Thrills, spills and adrenaline rushes
It might not feel like it when you first start out, Bambi-like with too many arms, legs, skis and poles to coordinate, but you’ll be amazed how quickly you ‘get it’ and can start picking up speed on cross country skis. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of the wind in your hair as you whizz through snowy forests, propelled completely under your own steam. It also goes without saying that anything involving balance and speed will also involve a little dose of adrenaline.
Challenge and fitness Cross country skiing is simultaneously challenging and accessible for all abilities – from complete beginners to experts. To get going enough to enjoy it and feel the fitness benefit is relatively easy. To become technically expert is an ongoing investment. Learning something new is one of the best ways to improve your fitness, whatever your training goal. If you don’t keep challenging your body in different ways it will never need to change or improve. So, while you might still be doing your usual 10km or clocking up 100km per week on the turbo, you’re not actually getting any fitter or seeing results. Frustratingly, you’re just maintaining your fitness level. Learning a new sport and seeing your own progression and improvement is a fast track (and fun!) way out of that plateau.
Calorie burning Whether or not you wear a heart rate monitor and clock your effort while you ski, your body will pretty quickly tell you it’s hungry! The combination of head to toe exertion, altitude and cold air temperatures make cross country skiing top of the list of fat-burning activities. A boost to your metabolism and absolutely no excuses needed to indulge.
And … Adventure As a runner, cyclist or other endurance athlete – at whatever level – a large part of why you love your sport is about the journeys that you go on. Travelling, exploring, seeing new places, meeting people, participating in events, improving, spending time alone with your thoughts or connecting with friends. Whether you’re a complete beginner or a seasoned skater, cross country skiing also taps into that sense of journey and adventure. If getting away from it all is your goal, then with minimal kit and a small pack you can spend days travelling point to point under your own steam in some of the most stunning and remote winter environments that Europe has to offer.