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Cross-Country Skiing is a Natural Fit for Runners. Here’s How to Get Started

Cross-country skiing delivers a low impact, full-body workout.

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Cross-country skiing, also known as Nordic skiing, has two disciplines. Classic is the traditional form and it’s generally done in tracks. It almost looks like walking on skis—it you’ve used a Nordic machine at the gym, it was based on this classic form (but it’s more fun on real skis!). The second form is skate skiing, which was invented in the 1970s. It has a diagonal push stride, similar to ice hockey players chasing a puck. We’ll focus on the classic version for these tips and tricks on how to cross-country ski.

If you start out using skis with fish scales (included on the recommended gear list) versus waxed skis, you will have an easier time getting started. As you become more advanced and efficient, you’ll have more to learn, but the joy that comes with simply gliding can’t be beat, especially when you know you’re getting a full-body workout capable of burning anywhere from 500 to 1,100 calories an hour. Opt for hillier terrain to maximize the burn.

“Once I got really good at classic skiing, it became my favorite thing,” says Colleen Cannon, a world and national champion triathlete and founder of Women’s Quest retreats. She loves the fun and fresh-air aspects of it, as well as the low-impact cardio boost and base building. Cannon says the time on skis helped to make her one of the best triathletes of her era.

Hailey Swirbul, the newest Team A addition to the Davis U.S. Cross Country National Team Program, discovered Nordic skiing while looking for a way to stay in shape for the mountain bike season. She soon chose skiing as her primary sport and now runs for training when she’s not on the snow. Swirbul, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, has noticed that many athletes in the local mountain running community are also turning to Nordic skiing in the winter.

Jessie Diggins, Gold Medal Olympian and Team A Davis U.S. Cross Country National Team Program member, shared a similar observation about her high school athletic experience. “The ski coaches encouraged their athletes run in the fall to prepare for skiing, and the running coaches recommended that their athletes ski in the winter to get ready for spring running,” says Diggins, who often hits the trails around her hometown of Stratton, Vermont, during the spring and summer. “Both running and skiing are great for teaching how to deal with discomfort.”

Bonus: Diggins says skiing is the perfect activity for this COVID-19 winter. “With all your skis and poles and gear, you’re naturally socially distanced!”

What to Know Before You Go

With a slightly more complex (or some might say awkward) technique, learning how to cross-country ski can take some time to get used to. These tips can help speed things up.

Plan Ahead

While there is a bit of a learning curve with cross-country skiing, it doesn’t have to be intimidating. Andre Watt, the National Nordic Community Race Manager for Salomon, recommends visiting the following websites to learn more: Salomon and REI each have a video library to learn more about technique and equipment; Cross Country Ski Area Association and The Nordic Approach have useful information regarding trails and conditions.

For those who’ve never Nordic skied before, Diggins suggests taking a lesson at your local ski area. “You can spend an hour learning some basics,” says Diggins. “And then you can be out skiing the same day.”

Focus on the Glide

The basic premise is moving your opposite leg and opposite arm in concert, just like in running. But there are a few differences. Imagine the motion when you swing your foot through to kick a soccer ball, says Diggins. Doing that on your skis, really swinging your foot through, will help you glide forward. Another way she explains it is to imagine you have a bungee cord around your hips and you’re swinging your feet back and forth smoothly. If you make more of an up and down motion, like when you run, you’re wasting energy.

Make It Personal

Swirbul say it’s important to mess around with how you move on the snow to determine what works for you. Try stretching out or holding your glide, switching weight from your heel to the ball of your foot, gliding with one ski off the ground, then the other. You want to make it playful and fun while you get comfortable on the snow, without just focusing on perfecting your technique. “At the end of the day, every body type and everybody will ski a little differently,” Swirbul says.

Get Out There

You can ski anywhere there’s snow. Try starting someplace flat, like a golf course or park. If you have access to a Nordic center, get comfortable on the green trails (trails are ranked green, blue, and black, with black being the most challenging, just like at ski resorts), then challenge yourself on harder trails as you are ready. As trails get more challenging, they may have more climbing and descending and more twists and turns. All of this is easier to manage when you are able to stay loose and light on your feet. For example, it’s better to take little steps when navigating around a turn versus trying to stay locked in a rigid position.