Is Cross Country Skiing Hard?
Updated: Jan 25
I’ve heard various forms of this question over the years, and my answer is always an enthusiastic “Yes!”, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying it out. Skiers often spend hours working hard and sweating in temperatures that most people associate with frostbite and hypothermia. Races are up to 54km (33 miles) long, climb up incredibly steep hills, and take hours to complete. At the end of a long race, even the best skiers in the world fall over when they cross the finish line due to exhaustion. It's one of the toughest full-body workouts there is, and some of the most cardiovascularly fit athletes ever measured have been cross-country skiers. Despite all of this, most of the skiers I know wouldn't give it up for anything, and many take pride in overcoming all the obstacles associated with the sport. We keep skiing because we know there is bound to be that rare day when everything comes together; when the trails are in good shape, your wax is working just right, the weather is mild, and you're flying silently across the snow.
Despite how challenging cross country skiing can be if you're aiming to be competitive, it is actually an incredibly easy sport for a beginner to try out. If you want to spend a nice winter Saturday with your family, you can't beat clipping into a pair of rental skis and hitting a beginner trail at one of Minnesota's many fantastic ski areas like Spidahl's or Giant's Ridge. Just bring your own winter clothing, a good attitude, and an adventurous spirit -- the ski place will take care of the rest. While you won't set any speed records and you may develop a small aversion to hills, you'll soon get the hang of the slide-and-glide classic style and be able to enjoy one of winter's finest pastimes. Sure, you'll probably find yourself asking, "How the heck do I get back up?" at some point after you inevitably fall and your skis are criss-crossed uphill from your body. But this is a great opportunity to laugh at yourself and to make new friends as your fellow skiers help you get untangled and upright.
If you haven't been out on xc skis before or even if it's just been a long time since your last attempt, keep reading this post to learn more about this sport so you look like you know what you're doing when you get to the ski trail.
Finding Cross Country Ski Gear
Skiing is different than running, and you'll need more than just a pair of shoes before your first cross country ski adventure. The world’s best skiers have 40 pairs of skis valued at over $500 each, and a wax technician prepares them in a multi-million dollar wax truck. However, most of us avid skiers only have a couple of sets of skis, and if you are just getting into the sport, you can get by without your own gear. Many of the ski areas in Minnesota offer daily rentals for a reasonable fee. There are also ski swaps held around the state where you might be able to find a great pair of lightly used skis that will serve you well for years to come. And, ski shops offer packages that include a nice set of entry-level skis, boots, and poles fit to your exact height and weight for under $500 (maybe less at the end of the season). Before investing in your own set of skis, I recommend renting skis for a while so you can try out the classic and skate styles before committing to the first pair of your own skis.
Where to Go?
If you live in the Upper Midwest, check out the extensive list of trail locations and conditions at skinnyski.com. Some trails are groomed for classic skiing (traditional slide and glide, two tracks in the snow) and others are groomed for skate skiing (looks like hockey skating, but with skis). Before you go skiing, find a trail that is groomed in the style that matches your equipment, make sure the condition reports sound good, and check the forecast so you aren't surprised by a wind chill. In general, most people will enjoy skiing if it is over 20 degrees farhenheit, but it's often quite comfortable even in much colder temps if you layer appropriately and protect your skin against wind exposure.
What to Wear Cross Country Skiing?
Dress for the weather, dress in layers, and wear clothing that's not too heavy. When cross-country skiing, it's important to find the right balance between too hot and too cold. Leave the heavy, insulated clothing you wear ice fishing or downhill skiing at home. Cross-country ski pants have wind-stopping material in front, are relatively light weight, and allow you to move freely. On top, try a moisture-wicking undershirt and a light jacket. Layers not only add warmth when you are just starting and still chilly, but more importantly, they allow for shedding as you get your heart rate up. Don't be surprised to find a random jacket or scarf hanging from a branch -- skier's often temporarily leave their outer layers along the trail when they get too hot, to be retrieved on the last loop of the day. A good pair of gloves is also a must, and just like the rest of your outfit you want something that isn’t too warm but is still effective at stopping the wind.
Learning XC Skiing Technique
There are two styles of cross country skiing (skate and classic), each of which has several sub-techniques that take time to learn. Pick whichever style looks like fun to you, and try it out. Both skate and classic can be enjoyed by physically fit people of all ages*. If you know someone who is already a skier, ask them to take you to their favorite ski area. Most of us would be happy to provide a lesson for someone new to our sport. There are also a lot of good skiing technique videos on YouTube that you may find helpful to watch before hitting the trails. And finally, don’t be afraid to fail a few times as you’re learning. Every person who has ever skied has fallen (and still falls) many times, and occasionally the editor STILL takes off her skis at one particularly steep down-hill section to hike safely to the bottom. The good thing is, you’ll improve quickly, and within a short time on the trail, you’ll be enjoying the feeling of gliding across the snow instead of concentrating the whole time on staying out of the snow banks.
*Editor's note from the primary care physician: If you are someone who is at high risk for injury related to falling, skiing is probably not a good choice for you.
Beginner's Guide to Skate Skiing (It's in German, but there are subtitles and it is an excellent introduction):
Beginner's Guide to Classic Skiing:
The new liquid glide waxes are a great alternative to iron-in waxes and are easy to apply. For skate skiing, glide wax is all you need (start with blue if you want to purchase just one). If you are classic skiing on skis that require wax (those without fish scales), then you'll need both glide wax and kick wax. Kick wax is highly dependent on temperature, but Rode Blue Multigrade and Rode Viola Multigrade will cover a wide range of typical winter conditions. As you improve, you might want to try hot waxing. I've put together an easy guide to selecting and applying iron-in glide wax here.
What are the rewards for enduring harsh weather, dealing with finicky wax, and working yourself to exhaustion? For me, it's about racing through the woods of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Norway with thousands of other skiers. It's about skiing with the wildlife at our State Parks. And it's about spending quality time with my friends and family on the trails. I hope you decide to get out there on the trails and give skiing a try yourself!
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