Cross-Training 101: Cross-Country Skiing



Running outside in the winter can be hard. Snow, ice and cold make running unappealing. But, those same elements make another sport very appealing in the winter: cross-country skiing. Nordic skiing, or cross-country skiing, can be a great, challenging cross-training option during the winter months. “You maintain cardiovascular benefits,” says John Lumley, a running coach and the owner of the Running Hub in Santa Fe, N.M.

Cross-country skiing is notoriously hard aerobically. Multiple studies have found that Nordic skiers have the highest VO2 max — the maximum capacity to transport and use oxygen — of any athletes. This is largely because cross-country skiing is both weight-bearing and “uses just about every muscle in your body,” says Gale Bernhardt, an Olympic cycling and triathlon coach. That general fitness translates well to running once winter is over.

But, along with maintaining or even improving general fitness, skiing also has some specific benefits for runners.“Runners are hopelessly poor athletes overall,” says Lumley, because they tend to spend a lot of time just running and not working on other athletic elements. Cross-country skiing can help round out runners as athletes. Bernhardt says she finds that skiing improves a runner’s balance. It also helps strengthen an athlete’s ankles and makes them more flexible. While those are the biggest additional benefits she’s seen for runners, Bernhardt says cross-country skiing also has the advantage of strengthening small abductor and pelvic girdle muscles. And, the fact that it’s a non-pounding exercise can help small injuries and stress reactions heal.

Ben True, a professional runner for Saucony, used to cross-country ski competitively as well. The fact that he spent so many years skiing keeps him feeling “fresher,” he thinks, than if he’d simply been pounding the pavement for so long. But, cross-country skiing can be exceptionally hard for beginners to just jump into. “It’s a very technical sport,” says True. First, you need to live (or go somewhere) where there is snow. Then, there are two different kinds of Nordic skiing: classic or skate. Classic tends to be easier to learn, says Bernhardt, and is done with your two skies going straight back and forth, typically in a groomed trail. Skate skiing, or freestyle, looks a lot like skating. Neither version is easy, though.

It’s a good idea to get started with a lesson, even if you’ve skied downhill before, so you can learn the technique of shifting your weight from one leg to the other to propel you forward. Trying to figure it out on your own will likely be frustrating and not a particularly good workout. “You can’t get the benefits unless you know how to do it somewhat reasonably,” says True.

— Take a lesson. Cross-country skiing is hard to just pick up on your own.
— Pick a style of skiing: skate or classic. Classic is typically easier to learn.
— Skiing is “all about weight shift,” says True. Commit to one leg and then to the other to get moving.
— Lean forward, not back. “There’s a tendency to get too far back on the skis when you get afraid,” says Bernhardt.
— Keep your hands in front. When people lose balance, they want to put their hands behind them, but that makes you fall on your butt.

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