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For some, triathlon is a year-long activity. But for others—particularly those living in parts of the world where winters can be quite snowy—finding an alternative to outdoor rides over the cold months is almost mandatory. While indoor sessions on the trainers and some mountain or gravel biking are common alternatives, but there’s one option that often gets overlooked: cross-country skiing (also called Nordic skiing sometimes) and ski touring. How do you get started cross-country skiing and why would you? Because it’s a great workout.
Why Cross-Country Skiing is Good Training for Triathletes
Cross-country skiing, in particular, is one of the best substitutes for cycling in the winter. Like biking, it provides excellent cardiovascular training that engages almost all of your body’s muscles. It also can be performed outdoors in beautiful and wild places—which means it complies well with any social-distancing guidelines.
“Cross-country skiing is great endurance training for triathletes, particularly if you focus your training or activity on building endurance, and less on sprint training,” said Italian cross-country skiing instructor Camilla Laurent.
Not only can you build quite an endurance engine through Nordic skiing, but thanks to many groomed tracks being placed on hilly courses, you can also work on both leg and arm strength—similar to when you run on trails or do hill repeats. (Though it’s worth noting that, in some places, you can have hundreds of miles of cross-country ski trails that are pancake flat).
“It’s also a great activity for triathletes because you need to use your arms a lot. They don’t only help the movement, but they’re a fundamental driving force, as well as balancing your legs’ work. I would say legs and arms both contribute 50/50 to the overall driving forces,” Laurent said.
Your abs and back muscles are challenged during a cross-country skiing session too, because of the need to stabilize the sliding movement on the snow and provide balance when you’re descending and ascending hills. But it’s also from moving your heels up and down to move forward, which is one of Nordic skiing’s main techniques—the classic style of skiing, opposed to the skating method.
It’s no coincidence that when Daniela Ryf couldn’t compete at Challenge Daytona because of an injury sustained in the fall she posted a few photos of her Nordic skiing instead at her training base in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
How to Get Started Cross-Country Skiing
Cross-country skiing was invented more than 5,000 years ago by Scandinavian people who needed to cover great distances on snow. The word “ski” even derives from the old Norwegian word “skid,” which refers to a length of split wood.
And so—like the Scandinavians of centuries past—you could use Nordic skiing as a way to enjoy a winter walk on a pair of skis, or as a way to get some headspace, and not necessarily make it a intense workout. You can do this almost anywhere if you can find a snow patch and have access to a pair of classic cross-country skis.
If, on the other hand, you want to try skiing on a groomed track, with gear that makes it a little less hard-core and a bit more enjoyable, then there are plenty of options to get started.
The first thing to know is that there are two main cross-country skiing techniques: classic (also sometimes called striding) and skate (sometimes called freestyle).
Classic cross-country skiing involves moving your skis forward in a straight line, often in groomed tracks. It looks more like walking and is what most beginners start with. You propel yourself forward in two phases, kick and glide—by shifting your weight onto one leg, driving forward or kicking off, and then gliding; then shift your weight to the other leg and repeat. (Classic skiing looks like this.)
Skate skiing, by comparison, looks more like ice-skating as your skis do not stay parallel, but form an angle with each other. You still propel yourself forward by shifting your weight from one leg to the other, driving, and gliding—but it can be a little more complicated. (Skate skiing looks like this.)
Bear in mind that while cross-country skiing looks pretty smooth when done by professionals, it’s a highly technical discipline, so you’ll need some practice and skills to propel your body more efficiently without wasting energy. Just like when you learned to swim or wanted to improve in the pool, taking a few lessons, or having a coach guide your first steps on the snow can help a lot. But if you have a level of fitness from triathlon, even early struggles with Nordic skiing—and there will be some even if you’re a skilled downhill skier—will be less challenging, and you may be able to simply learn through trial and error.
“Clearly, the more you do it, the more you improve,” Laurent said. “I’ve taught people who were afraid of the descents at first, but then after one hour of practice for a week were going down without any issue in a snowplow and by themselves.”
While you can classic ski almost anywhere there’s a good base of snow, skate skiing typically requires some groomed paths—which look a bit like large fire road trails in the snow. And if you’ve never cross-country skied before, then you’ll probably want to get started at an official Nordic center. Many downhill ski resorts also have Nordic or cross-country ski centers, with groomed trails for skiing and snow shoeing. In snowy mountain areas, there are often public, municipal, or private cross-country centers too with instructors, rental gear, a shop, and groomed trails.
What You Need to Get Started Cross-Country Skiing
As in any sport, you could get started cross-country skiing by going crazy and breaking the bank. There are many different skis, technical suits, waxes, and gadgets. But to begin with, you should keep it simple.
First, you can likely rent skis from a Nordic center before you go skiing. There are different skis for skate skiing and for classic. The size you want depends on your weight (since you need the weight transfer to propel yourself forward). This is a handy cross-country ski size chart or ask the ski shop technician or instructor. For beginners, erring shorter can be better, because it’s less ski to try and control.
Cross-country skis also have binding systems and boots—much like downhill skis or even similar to clip-in cycling pedals. There are different kinds of bindings and boots, so if you rent skis to get started then they’ll likely set you up on their system. You’ll also want poles, which are sized by height (use this chart).
Then the last bit of gear, which can seem overwhelming to beginners, is the wax on the skis. Ski wax is a product that looks a little like candle wax, and is first melted on the base and then removed with a scraper to make the ski go faster, depending on temperature and snow conditions. (Think of it kind of like lube on your bike chain.) But don’t worry! Again, you can keep it simple by renting skis or taking your skis to a Nordic shop or center and having them wax the skis for you.
Newer classic ski models also feature small and artificial skins or scales on the base to help skiers keep from sliding backward. At the same time, they provide a forward slide (similar to skins used for ski touring and backcountry). These classic skis are sometimes called waxless skis—and can be good for beginners.
“To a beginner, I would never suggest a ski with an immaculate base that needs to be waxed [waxable skis]. That would make it harder to control, as it would slide more,” Laurent said. “Instead, I’d suggest the waxless skis that don’t need to be waxed and use a scale pattern on the bottom that prevents any backward slip. The resistance on the snow is a bit higher, but that’s better for a beginner.”
Aim to find something warm, but not too warm. After all, although it’s snowy and cold, this is exercise and you’ll still sweat. A downhill ski suit would probably be too hot for an adult and would restrict movement too—though Laurent suggests downhill ski clothes for children because they are “falling more,” she said.
Layers of winter cycling gear can work great for colder weather, or you could use your running winter clothes with some base layers underneath if the weather is good (including gloves and a light beanie). If the temperatures drop or it’s snowing, then more technical winter skiing gear is a must.
“A fleece or a vest is the gear I always suggest,” said Laurent. “They are warm and protect your upper body, but they don’t restrict the arms that need to move quite a lot.”
Finally, try to get into Nordic skiing with a different mental approach. Instead of high-adrenaline activity, be ready for “tranquility,” said Laurent. “It’s a very different way to enjoy the mountains. You can find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and far from people, even when the resort is packed with other tourists on other slopes (like downhill ones).”
Find your local Nordic center or ski shop, get some skis, and get started cross-country skiing!