How to take up XC skiiing?
November 27, 2008 5:09 AM   Subscribe

I"m looking for a winter aerobic activity to keep my fitness level up for mountain biking. Cross country skiing is one of them. What should I buy and how hard is it going to be to learn?

A few data points:

- I'm pretty aerobically fit

- I'm a good snowboarder but have never been on a pair of skis in my life

- I already snowshoe, but one of my favorite trail systems is XC ski only. Also, XC skiing is supposed to be better for maintaining cycling muscle groups.

- I like to explore the backwoods

- Most of the trails I would use are not groomed and quite often will not be broken. There are a few Nordic centres around here with groomed trails which it would be nice to use now and then but probably only once or twice a season.

- I already have the right clothing... it's the skis, boots and techniques that I'm concerned about.

- I'll probably take a couple of lessons at a local Nordic center first... I'm looking for your advice in addition to theirs!

NB This previous question answered a few questions but not in much detail.
posted by unSane to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I took CCS in gym in grade 12 of highschool, which for me was only a couple of years ago. I really enjoyed it, even though our school had pretty old crappy equipment. As far as learning it, it took almost no time to get the skating technique for straight, and it took a little longer to get turning down. Overall it was fairly easy to learn, though, of course, experience can really help perfect your technique and maximize your output.

I play hockey, so I'm a very good skater, so that may have had something to do with the ease of learning. I have snowboarded too, but the only thing that, that helps you with when it comes to CCS is familiarity with snow :)

CCS is a great way to get out in the woods, the scenery is quite enjoyable.

The trails that we went on were out in the country and not groomed really at all, so we took turns in front cause it was the hardest, but if you're looking for a good workout, ungroomed trails are a good way to do it.
posted by WilliamWallace at 6:36 AM on November 27, 2008

XC skiing is easy. Rent a pair of the cheapest skis and boots (REI, among others, rents this gear), go to the nearest snowy field or woods, and practice. If you like it, then go buy your equipment.
posted by zippy at 7:07 AM on November 27, 2008

It's pretty easy compared to snowboarding. Only three techniques you'll need to learn, basically: going uphill, going downhill, and going on flat terrain. Entirely different for each. You'll also want to get someone to show you how to pick the right wax and how to apply it.

it took almost no time to get the skating technique

I never tried the skate style, but would think that if you're going off the trails and into the back woods, you really do not want that sort of ski.
posted by sfenders at 7:10 AM on November 27, 2008

You might want to get a gps to take with you. You can really travel some distance and if you aren't on marked or well-traveled trails it may not be a bad idea.
posted by belau at 7:22 AM on November 27, 2008

Finally something I know about!
If you are quite athletic (which I am not) you can pick it up quickly.
There are 3 options you may be interested in:
-classic style -in 2 prepared parallel tracks. You will be confronted with wax or no-wax options. Waxless skis have improved in recent years and you may want to simplify things at least at the start. You can do it at low or high intensity & skill.
-skate style - on a wide packed trail, using special short thin skis & high boots. Is fun & fast.
-backcountry- make your own trail, using wider & heavier equipment than classic. The snow in your area may or may not work well with this. in our area it is too fluffy & one sinks down. However in the mountains it is OK.
Let me know if you have specific questions.
posted by canoehead at 7:48 AM on November 27, 2008

- I'm a good snowboarder but have never been on a pair of skis in my life

This would actually help you with cross country. I'm a long-time downhill skier, and the few times I've been on cross country skis I've done all kinds of silly things because I expected the CC skis to behave like downhill ones (pro tip: they don't). So your inexperience on skis will definitely not hurt you.
posted by iona at 9:03 AM on November 27, 2008

Best answer: Cat 1 racer/ mtbr here - I use CC to train in winter.

Questions to ask yourself:

- are you currently using a heart rate monitor on the bike (ie a program such as Friel's Cyclist's training bible method)? If so, incorporate the same numbers into your ski routine.

- Skiing on a track will be the most efficient way to create and maintain endurance fitness.

- if your sole purpose for skiing is to maintain fitness/expand endurance, classic technique is a better choice than skate. Skate ramps your heart rate up quite fast, it is difficult for beginner to stay in the low heart rate zones that improve endurance. In my experience, it took 2 seasons to become efficient enough on skate skis that I could keep my heart rate low and get a 3 hour ski in. Skate is more fun/faster and the waxing process is simpler.

- start with a lesson or two. Sure, you could muddle your way through, but if training is your objective, you would be better off not wasting your first 2 months. I often compare XC skiing to swimming - it is easy to not drown, but to be fast and have good technique takes a lot of time.

- depending upon where you live, backcountry skiing is an option (completely different equipment from traditional groomed track nordic skiing), but it is more difficult to maintain the constant heart rate necessary for building fitness efficiently. Also, most mountain regions are subject to changing snow conditions - take an avalanche course, don't be one of those people that keeps SAR busy.

- equipment is key. Most nordic centers rent good equipment. Try a few models of boots/skis before you buy. When you do buy, boots are most important - don't skimp - they are your primary contact point. Poles are the next most important item - a light, stiff ski pole will make you faster (very similar to the effect a pair of race wheels has on your bike). Skis should be the type you wax - talk to your nordic shop about sizing for skis and poles.

- clothes: on the tracks, you will see a ton of people in winter bike clothes. Pretty much everything is the same except the chamois and the helmet. Your tights, jackets etc will all cross over. I often see retired members of the US postal team out skiing in old team clothes, always makes me laugh.
posted by chuke at 10:01 AM on November 27, 2008

Just saw your flickr stream - looks like you did the epic dream trip to Utah - great, huh? We love it so much we moved here. Anyway - out of curiosity - did your trip an any way fuel this desire to train over the winter? I have found that many of our mountain bike guests leave Utah with new training plans... :-)
posted by chuke at 10:09 AM on November 27, 2008

Best answer: I'm a competitive road racer in the summer and while the climate I live in currently is not conducive to winter sports I always hit the x-country trails when I visit a place that has them.

I think you'll find classic-style skiing is a great fit to keep your mountain biking fitness over the winter. Skating is far more of a workout but the technique is harder to master and the muscle groups involved don't mirror cycling as much as classic skiing. You may just want to start with classic, enjoy yourself for a while, then try skating.

I would also highly recommend you sign up with a club of some sort. It's the same as in cycling, it's the other athletes that challenge you and push you to perform at a higher level.

As for the type of equipment, if you're a snowboarder then you might want to pick up some backcountry skis. These are x-country skiis that have a metal edge that makes turning far easier if you're just starting out. The plastic edges of racing/touring skis don't offer much grip when you're cornering downhill. I'll echo some of the sentiments above, try renting various types of equipment first. See what works for you then make a purchase.

Something else you might enjoy is speed-skating. Find out if your local rink has short-course speed skating classes. The intensity, drafting and close quarters racing is a close match for what you'll find in mountain bike racing.

Good luck with your winter pursuits. I wish I had snow, instead I'm cycling in the rain.
posted by talkingmuffin at 10:11 AM on November 27, 2008

Response by poster: Chuke -- yes, that Utah trip was amazing. There are helmetcam videos on my YouTube page of many of the rides -- Porcupine Rim, Hurricane, Thunder Mountain... still editing Slickrock and some others.

The fitness thing came about after we did a big Rocky Mountain trip last year to ride in BC. I came back super-fit then lost it over the winter. I rode a 24 hour race in June that almost killed me (didn't help that I did it singlespeed without having trained). By the time of the Utah trip I was back to really good fitness, but I really really really don't want to lose it again over the winter. I've set up a bike with studded tires to ride the roads round here but its not that much fun.

I"m definitely happiest hacking on my own in the backcountry. In winter I generally carry both a GPS and a 2-way radio set to the emergency channel. It is not remotely alpine around here but people do die.

I've been looking at the skis on this page -- any comments on them? They are cheap compared to my snowboard gear so I don't feel like I have to buy the cheapest.
posted by unSane at 10:24 AM on November 27, 2008

Best answer: Don't scrimp on the lessons. If you goal is training, you'll want to get your technique down or else you'll end up flailing about and not using your muscles effectively. I have seen far too many off-season cyclists on the trails, working hard, but not getting effective training, because they just don't know how to ski. Make sure you learn classic technique (including the classic stride, double pole, and one-step double pole) and hill technique (herringbone, side step, snowplow, step turn). Skate technique is not going to be useful to you if you are mainly going to ski on ungroomed trails.

Equipment: You'll want to get some skis that are appropriate to the trails you'll be skiing on. You can get anything from super skinny racing skis to skis that are pretty the same as downhill skis. I'm sure your local ski shop can steer you to something that will work for your trails. The biggest issue with skis is getting the camber right. Basically, skis are curved so that the middle part, which has either wax or a patterned base, grips the snow and the end parts glide on the snow. You need a ski that will glide when you weight is balanced on both skis, but grip when you have all your weight on one ski. Get your ski shop to test the camber of your skis with you standing on them.

You can buy waxless or waxable skis. Waxless ski are acceptable in most conditions and you'll probably be happy with them to start. Waxable skis are faster and will allow you to get good grip in almost all conditions, but you have to buy wax and learn to use it properly. Leave that until later, unless you enjoy that sort of thing.

If you are going to be skiing in deep, fresh snow, make sure you get poles that have wide, round baskets, not little cups.

Do be aware that you aren't likely to get as effective training out in the woods on untracked trails as you would on properly groomed trails.
posted by ssg at 11:05 AM on November 27, 2008

Best answer: Re: the skis on the MEC site. Most of those are probably OK. I'd steer clear of the shaped skis, unless you plan to make some turns, and go for something that claims to be OK for both in-track and backcountry use. Make sure you buy the skis in person and get the camber tested. If you want to mail order, I wouldn't recommend MEC. You'll need to try a specialist ski shop who can actually test the camber for you before they ship them.
posted by ssg at 11:11 AM on November 27, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice. I found a good place that sells Nordic equipment and will go there in the next couple of days and report back. That is particularly good advice about the camber... I had no idea about that and none of the buying guides on the web mention it, but it makes perfect sense.
posted by unSane at 11:37 AM on November 27, 2008

The camber issue is a non-issue if you buy from a good Nordic or backcountry shop - they will guide you through the process and help you to find the right skis. Pretty similar to having an experienced person guide you through suspension set up. The other sites probably don't mention it because they are just going to sell by taking weight/experience into account.

Waxless skis - meh. They are the Huffys of the ski world. Sure, you can get where you need to go on them, but...

Glad you had fun on your trip here - no need for vids on my part, I just go ride the trails if I can't remember what they look like :-)
posted by chuke at 12:45 PM on November 27, 2008

Response by poster: Well, a quick report back. I picked up some Salomon Snowscape 7s and Fisher boots yesterday from the ski store (which is also my local bike store so I get treated nicely there for spending lots of money). Apparently that is what folk use around here for mooching around in the woods.

I took them out this morning... the first time I've ever been on a pair of skis! We have 50 acres here and I actually managed to tour around most of it. We have about 2' of fairly soft snow right now but the floatation was fine. Obviously I was breaking trail the whole way.

It took me about 5 minutes to get the basic mechanics of it going. Hills are still something of a challenge but I managed to make it up and down a few of them with only minor pratfalls.

Overall it was easier than I expected. Even for a first timer it is a LOT faster than snowshoeing and I found it less exhausting. The same route I took would have taken about twice as long on snowshoes.

I like it!
posted by unSane at 8:23 AM on November 28, 2008

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