Beginners Guide to Cross Country Skiing
There are so many reasons to learn to cross country ski! It is one of those life sports that can be enjoyed from age 1 to 99 and it has a ton of health benefits.
It is a great form of cardio and depending on how you choose to ski it can be anything from the equivalent to a relaxed winter stroll to a high-intensity workout. It is easy on the joints, engages all major muscle groups in the body, is quite affordable and can be done just about anywhere with snow!
The real question is: how do you get started?
Let us lay out the basics to help you get set up for your first season of cross country skiing as well as share our top tips for learning to cross country ski!
Skating or Classic?
As you may know, there are two cross country ski techniques each of which requires slightly different equipment.
Classic: This technique is most similar to walking. The legs move forward and kick back with the skis staying parallel to each other. The poles swing forward and push back in an alternating rhythm with the opposite leg: that means right foot forward, left arm forward – like marching!
Classic skis are longer and have a special area on the base of the ski known as the grip zone. Depending on the type of classic skis you are using, the grip zone may have sticky grip wax, fishscales, skin inserts or even silicone. When you take a gliding step forward, you will press the grip zone down into the snow as you kick back, thus propelling yourself forward on the other ski. Without the grip zone you wouldn’t have enough traction on the snow to push yourself forward or climb a hill. Classic poles are usually about 10cm shorter than skating poles and the classic boots are soft and flexible to accommodate the kickback motion.
Skating: The movement here is most comparable to rollerblading or ice skating. The legs push out to the sides in order to propel the skier forward. There are several techniques used when skate skiing; however, all of them utilize the poles in combination with one or both legs to move the skier forward.
Since the forward motion in skating comes from lateral pushes of the legs there is no need for a grip zone as with classic technique. The skating skis are therefore slightly shorter, more rigid and are smooth, with one continuous glide zone from tip to tail. The poles are about 10cm longer than classic poles. The skating boots are much stiffer and provide lateral support.
This short video summarizes and demonstrates the differences between the two techniques really well.
TIP: If you have never cross country skied before, it is recommended that you learn classic technique first and add skating to your repertoire after you have gotten a good feeling for your new long skis.
The Right Equipment
Many larger cross country ski centers rent equipment as do many ski shops so you shouldn’t have a problem renting cross country skis, boots and poles. If you are interested in buying your own set, then make sure to do your research well. Having super light-weight high-end skis isn’t going to be very important for learning, but having skis that are appropriate for your height and weight is essential!
TIP: There are two types of cross country bindings used for both classic and skating; known as SNS and NNN, these systems are very similar to each other but are not compatible. Whether you are buying equipment, borrowing or renting you will need to check (or ask!) to make sure the ski boots and the bindings are compatible with one another.
What Should I Wear?
To be fair, it isn’t always easy to know! Cross country skiing is a very intense, aerobic sport so as soon as you have the basics figured out you will be working up a sweat in no time. You’ll need to dress in layers and make sure that your clothing is as breathable as possible. A thin jacket or a wind-breaking vest will serve you much better as an outer layer than a large parka once you are on the move.
That being said, for your first day or two on cross country skis you may want to keep that ski jacket handy after all: it is a winter sport and you likely won’t generate a lot of body heat during your first few hours on the snow.
TIP: Warm-up pants are important; you are almost guaranteed to take a tumble or two (or ten!) while learning so if you go in jeans or sweatpants you will end up cold or wet quickly. Warm-up pants or snow pants are highly recommended!
Do You Need Lessons?
While it is definitely possible to learn cross country skiing by yourself, you will learn much faster with guidance from a trained professional. There are lots of lesson types available whether you just want a few group sessions to get started or you prefer to have regular private lessons throughout the season. It is definitely worth considering.
If you don’t mind taking things slow then feel free to skip the lessons and go for it. There are a lot of great ‘how to’ videos online and we recommend checking a few out before you get out there. Here is one online ski lesson that would be a great place to start!
TIP: Cross country skiing is all about balance and efficient power transfer – so even if you have already been skiing for a few years, one or two intermediate lessons can really help you improve your technique and become a faster skier!
Getting Your Skis On
Regardless of which binding system you are using, how you get into your bindings is very similar. Most bindings will have a lever at the front of the binding which you will need to open with your hand: this opens a small clamp in the binding. The toe of your ski boots has a metal bar integrated into the sole: this bar settles into the clamp. Sometimes you need to wiggle and press the toes of your boot into the binding before you feel the pin slip into the opening of the clamp. Once it is in place, close the lever and voila – you are ready to ski.
TIP: Snow can easily get packed around the bar on the bottom of your boot. Before you step into your binding check that your boots are free of snow – your pole tip can be used to loosen any snow (or little rocks) that may get stuck.
TIP: Your poles are important too! Your hand needs to go through the pole strap from the bottom and then grip the handle (including part of the strap) as shown here.
We tend to stiffen up when we feel nervous or insecure so one of the best tips for learning to ski is to keep your body relaxed. Check-in with yourself periodically and ask yourself: are your shoulders tense the hunched up? Are your knees locked?
One tip that will always help is to keep your knees relaxed and slightly bent. Relaxed knees help you keep balanced, absorb any bumps you may ski over and bring your body into an ideal, slightly forward position.
Gaze & Pole Position
Ideally, you should look in the direction you want to go, with your gaze at least 10-20m in front of you. At the top of their swing, your poles should be in front of you, angled back with your elbows at a roughly 90° angle.
TIP: You should be able to see your hands in your peripheral vision while skiing, if you can’t see them then they are too far back or too far out to the sides!
How to Get Moving
For the purpose of this guide, we will assume your first steps will be on classic skis.
It is best to start on a flat section on trial, and if the trails are groomed, it is better yet if you can set your skis into the classic grooves. You will find that it is quite easy to shuffle forward as if you are walking. Once you feel balanced and are able to take steps forward with alternating poles, start playing with the kick and glide. Instead of simply shifting your weight when you step, try kicking off with your back foot by pressing the grip zone into the snow and allow your skis to slide forward. Once you have had some practice you will be able take long gliding strides – this is called ‘diagonal stride’.
Check out this video for a great review of classic ski equipment and an excellent introduction to classic technique!
Check out these 4 tips to help you progress from shuffling forward to gliding on your skis.
Once again, we will assume you are classic skiing, although the herringbone technique will work with skating skis as well.
If you are able to ski uphill using diagonal stride – the walking motion – that is perfect. If you find your skis slipping back a little bit you can take more powerful steps so that the grip zone under your bindings has better contact with the snow and you can use your poles to help you as well.
If your skis do not have enough traction, you will need to use the herringbone technique. Spread the tips of your skis wide apart and leave the tails close together so that your skis form a wide ‘V’. Rotate your feet, and therefore skis, slightly outwards so that the inner edges of your skis dig into the snow. You will be able to take short steps this way without sliding back downhill.
Let’s take a look at the herringbone uphill technique in practice: Learn the herringbone to climb hills.
TIP: The wider your skis are, the easier it will be to climb very steep hills. If the hill is not too steep you will feel more comfortable and be able to move faster if you keep your ‘V’ slightly narrower.
How to Stop
What goes up must come down!
Stopping or braking on skis is known as a ‘snow plough’. The skis are positioned with the tips close together and the backs of the skis pushed further apart to form a V (opposite of the herringbone technique described above). Your knees need to stay bent as you press the tails of both skis outwards. Steady outward pressure helps make sure that your skis tips don’t collide and cause you to crash.
Check out this video lesson of how to snow plough:
TIP: You should feel the pressure along the full length of your inner foot when snow ploughing.
Keep at it
Cross country skiing can be hard work, especially if you want to go fast. You should expect it to be tiring, after all, you will be getting a cardio workout while using your arms, legs and core all at the same time!
Most people don’t learn to ski in one weekend, so don’t put yourself under pressure or expect to be elegantly flying up hills on your second day. Generally, the first few sessions feel pretty clumsy, but after you get the hang of the basic ski strides you will improve quickly.
TIP: It is normal to feel tired and to have a few sore muscles after your first day – take a break when you need it and know that it will get easier as your technique becomes more efficient.
It‘s hard to learn to ski without taking a tumble here and there! Try to see it as part of the learning process and don’t worry: an occasional tumble is something to laugh off and learn from.
If you find yourself in a tangle, the easiest way to sort yourself out is to take off your poles and roll onto your back. From your back you can get your skis in the air – set them down parallel on the snow before you push yourself back up.
TIP: If you find yourself falling backwards a lot, be aware of your wrists – they are the most fragile joint that is commonly injured when falling back. Your butt on the other hand, is well designed to handle the impact.
Cross country skiing has so much to offer: we are sure you will enjoy learning and hope you will discover many wonderful trails over the years to come!
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