Why you should try a cross-country kind of high
Every year is the same. As soon as the snow settles, you pack your gear and hit the slopes. After a couple runs, you notice a few skiers haven't followed you up (and down) the mountain. They stick to level ground, and they don't seem to know how to properly attach their boots to their skis.
Instead of alpine skiing with you and hundreds of others, these cross-country skiers aren't interested in fast speeds and tight turns. Instead, they're in it for the long haul. Cross-country skiing, like ultrarunning, emphasizes endurance and exploration. It's not easy, but, in my opinion, the adrenaline boost and the beautiful views last much longer than anything found on the slopes. I know you’re doubtful, but hear me out.
Even when they're having fun, alpine skiers are too rigid. For starters, there's the equipment. In alpine skiing, boots attach to the skis completely in a configuration known as a “fixed-heel binding.” This is great for sliding down slopes, but terrible for base movement. You can hardly bend your knees without falling! In Nordic or cross-country skiing, only the toe of your boot attaches to the ski. The unattached heel allows for a greater range of motion. You can bend your knees and flex your legs with ease.
There are two common forms of cross-country skiing: classic and skate. In classic, skiers follow prepared trails with parallel groves cut into the snow. Many ski resorts maintain trails for cross-country skiers with such ready-made tracks. When moving in this style, skiers “run” in a parallel motion that makes use of the aligned groves.
Skate skiing gets its name from its resemblance to ice skating. Unlike classic, skate skiers do not use pre-cut groves. Instead, they skate atop the snow's surface—much in the same manner a skater moves across the ice. If you've ever seen cross-country skiers shift their weight from one ski to the other in a non-parallel motion, you've seen skate skiing in action.
Into the Wild
Alpine skiers spend most of their time waiting. Waiting in line for the lift. Waiting on the lift. Waiting in line at the top of the mountain. Not so for cross-country skiers.
Since it requires neither lifts nor slopes, you can hit the snow pack without having to wait for anything. The route and destination are up to you, as your movement isn't encumbered by whether or not a chairlift will take you somewhere. This means greater opportunities for finding remote ski trails and enjoying their unique sights and sounds, especially wildlife otherwise deterred by the imposing infrastructure of the lodge.
Plus, there are all the benefits that come with the slower pace. The speed of alpine skiing doesn’t really allow for much conversation on the slopes or time for appreciating the snow-covered surroundings. But on cross-country trails, you can savor the scenery while chatting easily with your friends.
And then there's the quiet. Sure, some alpine skiers find serenity in the moment before they push off the mountaintop and speed down the slope, privy only to the unbroken swoosh of sound. But out on the trails, you and your fellow cross-country skiers are it. No whirring engines at lift stations, no massive crowds of people loafing around. Just you and the trail.
No other form of popular winter recreation does more for your body than cross-country skiing. Top-tier racers will burn an average of 900 to 1,100 calories an hour. Even skiers new to the Nordic style will burn more than 400 calories per hour.
Alpine skiing improves your core, legs, and feet, but cross-country adds your back, arms, and the cardiovascular system. Throw in the coveted endorphin rush known by endurance enthusiasts as the “runner's high,” in you're in for one hell of a good workout.
An avid runner when I began alpine skiing, I quickly realized I was working parts of my legs and feet that I usually didn't. This was especially true of my ankles and calves, which were sore from continual flexing after a day on the slopes. Cross-country, however, ups the ante by combining the health benefits of alpine skiing with those of endurance sports.
Feet, ankles, calves, glutes, core, lungs, arms—everything is thrown into the mix. Maintaining a solid posture throughout the day's long trek continuously activates these core components, providing a steady workout without too many breaks unlike, you know, relaxing on a chairlift again.
Sure, it burns like the hell at first, but the results of sustained activity are well worth it. The repeated use of your joints actually improves their strength and durability. And because you're spending so much time on your core, the effects last much longer than the ankle and leg work typical of alpine skiing.
So slow down, lock in those toes, and give cross-country skiing a chance. You might be surprised by how much adventure can be found on flat ground.