Olympic sport for everyone
Basic information that cross-country skiing beginners need about equipment, where to ski in Canada, and what exercise it provides.
Certain Olympic sports are difficult to imagine myself trying: downhill ski racing, freestyle mogul tricks, or speed skating with those long slalom blades. For some reason these sports make me nervous. I picture myself at the sidelines in a crumpled heap after one small error leads to a spectacular wipeout.
There is another Olympic event, however, that seems a little more accessible to mere mortals like me. Make no mistake: to perform at a high level it requires every bit of the skill and finesse of other sports, but the barriers to entry are perhaps not quite as intimidating.
I speak of cross-country skiing.
There will be 12 cross-country ski events at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games starting next month in Vancouver. Four of them are relay races, while the others range from a classic-style sprint event to a 50 km endurance race for men and a 30 km race for women.
Since there are two different styles of cross-country skiing—classic cross-country and skate skiing—these events alternate at every Olympics. For example, at the 2006 Torino Olympics the sprint event was a skate-ski competition; at the Vancouver Games it will be performed classic style.
Classic versus skate skiing
Of the two types, classic is generally the easiest for novice skiers to pick up. “Most people start with classic because there’s a track and it’s easier to learn balance,” says Andrea Dupont, a Canmore-based sprint skier who, at the time of writing, is working to qualify for the Canadian cross-country ski team at the 2010 Games. “There are four basic techniques that are used on different angles of terrain: the diagonal stride, double pole and kick, double pole, and the herringbone, which is used to ascend hills.”
Skate or “freestyle” skiing looks very different from classic and in some ways resembles ice-skating. Skiers propel themselves forward with exaggerated pole plants and by pushing out and backward with the inside edge of each ski. There are numerous movement patterns for different skill levels and types of terrain, but in all cases learning to transfer weight from one ski to the other is essential in learning to skate ski.
Classic cross-country skis are longer, narrower, and lighter than skate skis, and classic models have fish scales or utilize ski wax to provide grip when climbing hills. Fish scales are grooves in the bottoms of the skis that prevent skiers from slipping backward on an incline.
Classic skis should be taller than you, but the precise length will depend on several factors, such as your weight, experience level, and the intensity with which you’ll be skiing. A rule of thumb is to raise your arms above your head and measure the distance from your wrists to the ground. That’s roughly how long your skis should be.
Skate skis, on the other hand, are shorter and stiffer than classic models and the poles tend to be longer. Neither fish scales nor grip wax are used. Boots specific to skate skiing are more rigid than classic boots, as a wider range of motion is required. Skate skis should generally be 5 to 10 cm taller than you.
As for cost, classic gear tends to be a little less expensive than skate equipment. To outfit yourself with classic skis, boots, bindings, and poles, you can expect to spend anywhere from $280 to more than $600 if you are buying new gear. A skate-ski outfit would cost anywhere from $470 to more than $900. If you’re on a budget, visit your local ski retailer and ask if they sell used rental equipment.
Cross-country skiing is the ultimate full-body workout. Every major muscle group in the body is used simultaneously to propel a skier forward, and no one muscle group is overstressed, which means movement can be sustained for hours. Even muscles that are not being “pulled” or “pushed” directly are being used for balance and coordination.
Working every muscle group burns a lot of energy, so if you are looking to lose weight, cross-country skiing is a great choice. According to nutristrategy.com—a website that compares caloric expenditures for many different sports—a 155 lb (70 kg) person will expend almost 500 calories per hour with even a light effort. That same person would burn 1,000 calories per hour or more if they are racing competitively.
Another benefit of cross-country skiing is the low impact it has on your joints. While many activities can strengthen one part of the body while damaging another, cross-country skiing is very low impact. There is no shock to your knees thanks to the gliding motion, and the fact that it’s also fairly unidirectional means there is less risk of pulling a muscle or tearing ligaments or cartilage.
Where to ski
Cross-country skiing can be enjoyed in every province and territory across Canada. Not only are there hundreds of locations with groomed and trackset trails, but once you’ve gained some experience there are also thousands of off-trail opportunities. If you don’t want to purchase gear, a rental equipment package should cost $20 to $40 per day in most places, while daily user fees typically range from $10 to $25.
Vancouverites may not experience winter like most Canadians, yet within sight of the city’s downtown stands Cypress Mountain and its 19 km trackset course that takes skiers to historic Hollyburn Lodge. At Whistler the Lost Lake trail system has 30 km of trails for skate skiers and 25 km of trackset for classic enthusiasts.
No list of cross-country ski trails would be complete without the Canmore Nordic Centre, which was developed for the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary. Its 70 km of trackset trails are some of the finest in Canada, and they have played host to a pair of World Cups and many other international events since first opening.
There are hundreds of places to ski in Ontario, but the further north you go the more likely you’ll find snow. The Haliburton Nordic Trails can be found two and a half hours north of Toronto, and features more than 100 km of groomed skate-ski and classic trails. In nearby Algonquin Park, another 100-plus kilometres of trails (some trackset, some not) offer more variety. Fen Lake and Leaf Lake have skate-ski tracks.
The 363-square-kilometre Gatineau Park is home to Canada’s largest groomed ski trail network, with 185 km of skate-ski and classic trails. The park hosts Ski-Fest in January of every year, which features a free introduction to cross-country skiing for beginners.
The national parks are some of the best places to ski in Atlantic Canada. Cape Breton Highlands National Park receives high marks for scenery and features more than 30 km of skate lanes and classic terrain. The Blow-Me-Down ski club in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, maintains 40 km of snowcat-groomed trails on a plateau above the city, including a 7 km course lighted for night skiing.
For details about more than 500 cross-country ski destinations in Canada, visit canadatrails.ca and click on “XC Ski.”