Health benefits of cross-country skiing

Five ways this winter pastime can get every inch of your body in shape

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When it comes to strapping two planks to your feet and going fast over snow, most of my experience involves relying on gravity for speed. What I’m saying is I generally prefer downhill skiing, but I do value cross-country skiing as an excellent and fun form of exercise.

As my experience with this winter pastime is limited, I spoke to two women who know a thing or two about it. What I really mean is that they know an awesome, wondrous, galactic amount.

Olympic gold medalist (2006 Winter Games) Chandra Crawford shared some advice with me for aspiring cross-country skiers while en route to the World Cup in Europe.
“You can’t beat cross-country skiing for health, fitness and enjoyment for women,” Crawford said. “It’s very social.” There is no question that cross-country skiing is an effective workout. Just try it and you’ll see how quickly your heart rate begins to climb. Happily, it’s also a ton of fun. Beyond the love of the sport, there are myriad other reasons to adopt cross-country skiing as part of your winter fitness regime. Here are some benefits:

  • When it comes to calorie-burning potential, cross-country skiing is tied first-place with running. This is a sport that can help you get lean.
  • Because it’s a whole-body exercise with a cardiovascular component, it comes with tremendous health benefits. If all you ever did was cross-country ski (although you’d have to figure something out for summer), you’d be way ahead of the vast majority of the population. This sport will do a lot to dramatically reduce your cardiovascular risk profile and keep you living life to the fullest for a long time. 
  • You are targeting every muscle. Women often talk about “trouble spots.” Well, cross-skiing hits every spot. If you want to improve the way you look, head-to-toe, this sport will do it. 
  • It’s highly functional. When you cross-country ski you’re training your body to move in a way that it was designed to. You’re teaching it to improve the process that makes you more capable in moving your body for a host of other activities.
  • It improves endurance. Do you get tired? Want to have more energy? Forget energy drinks and do this instead. Again, this is a sport that has the potential to improve your aerobic fitness as well as running does, while making you feel ready to burst out of your skin with energy.

So, yes, there are many reasons to take it up. But how?

I spoke with Sara Renner, who won Olympic silver in 2006 with her teammate Beckie Scott. Renner, who is now part-owner of the Canmore-based boutique hotel Paintbox Lodge, told me how things have changed a lot since she was a sprinter and the sport dominated her life. “Now my situation is squeezing it into my busy life with kids and running a business.”

Living in Canmore, Renner has easy access to world-class ski trails, but what about us city-dwellers?

“In the city you can go alley skiing or skiing on golf courses, but be careful to respect the greens,” she says. Parks and paths are also good options. “It doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s just about getting outside and doing it.”

And of course, it can be a great activity for the whole family. One warning Renner has about cross-country skiing with young ones is understanding just how hard it is to cross-country ski towing a child in a chariot. This is a woman who won Olympic silver. If she says towing kids is hard, you might want to listen and work your way up.

Of course, if you’ve never cross-country skied before, Renner suggests not dropping a small fortune on equipment for your initial foray into the sport. She recommends starting off with rental gear, and if you get hooked, purchasing used equipment can be a great money-saver. You likely won’t find anything good at a general used sporting goods equipment store, she warns, so find a place that does ski swaps. They usually take place in the fall.

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary. He writes the column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for The Los Angeles Times and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get your free Metabolism Report here.