The Moving Crew

Ski Skating: Cross-Country With Added Muscle

By Rita Zeidner
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Inertia was the last thing I expected during a recent Montana cross-country ski trip.

But that was before I set aside my regular clunky gear and rented a pair of skate skis. With these shorter, skinnier and ultra-light skis, plus a pair of extra-long poles to muscle my way along the flats and uphill, I would finally be able to keep up with the lycra-clad speed demons who whizzed by me. Or so I thought.

Skate skiing, as the name suggests, applies the graceful side-to-side glide used in ice skating to cross-country skiing. Instead of the classic cross-country stride -- right lunge, left lunge along parallel tracks -- skate skiers push their skis out at a wide angle from their torso.

Skating gave Vermonter Bill Koch, who pioneered the technique in the early 1980s, the edge he needed to medal in an international cross-country ski competition -- the first American to do so.

The technique is catching on with recreational cross-country skiers seeking to cover more terrain, get a killer aerobic workout (even at a moderate pace, skate skiers burn upward of 700 calories per hour) or both. Chris Frado, president of the New Hampshire-based Cross Country Ski Areas Association, credits skate skiing with breathing new life into the sport, helping it overcome what she calls "its woolen-knickers image."

But that smooth, steady glide is trickier than meets the eye, at least at first.

Even with hundreds of miles on traditional cross-country skis under my belt, I spent the better part of a snowy morning last month getting the knack of the basic skate stride: pushing forward and to the side with one ski, simultaneously planting both poles out to the side for balance and torque, and then pulling my body forward on a single ski before gliding my alternate ski forward and repeating the process. It wasn't long before my heart was racing and I had worked up a sweat.

I dweebishly face-planted more than once -- the consequence of planting my poles on the inside rather than the outside of my skis. Luckily, I wasn't moving fast enough to hurt anything but my pride.

Despite what I judged a so-so performance during an hour-long private lesson, my instructor applauded my progress and suggested I continue practicing on a nearby golf course that was perfect for novices like me. By lunchtime I was exhausted and famished. But I was also hooked.

Scott McGee, a nationally recognized skate ski instructor in Jackson Hole, Wyo., assured me later that even the fittest first-timers can find their first try humbling. The biggest challenge for most newbies, he said, is learning to balance on one leg -- a position that requires far more ankle and quad strength than classic cross-country. Skaters also must engage their arms, shoulders and even abs for pull. (Note to self: must do sit-ups.) Once you've nailed the basics, however, McGee insists, skate skiing is easier to master than classic cross-country.

High-intensity endurance sports like running, biking and rollerblading are great for cross-training and building the aerobic base that skate skiing requires, he said.

Compared with other winter sports, skate skiing is relatively safe. Since the technique is designed for gentle terrain, most skaters don't build up the velocity that leads to a violent fall, says Thomas Howard, a Fairfax family physician and the author of several books on sports-related injuries.

It's not too late in the season to try it; in fact, between now and mid-April may be the optimum time. Turns out the icy conditions that can wreak havoc on downhill slopes as snow melts and then refreezes make well-groomed skate skiing trails more slippery and fun. Many of the closest skate-ski areas -- about three hours away in West Virginia and central Pennsylvania -- got snow this month. Parts of Upstate New York were walloped with snow last week and are a sure bet for the near future.

If you're a first-timer, do yourself a favor and invest in a lesson. Even those with extensive cross-country or downhill experience may find those skills don't transfer.

Where to try it: Nearly all of the country's 350 cross-country ski areas machine-groom their trails to accommodate skaters. Here's where you can find some of the most predictable skate skiing conditions closest to home.

· White Grass Touring Center ( Davis, W.Va. The one-day trail fee is $12 for adults; rentals are $12 on weekdays and $15 for weekends and holidays. 304-866-4114. Season lasts "until the snow melts," says owner Chip Chase, manager and owner. That's usually until late March.

· Laurel Ridge Cross Country Center ( Mill Run, Pa. Daily trail pass is $6 for adults, $3 for kids. 724-455-7303.

Farther from home:

· Craftsbury Nordic Center ( Craftsbury, Vt. 802-586-7767.

· Jackson Ski Touring Foundation ( Jackson, N.H. 603-383-9355.

· Osceola Tug Hill Cross Country Ski Center ( Camden, N.Y. 315-599-7377.

Rita Zeidner is a Washington area freelance writer. There's no Moving Crew chat this week; join us back online March 20.

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