THE HOLIDAYS are over. Are we hibernating yet? Well, why not -- it's been cold, we're tired and we did eat enough to last us well into spring. But while our blood temperature's dropping and the fur is coming in thick, other people are actually doing IT -- exercising.

No, they're not skiing. Although the following esoteric sports share skiing's European origins, they're close-to-home activities anyone can learn. Whether it's Scottish-bred curling, Dutch-inspired speed skating or Scandinavian-style orienteering, there's bound to be a winter-warmer in the Washington area to interest you. You may need some equipment -- prices range from 50 cents to several hundred dollars, depending on the sport of your choice -- and you may need even more encouragement.

One incentive is these are decidedly hip sports. When was the last time someone asked you to define jogging? Another is the camaraderie that inevitably develops among obscure sport enthusiasts -- one or two practice sessions and you're almost guaranteed invitations to sociable evenings at members' homes. But the best incentive we can think of is this: After working out with one of these groups, a nip at your nose and a glow on your cheeks, you may find yourself actually deserving that long winter's nap. STONE COLD BUT CIVILIZED

Curling is a sport with an identity crisis -- its adherents always describe it in terms of other sports. "It's like shuffleboard on ice," is the usual line. "It's like bowling on ice" is another, and so is "chess on ice."

Yes, and it tastes just like chicken.

Proponents of this "gentlemen's sport," as they also like to call it, include almost as many gentlewomen as men. In fact, the members of the Potomac Curling Club prove that you can't make generalities about curlers -- they're young and old, male and female, fit and not-so-fit.

It isn't easy to give a clear picture of exactly what curling is -- you kind of have to watch a few innings, or "ends," as they're called, before you realize what's going on. At first, it looks like a bunch of people rolling kettles down the ice while some other people use brooms to sweep the ice in front of the kettles so they don't get dirty.

But the Potomac curlers are happy to explain their game and crack some of the code. There are four members on a team; although all four "toss" or slide two granite stones (not kettles) toward a target during an end, the "skip" (skipper) stands by the target and "calls the curl" -- that is, tells his or her team member which way to curve (curl) the stone -- out or in. Meanwhile the other two players act as "sweeps," pushing brooms at the skip's command to smooth the stone's path if needed.

Those stones -- curlers refer to them as "rocks" -- weigh 42 pounds and are made of Welsh or Scottish granite with a handle attached to the top (hence the kettle-like appearance). Each team has eight of these rocks; the teams alternate turns bowling the rock down toward the large circular target, or "house," on the other end of the ice. The object is first to have one of your rocks closest to the center, or "tee," of the house once all rocks have been curled; second, you want to have as many of your rocks both inside the house and closer to the tee than the closest of your opponents' rocks. All of your rocks that are closer than the opponents' closest rock score a point.

Despite all the purported gentlemanliness and camaraderie of curling, there is a delightful measure of spite involved. The team that has the "hammer," or last curl, has the opportunity to knock any of the opponents' previous good throws out of the closest position to the tee. Obviously, to use the hammer effectively, you've got to have a pretty accurate curler. As Bob Pelletier, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force at Fort Meade, jokes, "The skip gets paid to make these tough shots."

The shots are definitely tough during a recent session at Cabin John Rink. The eight teams are playing each other on less-than-ideal ice conditions, according to Harvey Chalmers, an electrical engineer from Rockville who is one of the evening's skips. "Ice can vary quite a bit, especially here, because the skaters really tear up the ice," he says.

Although ideal curling ice is as uniform as possible, it is not particularly slick. Prior to the evening's curling, the ice is first sprayed with water from a backpack. The droplets of water freeze on the surface of the ice creating a layer of little bumps. This is known as "pebbling" the ice; once done, it's quite easy to walk on the ice in tennis shoes without fear of slipping.

Dedicated curlers, however, wear two types of soles. On the sliding foot, curlers wear a slick sole, often placing a smooth cover over a tennis shoe. The other foot -- the pushing foot -- needs a sole with traction, since it's used to push the sliding foot off the "hack" starting block and down the ice in skateboard fashion just before the rock is released. You can get official curling shoes for around $65.

An official curling broom will run around $35. Curling lore has it brooms were used in 16th-century Scotland -- where the game originated -- to clear snow from the path of the rocks. In the modern game, the sweepers brush them vigorously in front of the moving rock in order to reduce friction on the ice in front of the rock. This makes the rock glide farther than it would otherwise, and it allows the path of the rock to be altered somewhat -- though actually touching the rock is a no-no.

Once the strategy has become apparent, the development of each end becomes interesting to watch. The first few throws on this evening are pretty far off the mark, but once the players get accustomed to the ice, the accuracy improves considerably. But is it really a sport?

Fifteen-year-old Andy West of Vienna thinks so. "The tossing's more fun, but with the sweeping, you get to work up a sweat. And when you're the lead {curler}, you toss first and sweep for the rest of the end, so you get pretty warm."

West is playing with his stepfather Jerry Bell, an Office of Personnel Management employee who's been curling for three years. "I carpooled with two people who curled, and after hearing about it for three years, I decided to try it myself," Bell says.

Although it may be obscure, curling really is a sport. Thanks to Scottish immigrants, it's played in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and has competitors in Europe and Japan. The Potomac club curlers are eager to point out that their sport was included as a demonstration sport in the 1988 Winter Olympics, and will be back again in 1992.

But even with rising Olympic fame, the social side of the sport that begins with a handshake and the phrase "Good curling" remains paramount. Tournaments, such as those with the Chesapeake Curling Club on Maryland's Eastern Shore, are friendly affairs called "bonspiels."

"Half the fun is the fellowship," says Pelletier. "Afterwards, we always have food and drink over at someone's house." POTOMAC CURLING CLUB

meets 8 to 10 Mondays at Cabin John Regional Park Ice Rink, 10610 Westlake Dr., Rockville, for three seven-week sessions October through March. Annual membership is $35, plus a $165 ice fee. The club can provide brooms. For more information, call 703/370-6628.

CHESAPEAKE CURLING CLUB

offers youth and adult curling sessions four times a week from mid-November through mid-March at the Talbot Community Center in Easton, Md. Dues are $75 for the first year, $125 afterwards. Contact president George Shenk at 3184 Harness Creek Rd., Annapolis, MD 21403, or call him at 301/263-6353. QUICKSILVER SKATES

Remember Hans Brinker, the little Dutch boy who wanted to win the silver skates? Although he's not a household name in the Netherlands -- most Dutch people think he's the boy who stuck his finger in the dike -- plenty of nonfictional speed skaters are. Discuss speed skating in America, however, and the name of Hans Brinker is as likely to come up as that of thunder-thighed Eric Heiden, who won five gold medals in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Unfortunately for the sport, America's attention vanishes in the years between Olympic Games.

Nevertheless, dozens of Washington-area speed skaters converge at a College Park rink every Tuesday night, replicating Heiden's speed and grace in a slightly different form: short-track speed skating. While the Olympic version (also known as long-track speed skating) pits pairs of skaters on a 400-meter oval, short-track skaters whizz around in packs on a 111-meter oval set up on a hockey rink. That's why you can find short-track speed skaters all over the United States, wherever there's a hockey rink; long-track athletes, on the other blade, can race in only three places in the country.

Despite the relatively easy access to ice rinks, short-track speed skating is anything but easy. Technique and conditioning present the greatest hurdles for beginners to overcome, but fortunately, beginning and advanced skaters can work on both without having to be on the ice a lot of the time.

At a "dry land" training session on the NIH grounds in Bethesda, Ed Lakatos, a biostatistician at NIH and president of the National Capital Short Track Speed Skaters, is leading seven skaters with muscular thighs and two reporters through a series of exercises designed to stress proper skating form.

"Efficiency is the main thing. If you don't have form and technique, you can't compete," Lakatos says soberly. "And even recreationally, it's a lot more fun if you do it right."

The first exercise involves getting into the quail position -- rather than a step behind George Bush, it's kneeling with your elbows on your knees and your hips tucked forward to get the humpback look of Olympic skaters. A few repetitions of this position makes it clear why speed skaters have such big thighs -- ouch!

"Speed skating is not what you come upon naturally," explains Lakatos, stating the painfully obvious.

Unlike running or even hockey skating, speed skating makes you push side to side -- not back -- to propel yourself forward. Lakatos says that's a hard habit for beginning speed skaters to break; these corrective exercises are clearly designed to break the habit, or you.

"The basic control is in your hips," he remarks while the group is practicing squatting with one hip jutting out while the opposite foot points to the side. "That's when you're in balance at the end of the stroke."

Our nose, knees and toes have to be kept in alignment, but as Lakatos says, "If you're far enough over, you won't feel like you're going to fall down."

The next exercise is a dynamic one, Lakatos says, in order to develop "explosive thrust." That sounds exciting, but it's actually hard work. In a mean combination of pushups and jumping jacks, the exercise requires you to crouch to your toes on the count of one, extend your feet back on two, pull them back on three and then jump as high as you can on four. On the last of 10 of these, instead of the jump, you sprint 50 meters all out. Amazingly, everyone has a spring in their step even after the last dash.

Competitive skaters like those who train at Lake Placid, N.Y., will do these types of exercises once a day and go running once a day, with quarter-mile to 100-meter sprints in between each set, before playing soccer "viciously" for two hours, says Lakatos, who's been there. Then they practice speed skating in the evening.

That's when the Washington skaters work out, so the next stop is the H. G. Wells ice rink in College Park. There's a good-sized group assembled, at least double that of the dry-land training session, and skaters are already racing around the track that's been set up. Unlike the Eric Heidens you see on TV, these skaters are wearing helmets and knee pads to protect their vulnerable areas in the event of the inevitable fall.

Looking nearly identical in their bright togs and friendly smiles, twins Brad and Brent Jefferson, respectively a Centreville systems analyst and a Herndon architect, seem to share an identical interest in speed skating.

"Our background was in hockey, since we grew up in Winnipeg," says Brad. "But it got to be a little much. With speed skating, you can still skate, but it's not as competitive."

Speed skaters do compete: Locally, there are monthly races in Baltimore. Brad's implications become clear only at the end of the session, when uniformed behemoths from a local hockey league start swarming around the ice. With speed skating, you rely less on force and more on finesse.

The Jeffersons have been skating for about three years now. "After about two or three sessions, we decided to bite the bullet and get speed skates," says Brad, adding that it took them the same number of sessions to adapt to the new longer-bladed, more flexible footgear.

"The first time I got on speed skates, the ice felt like butter and the skates felt stiff. We fell right away," he says. "Then when I later lent someone my speed skates and went back into my hockey skates, I couldn't skate in them anymore."

The twins seem to have found their skating legs well as they race around the tight turns with the other skaters. But Robin Deykes, a disability services coordinator at American University, looks less self-assured on the ice than she did on the grounds of NIH.

"I have equilibrium problems," she explains later. "Some days it's great; some days it stinks. When I first got on the ice, I had a hard time balancing -- today I stank."

Deykes says difficulties with balance are common to people who are deaf or hearing-impaired, as she is. Yet she still finds skating rewarding.

"I've learned to compensate a lot, and learning the appropriate off-ice exercises helps. When I'm dizzy, I can control with my muscles more," she says.

Deykes also has a slideboard at home. The contraption, an eight-foot long by three-foot wide slick board with raised padded edges on either side to push off from, allows her -- and a lot of other speed skaters -- to practice the gliding motion of skating and perfect her technique.

"For me it helps a lot," Deykes says, "and it gives me more time."

But let's talk about the bullet that Brad bit -- the one about buying the skates. They must be ordered by mail from New York or abroad -- the Netherlands has several excellent brands, of course -- and they'll run around $300 a pair, at a minimum. Then there are the club's dues -- mostly rink fees -- which are $245 for the winter session. However, as long as you know how to skate, and aren't a hockey player looking for new bruising techniques, Lakatos's group will try to give you your money's worth; beginners are charged minimal monthly rates until they decide to join full time. And if you ever fell in love with "The Silver Skates," a silver bullet's not too hard to bite. NATIONAL CAPITAL SHORT TRACK SPEED SKATERS

practice 8:30 to 9:30 Tuesdays November through March at H. G. Wells Rink, 5211 Calvert Rd. in College Park. Off-ice sessions are usually held weekly during the winter session. Dues are $245 (prorated for beginners) and include equipment costs, such as padding, in addition to rink rental. A 10-week summer session begins in late June at Mount Vernon Recreation Center, 2017 Belleview Blvd., Alexandria; fees last year were $100. Helmets are mandatory and some skating experience is recommended. For more information, call Ed Lakatos at 301/424-2782 weekends or evening or, for a recorded message, call 703/715-6123.

SILVER BLADES

practice 7 to 10 Mondays and 7 to 8 Thursdays September through March at the Northwest Family Ice Rink, 5600 Cottonworth Ave. in Baltimore. First admission is free; a four-week introduction for beginners and children (ages 5 and up) is $40. Novice season dues are $200, intermediate and advanced $350. Helmets and long sleeves mandatory; the club has some helmets and rental skates available for beginners. For more information, call president Joan Clark at 301/955-8826. A WALK IN THE WOODS

There's one thing orienteerers like to tell you about their sport: It's a nice way to walk in the woods. What they don't tell you is that there's a suspicious number of professional cartographers taking those nice walks in the woods -- and a lot of them are running, not walking.

As the Quantico Orienteering Club brochure explains it, orienteering is "a game of land navigation." Like an outdoor scavenger hunt, it's a game where the board changes each time and you yourself are the marker. You start with a control card and a detailed map of a wooded area -- the Quantico club has guides to over 30 parks from Woodbridge to north of Baltimore -- and a list of eight to 14 control points, where you can punch your card to show you've been there. Armed only with a compass, you've got to find each of the controls in order, plotting the fastest way over the river and through the woods.

Since the courses range in length and difficulty from white (1.9 K minimum) to blue (10 K minimum), you don't actually have to be a professional mapmaker to begin orienteering. You can get by without a compass on a white course if you remember to keep turning your map in the direction you're going. But even at that level, the shortest distance between two controls may not be the fastest. Being able to read the topological legend on the map (brush density, for example, is color-coded as "open," "slow run," "walk" and "fight") -- and take fast, accurate compass readings are what enable serious O-types to develop what they call blue star complex, or running only the most difficult courses.

Those orienteerers are running against the clock; elite athletes can whip through a blue course in a little more than an hour. But as Keg Good, a nationally ranked orienteerer from Woodbridge, says, "For some people, orienteering is a walk in the woods with their baby; the sport's only competitive if you want it to be. It's important that it be fun."

To help the Quantico club achieve that goal, she's organized string courses for children. "They quite literally follow a string along a course. It gets them out in the woods and using the controls, and it's fun for them to be outdoors," Good says.

She teaches part time at George Washington University -- about maps and mapmaking. But like other orienteerers, Good insists her background in cartography is irrelevant.

"I started out in printing, became disillusioned, got a degree in parks and recreation, wasn't happy with that and got another degree in geography and cartography. I was already an orienteerer before I went back to school in cartography," she says. "Besides, I don't actually make maps; I analyze the data that goes into maps on a computer."

But she is a little impatient with people who are put off by the map aspect of orienteering. "When someone says they can't read a road map, that's an attitude. They haven't worked through it. I can read a road map great, but I can't handle sitting in a car."

Obviously Good would rather be outside, orienteering. After one course, she recalls, "One woman had found a turtle and was carrying it. If you get off the trail occasionally, that's where you'll find deer antlers and owl pellets and interesting mushrooms."

Not too interesting -- that wouldn't be in keeping with the sport's military background. It used to be that nearly every ROTC program sponsored an orienteering club, says club president Alan Petit, and the Quantico club's name reveals its own military origin. Founded in 1970 on the Marine base, the 150-plus membership is now almost entirely civilian, though.

Take the recent orienteering meet sponsored by the club at Greenbelt National Park. Although a few retired and current military personnel were out, most participants were like friends Clare Durand and Tina Paxton, respectively a cartographer and -- surprise! -- travel agent from Reston.

Paxton's just graduated from white to yellow courses.

"I've been doing it a year and finally could read the map and do it without a compass," she says. "The hardest one was the first yellow one a few weeks ago. I ended up DNFing" -- that's being listed as Did Not Finish -- "and got very turned around trying to find the controls."

There are contingency measures for people who get lost. All participants are required to leave their license plate number when they register at the start; if your car is still around when the course closes after three hours, someone will go looking for you. You can also take a whistle, Petit says, since "three blasts {on it} mean you've twisted your leg or are otherwise in need of help."

Nonetheless, he says, "There's a pretty low injury rate and loss rate. Some people are just overeager and move up too fast."

That's not the case with Paxton, though; she finished a yellow course in Pohick Bay in an hour and 15 minutes, a quarter-hour under par.

"That was very good for me; I didn't get lost," she laughs. "Besides, it was a good excuse for a walk in the woods."

Peggy Dickison, ranked No. 1 among U.S. female orienteerers, isn't at Greenbelt for a walk in the woods, but she's not competing either.

"Today is just for fun," she says. "It gives me a chance to get some running in the woods."

Another professional cartographer, Dickison finds more drama at the nine to 10 national meets each year than at these informal local meets, held about twice a month fall through spring. At the latter you trace the controls onto your map from a master map before heading into the woods.

"At a national meet, when the buzzer goes off you turn over your map and it's a new map and you go," Dickison explains. "It's a little stressful; it's different every single time. It's not like a road race where you can run the race beforehand. You can't have a {personal record} on an orienteering course because it's always new."

Is she ever tempted to follow another competitor?

"Technically, it's illegal to follow someone or to ask where you are," Dickison says. "At the elite level, it's all route choice. At the local level, it's dangerous to follow someone you don't know, since they may be lost too. You really have to do it yourself."

That may be true, but Kris Harrison, a newsletter editor who went to the world championships in 1985, seemed a good person to tag along with at Greenbelt as she tackled a green course (4.9 K, 11 controls).

"I'm taking it easy today," she said.

But for Harrison, "route choice" means using her navigation skills to offset her slower running pace. Instead of going the extra distance to find a smooth surface to run on between controls, she'd just as soon turn over new leaves and burrow through the brush. Taking it easy? An hour and 20 minutes of woodland duck-and-cover left her companion with dozens of tiny scratches from thorns and brambles, and slightly dazed from the rapid maneuvering.

Nice walks in the woods are not supposed to draw blood. But it was exhilarating. And suddenly, road maps don't seem so bad anymore.

QUANTICO ORIENTEERING CLUB is the second largest in the United States and is the northernmost club offering meets throughout the winter. Membership dues are $12 ($15 family). Meet registration fees are $4 for nonmembers ($10 family) and $3 for members ($7.50 family). Compass rental is 50 cents. Recommended clothing is long pants, long-sleeved shirt and hiking boots or running shoes. To join, send check or money order to: Quantico Orienteering Club, 6212 Thomas Dr., Springfield, VA 22150. For more information, call 703/471-5854 or 301/937-3164.

SATURDAY -- Night orienteering with registration from 5 to 6:30 at Fort Belvoir. From I-95 take Fort Belvoir/Newington exit (Backlick Road) towards Route 1. Cross Telegraph Road and take first left onto Ehlers Road. The registration area is a half-mile on left next to the golf course. Bring a flashlight.

JAN. 20 -- Day orienteering with registration from 12 to 2 at Little Bennett Regional Park, Little Bennett, Md. From the Beltway, take I-270 north to the Clarksburg exit and follow signs to Little Bennett Park. Follow red-and-white signs to the start.