Skiers think they’re so cool.
They have the jackets adorned with lift tickets, they spend weekends at winter resorts and they hurtle down slopes, laughing in the face of danger. Whatevs.
Of course, I was just talking about downhill skiers. Now, cross-country skiers — they really are cool. They’re the ones not getting gouged every step of the way, they have the opportunity to really appreciate the natural beauty around them and, if the conditions are right, their winter wonderlands await right outside their front doors.
Okay, I’ll grant that the laughing-in-the-face-of-danger thing is pretty cool, but there’s a lot more to like about Alpine skiing’s far-less-publicized cousin than you may think.
It will probably come as news to many that there’s anything at all enjoyable about cross-country skiing. The only time a lot of people think about the sport is every four years, during the Winter Games, when it’s easy to shudder at the sight of an activity so taxing that it makes Olympic athletes collapse in a heap.
As Chip Chase, who runs West Virginia’s White Grass Ski Touring Center, told me recently, viewers see the skiers “prostrate, panting, exhausted at the finish line. That’s the American conception of cross-country skiing — the most exhausting, brutal sport there ever was!”
And make no mistake, cross-country can be very exhausting — especially if you’re trying to go as fast as you can for as long as you can, like those lunatics at the Olympics. But another way to think of it is as a fantastic, full-body workout, one that gives you an avenue for outdoor exercise during cold weather and, really, is only as “brutal” as you want to make it.
Another way to think of it is as — dare I say? — fun.
It’s one thing for me to say that, but let’s hear from someone who actually does a lot of cross-country skiing. Take it away, Clare Anderson: “It’s tremendously fun and exciting and beautiful.”
Anderson and her husband, Mark, are residents of the District’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood who have done their share of Alpine skiing but like the other kind better.
“We just prefer the Nordic skiing,” she said, using another term for cross-country (versions of the sport where the heel can be lifted fall into the Nordic category), “in part because it is great aerobic exercise, and once I started Nordic skiing, it really changed the face of winter for me. I get outside more, I exercise more in the winter than I ever have before, and really saw it as an opportunity to get healthier.”
The Andersons have skied around town, in Rock Creek Park and up and down city streets, plenty of times over the years. A sizable snowfall is required — but that has been known to happen in these parts, and when it does, “the entire world opens up as a potential trail,” said M. Scott Smith, editor of DCSki.com, which covers snow sports in the Mid-Atlantic region.
“It’s not uncommon to see cross-country skiers enjoying the National Mall after a good snowfall,” Smith added in an e-mail. “When the snow hits, it can be much easier to get out and about on XC skis than on feet.”
Of course, you’d have to have skis already, and Smith knew of no company in the D.C. area that rents them. That’s where a place like White Grass comes in; the Andersons have been going there regularly for 15 years and love the “well-maintained trail system,” but it’s also an ideal spot for beginners and those willing or able to try the sport only occasionally.
The 61-year-old Chase and his partners at White Grass — located in Davis, W.Va., about a three-hour drive from Washington — focus solely on cross-country skiing, and they have plenty of equipment to rent ($20 a day for skis, boots, bindings and poles). They also offer lessons, which my wife and I took on a recent visit.
There wasn’t any snow on the ground when we arrived, but fortunately White Grass is located very close to a couple of downhill ski parks, which were producing the man-made variety. Our instructor, Sue Haywood, took us to the bottom section of a beginner’s slope and showed us the basics.
After going over the skis themselves and how to get into and out of them, Haywood had us stand perpendicular to the slope and practice picking up our feet, taking sideways steps upward. That is actually a perfectly reasonable way to get up a steep hill in skis, but we also went over the more common herringbone method, then snowplow techniques for going downhill, as well as ways to turn.
Oh, and we learned how to get up with our skis on after a fall, because, as Haywood told us, “everyone falls,” including, on occasion, an expert such as herself.
Haywood, 43, made snowboarding her winter activity while attending West Virginia University, but she subsequently gravitated toward cross-country skiing. “I loved the idea that you don’t have to sit on a chairlift, and just wait and sit there,” she said. “You could make a longer adventure of it. You’re human-powered — ‘I don’t need the chairlift, I can go up myself.’ ”
The lesson took about an hour, at which point we would have been ready to hit some trails, except for that pesky no-snow thing. But that’s one of the really appealing aspects of the sport — it doesn’t take long to acquire enough skill to at least get started.
Cross-country is a bit like ice skating, in that the most often-used motion, the “diagonal stride,” involves pushing off one leg and shifting all your weight onto the other, then gliding. Thus, Haywood said, the sport targets hip flexors and the groin more than most, and she said that gymgoers could do squats and lunges to mimic some of the required movements.
But really, there aren’t many parts of the body that don’t get involved in some way. Unlike ice skaters and, to a large degree, Alpine skiers, Nordic skiers propel themselves with their poles, so they get a terrific upper- and lower-body workout.
Calorie-burning comparisons are an inherently inexact science, but just to give an idea, the Web site NutriStrategy.com says that in an hour, a 180-pound person can burn 654 calories by engaging in “moderate” cross-country skiing, which would be roughly equivalent to the same person running five 12-minute miles.
Chase was happy to tout the myriad health benefits of the sport he promotes at White Grass, and he ticked off ways in which cross-country could be preferable to downhill:
“It’s less expensive, it’s less crowded, it’s less pressure, it’s less dangerous. It’s safer, it’s easier, it’s simpler, it’s cheaper.”
Chase also said he is seeing an influx of college students, many of whom are attracted to the sport because of its kinship with mountain biking. So if hip young people are choosing cross-country as the way to get their ski on, let’s face it — it’s cool.
@desbieler on Twitter
Also at washingtonpost.com Read past MisFits columns at washingtonpost.com/wellness . There, you can subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter to get health news e-mailed to you every Wednesday.