Cross-country skiing is one of the world's best aerobic workouts.
Credit: Allsport UK/Allsport
Ever spent time in the rubber room? I have, usually about the third week in April I start hearing the voices. By mid-May I'm barking out strange things in public: "Margaret Thatcher's panties on a cracker."
By June the neighbor children will no longer play and the dog stays back, even at dinner time.
Of all the terrible afflictions to the serious athlete, mental burnout is perhaps the most misdiagnosed and yet the most common. Garlic necklaces, silver crosses and William Peter Blatty's business card won't protect you, but a little Nordic just might.
Them Swedes Sure Are Purty
Scandinavia, land of the six-foot, blue-eyed princess, long winters, alcoholism rates to rival a Kennedy beach party. The Scandahoovians look like the master race for one reason: Nordic skiing. The highest recorded VO2 maxes for athletes of any sport have been seen in the Nordic skiers.
Why? Because every muscle of your body will be redlined after 10 minutes of skate-skiing up a hill. It's tough, it's fun, it's cheaper than alpine skiing, and it will make you a faster cyclist. Oh yeah, and it drives the demons out of your head because you won't have to log those long hours on the rollers, or on the spinning bikes this winter.
They Sure Look Funny
Two main styles here, classical and skating. Classical is what you normally consider "cross-country skiing." Legs kicking forward alternately, in two grooves in the snow. Arms poling along. Add heavy breathing and we're talking.
Skate-skiing, as you might guess, looks more like ice skating. The stroke of the legs is diagonal, or out to the side, then pushing off as the other leg moves forward. The skis are in a "V" pattern and the poling helps you glide over the front ski, before pushing off and shifting one's weight onto the other leg.
"Skating's a little easier, equipment-wise," says Carl Swenson, a professional skier and mountain biker. While on snow he's raced for the Fischer/Swix/Salomon/Subaru team for the past three seasons, and he's the national short-track champion in the dirt for the RLX Polo Sport team.
"I would say the skating is better for a cyclist and classical for a runner." Swenson is quick to point out that both styles of Nordic skiing are a great workout and focus on most of the same muscle groups that cycling employs.
Nordic might sound difficult, but don't sweat it too much. "The great thing is, the learning curve is short, especially for a cyclist who's already fit. They'll pick it up in no time," Swenson promises.
Inexperienced in the Ways of the Jedi
You don't need a guru, but you will need some lessons if you're gonna get fast. Nordic skiing is pretty taxing. If you want to be doing two-hour workouts, you need to have solid technique so you can glide along getting a workout, not flailing in circles.
Whether you choose to pursue one style or the other is up to you. Remember, though, that each style uses different equipment, so unless you want to drop some serious bank on two sets of skis, you might want to stick with one or the other. Greg LeMond and Davis Phinney helped make skate skiing popular with cyclists, but either style will keep you fit and fresh for next year.
"The biggest advantage is mental," Swenson says. "If you get into (Nordic skiing), then you're active, getting a cardiovascular workout, and getting a lot more workout for your time. If a cyclist tries to ski for two hours at first, he's gonna be tired."
Tired indeed. Swenson looks at his time on skis more like time not spent on the bike. That's to say, doing a general endurance workout, skiing for two hours steadily, is a great way to maintain base fitness away from the bike.
Start slow at first, focusing on technique and enjoying your time on the snow, in the peace and quiet of some tranquil trails.
For your first several outings just try to extend your distance and do a few more kilometers each time you head out. If the end of the snow season comes and you think you want to get more specific, then you can start making some efforts on hills (like intervals on the bike).