As the holiday season approaches with all the Thanksgiving and Christmas temptations, many people will be thinking of balancing overeating with vigorous exercise. There's running, local gym workout sessions and maybe indoor swimming. But as soon as snow covers the trails, I'm giving up all that for cross-country calisthenics. Nothing is as exhilarating or exhausting as the first ski of the season. Muscles and techniques long dormant in warmer months are challenged, but it feels so good to be gliding on snow, I ignore their protests. I can't get enough of that outdoor whole body workout and the magic of snow covered woods.
Here's the secret I want to share — cross-country skiing is good for you and fun, too. Whether you're a toddler or an octogenarian, racer or tourer, skate skier or diagonal strider, Nordic skiing will do wonders for your physical, mental, social and spiritual health. It's a great way to fight obesity and winter ennui while spending time communing with nature and fellow humans. It's low-cost entertainment and low-impact exercise. Need proof? Read on.
Physical benefits: cross-country skiing is a full-body workout where you use your leg, arm and core muscles to propel you forward on the flats and up and down hills. This differs from other sports like running or road cycling where the legs do the majority of the work. It's similar to swimming or mountain biking where the upper body and lower body coordinate to move the body or bicycle forward. When a skier is using the diagonal stride and single pole technique of classic skiing, they use their biceps and triceps to provide power to the poles to move the skis forward.
When the skier uses the double pole technique for classic or skating, their core muscles, pectoralis major, deltoids and latissimus dorsi are engaged to provide thrust. The leg muscles, quadriceps and gastrocnemius give the skier "kick." Other muscles less actively engaged are providing balance and coordination. When you combine all these muscle groups effectively, the result is power and propulsion and stronger muscles all around. That's probably why in a study of octogenarian men completed by researchers in Sweden and Indiana's Ball State University, the lifelong Nordic skiers were "40 percent fitter" than lifelong endurance athletes in their 80s. It's the full-body workout.
Do you want to burn all those holiday calories? Go cross-country skiing. Bridget Duoos and Anne Rykken in Teaching Cross-Country Skiing state that "one hour of moderate cross-country skiing can burn approximately 470 calories for a 130-pound person and nearly 700 calories for a 190-pound person."
Another article by the Health Fitness Revolution stated that "Nordic skiing burns more calories than any other form of exercise or sport — up to 1,122 calories per hour for vigorous mountaineering!"
Have you ever noticed that Nordic skier racers are seldom overweight and look good in lycra? The intense training they do burns calories and fat. The average female elite cross-country skier has 11 percent body fat, the elite men have 5 percent. A Fox, Brown and Foss study in 1993 found these percentages to be "well below the average for people considered to be athletic — 17 percent for females and 10 percent for males."
The average cross-country skier might not achieve these numbers, but we can all burn some calories and tone-up with cross-country skiing. It's a great way for kids and adults to fight obesity and get healthier.
When you Nordic ski, not only do you strengthen your muscles and burn calories and fat, you also improve your cardiovascular system functioning. According to Duoos and Ryyken, "because the large numbers of muscles that are working hard when a person is skiing, V.O2 max measurements in skiers are very high." V.O2 max is the body's ability to supply oxygen to those working muscles. Regular cross-country skiing increases V.O2 max while it also strengthens the heart as it pumps out more blood with each muscle contraction. Individuals can reduce their resting heart rates through regular skiing. Olympic skiers have resting heart rates between 28 and 40 beats a minute. The average resting heart rate of most people is between 60 and 80 beats a minute. Even young children can benefit from getting their heart rates up, breathing more efficiently and building cardiovascular fitness though aerobic exercise.
The bottom line is cross-country skiing can help you get healthier and live longer. Alex Hutchinson in his article, "The jaw-dropping benefits of cross-country skiing," reviewed the results of the Sweden and Ball State University study of octogenarian men. Some of the men were lifelong Nordic skiers who trained four to six times a week. The others were healthy men who didn't do any formal exercise. Not surprisingly, "the skiers were in better shape than the non-skiers. But the magnitude of the differences is jaw-dropping. The skiers had approximately twice the cardiovascular and muscular fitness of the untrained group." Hutchinson's conclusion was, "Good genes can help you live a long life, but if you want to fully enjoy those later years, go skiing."
Mental benefits: cross-country skiing relieves stress. If I'm feeling anxious or out of sorts, I go for a ski. Just getting outside in the fresh air and into the woods helps me relax. It's what the Health Fitness Revolution article referred to as "therapeutic thinking time." As I'm skiing and getting my heart rate up, the release of endorphins are lifting my mood. The beauty of the scenery and the gliding of my skis take me to another place — a winter wonderland. I rarely come back from a ski in a bad mood.
Social benefits: although it's pleasurable to ski on your own, with your own agenda and pace, it's also fun to ski with others. Nordic families have great adventures skiing together. As the children get older, they enjoy skiing with friends and fooling around and "jumping off stuff." Couples explore trails together. Old friends meet up for a social ski and refreshments after. Nordic skiing brings out the smiles and laughter as people of all ages enjoy good exercise in a beautiful environment.
Spiritual benefits: This time of year, life gets hectic and we forget to pause and appreciate what's around us. Skiing through woods or across fields takes me out of myself to meditate on the wonders of nature. I stop and listen to hear chickadees or pileated woodpeckers. I look for tracks in the snow and wonder who went there. I feel the cool wind and snow on my face. If I'm quiet enough, I will hear the swish of my skis on snow and the sound of snow falling.
If you've never cross-country skied, this is the year to try it. Visit one of the six local ski touring centers, rent equipment and take a lesson. If you've skied before, make this the year you'll ski more with friends and family or solo. Reap the many benefits of Nordic skiing.
Nov. 20 and 27: Great Glen Trails dryland prep — emphasis on stability, core and flexibility, $10 a session.
Nov. 23-25: Bear Notch Ski Touring Thanksgiving Open House, season passes and equipment sales.
Nov. 24: Granite Back Country Alliance Glade Day, Crescent Ridge. Great Glen North. Register and information at tinyurl.com/y9tmxt2w.
Nov. 23-25, Bear Notch Ski Touring Thanksgiving Open House, season passes and equipment sales.
Dec. 1: Mount Washington Valley Ski Touring season passes available, free to Conway residents with $15 new and $5 renewal processing fee.
Dec. 4, 11, 18: Great Glen Trails Nordic Warm-Ups —10-11:30 a.m., pre-wax clinics at 9:30 a.m. Cost is $60 for three weeks, $25 for one session.
Dec. 7: Red Parka Steakhouse and Pub Skier’s Homecoming Appreciation Party.
Dec. 16 through March: GGT Bill Koch League, 1:30-3:30 p.m.
Dec. 27-29: GGT Penguins (age 6-8) and Polar bears (9-11) Ski Camps, 9-11, $99 for three days, $75 for two and $40 for one.
Dec. 29: GGT Evening Snowshoe Tours, 7-8:30 p.m., $12 a person age 12 and up, under 12, free.
Sally McMurdo is currently a cross-country ski instructor at Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. For almost four decades, she has explored New England's groomed and un-groomed trails on all kinds of skis.