This winter Jon and I have become fairly obsessed with skate skiing. We have been classic skiing (a type of Nordic skiing) since 2012. At the end of last year, we went to Play It Again Sports and each bought a pair of used skate skis and poles. We were both looking for a new challenge, and since skate and classic skiing are done on the same trail systems, it seemed natural to give skate skiing a try.
Nordic Skiing – not just for Nordic countries!
First of all, what exactly is Nordic skiing? For the unfamiliar, Nordic skiing is done on groomed trails. A typical Nordic ski area is located in a mountain range with rolling topography. It is comprised of several looped trails with warming huts along the way. The trails and huts are woven into the forests, hillsides and valleys – providing a quiet and scenic experience.
At 10-15ft in width, Nordic trails are wider than a hiking footpath. They are groomed by a machine which compacts the snow to create a flat, relatively hard path in the middle, and plants a set of parallel ski tracks on the side of the trail. Skate skiers use the compressed snow in the center, classic skiers use the ski tracks
Unlike downhill skiing where momentum is gained from gravity and grade, Nordic skiers must create their own momentum in order to travel up and down rolling hills.
There are two types of Nordic Skiing:
The classic skier has wider skis and uses her poles for balance and momentum while pushing the skis forward – one at a time with a slight pause at the transition from one ski to the other. Efficient movement is accomplished by keeping the skis parallel and pointed forward, guided by the tracks. The center of gravity is higher, which lets the classic skier lift her feet more and lengthen her stride.
The skate skier moves by achieving an unnatural combination of a perpetual squat and a continuous glide balanced on one ski at a time. The skier must seamlessly transfer weight and balance from one foot to the other without ever stopping the ‘flow’ of the glide. Basically, while your left leg is gliding, you must lift your right leg in preparation to take over the momentum. The skis are fixed in a V-shape and require a lot of power from your legs to push yourself down the trail. Poles are used for momentum. There are several different techniques, but that is the basic idea.
I love to skate ski because it demands excellent balance and full body coordination. It is also a really intense workout, as it is both anaerobic and aerobic, leaving you exhausted and sore at the end of your day. Truly, the health benefits of skate skiing cannot be understated. The combination of both anaerobic and aerobic exercise requires skate-skiers to have exceptional endurance, but also lots of power and strength in the legs and arms to control and maintain speed. Professional Nordic skiers have the highest VO2 max out of any sport at the Olympics!
Skate Skiing is Fun
Skate-skiing is exhausting. It takes practice to get the technique down. It is an outdoor sport that is only done in the coldest months of the year. It can make you feel uncoordinated and slow with no reward of going downhill fast. If the snow quality sucks, it’s even more exhausting than normal. It requires both cardiac endurance, and physical strength – at the same time, the whole time. Let’s be honest, that kind of sounds like a sufferfest.
Wait, why is this fun?
It’s all about the endorphins! Science has done a good job of confirming what fanatics like me already know – it just feels amazing to be exhausted by exercise. It has so many physical and psychological benefits, it is difficult to list them all in one blog post, so here are the reasons why I keep coming back to the exhaustion and exertion of skate skiing as a source of happiness:
Skiing for Mental Health
By Friday, I’m pretty fed up with my life: work, the routine, bills/money, and social interactions. The constant energy it takes to be around people has sapped my ability to be the compassionate, nicer version of myself.
Additionally, I have the worst habit of replaying upsetting things in my mind over and over again. I reminds me of a little boy I saw in the climbing gym. His Dad put him on a climb, and as he’s climbing up, he becomes more and more frustrated, but out of fear, he can’t stop. Finally, he yells out to the universe: “this is the worst kind of torture!”. I feel for him! Stop it brain, this is torture! Stop repeating that story, for the love of God! Skate skiing acts as a necessary and needed reset for my brain. Full days exercising in the mountains is really effective at helping me let go and find perspective once life again.
Did you know that exercise promotes the release of endorphins? In addition, it reduces the release of adrenalin and cortisol (hormones that promote feelings of anxiety and tension). Regular exercise can help you attain a happier state of mind and a better quality of life. Exercise is my happy pill.
Skiing for Focus and Body Conditioning
When I ski, I’m both distracted by my interest in perfecting my technique, and just being too exhausted to think about anything else. I’m focused on getting up the hill, controlling my skis to get around a hairpin turn without wiping out, or minimizing drag in my left foot when I pick it up. It is very rewarding to make progress on my technique, and requires me to really listen to my body – arms and legs and core working together with ever more precision. I notice when I am faster, or can travel more kilometers without getting too tired. Observing progress in both my technique and physical stamina builds confidence and makes me feel good.
Skiing to be Immersed in Nature
In the summertime, it’s all backcountry, all the time. Most weekends are filled with time spent in nature. In addition to the weekend warrior schedule, Jon and I usually do 1 or 2 long hikes in the peak season, which fill me with awe and love for the wilderness. The wintertime is hard in this way. I miss connecting with nature and retreating from civilization. I try to avoid obsessively waiting for the passes to melt out, so skiing provides a good distraction as well as a great way to train for summer.
Nordic trails are fairly busy, but nothing compared to a ski resort. An hour into your day at a Nordic area, and you’ve got the trail and forest to yourself. Just the sound of crunching snow under your skis and your breath fogging up your glasses.
One of my favorite places to ski is the Methow Valley in northern Washington. A shockingly beautiful valley overlooking the Methow river, it is nestled in the wild and remote North Cascades. I love skiing under the tall, dark conifers, heavy with snow. They bow over me – their branches filtering dappled light onto the trail. I listen for the occasional plop plop: the sound of clumpy snow falling off branches high above me, in hopes it doesn’t land on my head. The hemlock, pine and firs smell amazing and are so quiet and motionless, it is as if they are too cold to move, and must all stand and wait it out for spring. I love skiing into a snow covered valley with it’s wide open field- sunny and warm, flanked by shady corners. It is so easy to become lost in the motion of my skis, push glide glide, push glide glide, and I almost don’t notice the huge granite headwalls that tower above, encircling the valley. They are covered in frozen waterfalls and snow. Cold, imposing, inspiring. I’ll be climbing those walls in the summer- when they are warm and exposed in the August heat.
Skiing for Companionship and the Joy of Shared Experience
Jon and I spend a lot of time together, but my favorite time is when we are doing outside things – like climbing, hiking, gardening or skiing. I absolutely love the shared work of doing hard things together. We encourage each other, laugh at each other, teach each other, and feel proud when the other person pulls off something great. It builds the bond of companionship outside of our daily routine, which gives us a moment to appreciate each other in a new light. When we are outside, I see Jon is an athlete; he is strong and resilient. He isn’t afraid of elevation gain, or weather, or committing to an unknown trail. He can eat 3 large burritos in one sitting.
It is also fun having a group of friends to share the experience of doing hard things together, too. Several friends of mine are also my outdoor partners – my favorite memories of our adventures are when we are trying hard, and pushing our own personal limits. The outdoors is the perfect place to love people, as well as nature.
This turned out to be a lot longer than I expected, but I guess I really love talking about skate skiing. Thanks for reading.