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Getting Started With Cross-Country Skiing (Beginner’s Guide)

Skiing is intimidating for many.

You’re on a slippery surface with nothing but two thin strips of laminated material to balance and move on.

While the principles of skiing remain the same, regardless of whether you’re heading down a slope or on flat ground, keeping those skis horizontal beneath your feet can reduce a lot of the anxiety of strapping on a pair of skis for the first time.

It also makes skiing considerably more strenuous.

Cross-country skiing, in its varying forms, is a self-propelled skiing style. (You don’t get to rely on gravity to keep you moving.)

And while it still has a bit of a learning curve to it, it is typically easier for beginners to learn than downhill skiing.

Safer too.

What is cross-country skiing?

Cross-country skiing, frequently abbreviated XC skiing, is skiing that doesn’t use any other elements for propulsion (the way downhill skiing utilizes ski lifts to go up and gravity to come down).

Much of cross-country skiing is done on flat or only slightly hilly terrain (at least at the start), but people who are comfortable cross-country skiing (and who have the strength and stamina) can climb just about any size hill using a variety of methods.

Cross-country skiers can also certainly ski downhill.

The only truly vital thing that separates XC skiing from other forms of skiing is that all power comes from the skier and the skier alone.

people cross country skiing

Benefits of Cross-Country Skiing

The benefits of cross-country skiing are truly extraordinary.

Self-propulsion on skis requires the entire body, making it an incredible fitness activity.

Some benefits of cross-country skiing include:

  • Improved strength (total body, your arms will work as much as your legs)
  • Improved flexibility
  • Improved agility
  • Improved balance (snow is both slippery and unstable)
  • Improved joint health (lower impact than downhill or Alpine skiing)
  • Improved heart health (including lower blood pressure)
  • Improved respiratory rates
  • Improved sleep
  • Enhanced immune response
  • Weight loss
  • Fresh air and quiet time in nature, which in itself can:
    • Decrease stress
    • Lower blood pressure
    • Enhance immune response
    • Bolster self-esteem
    • Reduce anxiety
    • Reduce aggression
    • Improve overall mental health

Is cross-country skiing easy to learn?

Yes. Yet another great benefit of cross-country skiing is that it is fairly easy for beginners to learn. (It is certainly easier than learning to ski downhill.)

The majority of cross-country skiing (that done on flat ground and small slopes) is fairly simple.

It’s actually a lot like walking, and feels much like walking with a small glide in each step.

You will easily pick it up in a single lesson or even from a video.

Is cross-country skiing hard?

Yes. Just because cross-country skiing is easy to learn doesn’t mean it’s easy to do.

It may feel a lot like walking, but it isn’t, and it won’t take you long to notice the difference.

Unlike walking, cross-country skiing is a full-body workout.

The arms and legs work in equal measure and it takes more power with each step to produce forward momentum.

So, while the basic movement in cross-country skiing is simple, it’s also strenuous, requiring a lot of strength and stamina if you want to ski for more than a few minutes at a time.

Can I cross-country ski everyday?

You can.

Cross-country skiing is easy on the joints and muscles, and point-to-point cross-country ski tours that travel between destinations over a series of days are quite popular with XC skiers.

That said, while the movement of cross-country skiing is simple and easy on the body, it is also repetitive and can take time to perfect and grow strong enough to sustain proper posture and movement for hours on end. (Not to mention to develop enough endurance.)

When you’re first starting out, you should take it easy and pay close attention to how your body feels.

Poor technique can cause issues in the back (especially the lower back), hips, and knees.

Be conscious of your body during and after a session, and don’t plan any multi-day tours until you can ski for hours at a time without any noticeable pain.

How fast can a beginner cross-country ski?

Cross-country skiers who ski recreationally average around 7 mph at the low end, or about twice as fast as a moderate to brisk walking pace.

Once you have the basic XC skiing motion down, you can expect to be able to hit this low average quite easily. (Once you have the gliding technique down, speed is entirely determined by how much power you put behind each step.)

The question is, how long can you sustain it?

Unlike downhill skiing, which consists of short runs followed by leisurely rides back up the mountain, cross-country skiing is an endurance sport, and to endure you have to keep some energy on tap.

If you want to reach top speeds, you can go full-tilt as much as you like.

But if you’re out on the trail trying for speed instead of distance, don’t be surprised if you’re back in the lodge within the hour.

How far should I cross-country ski?

Cross-country skiing is much like snowshoeing in that it is done in fairly tough weather conditions (you know it will at least be cold) and is physically demanding.

As such, when first starting out, it is best to stick close to your immediate area and places of shelter.

As you get more familiar with your skis, the movement of cross-country, and become better conditioned for longer runs, a good way to determine your max cross-country skiing distance per day is to base it on your average speed and conditions.

Knowing your speed and how much conditions are likely to slow you down will allow you to calculate how far you can go in a set amount of time.

But stay close to civilization at first.

Is cross-country skiing a good workout?

Cross-country skiing is not just a good workout, it’s an insanely good workout.

The movement required to make skis go on a flat surface engages the whole body, requiring a considerable amount of strength and even more endurance.

Is cross-country skiing good cardio?

You might say that.

Cross-country skiing is such good cardio, in fact, the academic field of exercise physiology considers it “the best cardiovascular exercise known.”

Can you lose weight cross-country skiing?

Not only can you lose weight cross-country skiing, cross-country skiing is a nearly unbeatable calorie-burner.

So, if you need a winter weight loss activity, then this is a good choice.

Calories Burned Cross-Country Skiing

Even moving at a slow pace (slower than the 7 mph average of most recreational cross-country skiers), you can expect to burn around 7 calories per minute cross-country skiing.

That’s about the same as jogging an 8.5-minute mile.

At the highest speeds (professional racing speeds), cross-country skiers can expect to burn between 15 and 20 calories per hour.

But even right in the middle, at the moderate level of most recreational skiers, cross-country skiing is one of the highest calorie-burners of all winter activities, rivaling elite downhill ski racing and speed skating. (And you don’t have to worry about wiping out on a steep hill or ice.)

What muscles does cross-country skiing work?

Almost all of them, and it definitely works every major muscle group.

There are a few of those pesky, deep, nearly impossible to reach muscles that cross-country skiing won’t do as much for, but, as far as the muscles you can see, you’ll be engaging just about everything.

(For more information on which muscles work hardest and benefit the most from cross-country skiing, check out Muscle Groups Used in Skiing, Building a Snowman and More.)

Cross-Country Skiing for Beginners

As mentioned above, the basic technique of cross-country skiing is fairly simple and something you can learn from a video or even watching people at your local groomed trail.

However, getting the XC technique right is absolutely essential when it comes to how comfortable and easy on your joints cross-country skiing will be and, consequently, how long you can ski.

Taking a lesson with a cross-country ski instructor is the best way to make sure you learn correctly and maintain proper form.

An XC ski instructor can also teach you more advanced XC skiing techniques, like traversing (moving horizontally) or climbing slopes and getting up from falls.

These things can be difficult to perfect on your own and you will definitely need them if you want to ski anywhere beyond flat groomed trails.

That’s not to say you can’t learn to cross-country ski on your own, but you’ll probably be more comfortable with someone who knows what they’re doing.

We think it’s worth it to take a lesson.

You can find lessons in cross-country skiing at most ski resorts, or from individual instructors (by location) on Viator.

How to Prepare for Cross-Country Skiing

Whether you’re planning to take a lesson in cross-country skiing or to go it on your own, we cannot express enough the importance of conditioning before you go.

Cross-country skiing may be incredible exercise, but it’s incredible exercise you need to be somewhat fit before you start doing.

When preparing for an XC excursion, you’ll need to focus on stamina and strength above all else.

To increase your stamina for cross-country skiing, do enough cardio at your target heart rate (if you don’t know your target heart rate, check out this Target Heart Rates Chart from the American Heart Association) until you can keep your heart rate in this zone for 35 to 40 minutes at a time.

To increase your strength (and power) for cross-country skiing, we highly recommend calisthenics above all other forms of strength training.

Since cross-country skiing is all about the power of your own body, training with bodyweight exercises instead of machines provides the easiest transition between the strength training you do before XC skiing and the strength you use while XC skiing.

When strength-training, you’ll want to tone and strengthen your whole body, incorporating exercises that target your upper body, lower body, and core. (It also helps to throw in some balance and agility exercises, which can help you stay on your feet in the snow.)

Cross-Country Skiing Equipment For Beginners

When you’re ready to give cross-country skiing a try, we don’t recommend buying your own equipment.

There is no cheap ski equipment. Skiing is an expensive hobby.

There are plenty of ski resorts (with cross-country trails) that rent everything you’ll need to try out cross-country skiing.

You’ll be able to rent skis, ski boots, pools, and even a helmet (which is recommended for all beginners and required for children in some jurisdictions).

With your equipment covered, you need only worry about what to wear and what you’ll bring to drink.

What to Wear Cross-Country Skiing

When dressing to cross-country ski, there are three important factors to keep in mind:

  • One, cross-country skiing weather is cold weather.
  • Two, cross-country skiing is a strenuous activity that will warm you up considerably.
  • Three, the potential for falling is always there.

As such, you should wear warm waterproof or water-resistant outerwear (a heavy coat and waterproof pants) and dress in layers.

Dressing in layers will keep you warm and allow you to trim down your clothing if you start to overheat. (Some people like to wear a backpack as well, so they have a place to keep any clothing they shed.

It’s also a good place to store your drink and any snacks and personal items.)

Layering is more important in cross-country skiing than in downhill skiing, because cross-country skiing is a more continuous activity.

You will likely get warm after a couple of miles.

Bringing Water Cross-Country Skiing

Unless you’re heading out on a very short stretch of trail, you should always carry water with you when you cross-country ski. (And even on the shortest of trails, it’s not a bad idea.)

Cross-country skiing trails (even the groomed ones at resorts) tend to carry you further away from amenities like the lodge or vending machines.

That means a drink is further from reach when you need it.

So, our last piece of required cross-country equipment is something to carry water in that won’t allow it to freeze.

That might be an insulated water bottle or a hydration pack.

Insulated water bottles are just what they sound like, but require something to carry them in (like that aforementioned backpack or a sling).

Hydration packs are basically backpacks with built-in reservoirs for carrying liquid. (Though, they have space for other things too.)

One advantage of a hydration pack over an insulated water bottle is that a hydration pack has an attached straw which allows you to drink from it without having to get your water bottle out each time you’re thirsty.

But, convenience aside, it doesn’t matter which type of hydration device you choose as long as you have something to carry water in that prevents it from freezing.

For more information on insulated water bottles, see Insulated Water Bottles We’d Stake Our Hydration On.

For more information on hydration packs for skiing, see Why You Should Have a Hydration Pack for Skiing.

Why Cross-Country Skiing?

Cross-country skiing is not just part of a well-balanced workout regimen, it IS a well-balanced workout regimen.

In fact, cross-country skiing works so many muscle groups, and offers such incredible cardio and aerobic benefits, it is the only exercise you need during snowy months if you do it regularly.

It’s also considerably easier to learn and safer than downhill skiing.

And that’s just its physical benefits.

Like many exercises done outdoors surrounded by nature, cross-country skiing is also beneficial to your mental health.

It’s a heavy-duty workout and eco-therapy all rolled into one.

So, if you’re looking for a winter fitness routine that blasts away calories and helps you shake those winter blues at the same time, you’ll find few sports more beneficial than cross-country skiing.

Need some inspiration before you hit the trails? Check out Cross-Country Skiing Quotes for Inspiration.

Want more yuks with your cross-country content? Check out Cross-Country Skiing Puns.

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