Health Benefits of Cross-Country Skiing

January 12, 2012

By Denise Lodge

Photo by Sergio.

If you are looking to shed some holiday weight, want to maintain the fitness you enjoy during the summer, or prefer being in the winter wonderland instead of watching it from your window, cross-country skiing is a fun, easy-to-learn option.

Cross-country skiing has been a method of traveling over snow-covered terrain for hunting, working, military, and transportation purposes. Depictions of skiers in cave paintings from at least 10,000 years ago have been discovered in China, rock carvings of skiers in Norway date back 5-6,000 years, and primitive skis and ski fragments from 4,500 and 8,000 years ago have been found in Sweden and Russia. In the late 1800s, cross-country skiing became a competitive activity, and has been contested at the Winter Olympic since 1924.

Varieties and Versions

Cross-country skiing is so versatile that there are multiple versions to suit each individual, season, and experience level.

Classic Cross-Country Skiing

Cross-country skiers tread forwards with the skis moving parallel to one another, striding with a kick motion. Unlike downhill skiing, the heel of the boot is not attached to the ski, so it is free to be raised with each stride, as in walking. The poles are pushed into the snowy surface with each stride for extra forward movement and for balance.

Skate Skiing

Unlike classic cross-country skiing, skate skiing entails shorter skis and poles; skiers propel themselves forwards with exaggerated pole plants, pushing out and backwards with the inside edge of each ski, as in skating. Skate skiing allows the skier to go faster than classic cross-country skiing does. Of the two types, classic cross-country skiing is generally the easiest for novice skiers to pick up. Skate skiing tends to put more emphasis on the upper body and quadriceps regions than classic cross-country skiing, so if your goal is to create more muscular development in these zones, skate skiing may be the better option for you.

Nordic Walking

Photo by FaceMePLS.

It is possible to carry over the activity and benefits of cross-country skiing from the winter to the summer. Nordic walking, also known as pole walking, originated in Europe, and has become so popular that last year, more than twenty per cent of Finns, and about ten-to-fifteen million Germans regularly Nordic walked, according to the Globe and Mail.

One of the greatest draws to Nordic walking is the nominal effort required; participants perceive that Nordic walking requires a level of exertion similar to that of walking. Despite the lack of labour, Nordic walking not only works the muscles of the lower body, as walking does, but also strengthens the core and upper body. Other health benefits include increased oxygen consumption, caloric expenditure, and heart rate, as well as improved posture. According to the Canadian Nordic Walking Association, walking burns 280 calories per hour, running burns 600, while Nordic walking burns 400.

The poles, made from lightweight aircraft-grade aluminum, adjust to fit the walker’s height. The handgrip of each pole is designed to help work upper-body muscles, and the rubber tips on the pole absorb shock.

Nordic walking also serves as an excellent rehabilitation tool for those recovering from knee or hip surgery, as the poles take weight off the knee and hip joints. Muscle strengthening and conditioning are not the only benefits of this new trend; the poles also add stability to a person’s walk. If Nordic walking intrigues you, or you want to extend the enjoyment and benefits of cross-country skiing into the warmer months, consider enrolling in a day course to hone the technique.

Benefits of Cross-Country Skiing

Photo by James Byrum.

Winter can be a time when we go into hibernation mode and rarely get outside, but cross-country skiing has many benefits to motivate us to venture outdoors.

Cross-country skiers simultaneously engage every major muscle group to propel forwards, which burns a lot of energy. Cross-country skiing is one of the best winter calorie-burning activities, and increases aerobic fitness, so it is a great pursuit for those looking to shed weight. Moreover, no one muscle group is overstressed, which means that movement can be sustained for hours. Some activities can strengthen one part of the body while damaging another; however, cross-country skiing does not shock the knees, and entails a low risk of pulling a muscle or tearing ligaments or cartilage. Cross-country skiing is also good preparation for summer sports; after cross-country skiing, muscles will be better prepared to manage the lactic acid they produce when they are used.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology used three-dimensional imaging techniques to evaluate which muscles are engaged in the double-poling movement of cross-country skiing. The muscles that span the shoulder and elbow joints, the abdominal muscles, and hip flexors displayed the greatest engagement. Data gathered during the study show that arm muscles are the primary muscles at work when double-poling; data also indicate that as the intensity of the activity increases, the muscles that span the lumbar spine, hip, and knee joints contribute increasingly.

One study from Mid Sweden University examined the oxygen-capacity uptake of older adults who ski. The findings demonstrated that maximum oxygen uptake is twice as great among active older adults compared with those who do not exercise. Both the oxygen uptake and the muscles of the active older adults studied were comparable to values for people forty-to-fifty years younger who do not exercise to improve their stamina. Per Tesch, professor of sports science at the university, stated that maintaining a high level of physical work capacity improves quality of life, regardless of age.

Another study, published in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health, examined over five-hundred people aged eighty-five and over to determine the relationship between different types of physical exercise and the risk of subsequent fall-related injury. Results of the study show that the risk of injury-causing falls was reduced by participating in exercise other than walking for at least one hour per week. Moreover, the study showed that the risk of injury-causing falls was not increased by any kind or amount of exercise taken.

Cross-Country Skiing Gear

While cross-country skiing is not as inexpensive as walking, if you invest in high-quality equipment, it will last. Cross-country skiing requires long, narrow skis with bindings that permit foot-flexibility, lightweight boots, ski poles, and clothing appropriate to the conditions. Cross-country skiing can take place in conditions where the air temperature is above freezing, to those where the wind-chill factor may approach -40˚C.


Poles, made of either the cheaper fibreglass or the slightly more durable metal, are not just for balance. Using poles strengthens the torso, back, shoulder and arm muscles, and helps to build upper-body bone density. Poles also reduce the impact on the legs, placing less stress on knees. For a comfortable pole length, stand the pole on the floor so that it fits snugly in the arm pit.

Classic Skis

Skis are designed to support the weight of the skier; their length, which should be taller than the skier, facilitates movement over snowy surfaces. Skis should typically measure the distance between your wrists to the ground, when your hands are raised above your head. Modern cross-country skis are made of lightweight, composite carbon fibre and fibreglass materials to have a degree of flex, which permits the skier to push with the foot and receive bounce-back energy from the ski.

Specialized waxes applied to skis provide traction and more efficient movement across the surface. By contrast, waxless skis have grooves in the bottom of each ski that prevent skiers from slipping backwards on an incline.

Prevent By Preparing

To avoid the day-after aches and pains that can come from an intense workout, prepare your body before you hit the snow. Muscle soreness is not only uncomfortable, it can prevent those in pain from attempting the new activity again. Take part in a strength-training programme twice a week for a minimum of four weeks before your skiing season, and warm up by skipping or running on the spot for five to ten minutes to increase blood flow and body temperature. Warm muscle is better able to handle the stress of activity.

Pre-Ski Strengthening

Chair Stands

Chair Stand.

To prepare your muscles for the exhilarating workout of cross-country skiing, do one-to-two sets of twelve chair stands daily during the month leading up to your snowy adventure. Chair stands strengthen the hips, thighs, and buttocks, use the core muscles, and improve balance.

  • Standing in front of a chair, with feet shoulder-width apart, stretch your arms out straight in front of you.
  • Slowly, to a count of four, lower yourself to a seated position. Make sure that your knees do not come forwards past your toes; keep your hips, knees, and ankles in line.
  • Slowly, to a count of two, rise back up to a standing position. Keep your knees over your ankles and your back straight.

Seated Leg Extensions

Leg extensions target the muscles of the front thigh, helping to strengthen the knee joint. Do one-to-two sets of twelve seated leg extensions to make the skiing workout more enjoyable and pain-free.

  • Sit tall on a sturdy chair so that your feet barely touch the ground. Place your hips, knees, and ankles in line, with the kneecaps facing up.
  • Slowly, to a count of two, extend your leg until it is straight out in front of the chair, but not locked.
  • Pause, and then lower the leg to a count of four. Alternate legs.
  • To increase the resistance of the leg extensions, add ankle weights, and hold the leg for four seconds when it is extended.

The previous stretches have been adapted from exercise guide It’s Never Too Late to Be Fit by personal trainer Susan Manning, and founder of Impowerage Magazine, Dr. Carolyn Anderson. The guide also covers strength training, cardiovascular endurance, balance exercises, and other aspects of fitness that can help to improve your cross-country skiing experience.

After skiing, your muscles will be tight and rigid, so stretching is the best way to restore elasticity to the muscles and prevent muscle soreness. Remember to stay hydrated, as you will lose perspiration during the course of the ski, even in very cold conditions.

Getting Started

Cross-country skiing can be enjoyed in every province and territory in Canada. Choose from a list of Cross Country Canada club members to find the club nearest you; daily user fees typically range from $10 to $40. If you are not sure whether you want to purchase equipment, most equipment packages can be rented for $20 to $40 per day.

Cross-country skiing may turn you from a sport-avoider to an avid outdoorsperson; it serves as a fun way to stay fit during the summer sport off-season, encompasses a plethora of health benefits, and is an opportunity to soak up the beauty of the outdoors. Whatever yours is, there are so many reasons to try cross-country skiing this new year.

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