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Ode to Cross Country Skiing: Cold Temps, Hot Workouts

By Clark Harding

There is nothing more humiliating than being 17 years old and caught on the cover of your local newspaper in full-body spandex. Even to the locals, it really was dramatic: the aurora borealis dancing above while I lay on my on my back, my headlamp shining a lonely shard of light into the starry sky. As my frozen body was whisked to the ER on a snowmobile, my cross country ski coach speculated to a reporter that I hadn't eaten enough before the 11-mile, up-hill race. But the hospital also treated me for hypothermia. Under the rare circumstances, it was an unhealthy combination. Athletes will often "bonk" when they lack caloric fuel, but there is no worse place to lay motionless than in the cold. See, true cold is a torture unknown to people who live below latitude 59. It's not like the Midwestern cold, which prevents the car from starting, nor the Canadian cold, which makes your spit freeze before it hits the ground. No, we're talking about the cold that kills. And when you grow up in Alaska like I did, you have to pull on your cross country ski uniform on those sub-zero mornings and keep moving. No excuses.

No matter how far south you escape into the land of excuses known as California, frostbite will stay with you like an invisible scar. Just as Harry Potter's lighting bolt singes with the movements of his enemy, even the slightest seasonal shift will make my limbs ache to the core. Except here in the lower forty-eight winter is always a surprise, not a way of life. A stealth season, it creeps in over night, tightening the muscles, constricting the lungs and making the nose drip. Brief bouts of shivering will leave you fatigued after a mere dash outside to grab the paper. Then, you wake up one morning, ambushed by the extra pounds of Thanksgiving while dreading the gifts Christmas will bring. Every New Year's Day, like a broken record, I will resolutely rise at 6 a.m., put on my running shoes, take an earnest look outside, slam the door and crawl back to bed. These past few weeks of drizzle in Los Angeles (torrential downpour if you ask a spoiled local) even keep me from dashing ten feet from my door to the car. Studies show that for reasons like these the average American man will gain up to four pounds over the holidays, pounds that he will never lose. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, this weight will accrue every holiday season and eventually lead to full-fledged obesity. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the majority of obesity cases occur in states that experience extreme climate conditions. Add some seasonal depression to the tab, and we have ourselves a serial killer; his methods varied but predictable. If the cold doesn't do you in quickly, the fat will take its time. Just because the holidays are over doesn't mean winter isn't still after you. So you'd best get moving. No excuses.

Breaking the Winter Cycle: Cross Country Skiing
Luckily, there is a fun winter activity that happens to be the single most important aerobic work out. Originally invented as a mode of Nordic transportation that evolved into an Olympic sport, cross country skiing is the most challenging endurance exercise around. Within its motions lies the simple key to whole-body health that the fitness industry has been trying to mimic for decades. Aside from swimming, XC Skiing, as it is known, is the only low-impact exercise to use every single muscle group while burning the most calories per hour of implementation. On top of extreme endurance, XC skiing requires careful balance, which works the core at levels rivaling Pilates. Thus it is, truly, the most superior cardiovascular workout ever.

And here's something that may surprise you: The aspect of cold has a whole lot to do with it.

The Benefits of Cold
Although no one wants to hear it, cold weather can be just as valuable to training as water resistance. "Your body does use a considerable amount of energy to warm the air you breathe," writes nutrition counselor Nancy Clark, "For example, if you were to burn six hundred calories while cross-country skiing for an hour in zero degree weather, you may use an estimated twenty three percent of those calories to warm the inspired air." Depending on what you're wearing, the body will use more energy in an effort to maintain its thermal balance. Clark continues, "Scantily clad research subjects who exercised in the cold burned thirteen percent more calories than when they performed the same exercise at room temperature."

Unlike me, who fled the cold, others have learned to use it to their advantage. Artist Sean Derry, an old ski teammate of mine, has actually worked extensively on the subject of cold calorie burning. "Since a calorie is merely a measure of thermal energy," Sean tells me, "I settled on investigating how a specific number of calories would, for a calculated duration, postpone shivering." With the Indiana State Kinesiology Department stamp of approval, Sean used two subjects in a cold space. "In a cold environment the body produces less heat than what is consumed. There are a number of physiological responses, namely shivering, that attempt to minimize this... The calories put into the system by the exercising participant effectively increase the second person's heat production, therefore prolonging the moment when the body starts to lose more heat than what it is able to produce."

The final product of Sean's research is a slide rule chart, listing the calories burned per various temperatures. According to the chart, shivering can burn up to 350 calories an hour, which is sometimes more than aerobic exercise. That said, shivering is not a recommended supplement to working out, and anyone who steps out into the cold in a bathing suit to lose weight is stupid. Shivering is a fight-or-flight response, greatly depleting your muscle's glycogen stores. It's as if your gaslight has been on too long and you are running on fumes. Luckily Sean had graduated before my dramatic fainting spell in high school. In my case he supposes, "The exertion was ultimately the cause that put you under. But the weather would have certainly diminished how much your body could do before shutting down." Simply put: When used appropriately, cold weather will help your body work harder for you. But you need to have fuel to keep moving. No excuses.

One Sport, Two Styles
There are two types of XC performance styles: classic and skate. Classic XC is the form that most people associate with the activity: The ski walk, where the hands and feet swing past the body like pendulums attached to the torso, forming a human X. Classic is the more pedestrian version and best for beginners, as there are numerous, wax-less ski brands on the market as well as countless public trails around the globe to be skied. According to the Professional Ski Instructors of America guide, "The best way to increase glide is to increase the intensity and effectiveness of poling motions." Like a swimmer over-compensating with a harder kick, beginning classic skiers will commonly put more emphasis on their legs.

Then there is skate skiing, which is drastically different and, in my opinion, way more fun. More appropriate for racing on expertly waxed "toothpicks," skate skiing requires a groomed path, allowing you to push with both arms at once, propelling you at higher speeds.

Mimicking the Motion—Indoors and Out
Those who want many of the benefits of XC skiing but have a physical aversion to cold weather can do so—to a certain extent. Remember the NordicTrack? You know, the tethered contraption from decades past that worked its way into living rooms across America? Unlike the kitsch-fabulous Thigh Master, what catapulted the NordicTrack into a pop-culture tipping point was not its campy infomercial, but the fact that it actually holds true to its old advertisement as "the world's best aerobic exerciser." The people's first in-home workout machine, the NordicTrack was, appropriately, designed in the 1970s by a Minnesota engineer who was sick of bad weather and wanted to bring better training conditions indoors for his competitive skier daughter. The rest is fitness history.

"The NordicTrack brand is actually a phenomenon that first sparked the idea of home fitness, which has since grown into a five billion dollar industry," says Colleen Logan at Utah-based Icon Fitness, which owns NordicTrack and many other successful indoor training brands. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, by 1995 NordicTrack compiled 33 percent of all equipment sales. Although, having been refined and replaced over the years by numerous revisions of elliptical trainers, treadmills, and Stairsteppers, the NordicTrack now makes up less than one percent of all equipment sales, according to Logan.

"The motions of cross country skiing are physiologically the best," attests writer and former Olympic Coach, Nat Brown. "But the NordicTrack is too dissimilar to actual skiing that it can't be used in competitive training. I had one of my silver medalists climb on one once. We found that training on snow is much more demanding, you work every single muscle. The NordicTrack is just too isolating and the timing of it can cause bad habits for athletes. But don't get me wrong, it's wonderful for consumer use." Sean Derry agrees, "The NordicTrack is certainly a worthy piece of exercise equipment. My dad uses one every night, but personally I have to be outside to exercise for longer then five minutes or I get bored."

Even in the non-wintry months in Alaska, professional XC skiers and enthusiasts can be found on pavement with specialized skates. Unlike rollerblades, these roller skis are fitted with comparable ski bindings allowing them to use their usual ski boots. What started as a summer training alternative, roller skiing has become its own competitive sport. Although lacking the drag of the snow, roller skiing is the next best thing, if not just as fun. For those who want to test waters without committing to expensive equipment; getting started on an in-door machine is highly recommended. Elliptical machines are as ubiquitous as the gyms you will find them in. Logan agrees, "Obviously nothing is as good as the joy of being outside. But our goal at Icon is to make fitness as exciting inside."

"We're trying to get people into the mindset of exercise as an everyday necessity," continues Logan, " Just like your daily rituals of eating, sleeping, showering, whatever; exercising should be in there somewhere. And if you had to choose one, Cross Country is the most phenomenal workout." Because the only thing worse than being 17 and passed out in full-body spandex, is suddenly being 27 and too fearful to get back in spandex. Although competitive sports aren't for everyone, exercise is. And whether it is mild L.A. to wild A.K. the advantages of Cross Country Skiing are as accessible as the excuses we tell ourselves. So we'd best just keep moving.


  1. Professional Ski Instructors of America
  2. Natural Strength
  3. Icon Health and Fitness
  4. Funding Universe
  5. The New England Journal of Medicine
  6. The National Sporting Goods Association