What Can XC Skiing Do For Me?

Skate XC skiing


Right about this time of year most folks start wrapping up their running, triathlon or cycling seasons as the winter months approach. For many aerobic athletes in the Northwest, winter is merely a season for counting the days until the skies clear and the roads and trails dry out come spring.

But this winter you have the perfect opportunity to shake up your routine and add some life to the dark, cold and wet time of year. Cross-country (XC) skiing is your ticket to fun and better spring fitness.

Now I know the first thing you are going to say is, “I don’t live with snow outside my door.” In fact, many Pacific Northwesterners do live within a comfortable morning drive of good to outstanding XC ski locations. Logistics aren’t the main obstacle for most people, motivation is. So let’s look at some of the things XC skiing can do for you this winter.

Shake Up the Indoor Machine and Wet Road Routine

Let’s face it; wintertime in NW valleys represents seemingly endless weeks of less-than-optimal endurance sport conditions. There are certainly pockets of good training situations in the winter, but it takes a lot of discipline to keep grinding it out week after week when things are bleak outside.

Building a plan to take one or two trips to go XC skiing each month from December through March gives you the chance to shake up your routine of treadmills, trainers, and wet/muddy everything. Far from a “soft” workout, your time XC skiing will give you a mental and emotional break even if it’s just for a day or two at a time.

Not to sound like a guy from a visitor bureau, but folks in West Coast valleys sometimes forget how different winter feels when you start to crest the Cascades. Fog can turn into brilliant sunshine, drizzle into a tranquil snow flurry. Fifty minutes on the treadmill can turn into a couple hours skiing across meadows and onto ridges with amazing views. You really are close enough to make all this a regular part of your winter fitness plan.

As a coach, I’ve found over the years that often it is more of a mental/emotional plateau that plagues working adults when their performances are stuck in a rut. If you enter spring feeling burned out by your winter routine, your performances will suffer. Conversely, a few fun and rewarding “snow breaks” spread over the course of the winter can be the key to your best season ever in your primary sport.

What’s Not to Love?

Minute for minute, physiologists around the world agree that XC skiing is indeed the world’s best aerobic activity. So I don’t care what your primary sport is or what you are training for, every hour you can spend XC skiing this winter is a chance to get in a fantastic workout. Whether we’re talking about a marathoner like Joan Benoit Samuelson or cyclists like Greg Lemond and Davis Phinney, elite endurance athletes have been using XC skiing as a successful cross-training method for decades.

These elite athletes recognized XC skiing could help them maintain exceptional fitness levels over the winter with a low-impact motion. Regardless of whether you use “classic” or “skating” technique, injury risk with XC skiing is very low. Further, many endurance athletes who are beat up from the dry-land season actually use XC skiing as part of their rehab process. Beats the heck out of aqua jogging, let me tell you!

With more and more older athletes enjoying aerobic sports these days, injury-prevention and year-round fitness is a huge issue for athletes over 55. For you folks especially, XC skiing is a gold mine of fun and fitness. Whereas you may be leery about picking up winter gravity sports via chairlifts, right across the ski area parking lot is a trail system just as attractive and safe as your local single track paths or favorite road rides.

Finally, let’s not forget that (with few exceptions, Washington’s Methow Valley being one) in the Northwest the vast majority of reliable XC ski locations are situated at or above 4,000 feet, with no base area higher than 6,300 feet. This means that Northwest XC is conducted for the most part at a “moderate” altitude. For lowland aerobic enthusiasts, that gives you the best of both worlds. Activity at a moderate altitude provides a dose of physiological benefits, while not being too high means you can actually function without feeling like you’ll pop a lung at any second.

Taking it Up a Notch 

A step beyond maintaining basic winter fitness is yet another challenge – XC ski events. The Pacific Northwest is loaded with XC ski races and tours perfect for all ability levels. Our reliable (and lengthy) snow seasons provide truly world-class opportunities to make XC skiing its own season in your annual calendar.

XC ski races in the Northwest are generally concentrated in four main areas – Mt. Bachelor/Bend, OR; Mt Hood, OR; Snoqualmie Pass, WA; and Methow Valley, WA. But you can find several other events throughout each winter in other NW locations. Registration is usually easy (day of event typically offered), affordable, and welcoming for novices.

Early season events are mostly in the 5-20km range with a mix of classic and skating technique formats. From January to April the Northwest has a nice mix of events ranging in distances up to 50km. Then, of course, we have the annual spring multi-event races such as Bend’s Pole Pedal Paddle and Bellingham’s Ski-to-Sea Relay. These events are absolutely perfect for “crossover” endurance athletes as you get to mix up your favorite dry-land sports with your developing XC ski skills.

I’m Sold, How Can I Add More XC Skiing this Winter?

Step one: If you are a beginner or need to update your XC ski skills, the best advice is to take a professional lesson on good (often rental) equipment at a groomed ski area. Just hopping out of the car at a snow park and relying on buddies for “tips” your first time on XC skis is a recipe for disappointment. Heed 35 years worth of experience on this point folks: pro lesson, good gear, groomed ski area.

Step two: To really get proficient, it typically takes several days of skiing at a groomed area on good gear before you’ll actually have the full range of skills to tackle most intermediate XC ski trails (groomed or non-groomed). Be patient and enjoy the wealth of groomed spots we have to ski in the Northwest.

Step three: If events are something you’d like to try, first get past the beginner stage with technique and then consider a clinic or camp to take you to the next level. The Oregon Fall Camp (www.xcoregon.org) and the Methow Valley December Camp (www.skireg.com) are two long-running events created for skiers beyond the beginner stage who want to improve their skills and ski fitness. These camps are a perfect “bridge” to doing your first XC ski event.

Step four: Sign up for XC ski events in the region. As with most other endurance sports, nothing beats an event to help with motivation. You’ll find Northwest skiers to be a very friendly bunch (even the really fast ones!) and over time you’ll discover a whole new wintertime filled with excitement and adventure.


J.D. Downing is the Coach/Director of the Bend, OR-based XC Oregon race team (www.xcoregon.org) and is the President of the World Masters Cross-Country Ski Association (WMA).