DULUTH, Minn.-Fresh snow, January temps, it's the perfect setting for the full-body workout of cross-country skiing.
It's one of the most recommended outdoor activities, said Dr. Sam Harms, orthopedic surgeon at Orthopaedic Associates of Duluth.
There are two styles of cross-country skiing: classic and skate. Both call for skis, boots and bindings. In classic, skiers push in a forward-leaning motion using skis and poles. In skate skiing, similar to rollerblading, maneuvers are made forward in V-shaped motions. Physically, both have tremendous health benefits, Harms said.
The cardiovascular system, respiratory system and joint stabilization are all affected, along with abs, lower back, buttocks and glutes, said Kris Bates, physical therapist assistant at Elite Integrated Health Chiropractic, Massage & Sports Medicine in Duluth.
"There's less injuries in cross-country skiing compared to running because there's not a high impact. With skiing, you're gliding on the snow, and it's easier on your joints," added Erica Wagner, physical therapist at Orthopaedic Associates of Duluth.
Because it's low-impact, cross-country skiing is optimal for people with arthritis in their hips, knees or ankles, and it's good for building core and lower-extremity strength, Harms said.
"It uses every major muscle group at the same time. It's also a lot of fun gliding on the snow," said Annalisa Harrington Peterson.
Peterson was born into a family of cross-country skiers, and she started when she was four. She later skied competitively for Duluth East High School and Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Today, she races and trains for fun and to stay in shape. She's also the president of the Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club.
If you're starting out, Peterson suggests going with someone who knows how to ski or taking a lesson. Consider avoiding the coldest day if you're new to the sport, and make sure you're wearing the right clothes: wool socks, layers of long underwear or wind pants, a hat, and gloves.
Prepare for skiing with endurance activities, said Bates, who has been classic and skate skiing for 15 years. Cross-country skiing can be a hard exercise to cross-train or prepare for because there are few activities that directly mimic it. The sport is well-tolerated from an orthopedic standpoint, but to prevent overuse injuries, get as strong as you can before the season starts.
Core exercises, such as lunges or single-leg squats, are helpful. Weight-room-specific strengthening, building cardiovascular fitness, mountain biking and any other endurance training help.
For beginners, consistency is key, Wagner added. "The more often you go, the more quickly your body will learn how to balance and get the technique."
By most conventions, cross-country athletes are regarded as some of the most highly trained in the world, said Mark Helmer. "Swimmers, too, are highly trained athletes. They're using all aspects of their physical being. It's a lot of work."
Helmer has been operating the Korkki Nordic Ski Center in Duluth since 1992 and cross-country skiing since 1974. "I learned by looking at photographs of skiers," Helmer said. Visualization is a strong component to learning.
"As any endurance sport, if you're going to be good at it, it takes a year-round effort. You have to come into the winter season at peak condition, he said. The ski season is short, running roughly December to mid-March.
There's a saying in the Nordic community: When it's extra blue, things are perfect, he said. (Extra blue is a wax used on cross-country skis when temperatures are 20-25 degrees.)
All said, cross-country skiing is for everyone, from children as soon as they can walk to people decades into retirement age. They're all out on the trails.
"Sometimes people have pulmonary problems or exercise-induced asthma that can be exacerbated by the cold, and they should exercise caution with their comfort level," Harms said. Always check with a physician if there are concerns. There is a fair amount of balance, coordination and safety associated with it, but "It's a lifetime sport."