Everything you need to know before your first Cross-Country Ski Trip

Cross-country skiing has grown in popularity ever since Pippa Middleton competed in the Engadin Marathon in 2013. It’s a wonderful, full-body workout in fresh mountain air with superb scenery, but it’s very different from downhill skiing. We talked to cross-country ski coach and British Ski Team athlete Fern Cates about how to learn cross-country skiing.

Pictures of a healthy, smiling Pippa Middleton, cross-country skiing in Switzerland during the Engadin Marathon in 2013, was enough to make anyone want to pick up a ski pole.
“Since then there has been a massive increase in the number of people wanting to do cross-country ski marathons,” says Fern, 23. “People think because they can downhill ski they will be fine, but cross-country requires a completely new level of balance and you can’t just get going on your own!”

There are two cross-country skiing styles – classic and skating. Classic is easier to learn, but harder to perfect, while skating is harder to learn but easier to master. says Fern. “People often see classic as walking on a set of skis, just shuffling around, but to ski well it’s much harder than you think. Picking up the basics might seem reasonably easy, but mastering the classic techniques can be a lot harder than skating”.

“A lot of people enjoy learning the skating style because it’s like ice-skating and it’s the faster of the two techniques –younger people enjoy getting out there and doing the motion that they enjoy.”

Fern is a coach at the roller-skiing club in London’s Hyde Park, a type of cross-country skiing club where you can perfect your technique before you start booking a holiday. As well as balance, cross-country skiing requires an entirely different kit. Cross-country skiing boots are softer and much shorter, without the same ankle support downhill skiers enjoy with their alpine boots – and it’s important to be able to flex the ankle, and keep your heel free, much like touring skis.

Cross-country skis are much longer and narrower, so the first time you step on them you can feel a little like Bambi on ice, wobbling around like a total beginner even if you are used to the black runs.

“Another thing people struggle to get their head round is carving – downhill skiing is all about being on your edges and cutting across the snow, but if you do that in cross-country you’re guaranteed a fall. Cross-country skiing is all about step turns and keeping the skis flat on the snow.”

Cross-country skiing clothing is more specialist, too, though if you’re just having a go while on a holiday in the Alps, it’s easy to adapt your kit. The main thing, as with downhill skiing, is a good set of base layers rather than one big thick coat.

“You go out in varying temperatures but on a typical cross-country skiing holiday in France you might be skiing in -5C or -10C and you will get surprisingly hot,” says Fern. “Beginners often go out wearing too much kit. Lycra base layers, some light, softshell over-trousers like you might take touring are useful. I like to ski in a gilet because you need to keep your chest and core warm but you do build up quite a sweat using arms going up a hill.”

Fern advises to always ski with a neckwarmer, headband and hat, as well as a cross-country skiing jacket for the downhill sections. “Gloves are essential – downhill ski gloves are too thick so a thick running glove is usually a good option – there are lots of specific cross-country skiing clothing brands around too.” Good sports shops to head to for clothing are Millets, Odlo, Dynafit and Decathlon.

Cross-country skiing uses all the major muscle groups at the same time, which combined with being at a higher altitude in the mountains (even if you are at resort level) means you will be burning a good deal of cardiovascular energy. So get fit!

Roller-skiing is a great option to build the right muscles, as is a cross-country skiing machine. Swiss balls are great practice for balance, as well as a routine of single leg squats. “Training for your cross-country skiing holiday is about core strength and teaching your legs to work independently,” says Fern. “It’s about getting all your weight on one leg, transferring your weight from one leg to another, and getting your hips, legs and toes in one line.”

Finally, when you’re setting out on your first cross-country skiing holiday, take some Tiger Balm, Biofreeze or similar for the inevitable aching muscles – and spend plenty of time in the hot tub and sauna at the end of the day. If you’re cross-country skiing in France, Switzerland or Austria, these will surely be in plentiful supply.

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