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Cross Country Skiing: Can It Benefit Your Running?

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One of the great benefits of running is that you can essentially do it anywhere at any time. And as long as you stay well hydrated and avoid the hottest parts of the day in direct sunlight, it is safe to run during the summer heat. When it gets cold out, just bundle up and you are good to go… right? Well, maybe not. In some parts of the world where the winter is bitter cold and snow and ice stack up multiple feet high, running can become unsafe and pretty much off the table.

So what is a runner to do? We runners are used to running long miles and distances and when we have to stop cold turkey, it is easy for us to go stir crazy, especially during the winter when we are pent up inside anyways. If you live near an area that gets a lot of snow and ice and has some open fields, forests, and areas, then consider taking up cross country skiing in place of running this winter!

Read also about cold weather running shoes.

What is Cross Country Skiing?

Cross country skiing, or Nordic skiing, is actually the oldest form of skiing as it originated in Norway for people who needed to efficiently travel back and forth between small Norwegian villages over snow-covered terrain that horses and trains could not safely plow through. It was also used to chase and hunt game, and gather wood and food during the winter. It did not actually become recognized as a competitive sport until the 18th century, and soon, it spread past Norwegian borders and became popular in other cold weathered countries around the world. By 1924, it had joined the ranks of those sports included in the Winter Olympic Games.

Functionally, cross country skiing is like a hybrid between running and downhill skiing. Skiers have skis strapped to their feet for which to glide over the snow, much like downhill skiing. However, they do not have the pull of gravity to work in their favor as much, as the terrain they are covering might be downhill but it is more likely to be flat, or even be uphill. Therefore, cross country ski poles are not used as much for direction and balance as in downhill skiing, but are used much like walkers would use a walking stick to assist propelling them forward.

There are two specific types of cross country skiing: the classic style, which uses a kicking and gliding motion as you lean forward to propel yourself and which many say is easier to learn, and the skate skiing style, in which the skier pushes off each ski in a V pattern. Both slightly mimic the action of running and can benefit your running because they use similar muscles and require an immense amount of endurance. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests that cross country skiers skiing in the classic and the skate style can burn up to 1,000 calories an hour which actually surpasses running. Therefore, you can really build up your running stamina and strength through cross country skiing.  

How Cross Country Skiing Can Benefit Runners

Studies show that cross country skiers actually have the best VO2 Max of any athletes, meaning they have the highest capacity to push air in and out of their lungs better than other athletes. This can directly translate into better cardiovascular endurance as a runner. Your heart will be able to withstand harder, faster running paces than before. Cross country skiing also uses not only all the muscles that are engaged when you run and then some, but because you are out in frigidly cold temperatures, you are likely layered up in very heavy clothing, which results in you having to push around much more weight than you normally would when running. This can translate to stronger muscles that can support your body more efficiently. Cross country skiing can also really help runners who suffer from weak ankles, and can improve a runner’s overall balance.  

Tips for Getting Started

Learning to cross country ski can be tricky, so start with a lesson and learn the basics from a professional or seasoned skier. Stick to groomed trails (which are cross country trails that provide you with a track to follow) And make sure you have the right gear! You will need a good pair of touring skis to help you pick up speed, navigate, control your balance, and make you a more efficient skier. (Consult your coach in the specific area you plan to train in for advice on whether or not you should get standard touring skis, or metal-edge touring skis, which are usually shorter to provide for more stability and which have metal edges for extra-icy conditions). Obviously you will need a good pair of cross-country skis, and again, consult a coach or a shop expert to help find the right size and width for you. Cross country ski boots will be what you wear to both keep your toes insulated and toasty, and which will easily strap into your skis. And finally, clothes specific to the sport of cross country skiing is necessary because you need to make sure you are kept warm but you will also be working quite hard, and can still generate a lot of body heat. Basically, cross country ski clothing protects you from sub-zero temperatures but keeps you ventilated and is moisture wicking.

Bottom Line

If you live in a place with enough snow to support your cross country ventures, and you want to take a break from running outside during the cold winter months or simply take up a new sport, consider cross country skiing.  You will very likely see your running drastically improve once spring hits and you are able to run again, plus you are introduced to an entirely new competitive arena in which you might find you really excel at and find a great support group through.


  1. REI, How To Choose Cross Country Ski Gear, REI Buying Guide
  2. Kelly O'Mara, Cross-Training 101: Cross-Country Skiing, Competitor Running Article

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