You may have seen the successes of British skiers in the winter olympics on XC skis or have moved to an Alpine or northern area where XC skiing seems a more practical propositions for winter training than cycling or jogging How do you get into Cross Country Skiing?
In this blog we will go through an introduction to setting your first herring bones down on snow and what skis to buy, aimed at those of you who will have access to prepared ski trails. Learning XC is a good proposition for an alternative week long winter holiday to Alpine downhill if you have are fit and have good balance, and it is a good means of getting really fit in the winter if you live near to prepared tracks. Also of course as the key to success for British competitors, you can train on asfalt with roller skis all year round when snow is not available or too far away for daily trips.
I feel a bit like an old hand now, although far from being expert I actually find myself giving some Norwegians tips on their skating style skiing, and often get into discussions on waxing and the new ‘furry soled’ skin-skis. As an adult it has been a long journey to become competent on classical kicking skis, and I am still learning skating technique. I can look back and see that I made a lot of basic mistakes by not having good instruction or not listening to what people told me, and most of all not asking questions of experienced skiers.
There are many pitfalls in terms of technique, tuition and of course equipment and those waxing problems. So here are my toptastic tips to help you get a head start and a fast learning curve while enjpoying your skiing to the max.
- Decide What Type of Skiing You Are Actually Going to Be Doing
My own journey into skiing sans gondola came from days spent walking in the Fruin hills between Luss and Garelochhead. Often the highest 150 m of the hill and the long ridge towards Arden were covered in lovely fluffy white stuff, which was a nightmare to trudge through . On a couple of occaisions I saw how someone had managed to glide over all this, leaving their tracks as tell tale to the lifting heel variety of skier! I was mad keen on this idea. Perhaps mountain skiing with randonee skis or ski touring in the more gentle wild country is most for you?
For some reason I decided to learn to go in the tracks on skinnier skis and took a holiday to Geilo via Bergen, underwent some instruction and at a party on the way home, met my Norwegian other half. So living here with XC skiing as a national sport it is fairly straightforward to go and and enjoy both nature and an extremely good cardio-vascular work out while still getting home toute suite for a shower. I dropped the idea of back country, making your own tracks, only now to rekindle the idea.
So if you want to explore wild places then get into that type of back country skiing, and go on courses to do it as it is a challenging form of downhill skiing it has to be said, and there are some things to learn for traversing both valley and moor on ‘BC’ skis. Certainly many keen mountaineers in Scotland use XC skis for winter ‘ski -ins’ to remote areas and to scale the gentler hills of the easter grampians, like Mount Keen, or those suitable in the Perthshire area.
The only real places to find perpared ‘tramline’ tracks and a groomed centre area for skate-skiing style are near Huntly, Braemar and around Aviemore in Scotland. There was earlier discussion on Ben Wyvis plateau being used to both wild and prepared skiing, north of Inverness due to its very high number of snow covered days, but nothing came of it. The ski centres though have allowed XC clubs to come and train on their green slopes and Aanoch Mor actually groomed a skating track on the top plateau for the national team. I have often met ski mountaineers using chairlifts for access, and I think that many of the low level green runs at like Glen Coe and Aanoch Mor are good for learning ploughing , skating and going up hill! I would however ask before travelling and choose a less busy time for your first go, booking tuition if it is available, or going with some folk from the club you have just joined ! ( Huntly and Avoeimeroe and some other clubs aroudn England too) Nearer Glasgow Lowther Hills ski club in the southern uplands are getting their act very much together and enjoy up to 100 snow days a year, so may be persuaded to piste top sections for XC skiers if you join up !
Apart from the Back Country and Mountain to Prepared Track “schism” you may call it, there is another division in the prepared tracks which has become such a cultural apartheid almost in some people’s minds, and that is the classic kick style versus skating technique. This is worth taking up as point number two in itself!
2. Baby Steps In Learning to XC Ski and NOT to Walk on XC Skis
Now here lies my biggest mistake and how I was kind of mislead into many years of mediocre and often frustrating skiing, with some downright dangerous downhill escapades in faster conditions. XC skiing can be a graceful and fast sport, but not if you think you are going to start by learning to walk on skis. The techniques are really based on a stride onto a glide in essence, where one foot is completely unweighted with the loaded foot providing a long glide.
In assisting this core concept and learning goal, you really have to learn in outset, without using poles because otherwise like I did for many years, you will use your poles for balance and not learn the fine balance and posture directing weight through the skis that you need to progress beyond clumping around.
Your first day on skis should be with a very baby steps approach to it all, without poles you will feel a little like learning something quite new to the body, controlling slide and balance on one ski, with propulsion alternating between skis. Take that in mind, it is going to be little baby steps, back to play school and if you are a little stiff and untrained, then it is going to be a little uncomfortable.
However you can find you have the knack and get going on a tour, recommended less than 10km to start with, on your first day in those tempting “tramlines”! On my first day ever I managed 20km which was completely over ambitious and I was left in my hotel the next day aching from all those small muscles which I didnt know I had and a sore back side and thigh from falling in what was very hard conditions.
Your First Hours WITHOUT POLES!
Learning withougt poles is like going back to absolute baby steps. It is going to be slow, awkward and on icier days painful progress. The very fist exercises from an instructor will include:
- Fishboning up a gentle slope
- Moving around on skis, changing direction lifting skis
- Getting up safely and easily when you fall
- Assuming plough position and skiing in plough down hill
- the one ski off, scooter drill
- Skiing parallel down hill in the tracks to a run out stop
Probably the most fruitful of the above will be the one ski scooter drill and skiing in a safe downhill with a self braking run out at the foot. The latter is fairly self explanatory “bend sie knees” look where you want to go, hands out forward (without poles) and weight on the middle of the foot. The Scooter drill is then one ski in the inside tramline track on the course, and use the other foot to stride off the snow and propell yourself on the single ski, practicing balance.
Styles – Learn Both Classic and Skating from the Word GO!
My next point then is for ski schools and instructors as much as for new beginners. Learn the skating style from day one of your skiing! Skating has always been part of the sport, it is just it came as a ‘young upstart’ technique in the 1980s. Your agility on skis will grow exponentially compared to being locked in the tracks or prone to not releasing all the weight from one ski. You will find out quickly that your outside balance point when you skate out onto one ski, is far further than you imagine, and this will build a great deal of confidence in your skiing.
You can start with scooter technique in the trail and then try it out of the tramlines on a slight downhill. Then try with both skis on, still no poles. pushing off on one with kick backwards and outwards to a glide and stop on the other ski, only then returning the kicking ski to the ground. You can then also try smal step turns on a slight down hill to correct your direction, or on a larger area to turn to face uphill or even in a full circle if you can skate kick round.
When I took up skate skiing, I suddenly got a huge boost to my glide in oridnary classic kicking, and also found it much easier to manoerve in and out the tracks, round un-tramlined corners, and over into full snow plough. It felt like my legs had been made of lead before while now I could glide around obstacles and feel under control at far greater speeds.
Purists will tell you that you need proper skate skis to learn to skate, but that is just not true. Yes it helps to use a shorter pair, which often you will be given anyway as a new beginnner from a school or hire shop, but to start with the only difference is that you should avoid using any grippy kick wax, and if on the usual beginners patterned or mohair skin soled waxless skis, make sure they are ‘glidet’ with slidey wax or spray.
In effect when you are proficient in classic technique you are unloading one ski completely to glide on the other, and in effect ‘parallel’ skating.
So the ideal situation is to go from skis which are a little longer than you are tall, to borrowing skis about your height or upto 5 cm shorter. Then the ski will be easier to skate style with, esepcially when not using poles. So this brings us onto equipment rather nicely
3. Buying the Right Equipment – Candor and Camber!
In general sports shops and some alpine skiing oriented shops, you may not get hold of staff who know enough about XC skiing to sell you the correct skis. Although they dont need to be an aficionado or top competitor, they have to know about not just matching length of ski and budget to the buyer, but also the use the skier will be putting it to, their ability and their weight.
For the typical sporty style of light skiing we have in Scandinavia and the clubs in Scotland tend to practice, then it is the tension in the curve
of the ski which is most important in matching a ski to your weight, ability and the typical conditions you will encounter. The absolute essential of both styles, classic kick- and skate- , is that the ski supports your resting weight on the arch, while being compliant enough for the sole and edge respectively to the styles here, make contact with the snow when you kick or skate off then when they are compressed.
Thus a very stiff, curved ski will hold a proficient skier off the ground while they have to be really quite physical in applying downward/outward force to affect kick/skate respectively. These will be fast skis for experts but even then in very hard icey, or very soft, new snow conditions they will fail to allow the skier to get enough traction. This is why the Norwegina national ski team take a whole containter with hundreds of pairs of skis for their 40 or so atheltes in international championships,.
A soft ski will conversley allow for good adhesion in all conditions, but will not suspend the skiers weight during glide phase, and worse, the wax zone on a kicking ski will brake the ski further and gather ice crystals or be worn off completely over a dozen or so kilometers!
Ski camber and the spring / tension is a function of the length of the ski, the depth and position of the camber ( ie arch ) and the material design of the ski. So for example Fischer offer a ‘short cut’ ski design in their range which has the same spring as a traditionally longer ski. Camber has often been design to have a shallow entry and be a little deeper under the foot, with a steeper exit from the heel towards the back of the ski. Atomic however have an advanced, symmetrical arch design in their top skis, which when combined with carbon fibre side wall elements, make for a stiff ski which when compressed acts like a softer ski during the downwards thrust of the kick phase.
So weight then is important to be candid about, followed by height which is a rough guide in helping the seller, and then how physical you are and how fast you want to go, finally a quick check on where you will be skiing. If for example the lower trails around Aviemore are in mind, then it can be that these are often hard packed and icey, in which case a softer ski will allow for better adhesion.
A good shop or club will have a camber tension machine. This is clamps the ski and then uses a scale to apply the equivalent of skiers weight to the ski via a clamp. You can then see if the ski will be the correct spring for your weight and beginner ability. Also they will mark off the usual average condition ( -4’c about) wax zone front end, with the rear being just before the heel of the boot. There is a ‘shop floor’ alternative whcih oddly enough works best on a light carpet or rug, simulating snow, where you stand on both skis and a sheet of A4 paper is slid forward andbackwards to ensure that you are lifted over the wax zone, or that the patterned fishscale zone is not too much in contact with the snow when you are going to be gliding. It isn’t a bad substitute actually for the machine!
Complications for Later
There are a few more compliating factors. Firstly waxing, and the legnth and type of wax used to achieve grip on a given camber spring in response to the conditions of the snow. Secondly we now have Nordic System NIS adjustable ( and competing) bindings which can be slid back and forth about an inch using a simple tool while you are out.
These complications are a little beyond the scope of this introduction, suffice to say you can correct and adjust for conditions a little bit, but in principle you need a stiffness / spring which is suited to you and your expected, average conditions.
Steel edges are a feature of many touring skis and most all mountain (touring) “fjell” skis, and this is to afford the skier good directional control and braking on icey snow bases. As for prepared tracks, very many Norwegians use these as family tour skis because of the added control over speed they get when goign downhill with their small kids between their legs!
I would only really recommend steel edges for those who either live in an area prone to a lot of thaw back and icing, when they are a boon, or for those who want to use a broader ski for some back country work. A ski up to 45mm will fit in most all ski tracks anyway. The drawbacks are weight and to some extent glide, and they are not good to use around our four legged friends because they can cut paws open very easily when Fido gets tangled up with you. The other plus point is stability on these turing skis and being able to use a heavier soled boot if you are combining with some walking up the hills.
Fischer did actually offer a narrow training ski called ‘steel lights’ but they were not in the catalogue last year infortunetly. These were aimed exactly at skiers encountering icey conditions in otherwise well prepared tracks. Hard, icey conditions can actually be a real joy to ski in because the speed is so much higher, but down hills can be hairy. Very often as mentioned above, you find the track bases are hardened ice while there is enough texutre in the middle lane to snow plough down hill , all be that a little jittery in those conditions.
As mentioned a great many Norwegians use classic madhus or åsnes touring skis in the oridnary tracks, but you do notice when they have them on that they are using a more leisurlely pace and technique!
For new beginners it is recommended by all and sundry that you buy a waxless ski. The traditional ‘scaled’ pattern skis gained a bad reputation over time because often beginners bought the cheapest ski and that could mean too little camber spring or a ski which became soft quite quickly. However Atomic and Salamon for example, offer patterned skis through their range, being more popular in North America on better quality skis. Also fishcher offered a top end carbon fibre ski which many a serious amateur had in their arsenal for races where conditions were expected to be very variable.
This type of ski remains an affordable and low threshold ski to getting into skiing. The only drawback with ‘fishscale’ or machined patterned soles is that in order to cover all ranges of grip with one design, the pattern extends into the areas of the gliding areas of the ski, usually by a good 15 cm or so on the front. This causes a lot of friction and if your skis are quite soft spring it can destroy a lot of the glide in ‘stickier’ conditions and hamper the development of good technique. Some people will sand down this front area a couple of centimeters at a time until they get a better compromise between glide and kick, and a good shop may be willing to do this based on using a ski camber measurement machine set for your weight.
Waxed skis however have a very clear place for the beginner and that is if you expect to ski in stable alpine conditions with ground temperatures of -5’c or lower and snow which has not become icey or very hard. Here you can hire or buy a set of nice smooth bottomed skis, asking the shop to prepare the wax which is likely to be ‘blue’. So for example if you are going to learn on a two week holiday to an alpine resort in February then this is a good proposition! You just need to ensure the ski is not too stiff for your ability.
Best of Both World with Furry Bottomes Skis!
A reasonable starter ski in patterned or smooth sole would be about $/€ 200 with bindings mounted and you may get a pair of boots in a package offer for around that figure. For comparison, racing skis cost around €$ 600 off the shelf excluding boots and bindings!
If you are prepared to spend a little more on skis then you can find that you can solve the issue of wax vs waxless drawbacks with the new ‘skin skis’ such as Atomic Skintec , twin skin, intelligrip etc – all the main manufacturers now offer these skis with a mohair skin glued into a machined out groove in the sole. They are wonderful ! Usually these start at a boots and bindings included package about €350 – 400, and that can be money well spent.
Skin skis are making waves in traditional circles because they cure the problems of varied conditions over the course of a day or over altitude for the popular longer ski runs like the ‘Birkebeiner’ – They offer the amateur who wants to jump out right after work without worrying about waxing correctly, the chance to do just that.
I have a set of Atomic 4000s which are a fancy ski of about €500 and used allegdely by some pro skiers for training. They are an absolute boon because we live at sea level and have very rapidly changing conditions. They work best of course when the snow has good grip but as long as there is a crystaline pattern in the snow in otherwise ‘clister’ conditions they will grip really well. They also by in large glide nicely without any major comprimise although they can get a little waterlogged in soggy, ‘easter’ conditions.
If you are quite fit and have good balance in outset, and are going to have an instructor/school or a good skier as a friend, then I can recommend getting a fairly stiff pair of skin skis matched for your weight and then learn to grow into them rather than changing skis later!
What About a Set of Skate Skis?
As I mentioned I recommend learning skate technique as part and parcel of your introduction to XC skiing. How about a pair of skate skis then? Of course you can use waxless or just dewax and glide wax an ordinary set of skis, and borrow longer poles to get a shot at it.
There is real merit in buying these instead of classic when you have few prepared trails or when, as with the Huntly “Clash” snow cover is often little and hardens, or if you are going to have access only to a groomed green runs at an alpine station. Thinner classic skis are quite awkward to use without good ‘tramline’ tracks being available. In my experience too, the middle flat lane in good ski runs remains useable with some texture and ‘bite’ when the base of the tramlines has become concrete smooth ice.
Another big benefit for UK skiers in choosing this route into the sport is that you can learn to use roller skis, or use your rollerblades from the loft, pretty easily and even London boasts a major specially prepared asfalt course for roller skiiing. Roller blades can roll a little fast but there are alternative wheels which give a better feel. You can use your winter poles with a simples unglueing of the winter ‘bails’ to summer spike-ends.
A word of caution here though. Skate skiing demands a slightly higher level of fitness as the body is more active in motion and you need to keep up a tempo just to maintain yourself on the course because of the constant zig zagging on the flat and up hill. It also demands or you could say, developes a better sense of balance which is of course the big benefit i point to above.
If your the courses you are going to be skiing are very hilly then you may want to learn on traditional skis in the tracks first in general, trying skating on flatter sections. This is because classic skis offer a little more stability and far better ability to brake using snow plough due to the longer edges. Given the opposite terrain, for example the Golf Course at Braemar or Kristiansand being your nearest prepared tracks, then you may find a set of skate skis give you much more enjoyment than classic style because you will achieve better speeds for less effort after some practice.