There’s finally snow in the mountains! For skiing enthusiasts, the lift tickets are purchased, the cabin or lodge is rented, and the slopes beckon.
But if the idea of putting on clunky ski boots, waiting in line for the precarious chairlift, and dodging speed demons on snowboards leaves you cold, there are other ways to enjoy the snow that can involve the thrill of racing down a mountain and also offer incredible fitness benefits. Cross-country, or Nordic skiing, and snowshoeing let you enjoy the winter backcountry with relatively minimal equipment at much more affordable rates. And you’ll burn mega calories and build muscle to boot.
FIT FOR LONGER
According to an article in The Globe and Mail, researchers in Sweden and at Ball State University in Indiana studied two groups of men in their 80s, all of whom were healthy, lived independently, and were capable of completing a rigorous exercise test. One group was composed of lifelong cross-country skiers who trained an average of four-to-six times a week, and the other group didn’t do any formal exercise. Not only were the skiers in better shape, but they also had close to twice the cardiovascular and muscular fitness than the nonexercising group.
These results are consistent with earlier studies of cross-country skiers in Sweden that found that men and women who participated in the sport over a 10-year period were less than half as likely to die as those in a control group from the general population.
NORDIC SKIING BASICS
Cross-country skiing, which involves snug-fitting low boots similar to running shoes, skis, and poles, relies on your body’s strength and stride rather than simply gravity to go downhill. Nordic skiing combines the lower and the upper body along with the core, simultaneously pushing and pulling muscles.
There are two types of Nordic skiing: classic and skating. Classic involves kicking and gliding along groomed parallel tracks. With skating, you push off each ski in a V-shaped pattern, much like rollerblading or ice-skating, right next to the track.
Nordic skiing burns more calories than any other form of exercise, up to 1,000 calories per hour according to the American College of Sports Medicine. It’s also an excellent cardio endurance workout that allows you to maintain an elevated heart rate for an extended time period. And it’s a great form of cross training, because almost every muscle is used, improving fitness levels for other sports.
Other benefits include reduced stress from being surrounded by nature. Even when you encounter other skiers, there’s not the chatter one sometimes finds on chairlifts.
STRAP ON SOME SNOWSHOES
Snowshoeing offers similar fitness benefits — an aerobic workout that improves strength, balance, endurance, and agility. Research from Ball State University and the University of Vermont showed that snowshoeing can burn between 420–1,000 calories per hour. As with hiking, you can vary the intensity of your workout by starting out on flat terrain and then moving up to hilly areas. Snowshoeing through thick powder offers some resistance and is a great way for runners, hikers, cyclists, and everyday gym rats to stay in shape. And again, the feeling of peace brought about while trekking through snowy forests is a real stress buster.
OPTIONS FOR ALL
You may be wondering: Am I fit enough to try these activities? Or, are they suitable for families with kids? The answer is yes. Most ski resorts that offer Nordic skiing also offer ski school (group lessons) and private lessons for children as young as 4 or 5 as well as lessons for adults, and gear is part of the package. Snowshoeing is as simple as walking, and many ski resorts offer guided snowshoe tours, which are a great way to get started.
In terms of fitness, cross-country ski areas offer clearly marked trails so beginners can select the easier, shorter loops. The more difficult the trail, the more hills, which means longer, steeper climbs — the hardest thing about Nordic skiing — and curvy, longer downhill runs, best attempted once you’ve got the hang of it.
Popular Nordic skiing and snowshoeing destinations at North Lake Tahoe are Royal Gorge (royalgorge.com, America’s largest cross-country skiing resort), Tahoe Donner (tahoedonner.com), Northstar California (northstarcalifornia.com), and the Resort at Squaw Creek.
If you’d like to hit the slopes in time for some prime spring skiing and you don’t want the hassle or expense of long lines and lift tickets, it might be time to give snowshoeing or Nordic skiing a whirl.
Editor’s note: Tahoe Donner will offer a full moon snowshoe tour on March 25 from 7:45 to 9:30 p.m. Reservations required 48 hours in advance at 530-587-9437 or shoptd.tahoedonner.com.