Do you yearn to take part in a winter sport that gets you out in the fresh air and beautiful snow country, but alpine (downhill) skiing is a little too thrilling for your taste? Then consider the sport of Nordic.
Cross-country skiing, also referred to as Nordic Skiing or XC Skiing, is skiing over a groomed or natural terrain using arms and legs synchronized in a striding, gliding motion that creates a full-body aerobic workout. A low-risk sport, cross-country skiing is wonderful recreation once there’s adequate snow cover.
Like other outdoor sports, cross-country skiing is a way to overcome the winter weather restrictions, get the body moving, and blood flowing.
As its name suggests, Nordic skiing was developed in Scandinavia more than 4,000 years ago as a means of transportation over snowy and icy terrain. Today, Nordic skiing is a fast-growing snow sport with more than 4.5 million participants, including those with limb loss, vision impairment, spinal injuries, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, stroke, and brain injury.
“Adaptive Nordic skiing can be whatever you make of it,” said Maggie Palchak, trainer and Paralympic Sport Program Director at Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra, Mammoth Lakes, Calif., a chapter of Disabled Sports USA. “You can go for the equivalent of a casual stroll through the woods or an all out marathon run. The first time recreational skier with minimal fitness experience can still have a splendid time out on cross-country skis.
“Nordic skiing can be adapted to suit a variety of physical abilities and disabilities. An individual can ski standing up with two skis and two poles, one pole or no poles. If an athlete has balance issues, a snow slider (similar to a walker on skis) can be used. There are also sit down rigs for Nordic skiing which can accommodate athletes with spinal cord injuries, lower limb deficiencies or balance issues,” she said.
The classic style of Nordic skiing
Stand-up Nordic skiing falls into two classifications, classic and skate.
In classic skiing, the athlete skis in or out of a groomed track with the skis and arms moving in a parallel motion fore and aft with arms and legs moving diagonally with respect to each other (similar to walking or jogging).
Ellen Adams, program director, National Ability Center (NAC), a chapter of Dsiabled Sports USA, explained the techniques and requirements for those who can do stand-up classic skiing.
“Stand-up Nordic skiing requires the ability to balance and shuffle forward,” she said. “When done properly on flat terrain, it doesn’t require much more strength than walking. A fluid stride with a controlled arm swing/poling motion will result in forward motion. Skiing on undulating or hilly terrain is more challenging, and requires coordination and some strength, especially in the core and thighs to maneuver up and down slopes.
“As a stand-up Nordic skier progresses, what was at first a shuffling motion becomes more fluid and, ultimately, a kick and glide motion. The skier remains in an athletic stance, balanced over the center of the ski. When approaching an uphill grade, the skier moves the center of gravity slightly back onto the heels of the ski, allowing the ski to grip the snow. When approaching a downhill, the skier moves over the center of the ski, bends a little at the waist and pushes the tails in to a wedge shape, creating more friction and slowing the skier down.”
Cross-Country on a Sit-Ski
“You don’t have to be in great physical shape to try Nordic sit-skiing,” said Matt Feeney, program director, Adaptive Adventures, Colorado, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA. “I think this may be one of the myths of Nordic or cross-country skiing from a seated position. It looks quite daunting, and some people assume that it’s for “animals” only, but with the right equipment and wax (very important) anybody with moderate strength can enjoy the sport. As with downhill skiing, you don’t start out on black diamond runs; you progress from flat terrain to more challenging terrain as you get more comfortable with the equipment, technique and your surroundings.
“The motion in Nordic sit-skiing is very important; it’s what gets you from A to B,” he said. “Nordic skiers propel themselves with lightweight poles, extending the arms forward, placing the tips of the poles in the snow (on both sides of the sit-ski) and pushing the sled forward in a single motion that is repeated to sustain that motion.
“As with stand-up, Nordic sit-skiers are looking for a good glide on the snow, so having the right wax can be very important as well. If the sit-ski is not gliding on the snow, in other words, the skier seems to be coming to an abrupt stop after a push, then Nordic skiing can become quite daunting. Most Nordic centers can tell you the snow temperature and appropriate wax for the day, so you don’t feel like you have sandpaper under your skis,” Feeney said.
Going up and getting up on a sit-ski
Ascending an incline can be challenging depending on the steepness, length and variations in terrain. Feeney recommends using shorter, ‘choppy’ strokes as the ski will not be able to glide going uphill. Look ahead when skiing to anticipate any upcoming changes in terrain and use as much momentum as possible going into an incline.
“Getting up from a fall can also be a little challenging for the beginner,” he said. “It is recommended that you always ski with someone who can assist you if need be. Most Nordic sit-skis sit fairly low to the ground, so if you tip over you can usually just use your arm (that’s closest to the snow) to push off and right the sled. Of course, there may be different situations that require you to unstrap from the rig, put the skis back on the snow and transfer back in, which may take a little practice.”
Preparing for a first Nordic skiing experience is simple. Feeney advises: “Just keep an open mind. Most people that enjoy Nordic skiing often lead active lifestyles and are reasonably fit. Handcycling is excellent cross-training, and people who handcycle generally do well in Nordic skiing. One of the first questions I would ask someone
Nordic skiing for the first time is if they participate in any other sports. It certainly doesn’t hurt to be athletic.”
Dry land training
“Handcycling is excellent dry land training,” he said. “Some members of the U.S. team also attach wheels to their sit-ski rigs and push around during the off season. Actually, just about any kind of physical activity is good dry land training.”
“A beginning skier is likely to fall, and it is helpful to learn how to get up before doing much else,” Adams said. “First, if the skier has any control going into the fall, they should try to fall with skis parallel to each other. Before
trying to get up, the skier should make sure the skis are parallel, across any incline; placed at a 90 degree angle to the fall line. Keep the feet comfortably apart, and put both poles on one side of the body. Then put the tips of the poles in the snow and push your body back up to a standing position.”
The ‘make like a bug’ method
“It is important to protect wrist and shoulders in a fall, and this can be done by drawing the arm into the body rather than trying to “break” one’s fall with outstretched arms,” said Palchak. “The simplest way for a stand-up skier to get up from a fall is to ‘make like a dead bug’ by rolling onto their back with all limbs in the air. They can then take off their poles, grab the tips of their skis and roll over in one smooth move until their skis are underneath them and they can stand up.
“There is also the option of stepping out of one’s skies, standing up and stepping back into the skis. Sit-down skiers can generally roll to their side and push themselves back up to an upright position,” she said.
“Skate skiing is done on groomed or smooth surfaces (not in tracks), and the motion is similar to an ice skater,” explained Palchak. “The athlete again maintains an athletic, flexed stance balanced over the ball of the gliding foot and glides each ski forward in a toes pointed out (herringbone) manner.”
“All poling in skating is ‘double poling’ meaning both poles are planted at the same time as opposed to the diagonal/alternate poling motion in classic skiing,” said Palchak. “In both skate and classic skiing there are a variety of poling techniques to be used as one progresses. Sit-down skiers use double poling techniques and whatever core muscles they have available to propel themselves up and down the trails.”
The terrain a cross-country skier encounters is level and gently rolling, but the occasional rise or small hill needs to be ascended. To do this, a skier will take shorter, quicker steps and poling action to ascend an incline. Stand-up skiers also have the option of using a herringbone step to climb steeper hills.
Dry Land Training
“Roller skiing is the most sport specific dry land training practiced by elite athletes. This is available to both stand-up and sit-down athletes. Cycling is another common cross training sport as are hiking and running,” Palchak said, adding this tip. “Practice standing and balancing over one foot at a time, and keep an open mind because those skinny skis seem darn slippery the first time you put them on!”
Who is it for?
Although cross-country skiing is beginner-friendly and can be enjoyed by those of various abilities, the sport is challenging and commands a certain level of physical fitness. Clearly, gravity is not as friendly in cross-country skiing as in alpine skiing. Instead, it requires self-propelled movement by pushing along with arms and kicking off with legs – a heavily aerobic process, which is beneficial to the cardiovascular system and tones muscles in the entire body.
There is a higher comfort level with cross-country skiing than with alpine because the sport is done at a slower pace. Fewer crowds, lower cost, and convenience also make the sport appealing to many people. Lessons are highly recommended but once basics are mastered, one can set off to ski anywhere, whereas downhill skiing has limited locations.
Beginners should learn both uphill and downhill technique on gentle terrain before progressing to more
difficult trails or open country. Mastering an adaptive form of cross-country skiing, sit-skiing, can be more difficult because the sitting skier must rely entirely on upper body and arm strength for propulsion. Beginners generally start on relatively level terrain and progress to more difficult trails or open country. Along the way are opportunities to take breaks and admire the view.
There are two styles of cross-country skiing – classic and freestyle. Classic, or traditional, style is a straight-ahead gliding motion, which resembles a natural walking stride; whereas freestyle, or skateskiing, consists of a V-style glide motion much like ice or inline skating.
Cross Country skiing is a popular winter program at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park.
Most equipment can be rented for cross-country skiing; adaptive equipment is sometimes available for rent or free use through adaptive through adaptive ski programs. Standard equipment consists of skis, boots, and poles. These skis are longer and more narrow than alpine skis, which creates less drag and makes the ski easier to propel. The length of the ski is determined by the skier’s height, weight, and skiing ability. Generally, a shorter ski is easier to control, while a longer ski adds stability and glides farther. Pole length for the classic technique should be between the armpit and top of the shoulder, and between the chin and mouth for the skateskiing technique. People at rental shops will assist in determining the correct length of poles and skis. Boots should fit comfortably like a pair of hiking boots.
Different ski bases are available as well. Beginners often opt for “waxless” skis because they are convenient and eliminate the hassle of waxing. These skis have grip patterns molded into the base of the ski to “grip” the snow, preventing the ski from sliding backwards while allowing forward propulsion. Alternatively, “waxable” ski bases are smooth and a thin layer of “wax” is applied to the base allowing snow crystals to “grip” and produce forward propulsion. The advantage with waxable skis is they glide easier and therefore, are faster. The disadvantage is that an advanced knowledge of snow conditions, wax characteristics, and technique is required for proficiency.
Recent innovations in the sport, along with development of specialized adaptive ski programs, allow persons with visual, mobility, and mental impairments to enjoy cross-country skiing. Adaptive Nordic programs, although newer, are increasingly more available, with specially trained instructors and adaptive equipment that ensure safety and maximize enjoyment. Adaptive equipment for the sport is tailored to those who can stand and ski and those who sit-ski. Equipment can be modified to accommodate nearly any ability or injury.
Stand-up skiers typically use standard equipment, which can be modified for prostheses or other conditions. Visually-impaired skiers work with a guide who calls directions and warns of obstacles. When tracks are available and terrain is level, the guide will ski beside the skier; however, on a slope or change in terrain, the guide skis in front of the impaired skier within the same track. Walkers are an option for those who have limited ability to ski upright. The walkers have two cross-country skis on the bottom to help the skier balance during a fully self-propelled movement. A seat sling is provided for resting and instructors are there to offer assistance.
Sit-skis have a seat balanced over a frame with two cross-country skis about 12 inches apart. This adaptive equipment enables people with limited leg strength to ski. The skier sits in the seat with legs extended in front, supported by a footrest. Adaptions can be made for those with restricted abdominal or leg strength.
For example, legs can be strapped to the sit-ski for additional support. Though a number of people may be able to use their arms for pushing off and propelling the sit-ski with the shorter cross-country poles, some participants may require assistance from others. For instance, instructors with tethers will assist with navigating difficult uphill and downhill terrain. The ability of the sit-skier to self-propel will also depend on the weight of the equipment.
The key to dressing for cross-country skiing is to stay warm and dry. Overheating while skiing produces sweat that soaks clothing and creates a chill when the skier stops. For maximum comfort, wear up to three layers of clothing and avoid cotton that absorbs moisture.
First, the layer closest to the skin must stay dry, which means avoiding cotton fabric that cools when wet. Polypropylene, wool, or other synthetic materials are ideal, as the fabric will move the perspiration away from the body, called wicking. The second layer should insulate – think wool sweaters, deep, tight pile, and synthetic fabrics. While this layer should keep the body warm, it should also be light and easy to move within.
Finally, an outer layer should protect from wind and snow. Preferably, this layer can be unzipped or loosened to vent heat and moisture. Also, because a lot of heat is released through the head, wearing a hat will conserve energy and warmth. And don’t forget gloves!
When heading out for an afternoon of cross-country skiing, it may be helpful to wear a small pack to hold layers of clothing. A small pack could also carry an energy bar and water, as it is imperative that skiers stay hydrated. Some other items to consider packing are sunscreen, lip balm, and perhaps a camera to snap shots of scenery or friends and family skiing together. It is important to be knowledgeable about the trails and potential avalanche conditions to ensure safety, as well.
Many beginners will prefer to start on groomed trails, which are now available at numerous state and county parks and alpine ski resorts. Often, Nordic centers have ski guides, instructors, and rental equipment. While adaptive cross-country skiing is growing in popularity, not every Nordic center will have adaptive equipment or instructors, so it is important to call first. Nordic centers may charge a fee for use of the groomed trail system. Alternatives to groomed trails include open fields, parking lots, golf courses, or rural areas for backcountry cross-country skiing.
When starting out, costs to consider include not only the trail fee, but also ski rental. Some adaptive ski programs, such as Maine Handicapped Skiing and Colorado’s Adaptive Sports Center in Crested Butte, provide sit-skis and instruction. Lessons, too, will cost a fee in most programs, whereas others are free.
’Tis the season for winter sports fans to head for the hills and trails to ski, board, and shoe their hearts out. Through the years amputees and other physically challenged individuals are an increasing presence on the ski slopes, thanks to monoskis, outriggers, and sitskis. While it’s common for transtibial amputees to ski standing up, either with or without their prosthesis, transfemoral amputees commonly use a sit- ski or three-track to schuss down a mountain. But more recently, advances in socket fit and high-tech knees have enabled transfemoral amputees to ski two-track. Greg Mannino, champion Paralympic skier and a former threetracker, is one of them. Mannino was a member of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team from 1986-2001 and a five-time Paralympic team member. He medaled 22 times in Paralympic and World Championship Alpine events.
His interest in going two-track peaked when his young son began learning how to downhill ski. Mannino now has been a two-tracker for three years. Due to his extensive alpine skiing experience, the adjustment to two-track was easy for him. “I knew where my body needed to be,” he said. “The techniques for a transfemoral two-track skier are the same as for an able-bodied skier,” he said. “Some AKs start with two outriggers and graduate to a regular ski pole. Sometimes a ski-bra is initially used for control. Those who do great have a solid background in skiing, but it is just as accessible for the beginner. “Amputee alpine skiers have been around since post-World War II, but the old prosthetic systems didn’t allow for performance and comfort. Advances in technology and socket fit give options to the AK amputees who want to ski on two legs,” he said. “Carbon fiber, durable systems and sockets, and improved suspension, make it possible.” Not every knee can withstand the forces of alpine skiing, so skiers are urged to consult with their prosthetist first to determine the best type of prosthesis for the intended activity. Many prosthetic manufacturers include in their product line a high-activity knee that can withstand the rigors of downhill skiing, snowboarding, rock climbing, and other high intensity sports and recreational pursuits. Mannino, who is a National Product Specialist for Endolite North America, refers his Endolite Mercury Hi-Activity Knee, but other knees include the XT9, Rheo Knee®, Otto Bock’s 3R90, and Freedom Innovations’ Plie™ MPC Knee.
“A high-activity knee that provides swing and stance is important for stability as a skier rolls his knees in a turn,” he said. “A skier also doesn’t want his leg falling off during a run, so a quality pin-lock or full- suction suspension system is necessary. Some additional suspension is recommended, such as a power belt or sleeve system. To keep the foot from collapsing, choose one that has a higher category of deflection and stiffness. I use a Category 8 because I angulate (putting foot in front of knee) on turns. Invest in a comfortable set of boots.” Skiing two-track with the prosthesis also benefits the AK skier as it improves residual limb strength. Adaptive skiing overall builds physical strength, builds self-esteem and self-confidence, and provides freedom of movement and feelings of accomplishment. Prior to trying skiing, Mannino recommends building up strength with cycling, walking, and weight training. For a demonstration on how fast and expertly an AK amputee travels down a mountain, Mannino suggests going to youtube.com and watching E.J. Poplowski negotiate moguls and jumps on a downhill run in Utah. Poplowski was an expert telemark skier until an accident during a competition resulted in amputation. Two years later, Poplowski, who uses an XT9, carves snow with the best of them. “My advice for anyone who wants to ski is to first find a good instructor. There are programs all across America,” said Mannino who also teaches at Vail’s Adaptive Ski Snowsports School.
“The obvious benefit is fitness. It’s an activity that promotes good health and exercise,” said Feeney. “Nordic skiing also offers an individual the opportunity to push their own limits of their physical body in a majestic outdoor environment. Best of all, there are no lift lines or snowboarders running over your ski saying ‘sorry bro!’”
Palchak concurs the benefits are ‘limitless!’
“Nordic skiing is one of the ‘silent sports.’ You can take it almost anywhere with friends, your dog or solo,” she said. “You can use a groomed Nordic ski facility or just take off through the woods. All ages can enjoy Nordic skiing as a peaceful outing or a vigorous and competitive sport. It allows athletes to get places and see things they could not otherwise see – this is especially true for wheelchair users. This sport allows for improvement of cardiovascular systems, endurance, balance, muscle strength and more. Nordic skiing offers fabulous wildlife viewing opportunities as well as access to splendid vistas. It can be a great option for families to get out and exercise together, and it is also a great solo, mind clearing endeavor.”
Advises Palchak: “Don’t delay. Try it now and you will be hooked!”