Taking up Nordic (aka cross country skiing) as an adult is difficult. While the sport itself is physically challenging, its an even bigger barrier to navigate through all the bewildering options of skis, waxes, techniques, equipment, etc. Each year, I’m convinced that a small army of potential new skiers are turned away from skiing because the obstacles to success become insurmountable. Either they never start or have a poor first experience and never return. While I can’t entirely smooth out the bumps to transition from novice to Birkie contender, these are my best suggestions for long term success and enjoyment of the sport.
1) Learn both techniques: Skiing is basically split into two techniques, classic and skate. Classic skiing is older (hence “classic”) and involves a striding kick and glide motion. You propel yourself down the track by pressing your ski into the snow and pushing the other ski forward. The kicking ski grips onto the snow either by having something “grippy” applied to the middle of the ski. This can be either ski wax (waxable skis) or a fishscale plastic or sanded plastic (waxless or zero skis). Skate skiing uses a skating motion. You propel yourself down the track by pushing off the edges of your skis laterally. You don’t want anything grippy on the bottom of your skis. So which technique do you want to learn? The answer really should be both. Both are equally fun and there are days and weather conditions where one is clearly more fun than the other. While “skating” is generally the faster technique across most conditions, “classical” is not much slower for an athlete trained in each discipline. There is also tremendous overlap in the skills needed to do each well in terms of balance, weight transfer, glide, etc. So getting good at one will almost always make you faster in the other as well.
2) Block out time to learn. The way most people try to learn is by taking a single lesson. They learn a sort of vaguely enjoyable shuffling technique which they vow to continue. The next time they get on skis is 3-weeks later. The third time is the following season. There is simply no way anyone can learn to ski well without devoting a fair amount of time to the endeavor. I think it’s particularly important to have a block of time dedicated to learning when you start. Try to go everyday for a week for example. The repetition and muscle memory are key to building your confidence.
3) Be a “racer.” This is more of a mindset than a need to strap on a racing bib (though I encourage that highly). Racers try to optimize technique to always go as fast as they can while expending the least energy. They develop smooth, powerful, effortless glide which is the heart of the thrill of skiing. Many people claim that “I don’t want to go fast so that isn’t important.” Respectfully, that is true for absolutely no one. Many people are afraid to admit to their inner speed demon, but it’s there lurking all the same. A nice walk in the woods is snow shoeing. Swooping over hills is skiing and no one says, I really wish I could have just snow plowed that hill more slowly to enjoy it more.
4) Learn by watching. A starter lesson can help a great deal, but improving long term requires solo practice. A great way to speed progress is to watch other skiers as well as video. YouTube is a great source of learning.
5) Ski everything. I always hear the statement, “groomed trails are boring, I only ski in the woods” or “its not worth skiing today because the grooming isn’t good enough.” There is great fun to be had in the woods and on the trail. You might be drawn more to one, but you should take every opportunity to enjoy both. Don’t worry about equipment it all works well enough. I skied down the RRR Brooks trail over the Taconic Crest in the Berkshires on race skis and did fine even in deep, untracked powder. Staying at home because I didn’t have backwoods skis would have been a mistake.
6) Buy skis. A single day on skis just isn’t going to get you very far. Better just to jump in with a good quality set of skis and commit.
7) Join a group. Like us for example. You’ll want people to talk with about this crazy hobby after all.