Faster than the speed of snow

Cross-country skate-skiing helps practitioners stay fit in winter

A student at theAuburn Ski Club practices cross-country skate-skiing.

A student at theAuburn Ski Club practices cross-country skate-skiing.

Photo By David Robert

For those who want the thrill of speed along with a great workout, consider cross-country skate-skiing.

Most people associate cross-country skiing with the traditional type of skiing called the diagonal stride, where you ski along groomed parallel tracks or blaze your own trail through powder. Skate-skiing is different: Picture a combination of speed skating or in-line skating and downhill skiing. If you’re a downhill skier, and you’ve ever skated up a hill, you’ve done the basic motion, but on skate-skis you can go much faster.

Skate-ski boots snap onto bindings mounted on slim, light skis. The heel releases when you push off, providing leverage. When your ski hits the snow again, the heel snaps back in the binding. You skate-ski on broad, groomed lanes, usually between the tracks carved for diagonal striding.

Phillip Henke, who lives in Carson City, is an avid cyclist in the summer and enjoys downhill and skate-skiing in the winter. “I see people cycling and running in the winter, all bundled up, having to deal with debris on the road, and it looks miserable,” he says. “Some of them must be out there just to get a workout, to keep up their training schedule if they’re club cyclists or tri-athletes. I always wonder, ‘Why they aren’t they up skating?’ “

Not only does skate-skiing offer a means of cross training, it reduces the potential for injuring one’s muscles from overuse due to cycling or running all year long.

For Henke, skate-skiing provides the ultimate “runner’s high.” He says it’s his favorite workout, combining aerobic conditioning, strength and balance training and a wilderness experience. It also complements his downhill skiing.

“After you’ve practiced balancing on skinny skis, downhill skiing seems that much easier,” he says. “My balance and support are definitely improved.”

Plus, skate-skiing gives skiers an alternative activity for days when the downhill resorts are crowded, or when they have less time. Two or three hours of skate-skiing is plenty of time to get your fresh air and cover a good distance. Skate-skiing is also an excellent choice if you don’t like to be cold, as the total-body workout warms you up quickly. Be sure to dress in layers so you don’t overheat.

In the Scandinavian countries, skate-skiing is a national pastime, as beloved as football in the United States. Thousands participate and watch races. In Finland, there’s even an indoor ski tunnel so national-level skiers can train year-round. Here, skate-skiing isn’t wildly popular, but more people are trying it out.

“Skate-skiing is kind of caught in the middle: People who just want to do a sport want to be downhill skiing; people who just want a workout go to the gym,” Henke says. To enjoy skate-skiing, you have to want both. A person who’s in good shape and comfortable on downhill or traditional cross-country skis can pick up the basics quickly, but it takes a great deal of practice to master the technique. “Athletes who want a technical challenge will really enjoy it.”

The Tahoe area has one of the greatest concentrations of cross-country ski areas in the United States, with more than 800 kilometers of groomed trails. You can rent equipment and take lessons at many local ski areas.

There are a variety of areas that have facilities for skate-skiing, including Kirkwood, Spooner Lake, Royal Gorge, Tahoe Donner and Northstar-at-Tahoe. See directory, page 16, for contact information.