Cross-Country Skiing—Is It for You?

BY AWAKE! WRITER IN CANADA

“LANGLÄUFER LEBEN LÄNGER”—“Cross-country skiers live longer.” This popular German saying highlights the value many see in the winter sport of cross-country skiing. Indeed, in many lands where winter snow abounds, the winter countryside is often crisscrossed by a gridwork of ski trails. In some lands, distances between towns and villages are often posted, and many trails have artificial lighting so that skiers can use them to commute between home and work.

Practiced by relatively few before the 1960’s, cross-country skiing has in recent years become popular in many places throughout the world. Some estimate that as many as four million people a year enjoy the sport in North America alone! The secret of its appeal and charm? Its low cost and apparent simplicity. Compared with its better-known cousin—Alpine, or downhill, skiing—some aspects of cross-country skiing are uncomplicated. The downhill skier needs specialized, costly equipment and clothing. He has to travel to specially maintained ski hills or mountains where he may be confronted with both the purchase of expensive lift tickets and long lines for the ski lift. Downhill skiing also demands a certain athleticism that is beyond the grasp of many beginners. Cross-country skiing, on the other hand, can be enjoyed by virtually anyone at any age. The only things needed are a few inches of fresh snow, a little training, and relatively inexpensive skis, ski boots, and ski poles.

Cross-country skiing can be an exhilarating experience! The skier can go virtually  wherever he wishes—through fields and meadows, over frozen lakes and icebound streams, into silent forests and snow-covered valleys. Cross-country skiing can lend itself to meditation, reflection, and thought, which can give us a chance to confide in our Creator and thank him for the wonders of life. Winter puts a unique stamp on Jehovah God’s creation. A glistening blanket of snow brings a hush to the landscape. The earth seems fresh and clean, as if awaiting discovery. Gliding through a forest, the trees laden with frost, is soothing to the heart and mind. The stridency of our mechanical world fades away, and soon the only sound is the whooshing of skis.

If shared in by a family or group of friends, cross-country skiing becomes a social outing that bonds and unites. In northern European countries today, some families ride 10 or 20 miles [20 or 30 km] by train and then ski home together.

The Origins

Some may think that cross-country skiing is a recent innovation, but it is far from new. In 1927, rock carvings thousands of years old were found on the Norwegian island of Rødøya. One drawing shows a hunter who is evidently wearing a rabbit mask. He seems to be gliding on a pair of very long skis. More recently, in the peat bogs of Scandinavia, workers uncovered hundreds of ancient skis in excellent condition. Skiing was an essential form of travel for early Nordic peoples during the long, snowy winters. It was such an integral part of their way of life that they even worshiped and honored a ski god and goddess! Today many towns and villages  in Norway and Sweden carry the remnants of those bygone pagan beliefs in their names. Why, the very name Scandinavia may refer to the goddess of skiers, Skade.

While skiing has been a necessary part of Nordic life for centuries, the popularizing of cross-country skiing as an international sport had to wait until the 19th century. At that time Norwegians improved the traditional skis by shaping, tapering, and refining them. They also developed a system of heel straps and toe straps that were the forerunners of modern binding systems. In Telemark, a mountainous area of south-central Norway, they soon initiated a series of competitions. The first recorded and timed cross-country ski race is believed to have been held there, with the winner covering the three-mile [5 km] course in about 30 minutes. Cross-country ski racing became popular in northern European countries soon thereafter, but it was another event that introduced it to the rest of the world.

In 1888 the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen led an expedition across Greenland on skis. He subsequently wrote a book about his experience that in 1891 was translated into English, French, and German. The account, which described his grueling journey across the stark Arctic landscape, captured the imagination of its Victorian readers. It stirred romantic notions of conquering the untamed wilderness.

In the 1960’s, family ski touring was organized and launched on a major scale. Ski centers that specialized in cross-country skiing began to spring up. Manufacturers took note, and new, sophisticated equipment appeared. Fashion even entered the picture, making cross-country skiing chic. The demand by the public for areas in which to ski saw many municipalities scrambling to groom any available land, including golf courses and city parks.

Physical Benefits

Cross-country skiing is considered to be one of the safest of the popular sports. Although falling can result in minor sprains, serious injuries are rare, and they usually occur only when the cross-country skier ventures into steep terrain and backcountry.

Because the movements involved in cross-country skiing are fluid and rhythmic, there  is very little overuse of or shock damage to joints and muscles. Sports doctors will often prescribe cross-country skiing as therapy for those injured by jogging or cycling. It is one of the few activities that uses almost all the body’s major muscle groups, so the skier receives a complete workout. The heart and lungs benefit greatly, and active skiers usually have blood pressure and pulse rates lower than those of inactive people. Cross-country skiers are thus regarded as some of the fittest athletes in the world.

The combination of low risk of injury with smooth, dynamic movement also makes cross-country skiing an ideal endeavor for older ones. In some northern European countries, it is very common to see individuals in their senior years out for a ski.

Skiing generates a tremendous amount of body heat, so it is possible to be quite comfortable in relatively cold conditions. On the coldest of days, ski racers routinely compete in thin, one-piece racing outfits, often without gloves. Nonprofessionals, however, must take adequate care to protect their extremities from the cold. Experienced outdoor enthusiasts generally dress in layers, starting with a woolen or synthetic underlayer and finishing with a waterproof and windproof outer shell. This enables them to regulate their body temperature and personal comfort. They just remove or add layers as needed. Wise parents do well to make sure that their little ones are properly attired, as children’s small bodies get cold much quicker than adults’. Since they lose heat from their skin very rapidly, they are susceptible to frostbite.

Add to Your Winter Experience

“If you can walk, you can ski” is a common catchphrase among cross-country skiers because the movements of the sport are so closely related to walking. While this statement is true to some degree, most of us would benefit immensely from an hour or two spent with a qualified teacher. Ski centers offer private or group lessons, and in a short while, the novice can learn the fundamentals of skiing cross-country—cruising the flats, skiing uphill, negotiating downhills and, of course, stopping! Once shown these basic skills, most people are equipped to go out and tackle the terrain.

“Nothing hardens the muscles and makes the body so strong and elastic,” said Fridtjof Nansen in 1890 regarding cross-country skiing. Perhaps you too would enjoy the sport. It could very well add excitement to your winter experience.

[Pictures on page 24, 25]

Cross-country skiing is relatively inexpensive and can be enjoyed by people of all ages

[Picture on page 26]

Ancient skis found in Voss, Norway

[Credit Line]

Foto: © Universitetets kulturhistoriske museer, Eirik Irgens Johnsen

[Picture on page 26]

A rock carving of a skier

[Credit Line]

Foto: Inge Ove Tysnes/Syv søstre forlag