skating 101

While I really enjoy alpine skiing, the atmosphere at a nordic center is quiet and calm, a welcome change of pace from the bustling lift lines of the weekend crowds. The cost for 2 people to rent equipment, get trail passes and a lesson will be half of what you would pay for a lift ticket alone. Another bonus? Because of the effort involved, you probably can’t spend 5 hours doing it. To start, plan to spend an hour and a half in the morning, then break for a long lunch and, if you are up to it, head back for another hour or so in the afternoon. Your time commitment is so much less than a full day on the slopes – and your calorie burn will likely be much higher.

It is the perfect environment for families with young children. Get the whole family kitted out and have one parent hang back with the kids while the other gets in some serious cardio, then switch. They have kid carriers that you can pull behind you with the littlest tots. Enjoy the apres-ski soup and hot chocolate.

As a newbie, here are my tips for anyone getting started.

1. Wear the right pants. It seems more and more in my life like an elastic waist is key. My alpine ski pants were great for protection against the wind, but I kept tugging on my waistband to the point of possible thumb injury. I preferred cotton yoga pants on a warmer day. Avoid a boot cut – go with a skinny leg or be prepared to brush up on your early-90s tight roll. Of course, there are also sport-specific pants you can buy. They look like winter running pants and they taper at the ankle. Some people wear the full spandex look – I am just not quite there.

2. Get the cute little hat. If you plan on continuing, you should probably buy at least 2 hats to wear – a polyester-blend lightweight one and a heavier wool one. Call it a do-rag. Feel like a ski gangsta. Be warm.

3. Take a lesson. Then take another lesson. Practice a bit and then take another lesson. Pick somewhere flat to start.

In Colorado, here is a comparison of the places I’ve tried:

  • Eldora: very hilly. I found some of their staff to be a bit grumpy. Best deal? A $40 Friday 10 a.m. group lesson that can often turn into a private lesson because no one else shows up.
  • Breckenridge: The flat Frisco Nordic center is a great place to start – and it’s at a lower elevation than the Breckenridge Nordic center. However, the heavily forested, slightly hilly Breckenridge Nordic center is very close to the lifts and childcare on Peak 8 – it works well if you are with a varied group wanting to do different things. Also, it’s a nice, laid-back place to hang out. Best deal? The Breckenridge Nordic center’s instructor Josh, at any price and with an extra tip. He’s fantastic and I find myself missing him when I go other places.
  • Winter Park: Devil’s Thumb Ranch has beautiful, open, flat trails with nice instructors. The views of the mountains and on-site spa make it a great get-a-way location. Best deal? Grab a friend or two who want to try skating and split a private hour lesson together for $80.

4. Dress in layers. I found that a fitted long sleeve shirt (or long sleeve biking gear) and vest works well. Even on a 20 degree day I was thinking about taking off the vest. You will get hot and sweaty.

5. Expect sore feet and ankles. I’ve been given a lot of conflicting advice on the tightness of boots. Go with whatever doesn’t make your arches ache. I’m still experimenting with fit. The slight ankle ache is very similar to a day of ice skating – although much less intense.

6. Prepare to workout. Expect it to feel very hard at first. When you are still learning the form, you don’t have the efficiency that will eventually make it easier.

7. Prepare to workout some more. In cross country skiing, it’s a more natural leg movement which makes it easier to get started. You can control your effort level as you work to refine your form. This is not true with skate skiing – the initial learning curve is steeper and the motion it takes to get going requires more effort. It’s impossible to half-ass; trust me, I tried.

8. Get out the bengay. Your Suzanne Summers’ thigh master muscles will be sore. You know the ones on the inner thigh going down from your groin? You will know that you’ve done an exercise that you don’t normally do. For days.

9. Check the ego. You will be passed by old ladies and high school girls. Skating is very technique dependent; muscling through it won’t make you fast.

10. Wear thin gloves. Ditch the bulky downhill gloves. Road biking gloves will work if they are appropriate for the weather.

11. Protect yourself. Sunscreen, lip balm and sunglasses – always.

Other things to know:

  • Refer to “skating” at the nordic center and not “skate skiing” – they know you don’t mean ice skating.
  • The skating poles are right- and left-hand specific. The skis are not.

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