Top 5 mistakes every newbie Nordic skier should know and avoid |

Top 5 mistakes every newbie Nordic skier should know and avoid

Phil Lindeman

Classic vs. skate

Nordic skiing is a wide, wide world, with at least a half-dozen subcategories like alpine touring, telemarking and more. The two most common styles at Nordic centers are classic and skate, and choosing between the two determines what kind of gear you need and what kind of techniques you’ll use. Here’s a crash course on what’s the same and what’s different.


Classic is the go-to form for most beginners, and with good reason. The skis are generally wider than skate skis and often come with metal edges. Classic skiing features a front-back gliding motion that is less demanding than skate skiing, and it tends to require less balance on downhills or uneven terrain. The technique is also easier to learn, but be wary: like all forms of skiing, it can take a lifetime to master the minutiae.


Like the name implies, skate skiing features a skating motion from side to side. It’s a faster and more dynamic form of the sport, and that means it demands better form. In short, classic skiing is more forgiving on beginners with poor form, while skate skiing can be absolutely exhausting.

Think Nordic and alpine skiing might as well be the same thing, only with slightly different gear? Think again.

For starters, Nordic skiing — also known as cross-country skiing — can be more demanding than its downhill cousin. It starts with the terrain: Nordic tracks take skiers up, down and back up mountains, literally, and that puts a strain on cardio and muscular strength. Nordic technique is also much different than alpine technique, beginning with free-heeled boots and stretching all the way to how your poles and skis work in unison.

But, oh, the joys of a serene morning at a Nordic center when the slopes are slammed and tickets cost more than your mortgage. Summit County is home to four Nordic centers, one at every corner of the county, and all have a collection of greens, blues and blacks. Tickets are no more than $25 per day and gear rentals are just as affordable, with lessons offered throughout the winter season.

But where to begin? We asked local Nordic ski coaches for the most common mistakes newbies make, plus how to fix them on the fly.

Mistake No. 1 | Picking the skinniest, lightest gear around

It’s no secret that Nordic skiing is a workout.

“I love to see newbies on the trail, but sometimes you wonder if they’re being thrown to the wolves,” said Whitney Hedberg, a coach with Summit Nordic Ski Club. “It’s a great sport and a great thing to do, but a lot of times I see people who just aren’t prepared.”

Like any winter sport, being prepared begins with your gear. In general, classic and skate skis are the most common varieties, and both are skinnier than alpine models. Many beginners struggle with balance, Hedberg says, and so she recommends asking the shop assistant for a “backcountry Nordic” setup, as opposed to a race setup. The skis are wider and the boots are stiffer, meaning more room for error when learning technique. The gear tends to be heavier, but “all Nordic equipment is light enough,” she says.

Mistake No. 2 | Wearing your alpine gear to the Nordic track

But what should you wear? Hedberg’s answer: less than you think. Because Nordic skiing is heavy on cardio, even small hills will warm you up better than the hottest fire. She often sees beginners on both ends of the spectrum: some are dressed head-to-toe in thick, bulky alpine gear, while others arrive in just jeans or tights.

“It’s important to dress in layers,” Hedberg said. “If you’re too hot or wet, you’re going to be miserable out there.”

For outerwear, that means windproof (but breathable) pants and jacket, with thermals and other base or mid-layers beneath. Strip them off when you get warm and put them back on when you’re chilly. Waterproof gloves are another must, as is a beanie, headband or earmuffs. A facemask is never a bad idea, either.

Mistake No. 3 | Becoming your own teacher

Nordic skiing might look and even feel like walking, but don’t call a dog a duck because its wearing a bill. If you want to make the most of your time on the track, start with an intro lesson at a local Nordic center. You don’t need to return time and again, Hedberg says, but she believes it’s much easier to learn with a qualified instructor than trying to figure it out on your own.

“I think it is super important, if you’re serious about learning, to take a lesson,” Hedberg said. “It’s not like you need a series — I think a single lesson will give you the base you need to have fun.”

Mistake No. 4 | Shuffling with both feet

When Hedberg first teaches new Nordic athletes, she repeats one line: “Skiing is a one-legged sport.” It sounds counterintuitive, she admits, but it’s key to efficiency on the Nordic track.

So what exactly does she mean? Most beginners don’t commit fully to gliding on a single ski, and instead revert to typical alpine technique, where both skis stay on the ground most of the time. With Nordic, though, your power comes from placing weight over one ski, like a skater on ice. It’s the graceful gliding motion so common with expert skiers, and it’s the first technique newbies need to master.

“We say that to the kids constantly: skiing is a one-legged sport,” Hedberg said. “If you’re willing to balance — if you’re willing to commit — you will build good habits that stay with you forever.”

The lone exception: double poling, a classic Nordic technique where both skis stay in a double-track.

Mistake No. 5 | Overloading your upper body

This also relates to proper technique. When newcomers don’t rely on their glide, they tend to use their arms and poles for speed. It’s also a quick way to cheat through uphills and flats. But this shortcut can be exhausting, Hedberg says, and it’s just bad form.

The remedy begins with different “gears,” or techniques, for all types of terrain. Nordic skiers use different pushing, gliding and poling motions for uphills, flats and downhills, and finding the right mix of them all is a must. Nothing beats a lesson for learning and fine-tuning these techniques.

“Changing your technique based on the terrain makes an enormous difference when you’re skiing,” Hedberg said. “This helps you use different parts of your body to ski. It’s like trying to drive a car in first gear all the time — it just doesn’t work.”

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