The Triathlete's How-To Guide To Classic Skiing

Okay, let's pretend that my first very persuasive and beautifully crafted story convinced you that you need to start Nordic skiing immediately. You haven't slept since this last installment "dropped" (the kids on the Steamboat ski team made me say that). You've been filling every waking moment downloading videos from YouTube on Nordic ski technique, waxing and race tactics, but you know there is more exclusive SlowTwitch content on the way, so you've been eagerly yet patiently awaiting for your next instructions from the mother ship. Well, today is your lucky day. The mother ship has landed. Here we go.

Even if you did memorize each lovingly placed word in the first installment, printed it out and taped it to your mirror so it is the first thing you see each morning, I'm not done trying to convince you that you'll strengthen your 2016 triathlon season by training on snow this winter, because I'm not convinced that you are convinced. Add to this the fact that the first rule of endurance athletics is "If some is good, more is better," so I'm good to lead off today by bringing some more Olympic firepower to the party. In this first video, 2014 Winter Olympian Brian Gregg offers his perspective on why skiing can be an incredibly important part of a successful triathlon training plan.

Next, since again, ISIGMIB, pro skier Matt Liebsch, Brian's teammate and one of only two American men to win the American Birkebeiner in the past 7 years (America's premiere distance ski race, featuring over 12,000 racers), chimes in with his take on this topic.

As a quick aside, the only other US man to win the American Birkiebiner in the past 7 years is Tad Elliott. You may remember Tad from my last article and ironically, the photo in that article of Tad on top step of the podium is from the American Birkebeiner and on the podium with Tad are Matt and Brian, so trust me when I say that you're getting advice from some of the best in the business. You've likely heard the expression, 'from your lips to God's ears,' but this is even better, as it's 'from the Birkebeiner podium to your computer screen.'

I'm going to continue to assume that you like what you're hearing (reading), so now you're thinking, 'this all sounds great, but now what?' As usual, SlowTwitch has you covered: however, since I typed almost 1,500 words last week, there's no way in hell I can maintain that infernal pace, so I will continue to rely on the crutch of video clips for much of this story. Watch this clip, then ask yourself, 'what do you stand for?'

If you'd made it this far in this oddly meandering test of patience, I am guessing that you answered that you want to be 'good.' Good. VERY GOOD. In the world of Nordic skiing, this critical life question plays out in the choice of your preferred technique: skate or classic. Each have their own merits, each have their own drawbacks and each have their own gear. Since many onlookers believe my priorities are all quite backwards, let's roll with this and go in reverse order on that list, so we'll start with gear.

While skate skis and classic skis may not look all that different, trust me, they are, as Liebsch pointed out briefly earlier in his interview and this excellent video illustrates very clearly.

Now you're thinking, 'Okay, great, the skis are different, but what does all of this mean to me, the befuddled reader, in terms of which technique I should try?' Well, that question is a little harder to answer. Opinions vary on this topic, but in general, most experts agree that there is a touch more carryover from classic skiing to running and from skate skiing to cycling. Since this is Nordic skiing though, nothing is easy and I would not be doing this sport, this story, or you justice if I didn't make this issue more confusing. Nathan Schultz, owner of Boulder Nordic Sport, a shop specializing in helping triathletes transition into Nordic skiing (after all, they ARE located in Boulder) graciously offered to help muddy the waters, "Both techniques will help all aspects of triathlon: sometimes athletes will come in as very strong runners, so I'll get them started with skate to help them build a better base for their cycling. Other times however, athletes want to dive right in to Nordic racing, so they want to capitalize on their stronger sport to enable them to be more competitive right away. In this scenario, we start stronger runners with classic and stronger riders with skate. Both strategies work well, so it's really an individual decision depending on your goals for the winter."

Speaking of strategies that work well, in response to my first story, one very observant reader sent me this interview with Rasmus Henning in which Rasmus describes how he used skate skiing to take his racing to the next level. Another reader passed along an autobiographical piece from Dirk Bockel in which he revealed that he Nordic skis in the winter and I also received a very nice message from pro triathlete Kara LaPoint, who was a D1 Nordic skier in college and continues to use skiing to this day to further her summer racing. Still others pointed out that Canadian Olympic skier and World Champion Alex Harvey raced into the top 10 in Canadian mountain bike nationals and fellow Nordic coach David Smullin reminded us all that Greg Lemond and Davis Phinny also used Nordic skiing as integral parts of their winter programs.

Tad Elliott races bikes in the summer, yet he spends about 75% of his time on skis on classic, therein throwing the ol' skate <-> cycling axiom right out the window, "If you are brand new to Nordic skiing, I'd do classic," advised Elliott, "100% of classic technique translates into both skating and classic. If you learn classic first, you'll learn how to be a good skater, faster." Schultz offered another point of a view, "If you're going to do one, classic is probably a little easier to get going initially, but it has a much longer learning curve. Your first fews days skating will be nasty, but after a relatively short period of time, you'll be doing okay and you'll certainly be further along the continuum than with classic."

Probably the most salient point here is before you buy anything, take a good look around at your local facilities or primary area(s) of intended use: skate skiing requires a trail groomed specifically for skating. Strictly speaking classic does as well, but one big advantage of classic skiing is it can also be done on completely ungroomed backcountry terrain (note - this requires a slightly different type of classic ski than the ones shown in the earlier videos, so all the more reason to get this sorted out before you buy anything). Not to worry though, as you can get classic equipment that will work in both the backcountry and on groomed tracks, but you'll likely only want this if both of these two terrain options are in play, as this option requires a few sacrifices on each end of the spectrum (think buying a cross bike vs buying a mountain bike and a road bike - the cx bike will work most places but you're clearly making sacrifices. On the flip side, you're also only buying one bike.)

In the off-chance that all of these choices haven't confused you too severely and you have given up and gone back to researching optimal crank length for your femur/tibia ratio, let's carry on with the premise that you want to give classic a try. This first thing that you absolutely need to know is that picking classic skis is important - very important. Do it wrong and you'll be like Judge Smails with a severed hamstring. This next video gives you a quick overview on a few things to look for when picking classic skis, but please note - once you are ready to dive in to the deep end and take the gear plunge, do not just go to the Google machine and call the first shop that comes up, do yourself a favor and contact a qualified shop that specializes in Nordic skis (more on that in a minute).

Remember where we started with this too people, ISIGMIB, so many, if not most, skiers do both skate and classic technique. Not only does this allow you the opportunity to load the wrong set of poles and/or boots in your car when you leave your house in a hurry in the morning (color code them people, you heard it here first), but each technique compliments the other and doing both develops even more muscle balance, not to mention our ever-present goal of keeping things fun and fresh (I can't remember where I read that, but it was a damn good article (make this hot to the last article). I know, I know, you've only been thinking about skiing for all of 10 minutes now and now you need to buy TWO sets of gear? Well, let's come back to that later, but you've been warned.

Next, one of the central tenets of classic skiing is waxing - there are a few different wax-free options for classic, one of which may work for you, but certainly on the higher levels of the sport, kick-waxing is still the way to go. While there are many permutations to kick-waxing, it can actually be fairly simple for most temperature ranges and snow conditions.

Now you've got skis, you're waxed (hey, hey, take it easy, this is a family show) and the next question I hear a lot is, "What do I need to wear to be comfortable skiing?" Tad Elliott made the point in the first article that "skiing is warm," (make this hot) a statement that I'm sure confounded many, as isn't skiing done outside in the cold? Yes, but trust me, if you dress correctly you'll be warm and even if you completely blow it, you'll still be way warmer than if you were riding. In fact, the biggest mistake most beginners make is to wear too much gear. Here, two-time World Champion and three-time Olympian Kikkan Randall takes you through what the pros wear on a typical training day.

Whew - all right, we're getting close - now you know how to pick skis, you know how to wax, you know what to wear, so are me missing anything? Oh yes, how to actually do it. This is another area where it can take a very long time to get to the top level (like most worthwhile pursuits), but not to worry, the 80/20 rule applies well here and with a little patience and practice, you can be out getting the benefits of your new-found passion almost immediately. There are a few different techniques for propulsion in classic skiing, but the two major ones are known as "striding" and "double poling"

If you are at all serious about trying this, probably the most important thing you can do next is call an expert. I strongly recommend the shop shown earlier in this story Gear West or one of the two mentioned previously and in my first installment of this series, Boulder Nordic Sport or Caldwell Sport.

A quick note about about conflict of interest: I have none. I make these recommendations purely based on my own experiences: I receive no compensation whatsoever from any of the shops listed here and I am not affiliated with them in any way, shape or form other than being a customer. When I first embarked on my own person journey into hell as a skier, a very knowledgable Nordic coach in Steamboat told me, "If you are serious about this sport, get a good pair of skis. If you are serious about getting a good pair of skis, call either Nathan or Zac (from BNS and CS, respectively). So, despite having several local ski shops to choose from, I felt like most of them were more focused on alpine than Nordic, so I drove 4 hours in a pelting snow storm from Steamboat to Boulder to work with both Nathan and Zac (Zac has since moved back East and opened Caldwell Sport). I am glad I followed this advice and it has served me well, so I am paying it forward and passing it along to you, my adoring (and likely few remaining) readers. I've seen too many athletes go into generally good gear stores yet walk out with bad Nordic skis, which can be the beginning of the end. This is a sport with lots of options, variables and subtleties and getting off on the right foot can make the difference between a lifelong love affair and abject failure.

If you are a speed demon, Billy Demon(g), want to work on your cycling, want to harness the incredibly power of your cycling or are secretly laying plans to dominate the world of biathlon and/or Nordic combined (each of these Nordic sports only involve skate skiing), have no fear, as our next installment will be on how to get your skate ski game on. Check back on SlowTwitch next week and I'll continue to enlighten you on how to deplete your checking account at an even great rate while concurrently further cluttering your garage and annoying your SO who can barely make it to their car now without tripping over all of your other crap. You're welcome.

But, but, BUT ….don't head off to divorce court just yet, as you can score a sweet set of skate AND classic skis, boots and poles, all for less than just one set of aero wheels. So you've got that going for you, which is nice.