The options for aerobic exercise during the Canadian winter can seem grim: slipping and sliding along icy streets, pedalling nowhere under the fluorescent lights of the gym, and so on. But there's a better option, one that, recent research suggests, actually offers unique advantages compared to the alternatives. When it snows, why not make for the cross-country ski trails?
Researchers in Sweden and at Ball State University in Indiana assembled two remarkable groups of octogenarian men. All of the volunteers were healthy, lived independently and were capable of completing a vigorous exercise test to exhaustion. The difference was that one group was composed of lifelong cross-country skiers who trained four to six times a week, while the other group didn't do any formal exercise beyond the activities of daily living.
It's not difficult to predict the punchline here: The skiers were in better shape than the non-skiers. But the magnitude of the differences is jaw-dropping. The results of a battery of physical tests, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Physiology, show that the skiers had approximately twice the cardiovascular and muscular fitness of the untrained group.
Even compared to previous studies of lifelong endurance athletes in their 80s, the skiers were about 40-per-cent fitter, suggesting that the full-body workout provided by cross-country skiing is uniquely effective. In fact, their fitness "places them in the lowest all-cause mortality risk category for men of any age," the researchers point out.
The results are consistent with earlier studies of cross-country skiers: An analysis of 73,000 men and women who participated over a 10-year period in Vasaloppet, an annual long-distance race series in Sweden, found that they were less than half as likely to die during the follow-up period as matched controls from the general population.
In contrast, the untrained subjects, despite being blessed with remarkable health, were perilously close to the "prognostic exercise capacity" that's associated with an inability to live independently. The message: Good genes can help you live a long life, but if you want to fully enjoy those later years, go skiing.
Use your arms
One of the big differences between cross-country skiing and other forms of endurance exercise, like running and cycling, is that your upper body plays a big role. How big? A forthcoming study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports offers some clues.
Researchers tested a group of 16 elite Norwegian skiers, half of the group male and the other half female, in four different exercise protocols, each requiring different levels of upper-body contribution. The most arm-intensive activity was double-poling, where the propulsion is provided entirely by the arms. Next was "G3 skating," the freestyle technique in which skiers double pole with every stride. Then came the classic skiing style, with skis kept parallel. And the final exercise was running, which doesn't use the arms at all for forward motion.
The goal of the study was to understand how the male skiers' greater upper-body strength would affect performance in the different techniques. Sure enough, the men were comparatively better in the most arm-dependent tasks: They were 20-per-cent faster at double-poling, 17-per-cent faster at skating, 14-per-cent faster at classic style, and just 12-per-cent faster while running.
The results suggest that you should vary your technique on different types of terrain in order to maximize your full-body workout. In particular, include some double-poling – particularly on long, gradual downhills, where it's tempting to just coast.
The occasional steep uphill on a cross-country course is a necessary evil. (How else do you earn the downhill that follows?) You can turn your skis perpendicular to the hill and side-step your way up, or even take your skis right off. But the quickest solution – like pulling a band-aid off – is to angle your skis slightly outward and herringbone up at top speed.
Clambering up a hill in this style is like a miniature sprint, and it will send your heart rate shooting upward. That's a good thing: Over the past few years, researchers have shown that including some short bursts of intense activity in your workout can produce a much more effective and time-efficient workout.
It's possible to insert similar bursts into other types of workouts, like running or cardio machines at the gym, but a rolling cross-country ski loop integrates them naturally, since you'll slide backward if you don't keep pushing.
Of course, cross-country skiing isn't without drawbacks. For city-dwellers in particular, it can be difficult to find good trails, though temporary tracks blossom in many urban parks after a good snowfall.
More importantly, it's a strictly limited-time option. Come spring, you'll be back to your usual workout routines. So ski while you can.
Alex Hutchinson blogs about exercise research at sweatscience.runnersworld.com. His latest book is Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?