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Revelations of a Winter Cross Trainer (Guest Post)

Snowy woods

It’s winter here in New England (finally), which means cold temperatures along with the requisite ice and snow.  For cyclists like me, this means one thing:  time for winter cross-training!  Sam blogged about the challenges and opportunities of winter workouts recently (see Seven winter cycling options and On pacing yourself post holidays), and with last season’s purchases of snowshoes and cross-country skis I’ve tried to relax into the shifts of cadence, discovery of new sore muscles, and the pleasures of moving my body in different ways.

With all this in mind, I headed to the snowy woods of Maine and New Hampshire last week with my boyfriend Dan and his kids for an after-Christmas cross-country ski trip.  The first day brought 4 inches of fluffy new snow, which was a treat (and welcome after recent melting and icing over of trails).  The second day, I focused on improving my technique by taking two cross-country ski lessons—a refresher one in the morning, then another in the afternoon to work on hills (going up and going down).  The third day, Dan and I explored a frozen lake on skis, and when we were not busy dodging kids on snowmobiles, we glided over snow and ice, checking out the quiet coves (hallelujah that those kids had to go refuel…).

Okay—so far this is a nice (if rather ho-hum) story of one woman’s ski vacation.  But what was definitely not ho-hum was what I learned about myself, sports culture, and the folk physics of movement in the course of 3 days of physical activity outside my comfort and expertise zones.  Herewith I turn to a few revelations about winter cross training that I found surprising or useful.

1) Doing any sport at all requires at least this one thing:  RELAX.  And you need to relearn this with any new sport.

From cycling, I know the importance of releasing tension in the body:  for instance, road riding efficiently uphill requires sitting up and back a bit on the saddle, opening up your chest so you breathe better, and allowing your hams and glutes to do their work.  Going downhill on a mountain bike, you need to stay off of and behind the saddle, loose and relaxed—it lets the front wheel float over obstacles and balances the bike.

After 2 cross-country lessons, I learned the same lesson all over again about skiing:  in order to turn, stop, go up or downhill, I have to relax and let the big body muscles do their jobs.  Who knew that, in order to apply pressure to the big toe for turning your ski, you had to relax from the hips?  Relaxation is a universal principle, but it feels different in each physical context.  Discovering what that means in cross-country skiing is fascinating, challenging and satisfying.

ski fashions in action

2) Every sport has its specific fashion and gear conventions.

I have a lot of cycling gear.  I mean A LOT.  For instance, I have a pair of gloves for every increment of 10 degrees Farenheit from 70 down to about 20.  And so on.  So when this trip came up, I pulled out cycling jackets, gloves, glove liners, wind pants, headbands, hats, and my camelback to carry water and snacks, confident that I had everything I needed.  And I did—but it wasn’t cross-country specific.  On the trails, I found out that cross-country skiers mostly wear fanny packs (which in fact makes more sense—easier access), and lighter gloves (I switched at lunch).  Also, as a relative outsider, it was amusing to see the Swix-brand fashion parade.  Having some distance and lack of intimacy with those conventions gives me some perspective on those of my own primary sport, and maybe even some motivation to resist some of the sillier fashion dictates (do I really have to wear my glasses OUTSIDE the helmet straps all the time?).

3) Changing sports shifts your place and increases your awareness of sports participant pecking orders.

As a cyclist, I’m well aware of the implicit coolness hierarchies of participants of my sport.  These hierarchies are determined in part by speed, observed technique (for instance, pedaling cadence—higher cadence usually denotes a more experienced cyclist), clothing, and what brand and model of bike you are riding.  Of course, so-called coolness is contextual and varies among different sports subcultures—what is hipster-cool is not old-school-cool or racer-cool.  Pecking orders exist in every sport, and we get used to occupying those spaces, along with the perks and burdens that come with them.  One feature of road cyclist pecking orders is that some cyclists don’t acknowledge some others on bikes when they encounter them on the road.  Of course it’s not always safe to make eye contact, wave or say hi to another person on the road, but it seems polite to do so in general, regardless of what sort of bike that person is riding, or how fast that person is going.

On any metric I am near the bottom of the cross-country skiing hierarchy; I own my equipment, but my skis are back-country ones, not classic race or skate skis.  My technique is coming along, but I still bobble and stutter, and my poles aren’t always under the best regulation.  I stick to the flatter trails, occasionally trying some hills.  I’m having fun, so it’s all good.  However, I couldn’t help but notice the cross-country hierarchy in action, too.  In my lessons, the instructor was quick to point out which and in what ways skiers were more experienced by pointing out their gear, clothing and techniques (all for educational purposes), but it also felt humbling and familiar.

The stakes are very low here—this is not my job, and it’s not even my primary sport.  But it reminds me that pecking orders exert influences on all us athletes, and those influences aren’t all benign.  They can interfere with participation, improvement, and the joy that comes with moving your body in new and different ways.  Seeing this through a fresh perspective will, I hope help me be more aware of ways hierarchies can affect my physical activities, and also help me think about ways to steer clear of them. I’d much rather spend my time gliding about and enjoying the view…


8 thoughts on “Revelations of a Winter Cross Trainer (Guest Post)

  1. Excellent observations. I like your reflections on sport pecking order a lot. One thing that always comes to mind for me when I’m starry in is the thought that, if I stick with it I will gain experience and soon will not look and feel like a newbie. It’s kind of like travelling to a new place. At first it’s really unfamiliar and I get lost and need a map. And soon I know my way around. There’s something very cool about learning things for the first time–that ah ha moment when a lesson suddenly clicks. Anyway, great post. Sounds like you’re having fun. Thanks for guest posting.

    1. Hi Tracy– guest blogging is so much fun, and I thank y’all for the opportunity to do it. Your analogy with travel is apt. Another thing travel and new sports have in common for me is that, like you, I love getting familiar with a little area of a new place, so it feels like I belong there. I do this with sports, too– I have a favorite XC ski place where I have a season pass (and I mountain bike there in the summer, so I know it well), and just doing those routes many times increases confidence. On the bike we all have favorite routes that just feel so comfy and familiar. There are times for challenges and newness of the exotic, but developing comfort and familiarity have their place, too.

  2. This sounds (and looks) wonderful! I miss cross-country skiing (and living in a place where it is snowy).

    You talked about the social aspects of sports, especially with respect to gear. I think that’s a common deterrent to activity– what will I wear? and will I look like the other people? For what it’s worth, I wish that would go away altogether. In some sports there are benefits to grouping up according to skill level (like cycling) but clothing is not the same as skill, and the gear available to an athlete is often restricted by cost or size. Just something to think about…

    1. HI G– thanks for the comments. It’s really important to remember that sports-specific clothing is often ridiculously expensive, and much of it doesn’t come in sizes to fit everyone, especially considering that the average American woman is size 14. Terry, for instance, caters to women cyclists and carries a wide range of sizes and styles of cycling clothing, but of course wearing Terry bikewear puts you lower on the cycling coolness hierarchy…. 🙂 I say phooey to that– let a thousand flowers bloom (preferably on my jerseys and jackets even– I love me some colors!)


  3. Yes those internal sport hierarchies do exist, based on equipment type and performance,….or shall I say, perceived performance. I do have a lot of cycling clothing that I wear across for 4 different seasons. But still in the end, the total cost of cycling apparel, occasional bike maintenance and cost of 1 bike over 2-3 years is still so much lower the cost of buying, using and maintaining a car in 1 year for many people if they drive several times per week.

    1. HI Jean– thanks for your comments. Yes, even with spending a lot (for those of us who are lucky enough to be able to do so), cycling is cheaper than owning a car. And my ski instructor in New Hampshire doesn’t own a car– he skis places in winter and cycles in summer. That takes some commitment. I do bike commute when I can, and am always trying to create more biking habits for ordinary life. This blog and comments from readers like you are a help.

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