"For building endurance, [cross-country skiing] is one of the best sports you can do," says Stephen Olvey, MD, an associate professor of clinical neurological surgery at the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine. It also burns more calories than almost any other activity.
Cross-country skiing is an aerobic sport. That means you move nonstop for an extended period of time while your heart pumps oxygen to your muscles, providing them with energy. "It is about grinding it out over the long haul with no help from gravity," Olvey says.
The muscles strengthened while you cross-country ski vary with your skiing style. But they typically include the thigh muscles, gluteus maximus (bottom), gastrocnemius (calves), and biceps and triceps (front and back of the upper arm).
In terms of calories, a 150-pound person burns about 500 to 640 calories per hour while cross-country skiing, depending on the effort level.
Here are Olvey's tips for getting started:
Don't overdo it. Be conservative in how long you plan to ski.
Prepare yourself ahead of time by using an elliptical trainer to avoid muscle strain.
Bring fluids and snacks, especially if you're heading to a remote area.
Wear layers of clothing that keep you warm and allow for easy movement.
Be safe. Let someone know where you will be and when you expect to return. "It wouldn’t take long to become hypothermic," Olvey says.
In contrast to cross-country skiing, downhill skiing takes shorter bursts of energy; most ski runs last about two to three minutes, Olvey says.
The muscle groups used in downhill skiing are the "prime movers," including the hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, hip, and feet muscles. To a lesser degree, you'll also use your abdominal muscles for control and strengthen your arms by using poles.
Downhill skiing is a power sport that improves balance, flexibility, agility, and leg and core strength, Olvey says. Snow skiing also doesn’t stress the back muscles like water skiing does.
Someone weighing 150 pounds burns about 360 to 570 calories per hour while downhill skiing.
Olvey advises beginners to avoid altitudes that are too high because of the possibility of altitude sickness. Most resorts don’t allow people above about 11,000 feet. It's best to go up gradually and get acclimated. Signs of altitude sickness include a headache, muscle aches, inappropriate shortness of breath, and inability to reason normally.
Olvey also urges people to watch out for fatigue. A large percentage of injuries happen later in the day when someone goes for that "one last run" and ends up breaking an ankle. And make sure you drink enough fluids even though it is cold and you may not feel thirsty.