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Snowshoeing and X-Country Skiing
Cool Alternatives for a Hot Winter Workout

By Debra Melani - Rocky Mountain News

Tired of the pungent aroma of overused locker rooms? Ready to leave sweaty exercise machines and lines of impatient exercisers behind?

Snowshoe and cross-country ski lovers say their sports promise calorie-burning workouts in fresh air and solitude.

"As far as a total-body workout, I think cross-country skiing is pretty phenomenal," said DeAnn Wieber, outdoor activities coordinator for the Colorado Athletic Club in the Denver area.

Experts consistently rank snow sports above popular Spinning and aerobics classes as fitness-promoting exercise. Click here to compare the calories burned in aerobic health club activities and cross country skiing and snowshoeing.

In addition to fighting the winter bulge, both sports are low- impact, offer workout versatility, are relatively low-cost and can provide a social outlet.

"For most people, when wintertime comes around, their activity slows down or even stops," said Kenneth Moulaison, a trainer with RR Personal Training in Littleton.

Most snow-sport enthusiasts admit that cold weather is a primary pitfall. Yet it is generally easy to overcome, they say.

"It's amazing how quickly you heat up doing either activity," said Terri Nelson, athletic director for the Denver Athletic Club and an avid cross-country skier and snowshoer.

"It can be brutally cold out, so cold it's uncomfortable for walking or downhill skiing, and these exercises increase the blood flow so quickly you warm up instantly," Nelson said.

Especially with snowshoeing, where leg muscles burn going down- and uphill, there is not enough of a reprieve to notice the "cooling effect" a skier feels on a chairlift ride, for instance, Nelson said.

Cold weather and high altitude can add to the intensity of the workout, which can be a good thing for calorie burning. But the environment is something newcomers should keep in mind, Wieber said.

"It takes so much more out of you," said Wieber, who assesses clients' outdoor experience before taking them on outings. "Your body is going to be burning some more calories trying to stay warm."

And the sports are already intense.

"I like cross-country skiing for a steady, sustained cardiovascular workout," Nelson said. "And then the downhill is so much fun."

Cross-country's constant upper- and lower-body motion makes it a prime total-body workout with little impact on weary joints, Moulaison said.

Snow provides a joint-friendly cushion for both sports, although snowshoeing, which often involves high stepping, can create a little more impact.

"With cross-country, your feet never leave the ground," Moulaison said.

To reduce stress on the knees while including the upper body in the cardiovascular workout of snowshoeing, Angela Tharnish recommends poles. An explorer who gravitates toward steep, rocky terrain, Tharnish said poles also help prevent falls.

"It's easy to lose your balance and fall over," said Tharnish, a trainer with RR Personal Training. And in knee-deep snow, it's not always easy to get up, she said.

The two snow sports provide a versatile workout that can be as hard or easy as an exerciser wants it to be, Tharnish said.

Choosing relatively flat courses or the groomed trails of Nordic centers can ease the workout and serve as a family outing. Opting for varied terrain with steep hills can provide a tough, random- interval workout, Moulaison said.

Heading to the backcountry after a fresh snow can bump up calorie consumption even more, Wieber said.

"I like to get off the beaten path," she said. "When you are blazing a trail, especially with skis, it takes a little more energy."

No one should venture into the backcountry without training in avalanche safety and outdoor preparedness, experts warn. Either check neighborhood outdoor stores for seminars or stay on public trails, which is what Nelson does.

"To me, it's not worth the risk," she said.

Wieber, a Wisconsin native who traded cross-country skiing for snowshoeing when she moved to Colorado, uses the sport for intense interval training by alternating running and walking on snowshoe outings. Snowshoe manufacturers today use lightweight aluminum and offer aerobic models.

"It's extremely intense," Wieber said. "If you've never run on snowshoes, I wouldn't recommend jumping right into it."

Before taking on cross-country skiing or snowshoeing as a sport, Wieber recommends summer exercise in the mountains to condition.

Exercise machines that mimic cross-country skiing can be used for training, and high-stepping or long-striding in a pool or walking in the back yard in snowshoes can help with conditioning for snowshoeing, Tharnish said. Leg exercises, such as lunges, also are recommended.

Experts suggest newcomers to mountain sports begin with snowshoeing, because the learning curve is much lower.

"If you can walk, you can snowshoe," said Nelson, who took up the sport to train for summer mountain-bike racing.

Warm clothing (avoid cotton, dress in layers), hiking boots and snowshoes are all the sport requires. Snowshoes run $100 and up or can be rented for about $10 a day.

Cross-country ski equipment costs $200 to $300, and a lesson would not be a bad idea, experts say.

Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing also serve as peaceful escapes for those who like to break away. "You can think about as little or as much as you want," Nelson said.

The outings also can be great social activities, because friends tend to gather, skiing or snowshoeing, at the same pace, Wieber said. "Then you stop for lunch at 11,500 feet, and there's really nothing quite like it."

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