Classic vs Skate Cross-Country Skiing: What’s The Difference?

xc skiing

To the casual observer, cross-country (XC) skiing is composed of effortless smooth swooshing through bucolic forest trails. It’s meditative movement that warms the wandering soul.

But, do you want to get grumpy fast and burst that bucolic winter snow globe scene?

Try gathering up gear, hauling yourself to a Nordic ski center only to find out, once you get there, that you lack the right type of skis, boots, poles and technique for that venue.

What you thought would be giddy gliding cross-country adventure turns into a blustery scavenger hunt to find the proper equipment and someone who can get you up to speed on the differences between skiing cross-country classic and skate styles.

Or, you can by-pass that whole drama and discover the similarities and differences between two major types of Nordic, or Cross-Country Ski styles right here.

Movement Differences

While both classic and skate styles are used by competitive cross country skiers and both start off with a glide, they differ in many ways. Most stock video you see of XC skiing demonstrates classic style.

Classic is much like jogging or walking. You use a natural gate with your arm swing, and thus your poles, moving opposite your feet.

In other words, your right leg and left arm swing forward as your left leg and right arm are back and vice versa. In contrast, skate skiing requires you to put both poles down at once.

The major movement difference, though, is the way you place your feet, position your skis, and “kick,” or push-off.

Classic skiing calls on parallel foot placement in ready-made groomed tracks. The action in classic skiing relies on a kick that stems from traction on the bottom of the classic cross country ski.

The traction can be from sticky material on the grip zone or texture. But, the idea is that you generate movement by rolling through your forefoot like you do when you walk.

There is a very brief moment when you’re going through that motion when you push down and back on the grip zone of your ski to propel your glide forward.

Skate skiing, in contrast, is done on courses that are not groomed for classic skiing. Instead of parallel, you place your skis in a “V” with the tips (front of your skis) wide, and the tails (back of your skis) narrow.

If you have ever watched someone roller blade or ice skate, the technique is similar. There is no brief point in skate skiing where your foot bears into a grip zone to push.

Instead, the “V” shape requires you to use the inside edge of your ski, and thus your foot, to propel forward. Your legs kick slightly out and back instead of just straight back.

If you tried to do this in the ruts of a groomed classic ski course, you’d be frustrated and fighting the linear grooves.

Skill Level Differences

Classic cross country skiing is generally more accessible to the average person than skate skiing. It’s easier to balance in ready-made grooves on courses.

And you don’t have to balance on one leg as long while classic skiing as opposed to skate skiing.

In addition, classic skiing requires less ankle strength, involves more commonly used foot muscles and joint range of motion, and necessitates less complicated hip action than skate skiing.

From a cardiovascular perspective, skate skiing often feels more difficult than classic skiing, which is another reason why many snow lovers find classic skiing more do-able.

However, once you get past the steep learning curve and master skate ski form, it’s faster than classical skiing and, potentially, more efficient.

It’s not that you can’t start with skate skiing. You can!

But, most people don’t because of the coordination, balance and stamina it requires.

However, which style you take-on might not be entirely up to you. 

Equipment Differences

In addition to general fitness and skill, two of the most important determinants of whether you can comfortably cross country ski in the classic style or skate ski are the type of equipment and courses that are available to you.

As stated earlier, classic cross country is done on groomed tracks. These are quite common. Skate skiing is not done on groomed tracks.

In addition, the two different styles require specific equipment.

It might look like, upon initial glance, that all cross country skiers are equipped the same way with matching skis, poles, boots, and bindings.

But if you look closely as they zip by, you will see their get-ups are quite different from shoulder to toe.

Classic skiing calls for long, skinny skis that have a grip zone.

Skate skis are shorter and wider than classic cross country skis. They don’t have a glide zone or sticky part on the bottom.

Skate skis are quite rigid.

Poles for classic skiing are shorter than those used for skate skiing, often coming up to shoulder height. Skate ski poles can reach as high as your nose.

In addition, skate skiers tend to use boots that have more ankle support than those used in classic skiing.

Different boot styles and skiing dynamics also mean different bindings are needed to match the ski and boot styles.

Final Word

Know the differences, but don’t let the details overwhelm you.

If you like to ski or if you’re learning and want to milk the most out of the outdoor winter sport, both techniques are worth learning.

The good news is, you can try before you buy. It’s usually possible to rent skis and associated equipment that meshes with the trails and techniques you want to explore.

Check out resorts and nearby ski shops for equipment package rates and, if you can, reserve equipment before leaving home. Ask questions.

If there are lessons available, take them.

Enthusiastic skiers like to talk about their passion and can be a spectacular source when it comes to understanding what you need to improve your skills and how to get the most out of equipment.

Knowledge is power when it comes to powder!

image: Deposit Photos

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