Your Health

Trail time

Cross-country skiing is becoming increasingly popular with young families looking for an inexpensive and healthy way to spend time outdoors during the winter

Deidre Zebrowski (left), with children, Rowan and Torin, and, dad, Kenton Frith
Deidre Zebrowski (left), with children, Rowan and Torin, and, dad, Kenton Frith.
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Cross-country skiing in Winnipeg

Getting started

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Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, January / February 2015

Kristin Madsen can feel the joy as soon as she clicks into her cross-country skis.

"There's nothing better than going out in the bush when it's quiet and there's snow on the trees," says the busy mother of two young girls.

"When you're outside in the sun, it makes you feel good. It's cold here for six months a year, so you might as well have fun."

Having fun for Madsen means hitting the trails at the Windsor Park Nordic Centre as often as five times a week, and twice more with her daughters Kaitlyn, six, and Sarah, eight.

"The girls are extremely active. That's why we ski - to tire them out," Madsen says as she laughs. "Skiing gets them outside and gets them moving. Kids need to move. This models an active lifestyle for my girls that I hope they continue."

Madsen's enthusiasm for the sport is not unique. Cross-country skiing (sometimes called Nordic skiing) is rising in popularity, particularly among young families who are looking for an inexpensive and healthy way to enjoy Manitoba's outdoors, says Karin McSherry, Executive Director of the Cross Country Ski Association of Manitoba (CCSAM). In the last ten years, the CCSAM membership has jumped from 950 to 2,000 members. The number of day passes and season passes sold at the Windsor Park Nordic Centre, located at 10 Rue des Meurons, on the site of the Windsor Park Golf Course, have also increased over the last 10 years, from 5,300 and 188 to 6,300 and 401, respectively.

"In the last five years, I've noticed more and more people are getting into it, says McSherry. "Club memberships are increasing. Lots of families are going out together. We're filled to capacity in the building on a warm week or a pleasant evening."

One reason for the popularity of cross-country skiing is that it is relatively inexpensive to get started. The equipment can be rented for as little as $10 at various ski clubs across the province, and many of the trails are free to use or have minimal fees. It's also relatively easy to learn.

"Lessons aren't absolutely necessary, but they are affordable and well worth the time and expense. Group and private lessons are available from professional instructors [certified by the Canadian Association of Nordic Ski Instructors (CANSI)] at Windsor Park Nordic Centre. Or you can contact us to arrange CANSI instruction at your local ski facility or club," says McSherry.

Many of the local ski clubs at the Windsor Park Nordic Centre run Jackrabbit programs to help introduce young children to the sport. As a result, more youngsters are hitting the trails, says Kenton Frith, a volunteer coach for the Jackrabbits program run by the Red River Nordic ski club.

"It's a wonderful program that teaches young people how to ski by keeping it fun. We play lots and lots of games," he says of the course, which originally started in Winnipeg and is now available nationwide.

"The big attraction to skiing is that we can go out together as a family," he says. "One of the great things about Jackrabbits is that the parents are encouraged to participate."

Frith's eight-year-old daughter, Rowan, enjoys Jackrabbits because it's an opportunity to spend time with her friends and stay active on the weekends. As she explains, many kids have become used to spending their winter days playing video games. "But as soon as you start skiing, it's addictive. It's lots of fun."

Racing and competitive streams are also available for children who'd like to put their skills to the test. That includes Torin Frith, 12, who started cross-country skiing with his family when he was five years old.

But while he enjoys the competitive side of the sport - he competes in biathlons - he also loves that skiing gives him an opportunity to interact with nature.

"I look forward to skiing after school," he says. "It helps me get through the day. It's a great way to get exercise and I get to see nature sometimes. I've seen deer, squirrels, rabbits, the works. I was in one training camp where these birds would land on your hand, take a bite of your ham sandwich and fly away. One or two landed on people's heads."

Torin and Rowan's mother, Deirdre Zebrowski, says cross-country skiing keeps her from going stir-crazy during the long, dark winter.

"It's great to have a reason to get outside. In the winter, we have a tendency to hunker down and not be as active, but we all feel a bit better when we manage to get time outside," she says. "This is something you can do in an urban environment, and you can do it at night because the trails are often lighted."

For Douglas Smith and his wife, Lin- P'ing Choo-Smith, skiing is very much a family affair. They enrolled their children in the Jackrabbit program when both were quite young. Now, 12-year-old Meaghan skis five days a week, while her 14-yearold brother, Lucas, takes to the trails almost every day. "There's something about skiing itself that's beautiful - it's an art form," says Smith as he explains his attraction to the sport. "When you crosscountry ski, you get to have a beautiful experience in the wintertime that you wouldn't ordinarily have."

Smith says his kids naturally gravitated to the trails. "And that's great, because we can all join in. You see ages from four to 90 out there on the trails - it's pretty amazing. It's kind of addictive because you keep wanting to get better," he says.

While Meaghan says she loves the skiing community most, her brother Lucas says he enjoys the stress release that comes with a few hours on the trails. "I feel refreshed after skiing. I vent off some steam and get rid of some energy," he says. "It's a great way to live a healthy lifestyle."

Cross-country skiing can be a great way to interact with friends and meet new people. Beth Barton's 11-year-old daughter, Boadicea, is an avid skier with the Assiniboine Park Jackrabbits Club, where she helps coach the younger children.

"Boadicea first started skiing with her grandpa (at age four) because she was bored in the winter, but we've introduced her friends and her friends' parents to skiing as well," Barton says. "The kids are really wonderful when they ski together. They're very supportive of each other."

Boadicea's grandfather, Brian Barton, is a member of the Canadian Ski Patrol System, which provides first aid at various cross country and downhill ski venues. He patrols Wednesday night races at Windsor Park.

"I don't think people realize how organized cross-country skiing is in Manitoba," he says. "There are enough cross-country courses in Manitoba from easy to difficult to meet the needs of a majority of skiers. It's a wonderful sport. It's an individual exercise. You don't need to join a team or belong to a club. You can find a track, put on your skis, and go. That's the beauty of it."

Manitoba's ski community is an inclusive group that's very welcoming to beginners and new members, says Madsen. "Skiers are a happy bunch. They're the most positive, upbeat group of people you'll ever meet. It takes a certain craziness to say, 'Hey, it's only 25 below. Let's go for a ski.'"

Not only is cross-country skiing fun, it is also one of the most effective cardio and strength-building workouts you can do, says Dr. Lawrence Elliott, Medical Director of Population and Public Health with the Winnipeg Health Region.

"The biggest benefit of cross-country skiing compared to other forms of exercise is that it's a full-body exercise. It uses muscles from head to toe. You don't even realize you're using core muscles and all the little muscles that help with balance."

Recreational cross-country skiing burns 400 to 600 calories an hour on average. Racing can burn 800 to 1,000 calories an hour.

"Anything that raises your heart rate a little bit is great for your cardiovascular system. Just increasing your heart rate by 20 per cent or so has benefits," Elliott says. "It feels easier than high-impact sports so you can do it longer, but it gradually builds up muscle mass."

Participating in the sport can also ease the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and depression, he adds. SAD is a type of depression that's related to changes in the seasons. It can result in mood swings and a general lack of energy.

"Winter is a tough time because of the tendency to just stay indoors and become depressed. Studies have shown that cross-country skiing is one of those sports that triggers the endorphin-releasing brain chemicals that are associated with feeling better and feeling happy," says Elliott. "Cross-country skiing imparts a feeling of well-being, relaxation, and self-esteem. The glow carries on after your session."

The social aspect of cross-country skiing provides plenty of mental and emotional benefits, he says.

"For kids it's a fun activity that can be very social. They can develop skiing skills without even realizing they're learning. Cross-country skiing can be quite a social activity. People like to do it in groups."

Long-term studies from Scandinavia have shown a link between cross-country skiing and a higher life expectancy, he adds.

"It can put more life in your years and more years in your life. People who start to ski when they're younger can continue to do it well into their senior years."

Jim Ballendine, 77, began crosscountry skiing when he was 46, after a back injury forced him to stop playing competitive squash. His daughter had aspirations of being on the provincial ski team, and convinced him to compete in a 30K race with her.

"It was different. Very challenging, but I was hooked. I started winning races for my age group and I picked it up quickly," he says. "I can't just ski slow. I have to really work at it and have a goal."

Now Ballendine competes in traditional and skate-skiing races held across Canada and the United States. He's participated in the American Worldloppet race 13 times. He's also a Level 2 ski instructor at the Windsor Park Nordic Centre.

"I do most of the local races. It's challenging and competitive. You're really competing against yourself in many ways. You don't know how you placed in your age group until the end," he says. "A lot of people at the club say they want to ski like me when they're older."

Ballendine is so passionate about cross-country skiing that he trains all summer with mountain and road cycling and strength training. He begins roller-skiing each fall to prepare for competition.

"After awhile, training and being fit become a way of life. When I don't work out, I just don't feel right," he says. "My wife worries that I'm doing too much, but my doctor says I'm doing great. If I quit, I'd be like an old engine. I'd just seize up."

Holli Moncrieff is a Winnipeg writer.

Wave: January / February 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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