Classic vs Skate – Cross Country Ski Technique

Classic vs Skate

Closeup image of legs of skate skier and legs of classic skier

Check out the new Guide to Getting Started to Getting Started in Classic and Skate Skiing for more info.

Summary: Are you new to cross-country skiing and can’t decide whether to learn classic, skate or both?

First thing to determine is whether you have access to trails that are groomed for both skate and classic. Not all nordic areas have skate trails.

Once you’ve got that figured out, the next most important question is, “Which looks like the most fun to you?”

There are pros and cons to getting started with each technique, but in my opinion, the most important factor is “What appeals to you the most?”

One of the first questions to ask yourself when getting started in nordic skiing is do you want to skate or classic ski? Or perhaps learn both at the same time?

In diagonal stride (a classic ski technique) your arms and legs swing in opposition, which is a very natural human movement.

Diagonal Stride is not “walking on skis”. It’s closer to “running on skis with a glide”; but really it’s something quite different from either running or walking.

The reason classic skiing is considered an easier point of entry isn’t because classic skiing is technically easier, it’s because beginners can “just walk on their skis” and have a good time.

We agree that classic skiing is easier to enjoy when you lack skill and efficiency, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best point of entry for you.

Here are some questions to think about:

Where Will You Ski?

You can classic ski on groomed and track-set snow at nordic areas or on un-groomed snow in the backcountry. For skate skiing, you must have access to groomed snow.

(Crust skiing is a rare exception to this rule and only happens when the top layer of the snow melts or gets very wet, then freezes over.)

Classic skiing has subcategories such as

  • Back-country skiing,
  • Touring, and
  • Telemarking.

The category of classic skiing we cover on this website is competition-style nordic skiing. It’s fast, technical and athletic. It’s what you see at the Winter Olympics in the cross-country skiing, biathlon and nordic combined events.

People who think classic skiing is “boring” haven’t been introduced to this style of skiing and think classic skiing is as simple as “walking on skis”.

Each subcategory of classic skiing requires different gear. On groomed and track-set snow you can use skinny race skis. In the backcountry you need wide, metal-edged skis and heavy-duty boots and bindings. Touring gear is somewhere in between.

There are no “subcategories” of skate skiing because it can’t be done off-piste. Because there aren’t “subcategories” of skate skiing there aren’t subcategories of skate gear.

Even if you don’t want to race, you still want to buy the best “race” skate skis you can afford. They will be easier to handle than cheaper models, so long as you get the proper fit. (Our buying advice. Check the comments in that article for dissenting opinions.)

Not all Nordic ski areas groom for both skate and classic skiing. If they only do one, it will likely be classic.

Want a Bike Analogy?

If you like, you can think of backcountry skiing or touring as “mountain biking” and skiing on groomed trails as “road biking”. In this analogy, both performance classic and skate skiing are road biking because they’re performed on a smooth, “man-made” surface.

But you could also make this argument: skate and race-style classic skiing are technical and require upper and lower body fitness and coordination. From that point of view, they’re more like mountain biking.

But no matter how you think about it, cross-country skiing is more fun than spending the winter in your basement on a bike trainer.

Which is Easier? Which is a Better Workout?

When you’re just getting started you’ll be an inefficient skier. I know it’s hard to believe, but technical efficiency makes an enormous difference to how fast you go and how hard you work. Cross-country skiing is an enormously technical sport.

Classic skiing is usually easier for beginners to enjoy. Most beginners find skate skiing is completely exhausting. So classic skiing is an easier point of entry into Nordic skiing, but not because it’s less technical than skate skiing.

Classic skiing is at least as technically difficult as skate asking. In fact most expert cross-country skiers will tell you that that classic skiing is technically more challenging than skate skiing. It’s just that classic skiing with poor technique is less exhausting than skate skiing with poor technique.

There’s a common perception that skate skiing is a “better workout”. We often meet people who chose skate skiing for this exact reason. Typically they have demanding jobs and limited time, and they see skate skiing as an efficient way to get a “killer” workout.

It’s probably true that skate skiing demands more anaerobic power, but the trend in both classic and skate skiing is towards strength, although nordic skiing is, of course, an endurance sport.

As you gain proficiency you can modulate your output in both skate and classic. Eventually you’ll develop your skill to the point that you can cover long distances on skate skis with a low output or get an intense workout on classic skis.

Last thing to mention here is that skate skiing is faster than classic skiing. If you love speed – chose skate skiing.

Does Fitness Matter?

Yes. Absolutely.

I’m sure you’ve already guessed this, but just to be clear: Classic skiing is easier for people who are less fit. Fit, athletic-types will have an easier time learning how to skate ski than their overweight, out of shape friends.

You can’t reach a high level of technical proficiency in classic or skate skiing skiing without great strength, balance, agility, etc.

Look at an outstanding skier and ask yourself, “Is she fit because she skis well, or does she ski well because she’s fit?”

The answer is yes. Nordic skiers develop a certain look because the sport demands amazing fitness and builds amazing fitness.

What About Wax?

I totally sympathize if you’re intimidated by ski waxing or you just don’t want the bother. But the issue of ski waxing shouldn’t play a role in your choice between skate and classic skiing.

You can avoid kick wax by buying waxless classic skis. But both classic skis and skate skis need glide wax. If you don’t want to bother with waxing, take your skis in occasionally for servicing at your local Nordic ski shop.

How Do Snow Conditions and Temperature Affect Skate and Classic Skiing?

Skate skiing is all about glide and classic skiing is about grip and glide. The grip and glide characteristics of snow change with changing temperatures and humidity.

Skate skiing is almost always more fun than classic in these conditions:

  • When there’s a little fresh snow and temperatures are near zero degrees. In these conditions your grip wax will have a tendency to ice up and form clumps that make it difficult to glide.
  • Temperatures are fluctuating widely and your kick wax stops working before you complete your outing. You have to stop and reapply wax.

Classic skiing is almost always more fun than skate skiing in these conditions:

  • When it’s very cold and your skis don’t glide well.
  • When there’s deep, fresh snow on the trails.

Can I Buy Cheaper Classic Skis?

I read this on a bike forum. The writer suggested buying classic skis at a garage sale or “finding some at the dump”, but investing in quality skate skis.

This is insane advice.

Whether you chose skate or classic skiing, the most important thing to do is get your skis fit by a professional. It’s essential to your enjoyment of the sport that you ski on quality gear that fits your weight and height. Selecting the right pair of skis is not a matter of finding skis that are the “correct” length. It’s more complex than that.

Can I Buy “Combi” Gear?

You can buy combi boots. It’s an OK way to get started, but don’t buy “combi” skis. There’s no such thing as “combi” poles because skate and classic ski poles are different lengths.

Read through our Gear guides to learn more.

I Skied Alpine. Will I be Awesome?

The time you spent time on skis will make it easier for you to learn how to cross-country ski. The fact that you know how to snowplow will really help you, but the fact that you feel confident going downhill on skis might hurt you.

Be very careful. I know that hill looks small, but your cross-country skis do not handle as easily as your downhill skis. Proceed with caution. I’ve seen over-confident downhill skiers get injured for this reason.

Related: What Alpine Skiers Need to Know About Nordic Downhills

The Bottom Line

Skate or classic skiing?

Choose whichever you find most appealing. Watch some videos and ask yourself which looks more fun. Don’t dismiss classic skiing as “boring”. You have that idea because you’ve seen so many people shuffling slowly along the trails. Performance classic skiing is fast, technical and dynamic.

There are excellent skiers who only classic and others who only skate, but the majority of serious skiers do both.

They enjoy having options when snow conditions are better for one or the other. They also like how skills cross-over between the two styles. And they like the variety.

You probably will too.


Guide to Getting Started in Cross-Country Skiing

Guide to Skate Skiing


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