What is Nordic Skiing? Learn about the 3 main disciplines

by | Jan 16, 2023 | Skiing | 0 comments

In answering the question, “What is Nordic skiing?” there’s something you should know. Nordic skiing and cross-country skiing are not the same things.

What is cross-country vs nordic skiing?

Nordic skiing and cross-country skiing don’t share a relationship like alpine skiing and downhill skiing because one is a discipline of the other. That’s right, cross-country skiing is simply a discipline of Nordic skiing in the same way that downhill skiing is a discipline of alpine skiing.

What is Nordic Skiing and how can you try it?

Nordic vs Alpine Skiing

What is Nordic skiing? To better understand Nordic skiing, we need to look at how it’s different from alpine skiing. The key way Nordic skiing and alpine skiing are different is that they require different sets of equipment for the different terrains on which they take place.

Oftentimes, Alpine skiing is referred to as downhill skiing because the equipment is meant for a steep downhill slope. Since there is a bigger emphasis on control, alpine skiers use flat foot bindings. That is why the ski boots are affixed at the toe and heel in their ski bindings.

What is Nordic ski equipment and what’s different about it from other skiing equipment?

While alpine skiing focuses on security, Nordic skiing focuses on freedom. Because of this, the ski bindings attach at the toe on Nordic skiing equipment but not the heel. This gives you more freedom of movement but less control.

As you may have guessed from the name, Nordic skiing was created in the Nordic region. It was a way originally devised by Scandinavians to get across the snow, but it eventually became a recreational activity after centuries of development.

The three main disciplines of Nordic Skiing

Discipline One: Cross Country-Skiing

What is Nordic skiing without cross-country? Cross-country skiing remains the most popular discipline in Nordic skiing and its popularity led to the creation of subsets for the sport. Three subsets of cross-country skiing are classic, skate, and light touring. If you’re wondering what those mean, don’t worry–just keep reading below.

What is Classic Cross-Country Skiing?

Classic cross-country is the most popular form of cross-country skiing because it happens to be the easiest to pick up. This subset takes place on well-maintained tracks that allow you to glide without having to exert a lot of energy. It is simply alternating your ski poles while putting one foot in front of the other. Another way to frame it would be walking with skis on.

A couple using skate cross-country skis on a groomed trail.

Classic cross-country skis for this are made to be lightweight and narrow. This design not only helps with your freedom of movement, but it ensures the best possible experience on the tracks by helping you glide easier on the tightly-packed snow. Since you will be using these skis on groomed tracks, it is a great way to ease into and understand what is Nordic skiing.

What is Skate Skiing?

Skate skiing requires a bit more effort. The reason for the name is that the initial push-off to gain speed is just like ice skating. The difficulty is that you are moving on snow instead of ice so there is more resistance moving forward and the skate skiing technique requires more effort. You need to have smooth, tightly packed snow to practice this as any resistance can kill your forward momentum.

Skate skis for this tend to be a bit smaller than the classic equivalents. They are also designed to have more torsional resistance–a ski’s ability to resist twisting–to assist with your skiing. This helps prevent the skis from twisting and allows you to work less to gain more momentum.

What is Light Touring?

Light Touring is for those who are feeling a bit more adventurous and want to try going off the beaten path. This isn’t to say that you can just venture off into any kind of terrain, but you can still go off-path without having to stick to the tracks of well-groomed snow.

Light touring skis are designed to be a bit heavier and wider than those of the classic variety. This allows them to be steady enough to work on slightly rougher terrain. However, you won’t be able to head out onto very rough terrain or steep slopes with these skis. It is called light touring, after all.

Discipline Two: Telemark Skiing

skiing down a slope using Telemark skis.

Another discipline under the definition of what is nordic skiing is Telemark skiing. Telemark skiing is like a cross between alpine skiing and cross-country skiing. The equipment is sturdier and heavier to allow you to move on more off-piste (off-trail) terrain. This way you can experience the backcountry setting and be able to ski not only in rougher terrain but also on steep inclines. As is the case with Nordic skiing, the Telemark skis have a free heel system in place so skiing downhill requires some effort to turn. It is doable, though, with enough practice, and this turning technique is often called the Telemark turn for its unique nature.

Telemark vs nordic skiing

Telemark skiing and cross-country skiing are both forms of Nordic skiing, but they differ in how they navigate ungroomed terrain. Cross-country skiers have limited options for ascending, while telemark skis can handle steeper terrain.

Discipline Three: Alpine Touring

Alpine Touring is the final of the three disciplines of Nordic skiing. Alpine Touring is very similar to Telemark skiing in that they’re both designed with the same purpose in mind: to ski in the wilderness and move up and down slopes for more adventure when skiing. The main difference between these two disciplines is the equipment.  

Now Nordic skiing is differentiated from other types of skiing because it has free-heel bindings instead of the heel-and-toe bindings you see in alpine skiing. However, the Alpine Touring skis have a special little feature attached to them. When going uphill and on flat surfaces, they are free-heel bindings just like usual, but when going downhill they have a special mechanism to lock in the heel as well, making them functionally identical to alpine skis. Of the three disciplines, this one is best suited for skiing downhill, though some people opt for using the Telemark method instead. Either way, if you’re looking for backcountry skis for skiing downhill, it would be best to go with Telemark skis or Alpine Touring skis.

Nordic Skiing In the Olympics

Ski jumper in midair. Look at them fly!

What is Nordic skiing in the Olympics? Nordic skiing is recognized in professional competitions and in the Olympic games, there are a total of four different events considered to be Nordic skiing because each event uses free-heel bindings. I will quickly go over the events below. If you are interested in more details, head to the Olympics website.

The 4 Nordic Skiing Events

1. Cross-country skiing

It only makes sense that the most well-known Nordic skiing discipline is part of the Winter Olympics. There are a lot of different events solely based on two of the cross-country styles. Each participant competes using either the classic or skate style in these events. Some events do require switching between styles during the event so these can be very heavily taxing on participants.

2. Biathlon skiing

Biathlon is an event that incorporates both cross-country skiing and shooting, where you alternate between skate skiing and shooting at 50m targets. You are equipped with a .22 caliber rifle for shooting targets. Contestants must do race loops repeatedly with stopping to shoot five targets before starting the next loop. This event can be very difficult due to the strenuous nature of skate skiing while also managing to stop and hit long-range targets with accuracy.

3. Ski Jumping

Ski jumping is a sporting event that has participants jumping the longest distance possible after speeding off a ramp. Like most Nordic sports, there is no binding at the heel. There is a cord that connects the two skis so they don’t move too far apart, but it does not assist in control, so it’s still considered Nordic skiing. The longest distance landed is the winner.

4. Nordic Combined Skiing

What is nordic skiing when it comes to Nordic combined skiing? As the name suggests, this event is a combination of events based on Nordic skiing. It starts with ski jumping in the morning and then participants do a skate skiing race later in the day. The rankings for the morning ski jump determine the racing order of the next event, with the person who ranked best being the one who gets to start first. Unlike the other Olympics events, this event is only open to men at this time.

Final Thoughts

Woman doing cross-country at her own pace.

So, the answer to the question, What is Nordic skiing?” is any form of skiing that doesn’t require you to wear any sort of bindings at your heel.

How to start Nordic Skiing yourself

Is Nordic skiing hard? As you can see, there are many different ways people can participate in the sport of Nordic skiing and some will be easier than others. If you would like to get started with this kind of skiing yourself, I recommend starting with classic cross-country skiing. Not only is it the easiest one to start with, but it gradually allows you to get comfortable with free-heel ski bindings. However, if you have experience with skating and want a challenge, you might want to try skate skiing instead. If you are interested in backcountry skiing, you might want to start with light touring, but if you don’t want any training wheels, then choose between Telemark skiing or Alpine Touring for a real backcountry skiing experience.

To learn about more types of skiing and their disciplines, check out Alpine skiing and Super G skiing


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