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FITNESS | FITNESS BOUND

These skates let you ski in zero inches of snow

The new gizmo makes off-season workouts possible. But it requires some practice -- and a big investment.

November 04, 2002|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

A contraption that allows downhill and cross-country skiers to work out in the off-season, that turns mountain bike trails into ski trails -- why hadn't someone thought of this before?

A Massachusetts inventor, Jamie Page, concocted the idea while studying mechanical engineering at Stanford University. Although Palo Alto has no snow, it does have a large system of biking and running trails. So Page started tinkering and ended up with a skate that finished second in the 1998 entrepreneurship contest at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Among other things, the wheels have a mechanism that allows the skates to mimic the turning precision of downhill skis. They even have brakes, thereby eliminating the fear of running into large trees on a downhill run.

I saw a picture of the skates while leafing through a fitness magazine and, as I'd been a decent skier in my long ago Alaska days, thought they might be worth trying. Cross-country skiing is one of the best aerobic workouts. It uses virtually every muscle and requires the stamina and strength of a long-distance runner.

I called Crosskates and asked for a pair of loaners. And therein lies the biggest problem for the average enthusiast. The skates, which have been in production for less than a year, sell for about $550. The boots are an extra $125. All told, it's nearly a $700 investment, which can be looked at two ways: They are much more expensive than in-line skates or they are about the same price as a mountain bike. In short, you really have to want them.

Jim Laage, a 52-year-old engineer from Granada Hills, swears by them. He is a member of a Nordic ski patrol at Mount Pinos, just off the Grapevine. He uses his Crosskates most every evening to prepare for the coming snow season.

"What I wanted to do was get back to carrying a pack while using a cross-country motion," he said. And Crosskates, he said, has allowed him to do that.

Another believer is Rod Roberts of Fountain Valley, who always had wanted to find something that gave him the same exercising motion as cross-country skiing. He said the Crosskates were difficult at first. "You've got to get used to the turning and braking," he said. "Once you do that, they're a lot of fun."

Armed with this knowledge -- or warning, I loaded the Crosskates in my car and headed for the flatness of the Long Beach boardwalk. I live at the edge of the San Gabriel National Forest, whose mountains are steeper than the Rockies, but could not imagine hurtling down a mountain on my first attempt. The Long Beach boardwalk, on the other hand, is almost absolutely flat, the kind of place the Crosskates people recommended for a first venture. The other good thing about the path is that on a weekday afternoon, it is almost deserted, thereby eliminating the possibility of too much embarrassment.

As I strapped on the Crosskates in the parking lot, I began to wonder how these clunky devices could replicate the feeling of cross-country skiing. When I finally stood up, I felt wobbly and was glad for the ski poles that had been sent along. I donned my biking helmet and wrist guards, fully expecting to take a quick tumble.

Gingerly, I started off, using the skating motion recommended to get moving. After a few turns in the parking lot, I headed for the boardwalk, finding myself both elated that I was moving and frustrated by the lack of speed I could generate. The Crosskates are bulky and, certainly at first, difficult to maneuver. But the poles helped propel me along the concrete path.

I knew almost immediately that this would be a tough day on the heart. My outer limit heart-rate optimum is 140 and it took only a few minutes to move out of that zone, and at one point it was at a high of 187. I pushed toward the north and, as I had anticipated, only a few joggers and bikers were on the boardwalk. I was breathing heavily at the half-mile mark and had to stop, letting my heart rate slow before continuing on.

Finally, I reached the Long Beach pier and sat down on a bench to get my breath back. I'd only been going for less than 20 minutes, but knew it would be a struggle to get back to the car. An elderly, weathered man looked at me suspiciously.

"That a new thing?" he asked.

"Sure is for me," I replied.

With that, I headed back, making better progress as I skated. But still, I needed to stop a couple of times to catch my breath. As I got to the car, I concluded this would be a great regular workout, given time to master the art, and that I'd probably missed the best part -- going downhill.

Whether Crosskates catch on remains to be seen. It may take a while for skiers to discover them -- and maybe even longer for many people to make the monetary investment. After all, it's possible to get the same kind of workout in the gym without nearly the danger factor involved in Crosskates. And you won't have to take out a second mortgage to buy a pair.

The next time I see a Crosskater hurtling down one of my nearby hiking trails, I'll know they have arrived. And I'll be sure to get out of the way.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Snapshot: Crosskates

Duration of activity: 40 minutes, 31 seconds

Calories burned*: 684

Heart rate*: Average, 167 beats a minute; high, 187

Target zone: 110 to 140 beats a minute

Time in target zone*: 5 minutes, 17 seconds

Where to get them: Online at www.crossskates.com; also available at some sports equipment stores.

* This information was obtained using a heart-rate monitor. Time in the target heart-rate zone is a measure of the intensity of the workout. Target zone varies based on age and individual heart rate.

*

J. Michael Kennedy can be reached at j.michael.kennedy@latimes.com.

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