By Renee Koijane | Special to Moonshine Ink

Dr. Rick Ganong believes having Tahoe Cross-Country open last winter when the COVID-19 crisis first hit benefited the North Lake Tahoe community by providing a safe and physically dispersed outlet for recreation. He says that continuing to pursue outdoor activities like biking, hiking, and Nordic skiing during this pandemic is not only safe, but also enhances our health in many ways. Ganong, who specializes in family, internal, and sports medicine at Tahoe Forest Hospital, offers his medical opinion to the public at large in this recent interview by fellow Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Education Association board member Renee Koijane:

Renee Koijane: When did you take up the sport of Nordic skiing and how often do you go during winter season? 


Rick Ganong: I began Nordic skiing around Yosemite but didn’t take it up in earnest until moving to Tahoe in 1979 when my fellow doctor partners showed me the ropes. Some of the icons helping me along were Charlie Kellermeyer, Jim Hurley, Billie Dutton, Peter Klausen, and Doug Read. I skin to work every day when I work in Squaw. Days working in Tahoe City, I usually ski at Tahoe XC prior to going into the office. These activities put a big smile on my face for whatever comes next. On my days off, I am usually on snow six days a week, one way or another. Typically for an hour or so. 

RK: Which muscles are garnering the benefits of Nordic skiing? Is this different for striding vs. skate skiing? 

RG: Nordic skiing is one of those unique sports that exercise almost every muscle in the body. Other sports that are close approximations include swimming, running, biking, and rowing. Because Nordic skiing is somewhat unpredictable, whether skating or striding, it exercises muscles symmetrically and asymmetrically, testing and training all the balancing skills and compensatory mechanisms. Skating is probably more likely to achieve these effects, but as we get older, striding is easier on the joints and takes a little less balance and less explosive energy. And don’t forget the heart muscle, which becomes more effective and efficient with Nordic skiing.

RK: In terms of social distancing, what are you seeing as the benchmarks for outdoor exercising now amid aerosolized virus droplets?

RG: We have all seen enhanced slow-motion images of a cough or sneeze. Certainly, the large droplets are a concern in that 6-foot zone. The tiny aerosolized particles which may carry viruses travel a little farther and remain suspended a bit longer. Six feet is probably not enough protection if you are in the direct line of fire. Appropriate precautions, such as a mask, should be taken in these circumstances particularly if the sneeze or cough is coming from an unmasked individual.

Being outdoors helps to mitigate against all of the above. The particles dissipate quickly, and very quickly if there is a breeze, such as when skiing. Both the forward motion and the ambient conditions facilitate this. The concentration of the particles diminishes significantly in these circumstances. The deep-rapid breathing, of course, is moving more volume of air per minute, but any viral particles would be minimal and the quick dissipation further reduces the risk. When you breathe harder, like during exercise, you are pushing air molecules farther away from you but, they are in much lower concentration. Now, if you are the direct recipient of a wet sneeze or cough while skiing, that of course is another issue. 

I recommend that when in the parking lot, appropriate distancing and precautions are in order. Skiing solo on the trails should not be much of a problem. Nordic skiers can easily cover their nose and mouth with a neck gaiter or buff when passing someone on a trail. Unless you are taking a direct “wet” hit from someone skiing in the opposite direction, you are safe. 

When overtaking someone, there is obviously more time exposure until you are clear, so time your pass to make it quick, find a 6-foot zone in which to pass, and donning your mask may help. Again, air movement outdoors when physically active really minimizes the risk. This is in juxtaposition to the dangers of being in a large group on the beach; two entirely different circumstances.

RK:  What are ideal heart rates to achieve for maximum health while exercising? 

RG: Your goals for heart rate depend on your personal goals, period. For most, I suggest aiming for 100 to 120 heart rate for 90% of the time, 120 to 140 for 9%, and maybe max it out for 1%. A monitor can help: If you are going up the hill and the rate is >120, then just slow down. Remember that your heart may be like the engine in an older car — if you redline it, something may break.

RK: Can you speak to the mental well-being impact from outdoor exercise?   

RG: There’s no doubt that the endorphin boost we achieve from any kind of exercise helps with our mental wellbeing. This natural high occurs after 20 minutes of exercise with an energy boost lasting three hours and mental bliss for 24 hours. Enhanced with outdoor activity, fresh, cold air, and incredible scenery, Tahoe XC is a pretty unbelievable outlet and resource for most of us. From experience, no matter what I am doing the remainder of the day, I’m feeling great after skiing at Tahoe XC!

RK: Any input on extending life expectancy overall through low impact exercise? 

RG: You can expect to live three to seven years longer if you exercise 75 to 150 minutes a week. Benefits to the heart, mind, and bones, and less frequent falls are also expected.  

RK:  How has Nordic skiing helped your Olympic athlete son stay on top of his game? 

RG: Travis has benefited from his clicks on the Nordic system. His coaches attribute his fine balance, glide, and touch to his time on the skinny skis. Mixing it up between alpine and Nordic helps the different muscle groups, including the one between the ears. Having said that, Travis would be happy to ride a snow shovel. You just need to get out there and let nature take its course.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON: Dr. Rick Ganong says his Olympic skier son Travis has benefited from his time spent on cross-country skis. Courtesy photo

RK: What inspired you
to join the board for Tahoe XC?

RG: I had too many buzzes (or natural highs) out Nordic skiing and saw what a tremendously committed group this organization has. I wanted to contribute. 

RK: Any other anecdotal tips on getting out onto the trails?  

RG: First off, buy a season pass from Tahoe XC this winter! It’s the biggest bang for your buck in the Basin. And it’ll streamline your life. Once you’ve done that, get out on the trails all four seasons. Do it early if possible because this sets you up mentally for the entire day, it’s less crowded, and there is some evidence that exercise pushed to the afternoon may contribute to insomnia. Steel cut oats and fruit are a good starter. Drink water and add electrolytes if you’re out longer than an hour. Work your stretch in before and after. Don’t let the weather deter you as some of the best experiences occur in adverse conditions. Be sure to say hello to your friends and strangers (while maintaining your distance and using common sense, i.e. mask up if you must be within 6 feet of another). Take that buzz with you the rest of the day and infect people with that and not the C-19. 


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