cross country ski tips

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Level: intermediate technique lesson advanced level technique lesson
By Mark Pearson

     Not long ago, many in the sport of cross-country were resting flowers on the grave of diagonal skiing.  Skating had so many good points; no-bother waxing, fast and so easy to learn. It was good reason to wonder, "Why do anything else?". But now, diagonal is making a comeback.  Skiers are rediscovering a natural movement that's pleasurable, fun, and versatile.
     We'll take look at diagonal skiing for some hints to change our stride into a sleek new speed machine.

    Our first step is a forward body position for efficient and relaxed skiing. Often, skiers that lack balance take one of two extremes of body position. One is a low crouch with hips flexed with knees buckling underneath.  The other extreme is standing upright with our back perpendicular to the snow. Both positions force weight over the back foot making it difficult to transfer weight over the forward ski.

diagonal stride lesson
Find a comfortable stance that allows you to balance over the front ski. Think forward lean and hip rotation.

A forward and balanced body position requires only a slight flex in the knees and ankles. Our goal is a stance that if someone told us to "freeze" our glide in the diagonal stride, we could balance indefinitely on that single ski.
     Our first step is to learn how maintain a forward lean our upper body without excessive bending at the hips.  Here's the sensation we want for hip positioning.  Stand on one leg then flex the ankle to lean the entire body forward. Continue leaning forward until our other foot swings underneath to prevent an uncomfortable body slam to the ground.  Notice that when the hips approach a position above the knee it's time for our forward step. We aren't bending at the hips as much as we're leaning forward with the hips.
     The next step is a slight hip rotation that follows the forward swing of the rear leg to increase balance. The role of hip rotation is to help our upper body move forward with the gliding ski. Here's an exercise to increase hip movement. Hips should be flexible so that as one leg swings ahead to glide, that side of the hip should twist forward and move with it.  As we swing the right leg ahead, the right hip rotates forward too...  The same with the left side.  Only a slight twisting movement of the hips is needed to keep our upper body above the gliding ski at all times.
     Once our hips and lower body are where we want them, it's time to see if we have the maximum forward lean of the upper body. The test I like to use is the "ball of the foot to heel test". Using the poles, ski along at a relaxed pace. For a few strides, glide with weight over the ball of the front foot.  You may feel the wax or waxless pattern grip on the snow and begin to slow the ski down but that's O. K.  Our objective is to determine how the upper body reacts as we glide on the ball of the foot.  Normally, the upper body leans forward to pressure that point. This exaggerated lean is what we want.  Keep this inclined body position but now change the weight of the gliding foot back between the arch and heel - "the spot".  This improves glide while keeping that forward position of the upper body. Use this test periodically as a reminder of maximum forward upper body lean.

Terrain: Slight Uphill
Here's a athletic 20 year old (Sara) with a few days of technique instruction. Our main goal was to stay balanced over the front gliding ski. Notice the short-gliding steps and how the body stays over the front ski while gliding. This also shows a nice consistent rhythm of the stride, aided by a bounce in the knees to help pressure the ski for grip. The key words here are Balance and Rhythm.
What could we work on from here?
1). Lengthen the stride a little to increase glide
2). Adding more pressure to the poles for a longer pole push
3). More fun ski time
Notes: Her waxless skis were a bit too long for her so her grip was on the slippery side.
Way to go girl!

     Getting wax or a waxless pattern to work, even when its not as gripping as it could be, is the sign of a good cross-country skier. Body rhythm and knowing how to pressure the foot is the key for maximum grip.
     Here's an exercise to help feel the definite rhythm in the diagonal stride. Leave the poles on the side of the trail for a moment then begin swinging the arms diagonally, forward and back.  As the arms swing, let the knees relax and bounce naturally.  Notice that as our arms swing past our side, the knees flex. Then as one hand is forward and the other is back, our knees straighten. Use this rhythm to provide a little "umph" to the kick during the diagonal stride.     

xc ski lesson
The downward pressure of the "kick" starts when the feet are together and continues until the foot lifts off the snow

As the arms pass the hips, the knees flex to begin a vigorous kick. It's a coiling effect like the movement of a cat just before it leaps on a trailing string.  Just before the leap, it flexes it's hind legs for a more powerful pounce.  In skiing this movement comes as a little hitch just before the kick. (see below)
     Once we feel comfortable with rhythm, it's time to think about pressuring the ski as early as possible. The key to this "early kick" is pressuring the heel area first, then with the ball of the foot.
     As I mentioned in the first section, we want to glide with our weight between the arch and heel. Take advantage of this same spot to begin the kick while our full body weight is directly over the foot. If we wait to kick off the ball of the foot, when the ski is behind us, we won't have the full weight of our body to punch the ski down. Utilizing the full weight of our own body helps pressure the wax or pattern for maximum grip.

the kick in the diagonal stride
It's a coiling effect like the movement of a cat just before it leaps on a trailing string. Just before the leap, it flexes it's hind legs for a more powerful pounce. In skiing this movement comes as a little hitch just before the kick.

Practice the kick-off by pressuring the "heel" first then maintain that pressure during the entire kick with the last push-off from the ball of the foot.  Imagine there are small tacks pointed in the snow ahead of us, all perfectly paced so that one is centered under our heel, the other under the ball of the foot. To begin the kick push in the heel tack first, the front tack second. Think how a runner lands on their heel then rocks forward on the entire foot for a final push-off from the toes. In cross-country skiing we glide on a flat foot underneath the body then start pressuring off the heel and finish the push from the ball.

     Till now, we've worked on forward hip and body position to improve glide, and pressuring the ski for ultimate grip. Our next step is increasing forward momentum with a deliberate forward swing of the rear leg.

diagonal stride lesson
This example shows a good final form of bringing the back foot through in one complete motion

     A lazy back leg is the most common fault in preventing good forward momentum. In this situation the back foot swings forward in two motions.  As our leg extends behind, after the kick, it moves forward a few inches and stops, then continues its forward swing underneath the body to glide. In contrast, the ideal movement has the back leg swinging forward in as one continuous movement. A deliberate forward swing of the back leg helps with momentum of the new gliding ski.  As we press down on the kicking foot we want to simultaneously drive the opposite leg ahead. This will generate enough momentum to help us glide even with less then powerful kick or slippery skis.
     One lesson exercise is called "Floating the Back Foot". In this exercise we let our rear foot float, or freeze, for a moment before swinging it forward. At the same time, we would quickly plant our poles into the snow to begin the pole push. This deliberate pole plant and push actually helped our balance, while holding the back foot up and off the snow. This same exercise puts us in a body position to master forward leg drive.
     After the kick propels the foot off the snow behind us, let it stay up for a moment then quickly plant the pole and begin pushing down. The rear foot shouldn't begin to move forward until we've begun pushing on the poles and started to glide.  Now swing the rear leg forward in one deliberate motion. It's the same momentum as if we were kicking a ball but the foot lands on the snow below our body, not rising up in front.

cross country skiing lesson
FLOAT THE BACK FOOT: In this exercise let the back foot "float" behind for a moment then swing the foot forward
in one continuous motion

     The key to driving the rear leg forward is a balanced upper body. Remember the hip swing and how it helps to keep the upper body forward, allowing the legs to work independently below. Imagine that the upper body has one static position while the legs move from two positions.  The two positions of the legs are one foot down on the snow performing the kick while the other foot is behind and off the snow. To get in the next position both legs move quickly without unnecessary upper body movement.

     It's within all our abilities to get good grip and glide in uphill terrain.
     The key to skiing uphill's is thinking ahead. Not in the sense of planning that the hill is coming up in half a kilometer, but in our technique. Think of movements in front of our body rather then what's going on behind.  Forget about trying to push the hand well past our hips or trying to get that long kick-off with that foot trailing off the snow. Correct body position on hills should have us feeling as if we're standing more upright than we do in the flats. A common flaw is that once we're on uphill terrain we position our upper body relative to the flats when instead we should keep the same position relative to the slope. The Leaning Tower Of Pizza is in great position for skiing flats but would lose its uniqueness once it started up hills. It's the angle of the hill which will make us feel as if we're standing more upright.     

uphill diagonal stride
Uphill diagonal stride

One key to staying upright is keeping our eyes focused toward the top of the hill. Another key is correct hip position. If we bend forward at the hips, our body moves in front of our feet, causing the skis to slip. To keep our hips over our feet practice the "Tina Turner pelvic thrust". Suck in the stomach to move the belly button in towards the spine rolling the hips up and forward. When done correctly this pelvic tilt reduces the arch in our back and brings the hips in position.
     For ultimate uphill grip, use an extreme version of weighting our heel's to start the kick.  This technique is called a "foot stroke".  In this sequence we'll actually stroke our foot ahead of the knee just prior to the kick. This stroking motion places our kicking foot forward to create more downward pressure for grip.
     The motion of the foot stroke happens from the knee down. To feel the foot stroke, stand over flexed legs and putting one hand over both knees.  Now slide one foot forward until that leg almost straightens. The knees should remain side by side and not move in front of the other as one foot strokes forward on the snow. Practice stroking both feet until it feels fluid and natural.
     As we ski up a hill the foot stroke happens just before the kick, at the tail end of the glide. Begin skiing up and shorten the stride with a nice bouncy rhythm in the knees. For momentum, imagine you're nudging a small soccer ball up the hill. As we nudge the ball let the foot begin its stroke forward of the knee to begin the kick. Transfer weight with each step for maximum glide.
On a steep hill this glide may only be the distance that the foot strokes over the snow.


kick double pole
Kick Double Pole technique

It's important to learn and utilize all the techniques for cross country skiing. It not only increases enjoyment but is also more efficient. The technique to round out our skiing skills is the Kick Double Pole (KDP).
     There are good reasons for using the KDP technique.  At high speeds, it's difficult to maintain balance when kicking and gliding. The KDP allows us to use slower, balanced, relaxing movements while maintaining momentum. At the opposite end, trying to double pole on a slight rise may seem fast but tiring. In this instance, the Kick Double Pole will give us the added kick to keep our momentum flowing.
     The KDP is precisely how it sounds: a single step or kick for propulsion followed with a complete double pole.  To get the most out of the technique we'll utilize a few hints from the preceding diagonal tips to develop better balance by "floating the back foot" and better grip with the "foot stroke".
     Floating the back foot not only tests our balance but helps us get more power out of the poles by leaning our upper body weight into the push. To practice, float the back foot to the extreme. After the kick, quickly plant both poles into the snow. Before the back foot has a chance to return forward, begin to push down on both poles.  See how long you can hold the back foot off the snow during the double pole push.
     The forward hip movement also comes into play during this move. I talked earlier about keeping the hips forward in the diagonal stride. We should also feel this in the KDP. As our arms swing forward to begin the double pole, our entire body should move forward too.  Lean the upper body forward from the ankles so that the only thing preventing you from falling on your nose are you poles planted in the snow.
   The last tip is to improve grip during the kick. We want to utilize the same foot stroke movement as we did for skiing uphills. To test this theory for the KDP practice the scooter kick: multiple kicks with one foot while the other glides on the snow. Kick with the right foot for a moment and begin to pressure it as the foot is directly to the side of the gliding foot. For comparison, now begin the kick by moving the foot slightly ahead of the gliding foot.  With your foot out in front (Photo 5a), pressure the heel of the kick foot as it nears the toe of the gliding foot. Continue to pressure the whole foot to complete the kick.  You should find that stroking the foot ahead prior to kicking supplies better grip.
     Stroking the kicking foot ahead in the KDP takes practice but will feel natural in time. The movements of a good skier will show a slight scissored motion of the feet at the completion of the double pole (that is when one foot is slightly ahead of the other while gliding). This transfers weight to the heels for better glide. Then, just before the kick, they'll stroke that forward foot even further ahead.   To complete the double pole, the opposite foot scoots forward during the glide and becomes the new kicking foot.


CLASSIC TECHNIQUE: Diagonal Stride; Adjusting Pole Straps; Arm Swing; Double Pole; Kick-Double Pole. CLASSIC UPHILL TECHNIQUE: Classic Uphill Diagonal; Edging; Side Step; Herringbone. DOWNHILLS AND TURNING: Getting up from a fall; Kick Turn; Track Snowplow; Five Tips for the Diagonal Stride; Kick Double Pole. SKATE SKIING: Ten Tips for the V-1; V-2 skate technique; Marathon Skate. ALL AROUND: Stationary Turns; Step Turns. RESOURCES: Nordic Glossary; 20 Q and A; History of Cross Country Skiing

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