Balance is the Key to Smooth Skiing
When new skiers ask me about learning to cross-country ski, I almost always suggest they start with Classic skiing before attempting skating on skis. The diagonal stride is generally easier to learn and it allows you to discover how to balance on one ski at a time. It is more forgiving than skate skiing, which demands higher levels of fitness and the key ability to balance on your skis while moving at speed. Also, when you get tired on Classic skis, you can still shuffle along and make some headway, but on skate skis, you need to keep your skis gliding, which can be difficult for many skiers. So let's look at some drills to improve your diagonal stride, and that, for skaters, will improve their skate skiing.
Many skiers learning to diagonal stride maintain an upright stance and use their poles for stability rather than propulsion, as I am showing in photo 1. Compare this with an improved version, shown in photo 2. To advance your diagonal stride, it is important to not let your foot get ahead of knee. Some skiers think that to lengthen their glide they need to stride the front foot forward, but this is very hard to balance on. This also puts your hips back and forces you to stand upright, as shown in photo 1. This results in a shuffling style of skiing where both skis are always on the snow. Instead, think about leaning your torso forward and balancing on your glide ski. In photo 2, I have pushed back hard enough that my rear ski lifts off the snow. I often tell beginner skiers to think about the difference between walking with an upright stance and running, where you are leaning forward and driving with your arms.
I recommend practising the diagonal stride without your poles, as that will improve your ability to balance. To develop a strong push-off, I ask skiers to think about keeping their foot on the snow as long as possible. In photo 3, you can see me pushing back strongly with my right foot. My left knee is bent slightly, keeping my left foot under my body so that I can balance on it. My torso is flexed and I am swinging my arms to help maintain my forward momentum. Practising this without poles will do wonders for your striding and really helps to improve your overall ski technique.
To lengthen glide, I use a variety of drills to help skiers develop their balancing skills. These drills can also be used by people learning to skate on skis, and a favourite is the “looking for your friend” drill (see photo 4). In this case, I ask skiers to imagine that they are looking for a friend in a crowd. To be able to see over top of the crowd, you need to stand tall – note how my glide leg is almost straight in photo 4. This tall position helps you glide longer, and bringing your hand up over your eyes helps you to get your weight over the glide ski.
Another drill I like is practising gliding downhill, as shown in photo 5. In this case, you need to find a trail that slopes slightly downhill. Then simply stride downhill, feeling a longer glide in the process.
The final exercise is more difficult, but one that I like to use with more advanced skiers – the “skipping stride” drill. In this case, imagine that you are skipping on skis, as shown in photo 6. You can only skip when your weight is centred over your feet, and it helps get you forward to the balls of your feet. Overall, it is a great balance drill.
For help with any aspect of your Nordic skiing, seek out the assistance of a certified CANSI or PSIA instructor.
Contributor Keith Nicol has been on four Canadian INTERSKI demonstration teams for Nordic skiing. He holds CANSI'S highest instructor ranking in both track and telemark skiing.