Nordic Ski Instructor

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Ski Techniques

Basic XCD techniques

Techniques: [ overview | basic | classic | basic XCD | inter XCD | freestyle | adv XCD | survival]

Direct descent

A downhill run with skis parallel and facing directly downhill.

Teaching terrain
Slight to moderate downhill in soft snow, with flat run-out, preferably in good tracks.

Teaching approaches

  • From a stationary position, using a double-pole push, allow the skis to glide to a stop at the bottom of the hill. If there is room, allow everyone to travel side-by-side and create their own path. Make it a purely experimental run for them without any external pressure. Choose a very gradual slope for this.
  • Starting with the feet, draw their attention to what they can feel through the soles of their boots - highlight this with another run, but with the eyes closed as much as possible (they will need plenty of attention/feedback to give them confidence). What happens when more pressure is applied to the heels? Or to the toes? What happens when standing tall as possible? What happens when crouching?
  • Try this: ski down the hill (without poles) shouting at the top of your voice the following, using the motions in brackets: 'Reach for the sky (hands up high), pat the dog (crouch down and pat an imaginary small dog), and kick the cat (kick the foot out to one side)'. If you are a cat-lover, switch the roles. If you are an animal-lover generally, kick something equally emotive and imaginative. Have a competition to see who can reach, pat, and kick the most between two poles.
  • A similar exercise to distract, and loosen up the body, is the old primary-school song 'Heads, shoulders, knees and toes'. Be warned that you will have to be as active as the students in these games if you want them to work.butterfly
  • Lifting of one ski for as long as possible (remove one if it helps) is good to develop co-ordination, so too is hopping and jumping. Fly down the hill like an eagle. Flutter like a butterfly. Ski like an elephant. Ski like an angel. Like a robot. A fish. A snake. An opera singer...
  • Cossack dancing is a great way of bringing the group together. Alternatively, form a team of can-can dancers, and have a play-off to see who is best. Just link arms over the shoulders, and plummet down the slope with style and finesse, as any dancer would.
  • Flexibility is required to absorb terrain bumps and dips. By bending the leg at the knees (pushing the knees forwards), the body sinks down and the centre of gravity lowers for greater stability. Flexed legs can more easily absorb terrain than ram-rod straight legs. Try it and see. Extra stability can be gained from sliding one foot out in front of the other a little, moving the body mass from one ski to the other. Make a set of bicycle bumps to try everyone out.
  • The upper body and poles play an important part in maintaining balance. What happens when the arms are folded? Where is a good place to put them for stability? Grasping a drinks tray, or a large box, or the steering wheel of a bus or truck are all good imagery. As the speed increases, throwing the hands and knees further forward (and keeping the back straight) can help to keep the body over the centre of the skis.

A start from a level area, and a finish on an equally-level area, is helpful for first-timers. If that is not available pre-define the start area with flags or poles, only moving them higher up the slope as the students become more proficient. The environment should be conducive to relaxing whilst sliding - many students may not be able to do this, or if they can, not fully appreciate how important it is in developing further from this.

Respect the fact that each individual has a different ability to descend the fall-line. Each will have a different interpretation of the speed at which s/he descends. It is good to challenge those who feel confident, but those who are still unsure should not be subjected to the same exercises if they are not yet ready for them.

Note that no mention is made of the old Austrian saying 'Bend-zee-knees'. In Nordic skiing, bending the knees alone will invariably encourage a backward sitting motion towards the 'lavatorial position' as described in some circles, and throw the body out of line. The centre of gravity may well be where it should be, but it is easier to adjust to terrain and speed differences if the body mass is as central as possible. This is important for all skiing techniques, unless momentum is required from swinging various body parts outside of that centre of mass.


An aerodynamic method of running downhill, and of resting the torso, by crouching in a tuck position and bracing the ski poles against the body for extra support.

Teaching terrain
Slight to moderate downhill with flat run-out, preferably in tracks.

Teaching approaches

  • This is a follow-on from the direct descent, and focuses on bracing the poles against the body to prevent unnecessary movement and thus weakening balance.
  • Start with a high tuck, with the poles braced under the arm-pits and pointing backwards, with the legs relatively straight, but the back bent over. If possible, use a video, or the 'natural video' (i.e. the student's shadow created by the sun) to show the position that each student has adopted.
  • Go from the high tuck to a low tuck by resting the elbows onto the knees, and thus flexing the legs a little more than before. Find terrain where the ability to flex is mandatory to remain stable. Try to keep the bottom high in the air to prevent the torso from acting as a huge wind-sock.
  • A lower tuck is possible by crouching even lower, and bringing the elbows in front of the knees,but still with the bottom relatively high. At this stage experiment with sitting back on the heels, or forward onto the toes. Which is faster? Why?
  • The tuck can be used when skiing around curves of a reasonable radius in set tracks - the skis have to be steered by the knees, and with minimal edging, whilst the upper body is rotated out away from the turn. This creates angulation and keeps the weight over the centre of the skis. Push the inside ski well in front of the outside ski of the turn to enhance this. Some prefer the opposite, and 'telemark' through a turn - both ways work: it depends upon the radius of the turn and the speed, ability, and confidence of the skier.

Watch pole tips. Most novice skiers are unaware of how dangerous it is to have the pole tips up off the snow, pointing back along the track.

Encourage students to keep their hands apart a reasonable amount when in a tuck, thus keeping the other ends of the poles out of harm's way.

If students have difficulty in maintaining an efficient tuck, and remaining flexible, get them to jump up into the air and land in a tuck (make sure they keep their heels flat on the ski when tucking). The arms will naturally swing forwards to maintain balance.

Step turning

To change direction whilst descending, without reducing speed by stepping each ski independently in small steps towards the desired direction of travel.

Teaching terrain
Initially, light to moderate downhill, on soft snow, with flat run-out.

Teaching approaches

  • Review star turning on the flat, and move on to a small slope. Descend the slope directly, and make a few small star steps when on the flat of the run-out. This will show how the two are the same, but that one is performed on the move.
  • Compare the difference between standing up high, and crouching low, when turning. Is it easier to make small steps, or large steps, at slow and faster speeds?
  • Practise lifting the tip of one ski by lifting the toe and pressing down the heel,and holding it up all of the way down the slope. This enhances balance and mass-transfer from ski to ski if the lifted leg is alternated. 'Goose-stepping' down a hill is fun to do, and develops quite a tip-lift!
  • As the slope gets steeper, and as the desired direction-change becomes greater, and the snow firmer, edging of the skis is required to maintain stability. By definition, this is still step turning, if no acceleration into the turn takes place. Is it possible to step turn without edging one or both skis? (Answer: yes, in all but icy or firm snow conditions)
  • Drive the knees (edging) into the new direction to assist in efficient mass-transfer from the old ski (pointing in the 'old' direction), and the new ski (pointing in the 'new' direction). Crouching will help here, and has the added side-effect of keeping the centre of balance low.
  • The poles can be used for assistance if required, but are best ignored. The hands play a crucial role in that they should help to steer the turning. The drinks tray (it is helpful to have one available!) should lead, followed shortly afterwards by the skier's knees and legs, and then body. If the nose, knee and foot of the leading (new) ski are all aligned, then balance will be maintained.
  • Rhythm is fun to introduce here - try stepping five steps to the right, and then five to the left. Quick changes, and quick tempo ensure that the skis are kept close to the snow-surface, thereby enhancing balance.
  • Scampering (like a mouse?) allows quick direction-changes, whereas large steps invite a big fall. Exaggerate both to understand why.
  • Use the students' poles to create a forest of poles all over the slope, and encourage the students to act as 'Environmentalists' or if they prefer 'Foresters' and touch as many trees as possible as they descend the slope, using step turns as they go. Make it a competition if you will, but stress individual improvement, rather than awarding a prize for the 'best' skier (who invariably has longer arms than anyone else!).

Snow conditions can make or break this technique: the softer the snow the better. Icy snow is inappropriate, unless on a very slight incline. Note that this technique has great similarities with skate turning - both are much the same in what they achieve, although most accept that the step turn is less aggressive (no compression of the 'pushing-off' leg) and therefore does not increase the speed of the skier when turning, - the skate turn does, often with dramatic results!

Snowplough glide and brake

To control one's rate of descent, in a stable position, whilst descending most types of snow, by placing the skis in a convergent, or snowplough position (an inverted 'V' stance), and maintaining even pressure on both skis whilst controlling ski edging.

Teaching terrain
Initially, light to moderate downhill, on firm snow, with flat run-out.

Teaching approaches snowplough glide and brake

  • Start from the feet and work upwards, and encourage moving into a snowplough by standing up tall, and then springing up into the air and landing in a wedge. Practise this often so that less and less springing (air-time) is required to push the skis outwards. How does the new skis position come about? Is it the twisting of the leg, pointing of the toes inwards, pushing of the heels outwards, or a combination of all of these?
  • Do not move on until students' skis slide out into a snowplough, as against a leap into the air followed by a massive twisting. The aim is to make the unweighting of the skis smooth and slight enough to allow a flowing movement outwards.
  • When they land in that snowplough position, do their bodies drop lower? Is their back still straight? Are they looking at their skis, or can they feel them? Would their technique alter if the snow was deep?
  • Initially, it is best to make them start in a snowplough and push off down a slope, applying constant pressure outwards to maintain the wedge until the bottom of the slope brings them to a stop.
  • If tracks are available, demonstrate a half-snowplough, and encourage some practise in sliding the ski (or lifting if sliding is not possible) out into a wedge. Apply a little bit of pressure down and outwards on that ski to create a slight braking effect. Explain that constant outward pressure must be applied from the thighs and feet to hold a wedge.
  • Heel pressure is required to keep the heel on the ski, especially with sloppy bindings and boots. 'Squashing bugs' or 'stamping out a cigarette butt' (not so common for Nordic skiers) with both feet will simulate a twisting and pressuring motion, if the twist is inwards and not outwards!
  • If one ski has more mass over it than the other, and is edged even only slightly, steering to one side will occur. Encourage experimentation by all means, but for the purposes of this exercise, focus on keeping the head, navel and ski tips all in one imaginary line down the hill.
  • Braking occurs when the skier drops lower with the hips and thus edges the inside edges more severely. Too much edging will cause the ski-tips to cross, as will driving the knees together. Encourage a drop of each knee toward its respective ski-tip, rather than an inward push. 'Go low to go slow' shouted in a student's ears works miracles sometimes.
  • It is about this time that tension appears in the upper body in many students. This can be released by getting the arms moving in a 'flag blowing in the wind' style.
  • Practise 'landing like a DC10'. This involves descending straight down the fall-line and alternating between dropping the hips and driving the knees further forwards, and standing more upright and flattening the ski edges. This then creates a cyclical glide and brake and glide and brake motion. Rhythm allows the body to constantly 'de-tension' muscle groups that work hard in this exercise.
  • Another game is to get the students to stop between two defined markers on a slope, having descended with the skis together. Restrict the amount of snowploughing by creating a chicane of poles or flags. Yet another is to award points to the person who can descend a slope in a snowplough glide the slowest, without stopping.
  • Chariot races are good here. The 'horse' stands out in front, with skis together and one end of the poles in their hands. The 'chariot' stands directly behind and holds the other end of the poles, but is in a snowplough wedge. Form enough teams to have a race down the slope, with the 'horses' not being allowed to move a muscle to assist in getting the team to either stop at a predefined place in the quickest possible time, or slowest possible time.

The snow must be firm to engage in any of the snowplough activities mentioned here. Many instructors make the mistake of attempting to teach snowplough on snow that prevents the skis from being comfortably pushed at an angle to the direction of travel. Safety considerations dictate that the deep, cruddy, or difficult snow should be avoided at all costs (don't risk a broken femur), even though students are most eager to learn how to use this technique.

Note that if the terrain is adequate for teaching, little will need to be said about edging of the skis - which is a difficult concept for beginners to dwell upon when hurtling down a slope barely in control. The concept of edging should only be introduced if some-one is having difficulty with ski control, but is able to ski slowly enough to understand. This is often the case with students who veer off to one side, even though their mass is central - one ski merely brushes the snow, the other sits on an edge and runs straight. Do not complicate matters needlessly at this early stage.

Equipment considerations are also important. Light and sloppy boots and bindings prevent learning the technique initially, although are good for developing inner strength when you have the basic ability.

The ability to relax and allow the body to flow down the hill is a real asset - a tense body, as often occurs in early snowplough development, tires easily. Choose terrain that will challenge the skier, but not intimidate them. Once students master control on a given beginner slope, it is imperative that they are moved onto a slope that tests them further. The 'DC10 landing' approach highlights the strength of this technique when used in short bursts. Trying to maintain a static snowplough position when descending loses its effectiveness very quickly.

Snowplough turning

To change direction, and reduce speed, whilst descending most types of snow, by placing the skis in a convergent position, or snowplough position, and transferring weight from one ski to another by shifting one's centre of mass.

Teaching terrain
Initially, light to moderate downhill, on firm snow, with flat run-out.

Teaching approaches snowplough

  • Review snowplough glide and brake to ensure that it is all together.
  • One approach that works well in most cases is the 'direct method' of teaching: start from a DC10 landing, and move towards the same number of 'bumps', but on alternating undercarriage. In other words, sink more on one leg and push that knee further forward, whilst straightening the other leg. Do this as a static exercise first to demonstrate how the body shifts from one side to the other, and then to show how edging can appear as if by magic on the outer ski.
  • If, after a few repetitions of the static motion, the student is unable to push out and thus automatically put the skis on their inside edges, introduce the student to the inside and outside edges of their feet, and encourage the student to put more pressure on the inside edge of both feet (but focussing most on the extended foot) when extending undercarriage.
  • As the students improve in their ability to run the fall-line with minimal deviation, encourage more movement out onto the outside ski, and thus more of a direction change.
  • Once the previous exercise is strengthened, move onto steeper slopes. This has the advantage of reducing the fear of the fall-line, a fear which is often (unconsciously and negatively) encouraged when teaching a single turn in the traditional manner.
  • Focus on the rhythmical nature of the exercise (do it to music), and the constant flexing and unflexing of each leg. Edge control is not critical - just keep a flat ski for as long as possible.
  • Increase the tempo to smooth it all out. If this is difficult then it may be wise to review step turning and reinforce elements of this technique. Move from one hip to the other - left hip to go right, right to go left.
  • Try the leap-frog slalom. Using the students as slalom poles, start off the rear skier and get them to snowplough down through the others, followed by the new 'rear' skier, until they all get to the bottom.
  • Note that poles are still not mentioned here. There is no need to use poles to help with the turn itself. If a student desires to carry the poles to the bottom of the hill every time, encourage safe use by keeping the pole tips in, behind, and low.

This technique has many different teaching styles, some of which lead to confusion. Playing 'aeroplanes', touching the outside boot, reaching out for imaginary fruit on an imaginary tree, and other such activities can create an unwanted body lean to create the desired effect. As an example of how ineffective these ideas can be, try snowplough turning down a slope playing 'anti-aeroplanes' or touching the 'wrong' (inside) boot, or reaching for imaginary fruit on the inside of the turn. The opposite can be equally effective!

This is all because many of these techniques have come from Alpine ski teaching, and because Alpine boots are very different from Nordic (flexible) boots, different things happen. A movement within a stiff Alpine boot will produce an effect almost instantly and directly to the skis, whereas movement within most Nordic boots and shoes will have a time-lag whilst the leather flexes, along with the binding in many cases.

If you still prefer to teach using these older methods (it is your choice, after all), please ensure that it will work effectively with most Nordic skiing students (if that is whom you are teaching), and not Alpine skiing students. For many students, a ridiculous amount of lean outwards whilst snowplough turning will produce the desired effect, but it may be either unnecessary or counter-productive in the long-term.

Techniques: [ overview | basic | classic | basic XCD | inter XCD | freestyle | adv XCD | survival ]

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