Better Balance for Nordic Skiers
Skiers of all levels are balanced when they ski – unless they’re falling down. The difference in balance between a novice and expert is their base of support.
As your skill improves, you’ll feel balanced and comfortable on an increasingly small and unstable base of support.
We prize balance as nordic skiers because of its relationship to “weight transfer”. Weight transfer refers to how much of our body weight we’re able to get over each ski in time for the leg push (the kick).
The more we can get our body weight over the ski, the more we can use that weight to push ourselves forward. It’s a big player in efficiency.
I’ve written about how I gradually and inexplicably lost my balance. It took a few years to unravel this mystery, but I think the process unfolded like this:
- Over the course of decades my longer right leg twisted under the weight of gravity.
- As my right foot and knee collapsed inward, I unconsciously shifted my weight to the outside edge of my foot, temporarily relieving pressure on those joints. This happened on the left side as well, but to a lesser extent.
- I continued to have “good” balance. If you saw me skiing you would have thought I looked comfortable and skied well.
I felt great and loved skiing, but the situation was unsustainable and eventually I wasn’t able to ski much anymore. With the benefit of hindsight I can see the early evidence of what was happening to my body in an old video.
I took these screenshots from a video I made a few years ago, called the “One Skate Dance”, which is a getting started drill for skate skiers.
I appeared to have good balance when I skied. I could easily and comfortably balance on a flat, gliding skate ski, which is considered a key indicator of balance for skate skiing.
In reality, all I had were good coping skills. I was cheating like crazy with my body positioning in order to stay balanced. Look how I slung my hips out to the sides, especially on my very sad right leg.
It’s interesting how my brain organized my movements and positions to keep my weight off the inside of my right leg without my even noticing. I believe that was to lessen the damage from the pronation in my foot and leg.
Obviously, slinging my hips sideways isn’t good for my joints, but that’s far from the only problem. This position also affected my skiing efficiency. My sloppy posture robbed me of effective power transfer from my upper to lower body.
How I Practice Balance Now
When Old Me practiced balance, it was all about how long I could stand on one foot in various positions without touching down the other foot.
I think that’s how most people practice balance. The metric they focus on is time spent on one leg.
New Me cares less about time and more about weight distribution, positioning, flexion at various joints and which way my foot points.
This is how I practice balance now:
Weight Distribution on Feet
I’m careful to distribute my weight evenly across the bottom of my foot:
- Under ball of big toe
- Under the ball of the 5th toe
- Under the heel
- No pressure under the toes
Using the mirror for guidance, I stack my foot, knee and hip vertically, with a slight bend at all 3 joints. I actively work on facing my knee forward.
I don’t yet have the strength to keep my hip from shifting out, so I use a pole (a ski pole or a piece of narrow metal pipe) to help me set the position. I gradually release the pole while trying to maintain the position. I can’t go completely without its support.
If you try this, pay attention to your hips. They might tilt and/or rotate as you set yourself up. Ask yourself, what exactly am I doing with my body – all the way from the feet to the top of the head?
Scan your body and look for areas of unnecessary tension (neck and shoulders?) or excessive muscular activity (lower legs and feet?).
If you observe expert skiers, you’ll see just how hard it is, even for trained athletes, to attain vertical alignment on a single leg. You can see that in these screen shots of Kai skate skiing. He’s a lot closer to straight, but still shifted out to the side a little.
Work the hip, knee and ankle joints
The next level of the challenge is to flex at the ankle, knee and hip. I don’t try to mimic the action of skate or classic skiing, but you could. I imagine it’s valuable, but my goal is to be strong and stable in any healthy position, not just “ski-specific” movements.
This is another screen shot from an XC Ski Nation Free Skate demo video. The athlete is Ivan Babikov, former Olympian and World Cup athlete and current Canadian National Team Coach. In this screenshot you can see how deeply a top skier flexes in skate skiing. It’s a good illustration of the flexibility and strength you need to ski well.
In addition, to mixing up how I work the ankle, knee and hip joints, I play with the position of the hanging leg. I position it to the front, side and behind, both close and far from the standing leg.
I rely on the pole more or less, depending on the difficulty. Deeper flexion is more challenging, so I put more weight on the pole in that position. My knees don’t love that unless I sit back on my heels. I hope that will resolve over time as my alignment improves.
In terms of weight distribution, I vary that somewhat. Mostly I stay mid-foot, but I also want to be comfortable shifting forwards and backwards along the centre line.
I’m also interested in varying my foot angle. If your knees tend to rotate inward like mine do, you’ll have to work hard to find stability and alignment when you toes point outward.
When I change my foot angle I’m still trying to keep my hip, knee and foot vertically stacked, it’s just my thigh bone rotates in the hip socket. These positions are more relevant to skate skiing.
So the variables I play with are:
- Range of movement at the ankle, knee and hip joints
- The position of the hanging leg
- Weight distribution on the bottom of my foot (only front to back – not right to left)
- Foot angle
At all times I want to the hip, knee and foot stacked vertically and my hips straight. I rely on the pole for support as much as needed to achieve that goal.
Is this really a balance exercise?
Most balance exercises challenge us practice on a small and possibly unstable base of support. (e.g. standing on one foot on a cushion). In this case, my base of support is quite large because I’m using the pole for added stability.
By keying on my positioning rather than how long I can stand on one leg, I challenge core strength and alignment in a way that feels specific to balance.
I didn’t appreciate how sloppy my balance skills were. I hope this more challenging way of practicing balance will improve my stability both on and off the snow.
Try it and let me know how it goes for you. Does it teach you anything about your habitual movements and positions?
Is it possible there are things happening in your body that could have a negative impact down the road? That was the case for me, but I didn’t know how to read the signals. Now I understand how the details of your balance and weight distribution reflect body alignment, which in turn affects skiing efficiency and health.
In my experience, improving posture, positioning and movement habits, both on and off-snow, are powerful and potent ways to improve ski technique and ensure you can enjoy this wonderful sport injury-free for years to come.