Don’t waste your time on stupid skate drills – Cross Country Ski Technique

Don’t waste your time on stupid skate drills

I used to be a nice person, but these days I’m just cranky. Everywhere I turn I’m reminded that ski season is well underway.

My Facebook feed is filled with photos of happy friends enjoying excellent early season conditions. Invitations to group ski outings fill my inbox, but I’m stuck in the gym, losing my mind realigning my body.

The thing that really irks me is how much good money I’ve spent on bad advice, trying to get to the bottom of my problems, and what’s even worse is the lost time – at least a decade.

Here are a few examples of stupid advice from professionals I wasted time on, trying to fix my various dysfunctions and injuries:

  • Improve glute activation by deliberately contracting my butt cheek with each step in walking.
  • Untwist my bent leg by spending more time standing on it to “improve proprioception”.
  • Correct my “functional” leg length difference by “lengthening and strengthening” tight muscles.

Bad skate skiing drills that waste your time

When I finally get back to skiing, I dread what I know I’ll see at the Nordic Centre. The stadium will be filled with struggling novice skate skiers, trying to get the knack of it.

Many of them will be working on drills with names like “The Breaststroke”, “The Javelin”, “The Heel Tap” and “The Cowboy”. (I’m not making this up.)

I used to have a live-and-let-live attitude when it came to drills like these. I didn’t use them in my own coaching but I wouldn’t criticize them, at least out loud.

New, cranky me is compelled to speak up because learning to skate ski is hard enough without wasting your time on stupid drills.

My decade lost to bad advice breaks my heart. Seeing people struggle with stupid skate skiing drills breaks my heart too.

Movement Skills are Highly Specific

To learn to skate ski you need to understand the mechanics of a skate kick, including:

  • How a skate ski works.
  • How to distribute your weight across the bottom of your feet.
  • How at apply pressure to the ski as you roll onto the inside edge.
  • How to release the ski from the snow so the tip doesn’t get caught up in the snow.
  • How to use your weight to power your leg push and poling action.
  • How to bend at the ankles, knees and hips.
  • How to coordinate your arm and leg movements.
  • Etc, etc, etc.

These are movement skills. Movement skills are highly specific. At no point in skate skiing is the correct action the same as doing the breaststroke. That’s not even a close approximation.

The movements that underlie skate skiing can be broken down and explained step by step. You need someone who understands those movements, who can read your movements and then guide you to the correct movements.

What you don’t need is to spend time practicing inherently incorrect movements.

Develop balance from the bottom up, not top down

A common theme of many skate drills is to challenge you to hold your balance on a flat gliding ski. Developing balance is a worthy goal. It’s always a limiting factor for new skiers.

Balance-style skate drills typically emphasize the “top” of the skate cycle. By top, I’m talking about the phase where the skier’s body is most extended, like he is standing up on his skis.

Here is a screen shot from an XC Ski Nation V2-One Skate demo video that shows the “top” of the skate cycle:

One example of a popular drill that exaggerates the top of the cycle is the Double Tap drill, which is like V2-One Skate, except you take 2 pole pushes for every skate push. This lengthens the glide phase and forces you to hold this high position for extra time.

In the top position your centre of mass is high and your knee and hip joints are almost straight. When your knee and hip joints are straighter your muscles are lengthened and provide less stability.

You can try this for yourself by standing on one leg with your knee and hip joints straight. Next simultaneously bend your hip and knee joints. See how the muscles in your pelvis and core suddenly feel more active and stable?

The idea with drills that exaggerate the time spent at the top of the skate cycle is they help develop balance by forcing you to spend extra time in this challenging top position.

In my opinion, this is exactly the wrong approach. I’m convinced the endless hours I spent on these drills delayed my learning and wasted my time.

If I were your coach, I would not use these drills with you. If I thought you needed help with balance, I would work to get you into positions that were easier for you to balance, not harder. I’d want you to succeed, not fail.

The key things I’d work on are:

  • Lowering your centre of mass by maintaining flexion at the ankle, knee and hip joints at all times. You would find this difficult because it’s not a position you’re used to. You’d need endless reminders.
  • Helping you stay compact by minimizing the range of motion in your arms and legs.
  • Trying to keep your weight mid to forefoot.

We’d build a success zone, where you enjoyed reasonable stability, comfort and control, then we’d gradually expand it by increasing your range of movements, skiing with greater forces and on more challenging terrain.

It would take time, but I’m confident you’d reach your destination a lot quicker than I did by practicing irrelevant drills.

If you want a single tip to accelerate the process of learning to skate ski, it’s SKI SMALL. Get low. Get compact. Avoid sudden forceful movements that throw you off balance. Gradually build from there. You can apply the same advice to classic skiing as well.

That high, top position is the last place you need to be. Many a skier’s technique has been ruined by the mistaken idea that it’s important to hold your balance at the top of the glide phase. I include myself in that group.

Drills like the double tap drill wasted my time when I was learning. What’s even worse, I wasted other people’s time by emphasizing balance in that tall, high position in my coaching.

Mea culpa.

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