Is the “Foot Drive” Cue a Major Misstep?

Foot Drive FeatureSummary: “Drive your foot forward!”, “Push your foot forward!”, “Drive your knee!”

Those are coaching cues you might hear for the classic technique, diagonal stride. Do they help, or do more harm than good?

Here we make the case against these cues, demonstrating with video evidence how they often negatively impact a skier’s overall body position.

We also show what “Foot Drive” should look like and talk about when it’s an appropriate skill to work on.

A Simple Start to the Ski Season

Susanne joined a “Ski Fitness” class I coach with my friend once a week from September to March.

She’s a long time cross-country skier, but has never had instruction. The other day I had my first chance to work with her on skis, on snow.

She was on classic gear and we started with easy, no poles diagonal stride on a flat. The goals were simple: find your ski legs, and work on balance and body position. This exercise is also a good opportunity for the coach to see how everyone moves on skis.

We always begin by cueing our athletes to get into the athletic position. We’re trying to get people flexed and forward. Overall body position is critical to skiing well, a fact that’s widely under appreciated by novice skiers.

I cued Susanne as follows:

  1. Get into the athletic position by dropping your hips straight down and flexing at the knees. Weight should be forward, mostly on the balls of your feet (but not on your tippy toes).
  2. Take small, running steps on your skis.
  3. Push your wax down against the snow and let your stride extend behind you.

Remember, this wasn’t supposed to be a comprehensive lesson on diagonal stride. It’s just an easy exercise for working on overall body position, balance and rhythm.

This is how she skied:

Conflicting Cues

After class she wanted to talk because she was confused. My cues contradicted her idea of how diagonal stride works.

As I said, Susanne has never worked with a coach before, but she has done a lot of online research. (But somehow she missed our website.) From her research she got the idea that she should push her foot forward with each stride, like that would help her cover more ground.

I’ve run into this “Foot Drive” cue before with other skiers. They’ve been told by previous coaches they should push or “drive” their foot forward. Sometimes it’s a general cue, and sometimes it’s a tip to get up hills more easily. There’s also a “Knee Drive” cue that seems pretty common.

I’m opposed to using these cues with beginner and intermediate skiers. (Actually, I wouldn’t use them with any skier, but I wouldn’t object if an advanced skier likes them.)

Hands down, the biggest challenge facing new skiers is to learn to balance in a forward position throughout the stride cycle. As soon as they’re cued to “drive” or push any part of their leg forward, their centre of mass always falls back.

After Susanne told me she had been working on pushing her foot forward with each recovery leg swing, I asked her to give me a demo. Here’s how she skied:

When What’s Wrong Feels Right

To me it’s completely obvious that Susanne skis better when she’s not trying to push her foot forward. I’ll explain why in just a minute, but first I want to tell you one other cool thing.

I asked Susanne which way of skiing felt better, and to my surprise, she preferred the “foot drive” way.

Human movement is so interesting! Familiar motor patterns “feel better”, even when they are less efficient. She felt “better” when she was skiing worse.

That’s a big lesson coaches and athletes really need to take to heart. It part of the reason it takes so much patience and persistence to break ingrained habits. Once we’ve “grooved” a movement, it feels right to us and it’s hard to change.

Anyway, let’s look more closely at Susanne’s skiing in the two videos. Here are the clips again, played one right after the other.

If you have an eye for skiing, it will be obvious she’s skiing better in the second clip, when she’s not thinking about pushing her foot forward. She just looks better – she has a better position and better rhythm.

Some Negative Consequences of the “Foot Drive” Cue

(The “Knee Drive” cue has similar negative consequences.)

If you’re new to nordic skiing, it will be harder for you to analyze Susanne’s technique, so I’ll walk you though a few points in the stride cycle and show you what to look for. This isn’t a comprehensive list, just some highlights to support my argument.

I pulled the images below from three videos: the two videos of Susanne, plus a video of Kai demonstrating easy diagonal stride without poles on a flat.

It’s hard to believe, but I actually captured each freeze frame from the exact same moment in the skiers’ stride cycle. Refer to the note above each photo for an explanation of when the shot was captured.

The 3 moments I chose are somewhat arbitrary. I could have made different choices.

1. Kick: Follow Through (Right Leg)

I captured these 3 photos at the moment the skier’s right foot reached it’s highest point off the snow.

Kick-Follow-ThroughThis is the follow through of the kick. The “kick” is when you press your wax pocket down and backwards against the snow to move yourself forward.

The beginning of the kick is sharp and powerful, then the leg flies up behind the skier, just like your arm follows through after you throw a ball. Advanced skiers have a strong kick and quite a dramatic follow through. It always surprises new skiers how high the tail of the ski lifts off the snow.

There’s no defined height the tail “must” lift from the snow. It varies with many factors such a steepness of the terrain and intensity of effort. Sometimes it won’t lift much at all. But all other factors being equal, a more advanced skier will generally have a larger follow through, which will mean the tail of the ski will lift higher.

Instead of worrying too much about the tail of the ski, look at the shin angle of her stance leg and how that affects her overall position. Pushing her foot forward causes her whole body to be more upright and her centre of mass to shift backwards.

In the first photo, her weight is back so she basically has to haul herself forward with every stride. It’s a lot of work and a very inefficient position for skiing.

2. Recovery Leg Swing (Right Leg)

These 3 photos were captured at the moment the skier’s right foot touches the snow on the recovery swing.

Recovery-Leg-SwingAfter the follow though, the leg has to swing forward for the next stride. That’s called the recovery. One easy landmark for evaluating a skier’s technique is to look at where the foot of the recovery leg lands relative to the stance foot. (In these photos, the skier’s left leg is the stance leg and the right leg is the recovery or “swing” leg.)

In an advanced skier, the foot lands beside or ahead of the (right photo). The worse the skier’s balance and overall body position, the further back his foot lands during the recovery leg swing.

When Susanne thinks about pushing her foot forward, her recovery foot lands way too far back (left photo). This is predictable based on her position at the end of her kick (refer to the left photo in 1. Kick: Follow Through).

You can see how her weight is so far back that her foot must to drop to the ground behind her, even before before she swings it all the way forward. She simply needs the extra stability because her ‘foot drive” is throwing her weight back.

Now look at the angle of her shin in the middle photo. You can see that Susanne has great forward body position, unlike in the left photo, when she’s thinking about pushing her foot forward. Also, in the second photo, her recovery foot is very close to landing directly beside her stance foot, which is incredibly good for someone’s first day of instruction.

3. End of the Kick (Left Leg)

I captured these 3 photos at the moment the skier’s left foot left the snow after pushing off. (The end of the propulsion phase of the kick.)

End-of-KickThese photos are captured at the end of the skier’s kick, at the moment the pushing ski (left ski) is leaving contact with the snow. It’s the end of the power production phase of her kick. Once again, you can see Susanne’s position is best when she doesn’t think about pushing her foot forward (middle photo).

Incidentally, another “tip” you might hear is to keep your wax pocket pressed against the snow as long as possible to “maximize” your kick. Like “foot drive”, this is another cue that leads to unintended negative consequences.

These photos should make it clear how deliberately keeping the foot in contact with the ground longer at the back of the kick will result in the skier’s weight falling back. Just look at the image on the left. Her left foot is pushing against the snow for longer than in the middle photo, but all that does is ruin her body position.

Foot Drive: Does It Ever Matter?

“Push your foot forward!” “Drive your knee forward!” “Try to push against the snow as long as possible.”

These cues are harmful and often lead to poor body positioning. Susanne provides an excellent illustration of this point, but I’ve seen these cues cause problems for many other adult skiers. Tell a skier to push his knee or foot forwards, and his weight invariably falls back (unless he’s already advanced).

So, does that mean there’s no such thing as a “foot drive” in diagonal stride?

Not at all! “Foot Drive” is a thing, but it’s a skill that finesses an advanced skier’s technique. There are plenty of more important things for novice and intermediate skiers to work on.

I’ll finish up by showing you what “foot drive” should look like. It occurs at the end of the glide phase and helps generate a more powerful kick.

The movement is a combination of the foot pushing forward slightly while the hip rises up and forward. It’s almost like the skier is standing up on his glide ski.

The movement of the hip and the overall extension of the stance leg are at least as important as the actual “foot drive”.

“Foot Drive” – Give it the Boot!

So, those are my thoughts on “Foot Drive” and “Knee Drive”. Big thanks to Susanne for being such an excellent model.

I do hate to contradict other coaches, but I hate these cues even more. They cause trouble for many skiers. They don’t even make uphills easier. If anything, they prompt a skier’s weight to fall behind his wax pocket and he loses his grip.

So do yourself a favour and forget about the “foot drive”, the “knee drive”, and any other cue that makes your centre of mass fall back.

Want something else to think about? How about the glorious and under appreciated athletic position? Love it, and it will love you back.

What to Read Next:

In Praise on the Athletic Position [Video]

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