3 Must-Have Skills for Safer Downhills

Downhills are a big worry for many nordic skiers – even strong intermediate skiers feel trepidation on downhills.

For beginners it’s worse. There’s a good chance one of the reasons they chose cross-country skiing over alpine skiing is because they aren’t downhill speed demons.

Nordic Downhill Ski Techniques

There are 4 principle Nordic downhill skiing techniques:

  1. Snowplow
  2. Parallel Skidding
  3. Step Turns
  4. Tuck

I didn’t included telemarking because our interest is the performance techniques used by competitive cross-country skiers. Telemark skiing lies outside that scope.

The 4 core techniques can be used alone or in combination, depending on what you’re trying to do. Your decision depends on whether you want to reduce and control your speed or maximize your speed, and whether the trail is running straight or turning.

Given those variable, you can organize the downhill techniques into a 2 x 2 matrix based on:

  • Speed Control – is it a braking or non-braking technique?
  • Direction – is the technique better suited for turns, straights or both?

Ultimately you’ll want to learn all these techniques, but even then you may continue to feel nervous about the downhills.

The Reality Gap

A big challenge for many cross-country skiers is the reality gap between a big nordic skiing venue where they might first learn downhill techniques and the types of trails they encounter “out in the wilds”.


Wide, well-groomed trails are idea for learning the downhill nordic skiing techniques.

Much More Difficult

Real life cross-country ski trails present no end of challenges.

Some of the challenges you may encounter while cross-country skiing:

  • Icy downhills where the snow has been plowed off by previous skiers
  • Narrow, steep downhills, with cupping in the middle of the track that gives you less edge control and little room for snowplowing
  • Blind corners
  • Sharp corners at the base of long descents
  • Rough and rutted snow that pulls your skis in different directions
  • Blow outs where previous skiers have gone off the track
  • Unexpected obstacles, such as groups of skiers congregating around trail signs
  • Narrow bridges at the base of steep hills
  • Ice flows

Think beyond techniques to survival skills

To boost your confidence and reduce risk, I suggest you think beyond the 4 principle techniques and practice these downhill survival skills:

  1. Ready Position
  2. Hard Stopping
  3. Picking Up Your Feet

1. Ready Position

Some people might classify the Ready Position a technique. To me, it’s more of a skill or, even better, a posture.

The Ready Position is similar to the Athletic Stance, the universal posture that forms the foundation for most athletic pursuits. I differentiate the 2 like this:

  • The Athletic Stance is the basic posture that all Nordic ski techniques are build on. Feet are hip-width apart. Ankles, knees and hips are bent. Spine and head are neutral. Shoulders down and relaxed and hands up in front of the shoulders.
  • The Ready Position is a variation of the athletic stance, but it places a greater emphasis on stability and control. That means the feet can be wider than the hips. There’s deeper flexion at the ankles, knees and hips. Arms may be wider and further out from the body.

If you’re a beginner, think of the Ready Position as having 3 dials that you can adjust to improve your stability:

  1. Depth – How deeply you flex at the ankles, knees and hips. Use all three joints. A common problem is to bend only at the hips/waist.
  2. Stance width – You can place your feet wider apart to increase stability. Obviously there’s a place where it becomes too much.
  3. Arm Position – reach your hands wide and further ahead to increase stability. Reaching ahead can make your hips go back, so make sure your weight stays mid-foot.

Adjust these dials up and down to create the stability you need to feel confident and safe on the downhills. You’ll be amazed at how stable you can make yourself in this position.

2. Hard Stops

It’s rare that you need to come to a sudden stop when cross-country skiing, which is exactly why deliberate practice is needed. When you need to be able to stop, you really need to be able to stop.

When practicing this skill, be responsible and check no one is approaching from behind before you come to a sudden stop. You need a quiet, out of the way place with open sight lines to safely practice stopping. It’s dangerous to come to a sudden stop when driving and the same is true when skiing.

3. Pick Up Your Feet

Practice the skill of picking up your feet every time you ski. Do it in increasingly challenging situations. You’ll need this skill

  • To step over and around obstacles on the trail
  • To redirect your skis on downhill turns
  • To step in and out of the classic tracks as needed

Improving balance and agility, and practicing hard stops and quick feet will help you feel more at ease on real-life cross-country ski trails.


Related XC Ski Nation video courses:

These are the title slides from video lessons available to XC Ski Nation members inside our course library.

They include in-depth information for skiers just getting started all the way up to race strategies for downhill turns. You can learn more about our membership site, XC Ski Nation here.

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