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.

23 thoughts on “Don’t waste your time on stupid skate drills”

  1. “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.”

    Yes, I think this is very good advice. It also makes skate skiing less demanding on your strength so you get the chance of developing that aspect too at the same time.

  2. Kim…you have a good video on classic sking regarding not going beyond a ” fence ” with your feet. I also saw one about not going beyond the fence during skate sking. Basically not going too wide or far with your feet during the weight transfer phase. I wanted to revisit that video but cannot seem to find it again in your library. Could you talk about that sometime ? Thanks for your efforts !

  3. Relating this to my own experiences – ‘double tap’ as a total beginner never made much sense to me, as I rarely had the ski down in a balanced position in the first place, so to stand tall and glide on it without first getting the ski under my centre of gravity was asking the impossible.

  4. I’m curious now what the breast stroke, javelin and cowboy drills are :D

    The main thing that I have struggled with, while learning to skate ski, is getting my feet underneath me enough. I suppose the second thing would be to be more dynamic and less straight legged.

    Now, I know there is a drill (tap your ankles together before planting the foot) to try to bring the legs in more.

    What is the current thinking in this area? Is the drill a waste of time? Is there a better one? If not, what’s the best way to improve in this respect?

    • Hey Risto – I don’t know what “the current thinking” is about this drill. I can only tell you my current thinking. This is how I think about it:

      When you push against either a classic or skate ski, you generate forces, some of which move you forward. These forces also “perturb” your body and throw you off balance. You see this especially in the skier’s torso, shoulders and head. There is often a lot of instability there.

      Skiers instinctively react to the instability by creating a larger base of support. This happens during the leg recovery after the kick (leg push). The skier lands the foot wide in skate or behind in classic in order to increase the base of support and find stability.

      The root of the problem is a lack of stability. The skier can’t handle the perturbations in his torso and upper body created by his kick and poling actions. He can’t handle the instability inherent in his base (skinny skis, unstable and irregular surface). Instead of balancing comfortably on a single leg, he touches down the recovering ski prematurely to increase his base of support.

      Tapping your heels together won’t magically create more stability. (We’re not in Oz.) Furthermore it’s not a normal skate skiing movement. Not only is it the wrong thing for your legs to do, it’s going to make you do incorrect movements with the rest of your body because your upper and lower body are connected. The transition from recovery to kick is already a problem area for many skiers. They don’t need any extra ways to screw it up.

      There are multiple ways to tackle the stability problem on-snow and even m0re off-snow. Some options are:

      Skate roller skiing – because a wheel has more lateral stability than a ski.
      Less effort – ease off on the kick so it doesn’t toss you around so much.
      Less range of motion – this is another area I think needs way more emphasis in Nordic ski instruction
      SKI SMALL – Get low and compact and try to stay that way (my all time favourite)

  5. Kim,
    I am deeply grateful for your concise perspectives on the dumb silly teaching tools that have become almost dogma in many Nordic ski instruction finally read that it always strips down to the fundamentals, with effective teaching coming from this deep understanding of the mechanics…and not getting all mucked up in some drill that, as you state, often wastes precious time. Although we learn in a variety of ways, I’m in agreement with you in that instructors need to be patient, friendly, empathetic…and most of all stay focused on fundamental mechanics. Obvious to me that your perspectives come only from lots of years on skis, an avogadro’s amount of time years trying to help people learn this sport, culminating perhaps in producing this XC Nation website with a remarkable group of talented my mind, to be this straight forward in articulating an instructional path, if you will, is a nice testament to all you have accomplished. Again, i think you’ve hit on a core instructional element that I find enlightening and greatly appreciate..bravo!

  6. Ha. Kim, you may have seen me doing the breaststroke at the Nordic Center during my Cansi 1 last Feb. I used to do a lot of free skate in a low position as my balance wasn’t good and I thought that was the way to improve it. For a more recreational one skate, aren’t you supposed to glide on a straighter leg so you’re riding more on bone, and less on muscle? A sprinting one skate would entail an overall lower position. My technique needed adjustment as I wasn’t coming up to the nice high position like the picture of Ivan at the front of this article. I recently had the opportunity to do some relaxed one skate with a former national team member. As you say, compact, relaxed and w/o wasted motion.
    Thanks for many great articles and videos. Bruce

    • Hi Bruce – I think your instinct to practice lots of Free Skate was spot on. Yes, we all need to challenge ourselves past our limits, but there is no need for beginners to work through a full range of motion. Skiing with a full range of motion is greatly overrated. Also, the idea that we can relax on our bones is pretty silly. As you know from the XC Ski Nation seminar on optimizing human movement, standing tall on one leg is highly unstable. We’re better off keeping our muscles in stronger positions by maintain some flexion at all our joints. Also, movement should flow continuously. The idea we can “hang out and relax” at the top of the cycle just leads to awkward pauses in people’s technique.

  7. Kim, as usual YOU ROCK!! This time, though, you’re on fire!!! I love your tack on bad advice. Us old farts have no time to lose on bad drills that put you behind the 8 ball “forever”. MERCIMERCIMERCI!!

  8. Hi. Saw mention of “How to release the ski from the snow so the tip doesn’t get caught up in the snow.” above and wonder what your recommendations are for this. I just started to skate ski and have been reading and watching the great blogs/videos on this site, but have not seen info on this issue. I continually have this problem with one leg. It get so very frustrating as it breaks up any rhythm to skiing. Thanks for all the help that you have already provided through previous blogs, and thanks to any help that you can provide to me with this problem.

    • Hi Mike – It has to do with how you apply pressure against the ski. It’s hard to describe in text. Basically, you don’t want to avoid rolling off your toe.

  9. Hello,

    I was a fairly decent cross country classic style competitor (Div. 1) back in college (late sixties) and am finding transitioning to skating fairly difficult. Even in classic style we used one skate push off frequently. I wonder whether this is a good transition point to learn to skate.?I find balance to be another big issue. Any advice you might have?

  10. Hmm, I disagree with the specific drill mentioned here. I found it very helpful for improving my V2, personally. Of course, that was as a more advanced skier, not as a beginner. I think it’s important to know as an instructor when to introduce these drills (I would never think to use this for a beginner or early intermediate). And it always depends on the person. But this particular drill (practicing it both on snow, and in particular in roller skis) basically transformed me from someone who often felt like V2 was “too fast” and energy intensive on flats compared to V2-alternate, to someone who now favors V2 a lot and finds it very energy efficient. Maybe it worked well in my case because there wasn’t a huge balance problem to begin with (I think it mostly just helped with cadence/timing, as well as posture to a certain extent)

    I do generally subscribe to the ideology of fewer drills, especially for skate. But this one still seems important to me in certain contexts.

  11. I have been struggling for years trying to get V2 down. And you have given me hope! Unfortunately didn’t learn it when I started XC and became stuck in the V1 offset cadence that also favored my slight scoliosis. Your “get small” advice really helped my transition (I am a tall woman). Also helped to completely lay off any kind of power expectation to get the feel of the new un-syncopated rhythm. I am starting to be able to “hang” more on each ski – only because I have focused on a low, efficient push- off as my “start” of the cycle in order to arrive on a balanced glide ski (rather than trying to gain balance after landing on glide ski). I have had success focusing on the “bottom” of the cycle as you advise, rather than the “top” as all those drills do. Thanks for the mental images and words of encouragement.


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