Effective Downhill Turns: What the Science Says

Downhill turns cross-country skiing

A team of scientists from Norway, Sweden and Slovenia studied downhill turns made by elite female cross-country skiers and came up some helpful guidelines.*

The two techniques they studied were skidding and step turning. Skidding is similar to a hockey stop. You decelerate by edging parallel skis against the fall line.

You can also snowplow through a downhill turn, but the scientists were interested in high performance techniques. They already knew step turning was the fastest way to negotiate a turn, but they wanted to know how the turn radius might impact optimal technique selection.

The takeaways from the study:
  1. High exit velocity should be a skier’s top priority and speed matters more than staying tight in the corner. It’s better to take a wide turn at a higher speed than to take a tight turn at a slower speed.
  2. If you’re about to enter a turn too fast and you need to skid, do it early and hard. Rapidly decelerate to a safe speed, then begin step turning as soon as possible.
  3. Faster skiers braked rapidly during the start of the turn and then maintained speed. Slower skiers braked for a longer period of time and left the turn with a lower velocity.
  4. Try to accelerate out of the turn by initiating your step turn as early as you can and using rapid, powerful leg push offs.

It’s interesting that taking the turn wider actually helped performance. When skiers turned sharply into a corner, even when step turning, they came out of the corner slower. This means that you shouldn’t prioritize hitting the apex of a turn or staying incredibly close to the inside line as this could reduce your speed.

Additional Tips
  1. Look where you want to go. Don’t look straight ahead and don’t look into the trees or at spectators. Just look to the exit of the turn.
  2. Keep your chest facing the same direction you are looking. This helps bring your body and skis around.
  3. Keep your weight evenly distributed on your feet. In many cross-country ski techniques we stress keeping your weight forward, on the balls of your feet, but downhills and step turning require a different approach. Keep your weight evenly spread between your heels and the balls of your feet for maximum stability.

Here’s a video demonstration of downhill step turning:

* Sandbakk O, Sandbakk SB, Supej M, Holmberg H-C. The velocity and energy profiles of elite cross-country skiers executing downhill turns with different radii. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2014; 9, 41-47

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