Head Position – Small Changes, Big Results

I failed to adequately appreciate the importance of head position until quite recently.

I’m the kind of skier who likes to look down at my skis. It suits my introverted personality.

It let’s me be alone, in my own zone, even when there are other people around.

I can focus on the sensations of skiing and experiment with small technical adjustments.

You’ll see the same, head-down positioning, even in high level racers, which was a good part of my self-justification.

Here are some of the ways head position will affect your skiing and performance:

  1. Shoulder Function
  2. Core Response
  3. Breathing Mechanics
  4. Mental State

Shoulder Function

Numerous muscles cross from the base of the skull and cervical spine to the thoracic spine and scapula, which means your head position directly impacts your scapular position and shoulder function.

Cross-country skiing is one of the more benign sports when it comes to shoulders. It is unlike crossfit or volleyball, where weighted and explosive overhead movements regularly sideline participants, but many skiers still suffer from shoulder, neck and back problems.

As double poling increases in importance and upper body strength becomes ever more relevant, more of us will feel the affects of poor shoulder mechanics in our skiing.

Core Response

In my opinion, one of the most overlooked aspects of nordic skiing is the ability to create and maintain tension in the core while still moving in a graceful, smooth and coordinated manner.

It’s one of the special qualities of athleticism we unconsciously appreciate but rarely train directly. It creates that look of power and stillness we see in expert skiers.

You can use a high tension-style plank to recreate similar sensations. You can also simply lean into a wall and push against it without allowing any part of your body to bend.

If you try it against a wall, you’ll see how the muscles of your core respond differently depending on how high or low on the wall you place your hands and how much you bend at the elbows.

Something similar happens in skiing with regards to your poling action and the response in your core muscles. Your head position will affect your hand and pole positions, which in turn alters the response in your core muscles, which will affect your efficiency.


Of course!

Reposition your head and your respiratory muscles will function better. Open your chest, take the pressure off your windpipe (don’t arch your back), and get more oxygen into your lungs.


Remember that marvellous Amy Cuddy Ted Talk about posture, confidence and perception by others?

Where to look

Your head should be in alignment with your torso, so your entire spine is neutral. Don’t crank your neck just so you can look at the top of the hill, but don’t look down at your ski tips either.

If your body position is angled forward (which it should be), your gaze should fall ~10-20 feet up the trail depending on the slope. On a flatter terrain, you’ll see further ahead with a neutral head position. On steep terrain it won’t be as far but you can peek out of the top of your eyes.

We all have pretty terrible upper back and neck alignment from sitting hunched over our computers and phones all day. Forward head posture is epidemic, even in youth.

Fixing the direction of our gaze when we ski won’t correct everything, but it’s at least a start.

Where to learn more

We explain how to optimize posture, positioning and movement for Nordic skiing in the “Efficiency of Human Movement Seminar”, available to XC Ski Nation members. If this topics interests you, I encourage you to try a membership, which begins with a free trial.

3 thoughts on “Head Position – Small Changes, Big Results”

  1. This is a great reminder, Kim. FWIW, all athletic and biomechanically intrigued people should have a copy of Kelly Starrett’s amazing textbook “Becoming the Supple Leopard”. It pretty much goes hand in glove with your recent series on XC Ski Nation (which was great, btw). The bottom line is that the key to maintaining neutral head position is maintaining a neutral thoracic spine… which happens with external rotation of the shoulders and the “setting” of the T-spine. Head position is almost a freebie when proper shoulder position is achieved.

    • Yes, I have that book too. Still waiting to feel like a “subtle leopard”! And you are so right- even the T-spine is affected by the lumbar spine and vice versa. It’s almost like everything in our bodies is connected ;)

  2. In this study, we examined the effects of body position (from deep to high position) in slide boarding by well-trained cross-country skiers. The main hypothesis was that a deeper, more crouched position would lead to reduced air resistance and enhanced power production during explosive extension of the lower limbs, and thereby to an increased performance, even though the upper extremity may not be used for poling in this deep position. Measurements (air resistance in a wind tunnel, power output, kinematics, gas exchange, and blood lactate levels) were performed during a 30-s maximal test and a 3-min maximal test performing (imitation) ski-skating movements on a sliding board at three different body positions (high, moderate, and deep). Our findings indicate that a deep position enhances power production by 24% and reduces air resistance by 30% for the 30-s maximal test. Power production did not increase in the 3-min test, but lactate levels after exercise were increased in the deep position. Calculated efficiency was not affected by body position. The current results indicate that for a short duration, the deeper sit provides sufficient advantages that it may prove useful to apply such a position in sprint ski-skating, even though the use of the upper extremities in poling will be strongly hampered.


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