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.

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 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 to work on body position, balance and rhythm. 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 (flexing) at the hips, knees and ankles. Weight forward, mid to forefoot.
  2. Take small, running steps on your skis.
  3. Push your wax down against the snow and let your stride extend behind you.

This is how she skied:

Conflicting Advice

After class Susanne said my cues did not match with what she’d learn about diagonal stride from Youtube videos. She believed she should push her foot forward with each stride to 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 don’t use these cues with beginner and intermediate skiers.

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 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:

To me it’s 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.

What’s wrong with the “Foot Drive” cue?

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 an expert (athlete credit: Kai Lukowiak) demonstrating easy diagonal stride without poles on a flat.

1. Kick: Follow Through (Right Leg)

Maximum backwards position 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.

Note the shin angle of Susanne’s stance leg and how that affects her overall position. The foot drive cue shifts her weight back. That’s the typical result you get with this cue.

2. Recovery Leg Swing (Right Leg)

The right foot touches the snow after swinging forward.

Recovery-Leg-SwingAfter the follow though, the leg has to recover to the forward position for the next stride. One easy landmark for evaluating a skier’s technique is to look at where the foot lands relative to the stance foot. (In these photos, left leg = stance leg; right leg =recovering leg.)

In an advanced skier, the foot lands beside or ahead of the stance foot (right photo). When the foot lands on the snow behind the stance foot, it indicates the position is too far back and the balance needs work (left photo).

When Susanne thinks about pushing her foot forward, her recovery foot lands too far back (left photo). You can see how her her foot drops to the ground behind her. She needs extra stability because her ‘foot drive” is throwing her weight back.

In the middle 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)

The instant the left foot released from the snow at the end of the kick (leg push).

End-of-KickOnce 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 results in the body weight going too far back.

“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.

16 thoughts on “Is the “Foot Drive” Cue a Major Misstep?”

  1. This is awesome! I would also suggest to Susanne as the next step to have her arms swinging in the natural rhythm as it will help her to elongate her stride and also incorporate more balance work as the result. Fantastic videos! :)

  2. “The greater the ignorance the greater the dogmatism.”
    ― William Osler

    Kim seems to understand this without question.

    Brilliant piece! DNA

  3. I’ve come to expect thoughtful analytical pieces from you and Kai and wasn’t disappointed. You did another piece about not going beyond the diagonal stride wall;, which seems applicable here. We sometimes talk about swinging the recovery leg forward like a soccer ball kick, – is this a good cue? Likely another cue that must be explained carefully and demoed. Circle teaching points back to gaining ground through glide.

    Kudos to Susanne for doing this. Video analysis, especially public, can be humbling for many of us.

    Cheers, Bruce

    • Hi Bruce – Yes, big thanks to Susanne. You are correct, she is generous.

      Personally I’d be careful with the soccer kick metaphor. One one hand, it could help people have a nice fluid leg swing, but I could also see it causing the same problem as the foot drive cue.

      Different cues work for different people, so it doesn’t really hurt to experiment with various ideas, especially if you’re honest and disclose to your athletes what you’re doing. I just got frustrated with the foot drive cue because it is so reliably harmful.

  4. Thanks for this analysis

    What this reminds me to be aware of is

    – Gliding leg never pass vertical on Kai’s demo. Clearly Kai keeps it straight and leans over it. I will keep in mind to see if follow this.
    – Kai seems to pay attention to stay low during gliding. Maybe he his shy of being soo tall, but I suspect this is to sping from it, as it is stored momentum for strong and prolongated kick. I thing its very important because this springyness might be having some influence the hability to push forward efficiently during glide phase. Actually you see Kai’s head bobbing up and down while Susan stays pretty stable.
    – Twist it,: One of your pas advice to extend then stride span was to hip twist, as this gives you a good extra foot while keeping body weight where it shoud be. This is pushing the leg forward too.

  5. Very interesting and nice article! Yes, I agree that position is the starting point for a good technique. I also think it is important to start practicing with very low intensity, establishing a feeling for movement efficiency. This is also very much how playing a musical instrument is learned.

    I would have liked to see Susanne skiing in tracks because that is where classic cross-country skiing is done. Flat and hard snow surfaces are for skate skiing. It would be interesting to see Susanne’s further progress and her use of poles. Although it can be fruitful to take the skiing action apart by studying and training e.g. just the leg work, cross-country skiing is an integrated full-body exercise. Do not leave out the poles for too long!

    • Yes, tracks would have been nice, but at this time of year we’re just super happy to have snow! We got a LOT of snow all in one night and it took many days for the groomers to get it all under control.

      • Another well done video, Kim. Glad to see a new article on your site, winter must be coming.

        You are so lucky to have snow ! I’m up in the “snowbelt” of northern Michigan, and it was 50 degrees F today. No snow in the 10 day forecast, either. Still biking and roller skiing, hopefully it changes.

      • It is funny how I was waiting for you to bring up HIP. I do about six hip exercises. One is a lunge and one is a side plank. Try lifting one leg when in a side plank. Abdominal and glutes will take you a long way. But I am a skate skier. Have a great day. Fred

  6. Having just gone thru knee replacement and mostly at home doing rehab your website is a gift… I can’t ski for awhile so your videos are the best thing…after watching I then close my eyes and visualize what I have just learned… Your videos are excellent. Thanks

    • Hi Douglas! Thanks for the nice comment. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard lately is to view injuries as opportunities. Maybe, once you’re back on your feet, your poling and upper body work will really improve because you have to go easy on your knees!

  7. I agree with the foot/knee drive analysis. People have been using this cue for years at the club where I coach and I’ve always disliked it. Good running technique ( Jay Dicharry is a good source for this) has your feet landing ideally under or just ahead of your center of gravity and it should be the same for classic striding. When somebody cues the kids to drive their knee/foot up the hill the feet land ahead of their hips, not underneath. I like to think that really good classic skiers and top African runners have lot in common technically, especially when you look at the hip angles at the back end of the stride – the difference is that in skiing the knee angle is straight.

    I prefer to think of my legs swinging from the core as an integrated kinetic unit rather than thinking about driving the knee/foot. I think what gets your hips high and forward is the combination of hip rotation and flexion at the knee and ankle. When coaches yell at the kids to get their hips forward they naturally thrust their hips forward, hyperextending their low backs to do it, because nobody has ever explained what it actually means, and probably most coaches haven’t really figured it out the biomechanics. A Norwegian coach talked about moving your hips like a drunken cowboy, although thinking about latin dancing may make pleasing imagery.

    When you take a weekend CCC coaching course they pile a bunch on a lot of stuff and teach you a million drills which you promptly forget, so you end up just falling back on some mantras. It takes a few years of thinking and experimenting to unlearn a lot of the cruft.

  8. Great stuff–i’ve never had a lesson, but watched a Norwegian race analysis video. It talked about driving the gliding leg hip down the track, which i have tried. But i think i just end up with too much foot drive. Jon

  9. Great stuff–i’ve never had a lesson, but watched a Norwegian race analysis video. It talked about driving the gliding leg hip down the track, which i have tried. But i think i just end up with too much foot drive.

  10. Thank you for sharing this technique tip. I began classic skiing just two months ago. In my first lesson I was taught the foot drive. I found it made me prone to overextending my stride, and exhausting. Following your advice here, and in the Invisible Wall blog post, I’ve experienced much better efficiency and comfort.

    Now I need to learn how to adjust the length of my stride as my forward momentum increases, as I tend to lose control when I speed up. It seemed easier to adapt my stride to the increases and decreases in speed using the foot drive technique.

    Seattle, WA


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