Summary: “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:
- Get into the athletic position by dropping (flexing) at the hips, knees and ankles. Weight forward, mid to forefoot.
- Take small, running steps on your skis.
- Push your wax down against the snow and let your stride extend behind you.
This is how she skied:
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.
This 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.
After 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).
Once 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.