What Alpine skiers need to know about Nordic downhill skiing

Experienced Alpine skiers are often caught by surprise at the difficulty of Nordic downhill skiing.

Superficially, the sports appear closely related: there’s snow, a pair of skis and a hill. If anything, Alpine skiers expect Nordic downhills to be easier because of slower speeds. Many are unprepared for the challenge of transferring their skills to cross-country skiing.

Nordic vs Alpine Downhill Skiing

Some skills are shared and transfer reasonably well but it’s a mistake to draw too many parallels or for Alpine skiers to be overly confident on cross-country skis.

There are significant differences between Nordic and Alpine downhill skiing because of:

  1. The Stability of the Equipment
  2. The Mechanics of the Equipment
  3. The Terrain

1. Stability

Factors that influence stability:

  • Mass (more mass = more stability)
  • Friction (greater friction = more stability)
  • Size of the base of support (larger base of support = more stability)
  • Vertical position of the centre of gravity (lower = more stability)

Alpine equipment delivers greater stability on every count:

  • Boots, binding and skis are several orders of magnitude heavier.
  • Metal edges increase friction when the ski is angled, like a snowplow.
  • Alpine skis provide a wider base of support.
  • An Alpine skier’s centre of gravity is lower thanks the weight of the skis, boots and bindings.

2. Equipment Mechanics

Differences in the design and construction or Nordic ski equipment mean the mechanics, while related, are not identical. Different mechanics means different skills are called for.

When you think of the mechanics of the equipment and the skills involved, it helps to organize techniques into a matrix according to these two factors:

  • Trail: The trail is either straight or turning. (Straight Run or Downhill Turn)
  • Speed: You are either trying to slow down and check your speed, or you want to maintain speed, or even accelerate. (Speed Control or Max Speed)


Skidding is a braking maneuver used to control speed in both Alpine and Nordic skiing. Skidding happens when a ski is edged and angled across the direction of travel. The edge of the ski shaves the surface of the snow.

In skidding techniques, the skis are either set in a wedge shape, with the tips closer together than the tails (snowplow) or parallel to one another. Examples of parallel skidding are:

  • Sideslipping down a hill,
  • Skidding through a turn, and
  • Skid stops, a.k.a. hockey stops.

In Nordic skiing, skidding is both more important and more challenging. It’s more important because the Nordic skier has a greater need to check speed. It’s more difficult because the equipment is lightweight and race skis don’t have metal edges.

Turns at Speed

The most notable difference between Nordic and Alpine downhill skiing is how turns are taken at speed.

In both sports you can decelerate during a downhill turn using either a snowplow turn or a parallel skid, but in instances where you want to maintain speed or even accelerate, Alpine and Nordic skiers use different techniques.

Alpine Ski Design

Alpine skis have sharp metal edges and impressive parabolic sidecuts. They are designed specifically for downhill turning. Parabolic side cuts are when a ski has curved sides, as if a large circle was cut out of the side of the ski.

Nordic Ski Design

Nordic skis also have a side cut, but it’s not parabolic. Instead of having wide tips and tails and a narrow underfoot, Nordic skis have more of a linear side cut, with little variation between tip, underfoot and tail. They’re designed for quick and easy travel on flats, uphills and downhills.

Alpine skiers carve turns

Alpine skiers carve turns by tilting their skis onto their edges and applying pressure. That makes the parabolic side cut form an arc so the ski runs through the turn, carving a pencil-thin track in the snow.

Nordic skiers step turns

Step Turning is the Nordic technique for taking downhill turns without skidding (braking) and is unique to Nordic skiing.

Rather than tracking through the arc of the turn, the skis hit sequential tangents along the arc. The skis are in a V-shape, with the tails together and tips further apart.

Alpine skis are rarely, if ever, positioned in a V-shape during a descent.

Alpine skiers carve turns (left) because the skis have parabolic side cuts and metal edges. Nordic skis have straighter, smaller side cuts and have to be stepped around turns (right). Image copyright XCSN Nordic Skiing Inc. 2018. All rights reserved.

3. Terrain

Downhill skiing on Nordic ski trails is not the same as skiing on wide, well-groomed Alpine ski runs. Cross-country trails are more often narrow, icy and rutted. Trails get cupped by skiers who plow the snow cover to the sides of the trail, making it even harder to edge the skis.

Moreover, in downhill skiing you usually have options about when and where you turn, which gives you greater control over your descent.

In Nordic skiing, you have to follow the contours of the trail, running straight even when the downhills seem too steep and turning when the trail turns, or else.

It’s hard for everyone

Bear these differences in mind if you’re an Alpine skier new to Nordic skiing. It’s best to approach the downhills with caution, at least until you get the feel of it. Don’t feel bad if it’s more difficult than you expected.

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Three Must-Have Skills for Nordic Skiers

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2 thoughts on “What Alpine skiers need to know about Nordic downhill skiing”

  1. Hi, Your tutorials are excellent. I, too am a mother of a High School Nordic skier.
    If I am not mistaken, the technique matrix above has a tiny error. Aren’t step turns used in Nordic, not Alpine. It’s a typo for sure.

    Many thanks!



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