Skaters buzz around most Nordic centers (like a swarm of angry bees sometimes), making it easy to believe there are no striders left. However, the timeless allure of the diagonal stride continues to charm many. If you're one of them, and have no desire to skate, I'm not here to change your mind. If you'd like to discover the thrill of floating and flying that makes skating so addictive, here are some tips.
Gliding on skating skis is similar to gliding on your classic skis except that your tips are apart (and your legs are turned out). But when it comes time to move from one ski to the next, skating is definitely not striding with your tips apart. With no grip wax beneath your foot, pushing off by pushing down and extending forward simply shoots your foot and ski backwards. This is why competent waxable classic skiers can skate around corners, down some hills and across the flats but struggle to maintain momentum and generate speed on uphills and in slower conditions. (photo 1)
On skating skis, a proper push off should be directly sideways at a 90-degree angle or perpendicular to your ski. In clinics, I offer the visualization of taking a hammer and some tacks and nailing your heel to the ski to help break the intuitive pattern of moving forward as you do every time you walk or run. Find where you need to be over your foot as you move toward the next ski by maintaining equal pressure on the sole of your foot from your toes to your heels as you extend your leg. It should feel like the entire sole of your boot is welded to the ski from the moment you start to push until your leg is fully extended. Keep the ski moving forward after your push off is complete by mimicking the motion of kicking a soccer ball that is cradled between the top of your foot and your ankle forward and up the track (photo 2).
Speed skaters practice this same push off by standing next to a wall. They coil over the foot away from the wall and initiate the push off with a sideways tilt towards the wall. Before they tilt too far they explode sideways off the weighted foot to push their hip into the wall at the same time that their shoulder touches. Do not start too far away from the wall unless you want to hurt yourself.
Try to replicate this sideways push off that generates enough force to bruise as you push off from one ski and onto the next. With your skis in a narrow V on flat and fast trails, pushing directly sideways will create the ski speed needed to keep your skis gliding forward—all you need to do is go along for the ride. In steeper terrain and slower snow, your skis will be angled more to the trail in a wider V. In these situations, a powerful sideways push off will contribute to moving your body forward as well as creating ski speed (photos 3 & 4).
When you push off sideways against your ski, it is caught between the force of your push off and the resistance of the edge against the snow. Unless you have totally missed the glide wax for the day, your ski will squirt forward from between these two opposing forces like a watermelon seed from between your fingers.
To maximize the amount of squirt or acceleration from each push off, keep your weight against the ski during the entire push off. In other words, to push off of your foot you must be supported by it. Time your movements to the next ski so that you push off from ski to ski instead of falling from ski to ski. You have moved off too soon if you feel little pressure on your ski as you push off or if the edge slides out. This is an indication that you have transferred some weight to the next ski before you were done pushing off the last one and is the opposite of feeling welded to the ski through your foot during the push off that was described above (photo 5).
Skating on icy trails or roller skiing on wet and slippery roads provides great feedback about your alignment and the timing of your push off and weight transfer. Your ski or roller ski will track and grip the surface as long as you maintain a body position where you can push down through the ski with equal weight along the entire edge of your foot. If your ski or roller ski slips out before you are ready to move to the next ski, then you have moved away from the ski too soon or have rotated during the push off.
As you play around with these images and ideas, keep these basics in mind:
> Skis are held in a V position open at the tips—as you go faster, the V gets narrower
> Forward propulsion comes from pushing off an edged ski.
> The ski moves forward at an angle to the trail while the skier moves forward more in line with the overall direction of the trail. This causes the ski to tip on edge during the skate stroke.
> The heel stays down as long as possible during the push off.
> The skier pushes sideways off of one ski and onto the next.
> Weight is transferred completely from ski to ski.
> The skis come back beneath the body after each skate.
> Poles compliment what the legs do.
The basics of generating speed with your poles remain the same for skating and striding. What you know from double poling and even diagonal poling applies, but the timing can be confusing. To minimize the bad things poles can do as you learn how to move from ski to ski, plant and push on them lightly.
Further help with pole use and timing can be found in my book Cross-Country Skiing: Building Skills for Fun and Fitness.