Classical Skiing Renaissance

By Jon Pensak

What is the first image of cross country skiing you remember? For most of us, it may include a graceful, impossibly extended skier (perhaps Bill Koch) effortlessly flying over the snow.

Yet many skiers, betraying their novice fantasies, never reach this level of elegant proficiency in the sport. They get stuck at the “Shuffling” or “Easy Glider” stage of development.

Yet everyone is capable of achieving “fluid striding” and it need not take the supernatural training discipline of a Bill Koch, or the full-time waxing coach and unlimited resources of a Björn Dæhlie, to do it. Recent advances in the sport change the equation by removing many of the impediments that have held the average skier back.

For starters, new wax and ski technologies allow those of us with limited time to have skis that kick and glide almost as well as those of top racers. Also, the increased popularity of “core” training approaches, along with an improved understanding of biomechanics, is helping to correct many recreational athletes’ inefficient movement patterns which impede progress. And, finally, there are more resources being put into improving the teaching and coaching of classical skiing at the grassroots club and scholastic levels, leading to an improved awareness of what makes for good technique.

Taken as a whole, these changes are contributing to a renewed interest in classical skiing at every level of the sport. For the average skier, they offer new opportunities to rediscover the high levels of finesse and athleticism that classical skiing both cultivates and rewards.

Recreational skiers face three major obstacles in their quest for a rewarding classic experience.

  • Inefficient movement patterns from years of sitting and poor posture

  • “Too comfortable” technique – not extending enough during the stride

  • Old waxing was confusing and time-consuming

The good news is that some motivation and an investment in modern technology can resolve all three of these issues.

Developing Efficient Motor Patterns

Poor “motor patterns,” or recruiting the wrong muscles for a particular task or not using muscles in an integrated fashion, is a major cause of poor technique. Stuart McGill, a noted biomechanical researcher, describes the most troublesome motor pattern for skiers – important deep glute muscles develop “neural amnesia” and don’t fire properly. Many recreational skiers have developed this pattern either from past injury or simply from living the North American lifestyle of frequent sitting and poor posture.

Improperly firing glute muscles lead to a skier hinging at the waist, as opposed to the hips, while striding, which can lead to back problems and make it difficult to ski properly. Recent research has shown that engaging the deep glute muscles of the body is critical to developing proper body awareness (proprioception) and balance.

One way to achieve engagement of the glutes is through functional training, or multi-joint (and multi-directional) movement and balance training. Specific examples of functional training exercises include one legged dead lifts and one legged bridging exercises on unstable surfaces.

Done with proper technique, classical skiing itself can serve as a functional training exercise and help correct poor patterns we may have developed over the years. Classical skiing involves basic movement patterns, such as the squat and one-legged balance, which sports scientists see as fundamental to our overall biomechanical health.

Step one in correcting bad patterns is to neurologically wake-up the key, deep stabilizer muscles. To get a feel for this, try this brief exercise. Pick up a moderately heavy object from the floor in your habitual fashion. Now pick it up again, but this time visualize your body staying in one place and, instead of you standing up, visualize your legs pushing the Earth away from you. This should lead to hinging at the hip, and increased use of deep glute muscles.

For many recreational skiers, this simple exercise can be the start of improved balance and coordination. To use the image while skiing, visualize standing on top of the Earth. On each stride, grab the Earth with your kicking leg and push it behind you, as you visualize your body staying in one spot on top of the Earth. This exercise will encourage use of your deep stabilizing muscles necessary for proprioception and overall balance. The increased body awareness and improved body movement will reduce stress on your joints while allowing for more fluid, powerful strides.

Extending for a Graceful Stride

Now that we have a body on its way to functioning efficiently, let’s look at technique. To achieve “fluid striding,” the key for most recreational skiers is to move out of their comfort zone and extend body weight over the forward ski. We want to fall forward from ski to ski. Note that the skier in the photo is hinging at the hips (i.e., using his glutes), his weight is always forward and, if he were to stop at any of points of the stride, he would fall on his face (so, his weight is constantly moving forward).

To achieve this sort of fluid striding, a two-stage retraining of technique can help. Stage one involves revisiting the fundamentals and stage two involves focusing on extension and losing inhibitions.

What follows are basic drills and images to help put you on the right path.

Revisiting the Fundamentals

The first step is revisiting the fundamentals. The chart and photos that follow will help reacquaint you with some simple drills (click on the chart for a larger version).

Catching gremlins

Kicking the soccer ball

Throwing water


Extending Self

After the fundamentals of the stride are reestablished, it’s time to extend yourself (and your comfort zone). These drills and images will help keep your weight moving forward, so that you start to fly over the snow. (Click on the chart below for a larger version.)

Better and Faster Equipment and Wax

You are in shape, efficient in technique and have revisited the fundamentals. Time to take a look at your equipment and wax.

If a beginning skier is lucky enough to take a lesson, they’re often put on old waxless skis with bottoms like sandpaper. It’s no wonder that many quickly become discouraged. At higher recreational levels, the situation has not been much better, with skiers typically making do with poorly gliding and kicking skis.

It’s a pernicious myth that recreational skiers can use any old equipment. In fact, to fully enjoy skiing, you need skis that kick and glide smoothly. And the same requirement goes for improving technique (it’s the expert skier who has enough experience to deal with poorly kicking skis). Luckily, new technologies make it possible to have high performing skis with minimal effort.

The most exciting recent development in ski technology has been racing waxless skis. Most manufacturers now offer models with both great kick and great glide (90 - 100 percent of traditional skis). In fact, these skis are increasingly being used to win major loppets.

For the recreational skier, the new waxless skis mean less time fiddling with kick wax in difficult conditions and the ability to fit a quick ski tour into a busy day.

Complementing the new waxless skis are new kick wax technologies. Start has made Grip Tape for several seasons. This is like heavy duty double-sided tape that goes onto the kick zone of a ski and is ideal as it works very well in conditions where the racing waxless skis start to slip (e.g., glazed tracks, man-made snow). Rex now offers the EasyGrip line, with three different grip tapes for a range of temperatures (green, blue and purple). In addition, Swix and Toko have also introduced a line of liquid spray-on grip waxes.

Note that all skis still need glide wax. Calling skis with fish-scale patterns “waxless” was an unfortunate historical mistake, which has led many recreational skiers down the evil path of having poorly gliding skis. Luckily, there have also been major recent advances in glide waxing to support the new, easier-to-use kick technologies.

The exciting development in glide waxing is a new generation of wipe-on glide waxes, offering time-saving convenience. While there have been wipe-on waxes in the past, the new technologies offer performance approaching that of traditional hot-waxed skis and are more durable than the older approaches. (Swix fluorinated liquid glide wax and Toko Dibloc high fluoro paste wax are two top-performing examples.)

There are new wipe-on versions of high performing (i.e., fluorinated) kick waxes as well. While they don’t save as much time for the solo skier, they can be a life-saver for teams and families.

One ski area that has been pushing the new classical wax technologies is Waterville Valley in New Hampshire. Waterville has always had some of the best classical skiing on the East Coast. Nordic Director Mike Seeger notes that, “The ‘fast food’ family of new grip and glider waxes can help remove some of the barriers to folks intrigued by the grace and rhythm of classic skiing, but simply without the time and the expertise to deal with the intricacies of hard wax and klister.”

Building a Quiver of Skis

While the idea of having one ski that “does it all” can be appealing, counter-intuitively, the way to simplify your ski life is to have multiple pairs of skis. That way you can simply pull out the appropriate ski for the conditions of the day, without having to do much work. Skis need not be expensive — they can often be purchased inexpensively at ski swaps, outlet stores and end of year sales.

Ideally, three pairs of classical skis will cover all conditions for the time-pressed skier and require minimum up-keep. These include:

  • Waxless (fish-scale) skis: For above-freezing conditions and for soft variable conditions (or when time is limited).

  • Regular waxables for fresh snow conditions: The most pleasant classical skiing is on fresh, 26-degree snow with Blue Extra kick wax on your skis—you don’t want to miss it.

  • Skis with Grip Tape (left on for the season): For hard tracks with variable conditions and for glazed and man-made tracks.

For optimum ski care, every spring you should hot wax your skis (or have a shop do it) for summer storage. For maximum time savings during the season, simply scrape off the summer wax and use the wipe-on waxes as needed.

Next Steps

With classical skiing’s increased popularity, there are more and more programs available for recreational skiers interested in either racing or just skiing more proficiently. Joining a program in your local area can provide a great boost to your continued development as a skier. Examples of such programs in the Northeast include Vermont’s Mansfield Nordic Masters training program and The Ultimate Stride series at Weston Ski Track near Boston. Similar programs abound in Nordic skiing hotspots across the country.

There are fewer and fewer excuses not to enjoy classical skiing to the fullest level possible. By removing major impediments to progress, any skier can discover (or rediscover) the grace and beauty of the classic stride.

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