By Steve Hindman
Skiing in most locales requires that you go down hills as well as up hills and across the flats. Due to the wonder of gravity, you have less time to learn how to go downhill by actually skiing down the hills than you have on the flats or up the hills. If you spend what little time you do having skiing downhill being tense and defensive, your chances of becoming a better downhill skier just by skiing more are even slimmer.
Dryland training usually focuses on the flats and climbing hills, but less so on developing grace and confidence in the off-season for going down the hills.
What to do? You could spend time this winter repeatedly climbing and then sliding down a gentle slope until comfort and confidence improved and grace emerged, but who has time for that when there is snow on the ground and kilometers to cover? Instead of waiting for snow, focus on downhill skills during summer training by learning to keep up with your feet as your belly button and your feet diverge down different paths on descents.
As in all skiing, a strong and stable core is key. As you play with the following suggestions, keep your core stable by sucking your navel toward your spine and maintaining the C shape from thighs to shoulders that is common to both skate and classic skiing. If this is not already one of your thoughts during dryland training and other athletic pursuits, start by simply adding this focus to whatever else you do.
Effective and efficient classic and skate skiing is the result of keeping your core in constant forward motion. This minimizes the additional muscular effort needed to create glide and maximizes the effects of those efforts. When gravity provides the glide, keeping your core constantly moving forward and down the hill minimizes the muscular effort needed to guide your feet and skis through turns. However, cross country skiers accustomed to propelling themselves forward without outside assistance often pull up and brace against gravity when the hill tugs at their skis. Fighting gravity does not work; pulling back from the hill blocks forward movement of the core, straightens the joints, and makes it hard to edge, guide or otherwise direct the skis.
This is easy to see in the photos. With my ankle straight and my hands and shoulders back (photo 1), I am blocked from moving forward or to the left. With my ankle flexed and my hands and shoulders forward (photo 2), I am free to move wherever I want. Use smaller and rapid steps, lifting your knees a bit higher as if you were running in place, to make it easier to stay over your feet and keep your ankles flexed with each step. Choose a gentle hill to start with.
In the next series of photos (photos 3, 4 & 5), my core is calm and stable as my feet and legs move out to one side, back underneath me, and then out to the other side. Direct your upper body along a path that diverges from that of your feet so you can edge and then guide your skis (and your feet while running). While gravity keeps your core moving forward, the feet can go where they need to go. If you allow your legs and feet to push your upper body from side to side, as in the single frame (photo 6), that added movement throws you behind your feet, disrupts your forward motion, and requires muscular effort to redirect your center of mass at the end or start of each turn.
Keep your upper body quiet and allow gravity to pull it down the hill. While keeping your shoulders and hands level and forward, focus your eyes on the trail ahead as you move onto a flexed ankle with each step. Note the visor on my hat in the photo series; it stays parallel to the incline of the trail, pointing in the direction of the upcoming trail, which in this case is to my right. For another chance to hone your ability to separate the paths of your upper and lower body, hop on your bike (photo 7). Although holding onto the handlebars pulls your hands out of level as you corner, concentrate on keeping your torso over your bike and parallel to the trail surface as the frame tips and the tires move out from underneath you. Look where you want to go.
If you are unaccustomed to playing on the downhills, you may take a while to feel comfortable flowing down the trail instead of resisting gravity. Certainly, there are trails that are too straight and too steep simply to tip forward and flow down, but on most trails you will be surprised how much easier it is to play with the terrain instead of resisting it. Besides, it’s fun. To control your speed, make numerous tight turns back and forth on the sides of rutted trails, hop from point to point where you can or care to, and bank off of stumps, humps and rocks (photo 8).
If you lack trails with turns, or just want to ease into downhill work, lay out a garden hose in a sinuous pattern on a grassy hill. Walk, run or jog along its path and experiment with these suggestions. As you do, try the path with stiff legs, then repeat with flex in your ankles, knees, and hips. Let your upper body turn with your feet as you follow the curves of the hose, then focus your “torso triangle” composed of your belly button and your shoulders at the end of the hose. Look at your feet, then look a little ways ahead, then look down the length of the hose as your feet follow the path of the hose down the hill. Play with different speeds and on different inclines.
Find out for yourself how downhill practice works on the grass and out on the trail. When the snow flies, try these techniques out with skis back on your feet. When you do, you’ll be at least one step further toward downhill confidence and grace than when you hung up your skis last spring.
Steve Hindman lives and skis in the Pacific Northwest. Look for his new book, Cross-Country Skiing: Fun, Fitness, and Adventure to be released in the fall of 2005.