Improve Your Skiing Before You Get on Snow

By Steve Hindman

Although the first snowflakes may not yet be in the air, it is time for ski magazines to show up in your mailbox and at the newsstand. When those snowflakes do fly, this is the place to find tips and exercises that will help you have more fun on the snow.

Most people have heard the story of the blind man who mistook the elephant’s trunk for the elephant itself. No number of facts about the trunk could give the man an accurate picture of the larger animal. Following up the facts with an exercise to experience the trunk through touch, smell, and sound would only have added to the man’s misperceptions.  As Mary Oliver wrote in her book, Blue Pastures: “A fact: one picks it up and reads it, and puts it down, and there is an end to it. But an idea! That one may pick up, and reflect upon, and oppose, and expand, and so pass a delightful afternoon together.”

Some skiers slide on the snow when their back yards turn white, while others are so dedicated that they travel wherever they must to get on snow. In each issue, we’ll address both approaches, with sections focused on the occasional as well as the more active skier.

In this issue we will explore ways to improve your balance and ski-specific movements before you get on snow. The November issue will focus on attaining or refining your balance while you glide, and how to glide as far as you can with the least amount of effort whether you are striding or skating. December’s topic will be how to get enough grip to keep gliding up the hills, and how to glide up the hills while skating. By the time the final issue arrives, you should have enough balance to glide back down those hills with grace and in control.

Balancing on Dry Ground
If you haven’t trained as well as you might, spending time on simple balance exercises may be the most effective thing you can do right now. Conditioning muscles takes time, but you usually can improve your balance by developing greater awareness of it.

To start, just stand up. Your posture should model the relaxed alertness of a martial artist or a basketball player at the free throw line. Close your eyes and find where you can relax, and what muscles you really need to maintain a relaxed yet alert stance. Focus on the smaller muscles of your feet, your ankles, and your core — that is, roughly the area between your thighs and the bottom of your ribcage.

Now open your eyes, stay relaxed, and balance over one foot by moving your core over the foot you are standing on (photo 1). Don’t tip your head and torso to one side as a counterbalance (photo 2). Think of getting the button on the waistband of your pants into alignment with the foot you are standing on. Relax and find the smaller muscles that can help. When you feel comfortable on one foot with your eyes open, close them. Balance with the least possible effort.


(photo 2)

To practice more ski-specific balance, mimic the extended position of the diagonal stride. Balance over one foot while you extend the other to the rear. Hold your arm and hand as if you are about to plant your pole, with the other hand behind you, opened as if you had just completed your pole push. Move your torso forward to create a counterbalance for the rear leg without moving your hips, or core, backward. Form a straight line with your spine and rear leg (photo 3). Relax, and find muscles that you can relax without losing your balance. When balancing with your eyes open gets easy, close them.

(photo 3)

Balance, like any other skill, does improve with practice. The first step is to becoming aware of the smaller, underused balance muscles. As you continue to refine your balance, those muscles will become stronger and you will continue to learn how to use them to attain better balance better with less energy.

If you are more experienced, take a length of two by four and balance on that. Once that is comfortable, you can really challenge yourself by turning the two by four on its side (photo 4). Many gyms have devilish devices such as wobble boards to help you improve balance and build core strength.. If you use a two by four or any of the other balance devices, be careful!

Ski Specific Movements
For years, ski racers have been practicing ski movements on dry ground, making proper ski movements a habit through year-round repetition. If you are not a racer, you may benefit even more from dry-land training, since you probably have far less time to spend on skis.

Many of the drills mentioned below come from the training link at XCSkiWorld, from a training tape put out by the National Cross-Country Ski Education Foundation, and from J.D. Downing’s spring camp at Bend, Ore. More drills, more information about training camps, and more about the NCCSEF, is available at, and

You’ll learn more if you have a friend who knows the ropes watch and give you feedback, or shoot some video and review it.

Keep some flex in your legs, focusing on a soft (flexed) ankle and a supple leg to draw you forward. Although your core, or belly button region, will rise and fall, or move side to side, be sure there is always a forward motion associated with any other motion of your core. As you flex your ankles, knees and hips, the angle of your front shin with the ground should match the angle of your spine with the ground.

Discipline your hand motions to mimic holding and using poles. Keep your elbows farther apart than your hands as you “plant”. Use your back and stomach muscles as well as your arms when you crunch down on your imaginary poles. Your hand should close around the grip as you plant. Hands should be somewhere around shoulder level for classic skiing, or at eye level for skating, when your pole baskets hit the ground. Your imaginary baskets should be planted just outside your feet.

Your hands should always swing close by your hips. Keep some bend in your elbow as you start your poling motion, extend your arms as they pass behind you, and open your hand as you finish your poling motion. After your hands pass your hips, push back, not up. As your arms swing forward, they should be relaxed, passing your hips lower than when pushing back.

The following drills do not use actual poles. All references to poling and planting refer to the imitations of these motions.


The Basic Position
To start, stand on two feet with flex in your ankles, knees and hips. Balance toward the balls of your feet, and tilt your pelvis neither forward nor back. Relax! Let your back be slightly rounded. Curl forward from your butt to the crown of your head. Don’t use any muscles to keep your chin up –support your head on your bones. Flex your ankles to move your hips forward, balancing over the balls of your feet (photo 5).

(photo 5)
With this basic position established, maintain it as you swing your arms back and forth as if you were poling. Keep your ankles flexed, your hips over the balls of your feet, and your back, shoulders and neck relaxed. To maintain your balance, keep your core still and stable as your arms change direction at the end of each swing.

The Fall
The easiest way to move forward is to fall forward from the ankles. This requires flexible Achilles tendons and trust. You can work on both by facing a wall and falling into it (photo 6). Keep your heels on the ground and fall like a tree felled in the forest. As you gain flex and your trust level increases, move farther away from the wall. When you are really ready to trust, have a partner, rather than the wall, catch you. Be sure the partner is ready!

(photo 6)
Once you are comfortable falling forward, stand on the balls of your feet in the basic position. Shift your core even farther forward by flexing your ankles. Unlike falling forward into the wall or the arms of your friend, keep your knees flexed and relaxed as you shift forward, but remember to keep your heel on the ground as long as possible. Shuffle a foot forward to keep from falling on your face. Keep the leg you move onto supple and relaxed. Place your hands on your butt and push forward to remind yourself where the forward motion is coming from (photo 7). Use just enough leg effort to shuffle; do not step.

(photo 7)
Extended Diagonal Position
Stand in the extended diagonal position described under “balancing on dry ground.” Swing your arms as described above under “the basic position” while maintaining this extended diagonal position. Shift your core forward and keep your heel on the ground as you swing your rear leg forward. Catch yourself with what was your rear foot as it swings through. Pause with your leg extended to the rear and the opposite hand forward. Check your balance, position, and alignment. Flex your ankle and relax your knee to start your core forward, begin to swing your rear leg through as your heel remains on the ground to repeat.

Again, all references to poling and planting refer to the imitations of these motions.

Basic Position
The basic position for skating is the same as for classic. To create the V position of skating, turn your toes out by rotating your thighbone in your hip socket. Keep your knees aligned with your toes. Shift your balance sideways from one turned out foot to the other, slowly working toward a complete lateral weight shift from foot to foot without moving forward.

Although your toes are turned out at your hip, keep your upper body aligned in the direction of forward travel.

Moving Forward
Move forward by increasing the flex of your ankles, allowing your core to fall forward as you make a lateral weight shift. All forward motion should result from pressing your core forward, not from stepping forward. This is unnatural, so take some time to focus on it and get some feedback from a friend or video. If you feel like you are just walking duck-footed, that’s not it.

It may help to place your hands on your hips to help press your core forward. Shuffle your foot forward, turned out in a V position, to catch yourself when you feel like you’re are starting to fall on your face. Move laterally off your whole foot, not from your toes or the ball of your foot. Step onto a flexed ankle with a supple leg to maintain your forward momentum. This basic skate step is used in all the various skate techniques, regardless of the poling rhythm.

The Techniques
Dry-land drills are an excellent way to learn the confusing poling rhythms of the different skate techniques. The names for the techniques are not descriptive, so don”t worry about what they mean. Other countries have different names that make more sense. Just learn the American terms so you’ll be able to converse about skating with your countrymen.

All poling motions in skating should be similar to classic double pole motions, although skate poles are longer. Keep your core moving forward during double poling, being careful not to sit back and pike at the waist. Think of crunching over your poles with a movement that is similar to the abdominal crunch that has replaced traditional sit-ups.

The summary “rhythm” sentences for each technique are included to give you an audible and mnemonic device to use while practicing. Be aware, however, that the timing of movements often is overlapping or simultaneous and not sequential.

V-2 alternate.
In this technique, you double pole with every other skate. Start with the lateral step. Swing both arms forward as you make a lateral step onto your right foot (photo 8), then push back with a double pole motion as you make a lateral step onto your left foot (photo 9). Swing your arms forward, step, push back in a double pole, and step. Practice poling on either side.

(photo 8)
(photo 9)
To move forward, combine this pattern with the forward fall as described earlier under “moving forward.” Swing forward as you press your core forward and step. Push back as you press your core forward and step. Notice how swinging your arms forward carries your core forward. Be sure to drive your core forward onto the non-poling foot to maintain forward motion as you push back with your poles. Although your belly button does not travel directly straight ahead, keep driving it and your core forward as you shift laterally from foot to foot.

Double poling with every skate, the V-2 technique is used where you need more power or rapid acceleration. The rhythm is double pole and step, double pole and step. The pronounced forward arm swing of the V-2 alternate becomes a quick, explosive recovery from your hips. Once again, start out practicing the rhythm without moving forward. Then press your core forward enough to fall from turned-out foot to turned-out foot. Time your poling motions to deliver maximum acceleration just as you step onto your next foot, driving your core forward. Push, drive, push, and drive (photos 10, 11).

(photo 10)

(photo 11)

Switch from the V-2 rhythm to the V-2 alternate rhythm as you practice to establish the difference.

This is the uphill, slow snow, all-terrain-vehicle skate. V-1 is the most commonly used technique, but perhaps the hardest to perfect. Since you pole only with every other skate, it is easy to confuse the V-1 rhythm with the V-2 alternate rhythm. The crucial difference is that you plant your poles at the same instant that you step onto your next ski in the V-1. In the V-2 alternate, you plant your poles after you step onto your new ski. Getting the poles in earlier allows you to use them immediately when your skis don’t glide as easily.

To practice the V-1 timing, find a fairly steep incline. As the angle of the hill increases, shuffling your turned-out foot forward to keep up with your core doesn’t work because the foot hits the ground. You’ll have to step up the hill, in a motion similar to dribbling a soccer ball from foot to foot. Think of kicking the ball from your hip, not just from your knee. Step onto a supple leg, keeping your knee in front of your ankle


Once you have adjusted your shuffle for the hill, hold your hands as if you were ready for a double pole plant as you step up the incline. With your hands at about eye level, notice where your pole tips would plant as you make a lateral step onto your next foot. Could you plant your poles there if you had skis on? Adjust your hands and arms so that your pole tips would plant near the little toes of each foot.

Offset or asymmetric poling is one of the visual hallmarks of the V-1 (photo 12). Although it has functional benefits, the main reason for the offset poling is to avoid planting your poles between your feet. Maintain as much of a double pole plant as you can without tripping yourself.

For convenience, I’ll call the side that you plant on the power side and the other side the off side. Although your power pole basket plants farther up the hill, next to your power foot, your offside hand should be in front of your power hand. Keep your power hand close to eye level as you plant. Lower your offside hand as you bring it forward and in front of your power hand, planting that basket next to your glide foot. This puts both poles into an optimum position to use your upper body to apply power.

Complete your poling motion as you extend your power leg, driving your core forward and onto your other foot. Bring your arms forward quickly so that you are ready to plant both poles when your power foot touches the grass. The final extension of the offside leg happens after the poles plant, completing the transfer of your weight back to your power foot. Plant, complete the transfer, pole, and then drive. Although V-1 poling is asymmetric, the skate steps should be as equal as possible. Avoid the common pitfalls of twisting off towards the glide side while poling, making it difficult to really drive forward onto the offside foot.

Ski Specific Conditioning
Although the above drills build some strength and balance, they are focused mainly on training your body to move in efficient, ski-specific patterns.. Once those movement patterns are established, you can gain ski-specific strength and conditioning by moving over greater distances and by applying power to your stride. Popular workouts include roller skiing, ski bounding (with and without poles), and skate bounding (without poles). It is easy to lose your focus on proper movements over distance and when you apply power. Get feedback from a coach or get a friend to video one of your workouts so you can review it later.

There are simpler exercises that allow you to build strength and endurance with less risk of developing bad habits. For classic, start with the step hold. Cover some distance while moving from one extended diagonal position (described above) to another. Be sure to extend what was your front leg to drive your core forward after you begin to fall. The longer your heel stays on the ground, the more time you have to apply power and to drive forward.

Continue to extend your rear leg after you move onto your next foot, creating a straight line with your spine (photo 3).

The length of your stride depends on how far forward you can drive your core. When you attempt to lengthen your stride by taking a large forward step, your belly button drops down and back.

A stiff front leg and straight front ankle force you to travel up and over the inflexible lever of your leg if you want to maintain forward momentum.. Keep your front leg relaxed and supple as you move onto it.

Turn the step hold into a classic ski walk by eliminating the pause. Link one extended diagonal position with another. Increase the strength training benefits by bending 90 degrees at the waist and moving from one relatively straight leg to the next, but be sure to keep some flex in your ankle and knee (photo 13). The low classic walk is quite challenging to maintain over a few hundred yards.

Strength and endurance can be improved while standing in place. While double poling in place, swing your arms backward with more force than you use to bring them forward. Recover them as quickly as possible, however. Crunch over your poles as you push back. Do the same while diagonal poling with both feet on the ground, or swing one leg with your arms as you balance in the extended diagonal position. Pole for 5 minutes at a time and be amazed at the workout you can get.

For skating-specific strength and endurance, take the basic skate step into a low skate step similar to the low classic walk (photo 14). Be sure to keep your head and torso moving forward as you move laterally from foot to foot. Keep your toes turned out from the hip, and initiate the forward motion by moving your core forward. Extend your leg to move your core laterally over the next foot while keeping your knee aligned with your foot. Push off your entire foot, not just from the ball or from your toes.

Other aerobic activities can provide ski specific conditioning and strength, as well as a welcome break from ski-imitation training. Listed in decreasing order of specificity, they are: running, outrigger canoe paddling, marathon canoe paddling, racing kayak paddling, mountain biking, road biking, swimming, and sculling. These and other activities do not benefit your skiing as much as ski imitation activities. Overall, however, you will benefit more when you enjoy what you are doing than if you roller ski four times a week when you hate it.