October 20, 2023
Programs at Teacup continue to grow in popularity with more people new to the sport or interested in improving their skill and comfort on snow.
A frequent topic of conversation among the coaches is how often we observe students using gear that will compromise and, in some cases, prohibit learning skiing skills. During last year’s adult Ski School, we found that students of otherwise similar abilities were held back by their gear and it wasn’t always about being “bad” gear but inappropriate gear.
In one situation, a new skier in the Youth Learn to Ski Program showed up with used gear that didn’t work because the boots were NNN-BC (a type of binding used for skis of wider width), and the bindings were adult-sized NNN skate bindings. As a result she couldn’t even participate that day.
There were also students who were using downhill ski poles, and skate skiers using touring boots. While these types of equipment still enable you to get outside and ski they created a major limit to learning and truly enjoying the movement.
With ski season approaching there will be used gear on eBay and Craigslist, and gear swaps abundant. It can be tempting to purchase equipment without knowing much about sport-specific gear. As you gear up for the upcoming season, we hope these articles educate and in turn create and better experience enhanced by equipment that supports your abilities.
At our own Mt Hood Nordic Ski Swaps! there will be true expert advice available; however, it is best to be educated beforehand.
The upcoming articles are formatted as a history lesson for those who like to delve into the subject, but you can skip to the end to simply read the takeaway points that can inform and prepare you for purchasing appropriate ski gear. We look forward to seeing you on the trails!
Archeological evidence from Scandinavia and current practice in China’s Altai province established that the use of one pole was far less about an aid to balance but as a means of propulsion, much like how a SUP user employs their paddle.
European ski history states that the use of two poles was established in 1741. In the history of skiing this is a somewhat short time, but using two poles very quickly became accepted as an advantage. Propulsion was still the primary use since downhill skiing as a separate pursuit was still years away.
In the 20th century skiing split into cross country skiing and downhill skiing, and since then, there’s downhill skiing, backcountry skiing, ski mountaineering, ski touring, skate skiing. While each discipline uses ski poles, each discipline also has very different technique, resulting in optimal designs to complement that discipline.
While it is technically possible to use the poles from one discipline while practicing a different one (downhill poles in skate skiing???), using the wrong poles can make it impossible to practice the right technique or improve your skiing.
Before addressing the pitfalls of using poles from a different discipline it is necessary to understand how we use our poles in Nordic skiing.
It is perhaps surprising that using poles for balance and support while Nordic skiing is not their primary role. Poles can be used as aids to balance, particularly for deep snow and steep terrain, yet instructors and coaches often make students ski without poles. Balance over one’s skis is a fundamental part of skiing effectively, so depending on poles for balance will inhibit learning. The primary role of poles in Nordic skiing is for propulsion. As a result, pole design has evolved to reflect this.
The most obvious characteristic of a ski pole is its length. Pole lengths have gone up and down, - at one point we were using skate poles that would reach our eyebrows - but for a good many years the lengths have been well settled. For example, a survey of the poles used by the Norwegian National Team found the average pole length for classic skiing was at 83% of skier height (with the skier wearing ski boots) and 89% for skate poles. Given that skier velocity can have a determining effect (a faster or stronger skier can make use of longer poles), skiers out for a relaxed tour will want something shorter, and even Master Blasters should keep their egos in check (why is it that men frequently choose poles longer than recommended?). However, a pole that is too short will shorten the stride of the skier. It must be long enough to account for the “push phase” in striding.
Since we are swinging our poles from behind us to a pole plant position in front of us (downhill skiers don’t do this) and at often high tempos, even at touring speeds, weight is a significant design feature. Skiers get used to what they started with, and yet Nordic skiers in every category – race, touring, backcountry – are amazed at the difference in skiing pleasure when they get to try a lightweight pole. Too often the pole weight is undervalued as a performance feature, or more likely only looked at as something for a skier of advanced skill.
From long tradition the basket designs were large and round. For support in deep snow this can be of value, but these baskets can not only pick up a lot of snow, but worse is when they get stuck in the snow during the retrieval. The resulting jerk on the shoulder could be unpleasant at best. For faster skiers this is particularly annoying as a stuck pole brings speed down very quickly. By the mid 1970’s racing poles started coming with what were then called “half baskets” as only the rearward part of the basket was evident. The performance value was so significant that eventually even poles for general Nordic touring almost always have baskets that, while much larger in surface area than racing baskets, are still offset to reduce the forward portion that can get stuck. This simple offset design works so well that poles used in SkiMo racing (AT or Randonnee racing) now sport this design feature.
Perhaps no design feature is more important and distinguishing than the pole grips and straps. Using poles for propulsion very quickly demonstrated the need for a hand to pole connection that provided maximum power input, freedom of movement, and comfort. The result is a strap design and strap attachment far different from other types of poles. Grasping a pole shaft tightly has two downsides. A wrist can only side bend a small amount, and a tight grasp will limit the length of a poling push phase. This effect is immediate, but a second problem is that a near constant firm grip for a long time brings on fatigue in the forearm (in extreme cases, compartment syndrome in forearm muscles has resulted). Therefore there are two design features of a nordic grip that are critically important.
Enter hand from below Bring palm to top of strap Grasp and tighten strap
Tightening the strap is important, below displays what happens when the grip is loose during the relax phase of the poling motion.
tight- pole returns loose- Hey! Where'd it go?
Downhill Ski Poles. The most obvious flaw of using downhill poles for Nordic skiing is that they are most likely too short. The larger flaw is the grip design of DH poles, where the strap is attached at the very top of the grip. As addressed, this means that a very tight grasp needs to be employed to maintain control of the pole. A new skier without this information might avoid this problem because the poles don’t seem long enough, but what is dismaying to instructors is when these short DH poles wind up in the hands of children.
Adjustable Ski Mountaineering Poles. Adjustable ski mountaineering poles are often seen used by Nordic skiers, and one must wonder what shop sold them with ignorant but good intent. Adjustable poles are appealing, but the downsides need to be considered. They’re heavy (please, if you own adjustable poles for touring, try a lightweight fixed length pole sometime and compare!). While there are adjustable poles with Nordic type grips, they’re hard to find and the choices are left to those with downhill type grips and straps (downsides addressed earlier). Often the baskets are not offset, and when used for propulsion these larger round baskets get stuck. All this needs to be considered, and the adjustable feature must outweigh the disadvantages. It is interesting to note that for Ski Mountaineering (aka, SkiMo, AT, Randonee) it is often the case that more experienced skiers have ditched the use of adjustable poles and gone back to fixed length poles, because – fixed lengths poles are lighter, stronger, and the act of adjusting the pole length is not all that common or even needed. Adjustable poles are also notorious for “self-adjusting” unexpectedly or being difficult to adjust when needed.
The trouble with mountaineering and downhill poles and straps.
If you refer back to the section about Nordic pole length there was a hint about avoiding going too long. From a coach’s viewpoint, when a skier is using the wrong length of poles, it is easy to see the impact to their technique. Many an experienced skier has gone out for a skate ski but inadvertently grabbed their classic poles, and sometimes it takes them awhile to figure out why something feels off. But using skate poles for classic skiing only takes a few strides to realize the error. Too long is a larger problem than too short.
Some general rules about length apply: Upper lip for skating with wiggle room of abut 5cm down from that based on preference or even terrain. Higher than upper lip, lower than shoulder creates problems in applying proper technique. Armpit for classic with same wiggle room of 3-5 cm up or down. Above shoulder and closer to belly button than armpit is not optimum.
Quick release straps are becoming more common but pay attention to the description earlier about fit of a strap. Early quick release strap design was usually sloppy and couldn’t keep the skier’s hand close enough to the handle, requiring that unnecessary tight grip. Not all quick release designs are quick or effective in holding the pole tight to the hand, best to see how they fit (with gloves!) before purchasing.
There is still a belief out there that aluminum poles are better than composite poles, with the reasoning being that aluminum poles are perceived as being stronger, or if not stronger, that they will bend instead of snap. This is not correct. It is true that while high end race poles are actually very hard to break by flexing them, the high carbon content does make them brittle, and the carbon fiber can be fractured during an impact. Composite with carbon and glass are not subject to this and are incredibly tough. As for aluminum, they’re either cheap and easy to bend (a self-fulfilled prophecy, the skier who falls and bends a pole is likely to think the bent pole is superior, when in fact nothing would have happened to a composite pole). There are light and stiff aluminum poles but these are a brittle alloy, and when overstressed they snap.
A growing trend is to have poles with interchangeable baskets. This can be a feature worth seeking out, as track conditions in some areas can have highly variable hardness. A small (and therefore very light) basket is great until the track is soft enough to let the basket punch through. Another benefit is that rollerski tips for summer can be quickly installed or removed.
The simple single loop strap (if it is adjustable!) is still functionable, and if you are using gloves or mittens of different thickness, they can be quite nice. Ever more common are the highly supportive and anatomically designed straps. These enhance power transfer but are wonderful for comfort. In some cases it may be necessary to purchase another size for those days where an extra thick glove is needed.
Experiments to make improvements on grip/strap designs have been tried. In the late 1980’s there were some poles from Swix that used grips that looked more like a canoe or SUP paddle grip. They did seem to deliver more force early in the power phase, but ultimately, they were too cumbersome. More recently, Start developed a strap that looked like an adaptation of a rigid wrist brace; much like the Swix paddle grip, the early force increase wasn’t balanced with the overall movement. These innovations have cemented the value of the long-standing designs we still use.
1) For athletic skiing on groomed tracks, pole lengths are around 80% of skier height (wearing ski boots) for classic and 90% for skate. Skiers in ungroomed conditions and those skiing groomed conditions at a relaxed pace should go shorter; the old adage “tip of the pole just under the armpit” is still valid for classic sking. Between upper lip and middle of the neck for skate. Keep in mind that using just a single set of ski poles for each of the disciplines will affect your ability to ski with good technique, compromising speed and effort.
2) For sanctioned races (FIS or USSS), there is a rule for maximum pole length in classic. The length of the pole cannot be greater than 83% of the skier’s height (skier wearing ski boots). Note that the pole measurement is taken from the tip to the strap, not length overall.
3) High end 100% carbon poles are very strong in flexion but have low resistance to impact (brittle). Composite poles with some glass content are the most durable. Cheap aluminum poles will bend instead of snap when overstressed, but the bending force is extremely low and far less than what a composite pole can withstand every day.
4) A Nordic ski pole has a strap attached below the top of the grip for a reason. Straps that attach at the very top of the grip should be avoided.
5) There is an industry movement towards measuring poles from tip to strap. Ultimately this will be a more accurate method, as the functional length of the pole the skier uses is from the strap, not to the pole top. The distance from the strap attachment to the top of the pole isn’t standardized and can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer by as much as 2cm!
6) Challenge! If you think you are a skilled skier, or would like to improve your skill, ski a few laps on the trails at Teacup without using poles. Get good at it!
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