March 01, 2022
Recently I’ve enjoyed watching World Cup ski racing videos from the 1970’s and there are two things regarding technique that really stand out.
One is that back then there was stunning variation of technique, not only between different nationalities but even athletes within the same nation. The other observation was how much difference there was between ski technique back then and now.
If you watched the recent events in the Olympics, there’s remarkably small differences between the technique of top international cross country ski racers. Only the most nuanced of Nordic enthusiasts can spot some of these differences.
All sport has gotten more serious and specialized in the modern era. Athletes only get faster, better trained, and the differences between excellence and average are razor thin. Nordic ski racing is no exception, in fact, Scandinavian nordic programs employ coaches with Ph.d's in ski technique. There are now some very good scientific data and papers written leading to some basic "truths" about ski technique and efficiencies of movement of the human body. Efficient skiing is starting to look a lot less individualized for both elite athletes and recreational enthusiasts.
Show me your guns?
Research analysis has discovered that for athletic skiing, the fatigue that first set in to affect performance is from poling (ie from the waist up).
Not hard to understand. The legs as a primary propulsive source often get plenty of training for casual or elite skiers by default. Run, hike, bike, even going for the evening neighborhood walk, and the legs are being readied for skiing. How about our upper body? Swimmers, rowers, paddlers get an advantage but for most of us we might only use our upper body to put the dishes away. This is why a major improvement in on-snow performance can be gained by summer training that emphasizes the torso, arms, and shoulder, the best example being a double pole workout using rollerskis.
But even for the kayakers and swimmers, there’s a missing piece.
Technique is sometimes dismissed as something akin to aesthetics. But there’s no beauty in the eye of the struggling skier who is using their poles in such a way as to create frustration. Technique means getting the most out of what you have. Poling can add huge amounts of forward momentum, but commonly observed inefficient technique creates early fatigue, and lower velocity for the same energy output.
Changing movement efficiency starts with the arms. Most importantly the arms are not the source of the power but the connection to the power. Studies of muscle activation during poling has demonstrated that the biceps and triceps are equally enervated during poling and this means a near isometric contraction to fix or stabilize the elbow joint. So where does the power come from? The torso, the “core” the abdominals, even the movement of the hips. The arms only transfer the power!
Common coaches’ observation is that the skier needs to limit range of motion of the arms and instead fix them in place to connect to the torso involvement. Un-coached skiers will more likely observe large arm movements that fast skiers display as follow-through, and miss seeing the small but critical movement that delivers power to the poles
Think of Quasimodo and ringing the massive bell at Notre Dame. Reach out with extended arms to grab the rope and pull down it is likely no sound will be heard other than a grunt of frustration. Bend the elbows, get close enough to the rope to give it a kiss, and then use your torso/abs/core and pull down. Now a grunt might be heard but only barely under the sound of the ringing bell. For an interactive experience, stand up grab an object weighing 5-10lbs and hold it straight out in front of you and then close in to your torso. Better yet, lift the object over your head. Which way feels easier?
Such it is with using the poles in cross country skiing. Hands close to the face, elbows deeply bent, and during the initial power from the torso the arms become strongly fixed. This is necessary for the source of the power, the immediately and strongly engaged core and abs, to transfer into the poles. As for the follow-through of the arms? In general, the hands stop at the hips. Unless you’re an international elite during V-2 alternate, hands flying back behind the back are a sign that a coach will think that someone needs help with their poles finding connection to their power. At lower speeds there’s often little or no extension of the arm at the elbow.
For classic double pole and V-2 skate, the arms are often positioned similar to what looks like a “chin-up”, with the upper arms held wide.
This isn’t limited to the double pole motion in skating or classic skiing. Powerful use of the poles in diagonal stride also engages the upper abdominal muscles while keeping the elbow angle fixed. Many good skiers exhibit a slight extension of the arms after the pole plant, the resulting stretch of the triceps can increase the power delivery.
All these technique adjustments are meant to create power from muscles that are able to create large amounts of torque within short movement patterns. Shoulders, upper back and chest muscles act on the shoulder joint and core and posterior back muscles can repetitively activate in the core area. These large muscle groups naturally have the leverage and fiber composition to perform these tasks efficiently. The less efficient muscles in the arm can be saved for movements they are best at- high fives, fist bumps, hugs and opening champagne.
Start Optimum power range Finishing point
The above finishing point is quite long actually, as if the skier was gliding for a long time between poles or moving at high speed. Climbing a hill or quicker tempos (slower speeds) may have a finishing point much shorter, nearer to the end of the optimum power range.
For an impressive example of this modern technique, this video is fun to watch. Look for the key elements of powerful poling in all the various techniques.
See you out on the trails-
Karl and Kelly
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