The Best Way To Skate

July 27, 2004

There has been a lot of discussion about skating technique in this country in recent years. Unfortunately, it has almost all been misdirected. Instead of asking “How can we apply the advances that have been made in skating technique?” many coaches and writers ask “Has skating actually changed?” or “Are the changes in skating a good idea?”

This article is written most specifically in response to Marty Hall’s three Hallmarks articles in Ski Trax last winter.

I would like to start with a few definitions:

Pushing vs. Pulling. These are words that some commentators use to describe poling motions. Simply put, pushing means poling with your shoulders about your pole grips, so that your weight and the force you generate pushes of the poles. Pulling is a poling motion where your shoulder falls below your pole grip and your weight pulls down on the pole.

Nose, Knees, Toes (NKT). This refers to a way of teaching skating that was popular in the 1980’s. The idea was to align your shoulders (Nose) and hips (Knees) with your ski (Toes), and then to essentially double pole in the direction of the ski. It is important to note that any skier with good technique will align their nose, knees, and toes during the glide phase of their skate, but this does not mean that they are using employing the NKT approach.

The Norwegian Skate Project. This was a project by the Norwegian National Team that sought to understand the best skating technique, now that the success of Alsgaard, and also Daehlie emulating Alsgaard, had clearly demonstrated that NKT was obsolete. To restate and emphasize: The Norwegian Skate Project did not conclude that NKT should be abandoned, but rather accepted this as a starting point, and went forward from there.

It is this last point that seems lost on commentators such as Marty Hall. The Norwegian Ski Team, the U.S. Ski Team, practically every other ski team that saw anyone score World Cup points last season, the NENSA website, the Suburu Factory Team, and many other attentive coaches and athletes have been engaged for years in discussing and working out the finer points of the new and better way to skate. Meanwhile, a large number of stubborn American coaches and commentators have repeatedly insisted that NKT still represents an ideal.

Nothing I can write will convince those with closed minds. But for those with open minds, I will summarize and then refute the general argument made in three Hallmarks columns over the last winter.

Marty Hall brushes quickly past the discussion of pushing versus pulling, contending that no one pulls on their poles. He then goes on to claim that the new way to pole, sometimes called pushing, won’t work since it derives power from the abdominal muscles and “the abs are stabilizers, not movers.” (Hallmarks, Feb/Mar 2004). The first statement misses the point, and the second is outright false.

First the falsehood. Any physiologist will tell you that there are two layers of core muscles, including abdominals. The transverse abdominus lies near the spine and is indeed a stabilizer that helps you maintain posture or positioning. The more famous rectus abdominus (or “six-pack”) is farther from the spine and is a very powerful mover that “crunches” the upper body, bringing the shoulders and hips together.

“Pulling” is not an accurate description of anyone’s poling technique—I much prefer the phrase “hanging on your poles,” though they are used to mean the same thing. By either name though, it is the way I was taught to double pole; collapse at the waist, using your weight against the poles, then follow through using your lats, make sure your hands pass below your knees, and finish with a strong tricep follow through. It works—but only if you are going really fast anyway. If you try to maintain this technique as you slow down, you will bog down and end up having longer and longer pauses where you are hanging your weight on your poles and waiting for this to translate into forward motion.

The new way to double pole emphasizes a “C” shape in the spine. You initiate the movement with your shoulder and hips forward, so that your spine looks approximately like a letter “C.” The motion is initiated by an activation of the abs which moves the hips and shoulders towards one another, squishing the “C.”. The motion then continues, employing the lats, shoulder girdle and to some extent triceps. The hands pass between the hips and the knees, and except in very fast terrain their motion is basically complete there. In very fast terrain the newer double pole has similar tempo and muscle use to the old double pole, but in slower terrain or on longer stretches the differences become clear: by initiating with a strong, sharp motion of the abdominal muscles, and adjusting the depth and cadence from deep and slow in super-fast terrain to very quick and sharp in steeper terrain, the new double pole demonstrates itself to be a much more versatile and powerful technique.

This “C” carries directly into skating. The upper body power is driven by a quick compression in the core muscles, and the tempo is controlled by the depth of the total compression.

Legwork in skating has changed even more than the upper body component. When I learned to skate, we talked about “Nose, Knees, Toes” and the “1-2-3 Steps of Skating.” The idea was to turn you whole body in the direction of the ski, and then essentially double pole. This approach, however, was always fundamentally flawed. Skating offers two advantages over classic technique: first, there is no need for kick wax, which inevitably slows down your ski, and second, you can generate forward momentum from a moving ski, rather than a stationary one, as in classic skiing.

When you rotate your hips and shoulders away from the ski you are gliding on, this second advantage is largely negated. Instead of pushing laterally as your ski continues forward, you end up kicking back, causing your ski to slow prematurely and leaving your ski, foot and hip behind you. With your hips behind you, you get less out of your core and so your poling suffers as well.
In good, modern skate technique the hips stay square to the direction of travel (there may be a bit of float, or slight rotation, but nothing deliberate). This does not mean that weight transfer is at all limited, as some people believe! Witness the quotes: “No Nose, Knees, Toes (NKT) … contradict[s] …‘Our biggest focus in the V2 has been getting our skiers to initiate the kick (skate) with all their weight on the kicking ski.’” (Hallmarks, Feb/Mar 2004). “In the analysis of one-skate, the dialogue contradicts itself, first stating that the hips and shoulders should be square to the direction of travel, but in subsequent statements talking of how the hips and center of gravity have to be over the ski.” (Hallmarks, Spring 2004).

The author of these statements is apparently unaware of the versatility of the human hip. Weight transfer is achieved, not by rotating the pelvis, but by rotating the femur (upper leg) out at the hip. You can practice this without skis: Stand up. Rotate your right leg out so that your right knee and right toe point 45 degrees to the right of where your hips point. Now, bend at the knee and ankle so that all of your weight is on the right foot. Next, hop to the left by straightening your right leg and land is the same position but on your left foot. Congratulations! You are doing the new skate.

I feel it is worth noting here that it may be possible to over-focus on keeping your hips square to the direction of travel. Your hips and shoulders will rotate back and forth a small amount, and this isn’t something to worry about as long as it is a response to a weight shift achieved by a rotation of the femur. (To restate: Good skiers have some rotation caused by their weight shift. Not-so-good skiers use rotation to create a weight shift. People who can’t see the very real difference between these motions are prone to deny the existence of the “new skate.”)

The new way of skating has two major advantages over the old: muscle recruitment and adaptability. The poling motion recruits powerful core (abdominal) muscles rather than simple lats and shoulder girdle, and the leg motion recruits hip muscles in addition to quads. Quite simply, using more and bigger muscles means you can go faster.

Just as importantly, the new way to skate allows for a much wider range of tempos. At high speeds, a slow tempo allows for deeper compressions that to some eyes look like mid-80’s skating. But at slower speeds—especially on steep hills—or when accelerating for a sprint finish, the new body position allows tempos that were unattainable or at least unworkable in the days of hip rotation.

I will close this article by correcting one more mistake and giving some advice that has helped my V-1 (offset skate). According to Marty Hall, there is no “3-point landing” in V-1/offset skating, but rather it is always the “weak side pole, the strong side pole, and finally the ski hitting the snow in that sequence.” (Hallmarks, Spring 2004). This is true only if you rotate your hips. If you keep your hips (very nearly) square to the direction of travel, you will V-1/offset skate with a “3-point landing.” I pay attention to what my poles are doing, especially when I am tired. When they hit the snow together with my ski, I know my hips are in position. If my poles start landing first, I know I am getting lazy and inefficient, and I take a breath and focus again on proper technique.

Keep those hips and shoulders pointed straight ahead!!

Justin Freeman is a member of the US Ski Team

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