Cross Country Techniques

I’m taking up classic cross country skiing.  This post contains a quick description of some of the techniques.

Anatomy of a Ski

Cross country skis have a camber that naturally divides the undersurface into three sections.  The center section, which bows upward, is called the kick zone.  The amount of camber is determined by the weight of the skier.  When the skier stands with their weight evenly distributed between the skis, the kick zone should not touch the ground.  As the skier shifts to position all of their weight on a single ski, the ski will flex further so that the kick zone touches the ground.  The kick zone is covered with either a fish scale pattern or mohair.  These provide traction against the snow when kicking.

The front and back parts of the ski are glide surfaces.  As you might guess, they are designed to slide smoothly over the surface of the snow.

Diagonal Stride

With each stride, the skier will place their weight on a single ski and kick backward to propel themselves forward.  The poles are planted opposite of the leg position.  If the right leg is the back leg that is being used to kick, the right pole will be extended forward.  This is where the diagonal stride gets its name.  The right arm and left leg are in a diagonal position.  Similarly with the left arm and right leg.  While this sounds complicated it is quite natural.  This is the way people normally swing their arms when they walk. 

The diagonal stride does differ from walking.  The stride is more extended and the leading ski will be allowed to glide forward rather than stopping immediately as happens when walking.

The diagonal stride is the most frequently used technique.  It’s especially good on level and mildly sloping terrain to move efficiently and relatively quickly forward.  It is amenable to both tracked and untracked surfaces.

Double Pole

In the double pole technique the skier stands with skis parallel and weight evenly distributed between the two skis.  The camber lifts the kick zone from the snow leaving only the glide surfaces touching.  The poles are used to move forward without kicking.  This stroke is especially useful on down hill slopes where the skis will naturally slide forward.  It can also be used on flat terrain when a skier wants to take a break from the diagonal stride.

One variation of this technique that works well on some downhill slopes is to not use the poles.  The foot work is the same.  Just lift the poles off the ground and allow the skis to slide down the hill.

More advanced skiers will sometimes add an extra kick at the end of the stroke to build forward momentum.

Snow Plow

The snow plow is a technique for controlling speed on downhill descents.  The skier spreads their legs keeping the tips of the skis together and the backs of the skis outward.  From above the skis will form a V-shape that points down hill.  This causes the skis to move sideways through the snow.  The increased resistance controls the downhill speed.  By spreading the backs of the skis further apart the resistance is increased reducing the speed.  Additional resistance can be created by tilting the ankles inward so that the inside edges of the skis dig into the snow.  Poles should be allowed to hang at the skier’s side.  They should not be used.

The skier can direct their course by shifting weight to one ski or the other.  This increases the resistance on the heavier ski slowing it more than the lighter one.  The course will pivot toward the heavier ski.

A variation of this technique is sometimes called the half snow plow.  In a half snow plow, the skier will place one ski in the cross country track.  It will be allowed to follow the track and glide downhill.  The other ski will be positioned in a snow plow position to the side of the track in the snow pack.  This ski is used to control the rate of glide down the hill.


The herringbone is an uphill technique that’s named after the tracks that are left behind the skier.  With the herringbone, the skier will again position their skis in a V-shape.  This time the front of the skis are outward and the back of the skis inward.  The skier is facing uphill and the V-shape is pointing downhill.  The ankles are bent inward so that the edges of the skis cut into the snow.  The skier will lift a ski and step the ski up the hill, shift their weight to the uphill ski, and step with the downhill ski.  The V-shape must always be maintained to avoid a ski slipping backward on the hill.  More advanced skiers are able to run up the hill using this technique.

Standing Up

You’re not a cross country skier if you haven’t fallen down. The technique for getting up is to position the skis perpendicular to the terrain’s gradient.  This minimizes the skis slip as you begin to put weight on them.  Get the poles out of the way.  You shouldn’t use them to stand.  Instead simply roll your weight on top of one skis.  Once you have your weight position over one ski, you can extend your leg and stand redistributing your weight across both skis.

How’s Roy Doing?

Look mom, no broken bones!!!  I fall frequently and am becoming well-practiced at getting up.  

I’m okay with the diagonal stride and the double pole.  I can feel myself becoming more relaxed with them.  When my speed starts getting a little fast, I get very nervous and tighten up.  This sometimes affords an opportunity to practice getting up.

Most recently I’ve been working on the snow plow.  I’m not at all good at it.  It’s very uncontrolled.  I’m having difficult adjusting the width of the snow plow when I’m moving.  For reasons that I don’t understand, I find it more difficult to move my left ski outward.  There are also a few places on the trail where I’m not only going down hill, but there is a left-to-right slope on the hill as well.  This forces an adjustment to the weight distribution between the skis that I haven’t gotten the hang of.

My herringbone is good enough to get me to the top of the hill.  It’s pretty uncoordinated and, I think, takes more energy than would be the case with a cleaner technique.

I don’t think that any of this is different than any other skier experiences when they start out.  It’s just a matter of practice.


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