Complete Cross-Country Ski Guide: Beginner’s How-to

There is a difference between doing cross country skiing for half an hour as a means of physical activity and then calling it a day, and doing it for hours and still loving each second of it. While both kinds of XC skiers know how to ski their way through some slopes, the later kind knows how to do it well enough to have a full-body workout, relax the mind, take-in the snow-covered nature, and still wanting to do it more.

The point and beauty of cross country skiing are to enjoy it for long hours of winter – the season we wait for all year long to hit the slopes and get the thrill out of the snow. If you know the right way to ski, you will do it for a longer duration and enjoy its benefits in the long run. That is why beginners must learn the right position and skiing techniques.

The Right Position

In cross country skiing, there are two main styles – the traditional XC skiing known as Classic skiing and the Skate skiing normally known as Skating. Choose the one you want to start with – generally, beginners go for the classic skiing style as a foundation. Whatever you choose, stick to it until you learn how to do it well. Skiing experts believe you should stick to learning one of these skiing styles as a beginner – the last thing you want is to get confused in the early stages.

Although it depends upon person to person (or skier to skier, in this case!) the Classic XC skiing technique is generally considered the easiest of the two to grasp and master. Its positioning is based on the diagonal-step system.

For the correct position, when your left arm and pole go in front of your body, your right foot and ski should be behind your body. The same case goes for the right hand. You will keep on switching from left to right with your arms and legs opposing each other diagonally – just like a normal walking style.

It is easy to glide along in the beginning without learning the exact style, but it is strictly advised to get the hang of this style through proper practice. Once your technique (poor or correct) becomes your habit, it will be extremely hard to change it. For this reason, make sure your body is in the right position when you start and your legs and feet obey your mind.

The Classic cross country skiing does not put too much pressure on your cardio, unlike many other kinds of skiing. It is still a good idea to have a healthy and active foundation – make sure you have a good level of fitness.

Fitness level is very important when it comes to the freestyle skating style of cross country skiing. For the skate skiing XC technique (Skating), being familiar with inline skating helps a lot. For the right position, push one ski forward and then glide on the other ski. If you have done ice skating before, you can learn it pretty quickly. Although the Skating technique could be a bit harder than the Classic technique especially for beginners, it gives the skier more pace and you enjoy a better speed once you learn it. You will also notice that once you know how to skate ski properly, inclined terrain and steep slopes get much easier to ski on.

Techniques for Flat Terrain

For learning to cross-country ski on flatter terrain, here is what you need to know:
Flat Terrain

Basic Diagonal Stride and Arm Movements

The basic diagonal stride is almost similar to our natural arm and leg movements when we walk. For this reason, it is considered the best way to start with when learning your cross country ski basics. It is the oldest and the most popular (and also the most basic) ski technique that involves fluid leg and arm movements that take you across flat surfaces as well as uphill. There are three main components of the basic diagonal stride: Your weight transfer, your kick, as well as your body position.

Your Weight Transfer

When you balance your body over your front ski while your other foot glides over, that is how you stabilize and transfer your body weight. Go for short steps at the beginning. Slide with knees slightly flexed and keep your body weight over your feet as you toggle the weight with each step. Once you start getting the idea of it, put your entire weight on your front foot. You will notice that when you lean forward and put the entire weight on your front foot, this weight helps you glide forward. Continue doing this and you will feel a constant glide and a rhythmic sense of weight transfer from one foot to the other.

Kick

Now that you know how to transfer your body weight onto your front foot, it is time to learn how you pressure your ski to get a grip in the snow, something known as the kick. As you may know, there are two main types of skis – waxless skis and waxable skis. The waxable skis have a layer of wax applied onto the middle section of the ski and the waxless skis have a fish-scale pattern at the midsection of the ski that aids in preventing the skis from slipping backward. But this does not ensure grip and if we gently step off our ski, we will notice that the ski will slip backward.

To get the grip, you need to push the ski downwards as if you are squishing a bug from your boots. Note that you will be pushing downwards and not backward. When you start you press the ground down from your entire foot and then finish off with pressing the ball of your foot. As you alternate legs and try to move forward, lock your one foot downwards for grip and then do the same with the other. After a while, put your entire weight to get the grip.

Arm movements

While your legs learn how to naturally work on the kick and glide movements, you need to keep your arms relaxed and naturally swinging parallel to the ski tracks. You can easily do so by relaxing the arms and let them move in their natural pattern. You should be able to have the same arm movement with poles as you do when you try to walk without poles.

The opposite arm and leg movements will be in sync like you do when you walk or run. Your arms need to follow a rhythm. To start with this, keep your arms at a lower level and allow them to move like a pendulum the same distance forward as they move backward.

Your Body Position

It is especially important to have the right position of your body when you ski. The body position you get to make now and practice will stick to you and once you go for an improper body position, it will become harder to correct it.
Lift one of your skis while you are on the snow. Move the lifted foot back behind the other foot. You will notice that when you move your foot behind you, your upper body tries to keep the equilibrium by leaning forward. This forward position is what your body should be in while you are skiing.

Double Pole

Although the admirers of cross-country skiing may choose their favorites among the Classic style and the Freestyle (skating), there is one maneuver that works well for both these types of skiers – the double pole. In Classic skiing, this technique can be used on downhills, instead of diagonal strides, where it gets hard to maintain balance at high speed. Freestyle skaters commonly use the double pole technique as part of their skiing.

The double pole is a great way to maintain your speed when you are either on a flat surface or progressing downhill. The two main components of the double pole technique are standing up and compressing. Let us take a detailed look into each of these parts.

Standing up

The double-pole technique starts by standing up in a straight posture. With your arms slightly bent comfortably, expand your arms forward. Make sure your ski poles are tilted towards the back with the tips towards your feet. Now flex your legs making them ready for the push.

Compressing

Start with a bowing motion with your hips playing the major role. Now put your upper body weight onto your ski poles and push downwards. In this process of compressing, make sure both your arms and back are at the same angle while your back reaches a point when it is parallel to the snow. Continue with the push-back motion for your poling motion to complete its swing.

Once your poling motion reaches its limit backward, bring your poles forward and repeat the same motion of planting your ski poles and compressing. It is important to repeat with a rhythmic movement to get consistency.

Kick Double Pole

Not all techniques work in different kinds of terrains. There are times when you are skiing uphill, and at other times you may be moving on flat terrain or going downhill. The gravity accelerates your speed when you go downhill but you are fighting the gravitational pull when you try to ski uphill. For this reason, you need to make natural choices when the terrain changes.

When you are skiing uphill, your diagonal stride (discussed earlier) gives you the perfect grip and glide. But when it gets too steep you need to change this strategy. When you are skiing down the hill, you can just glide down by a simple tuck along with your double pole pushes. But when the terrain gets flat, many beginners struggle to find the perfect balance between the kick and momentum.

You may get a fast glide using the diagonal strides on flat terrain, but when the skis pace up you may find yourself going off balance. You can try to keep the balance with the help of the double pole technique, but it gets almost unbearable for our arms muscles to catch up with it after some time. This is when the Kick Double Pole comes to the rescue which uses the kick as well as the double pole techniques to give you what you want. This technique is a great way to maintain pace when you are on flatter terrain or somewhere that is going slightly downhill.

With your kick double pole technique, you can get enough power from a single kick backed by a double pole push. Since you will be gliding on both your feet after the poling, you do not have to worry about losing your balance. It also does not get strenuous for your arm muscles and hence can work better for a longer duration.

To make sure your kick double pole movements are rhythmic and consistent, start by standing straight with your poles pointing backward. Now say “kick double pole”. Right when you say the word “kick”, swing one of the legs backward and both the arms holding the poles forward. Then when you say the words “double pole”, swing your arms back with the poles pointing downwards but make sure they are not planted. Bring the foot that is at the back forward so that it is parallel with the other foot. Repeat by kicking the same leg back until you get a rhythmic movement.

Once you get the hang of it, you are ready to proceed. To get the maximum kick and power from your ski, apply downward pressure to it just like you do in diagonal stride. This will ensure that the ski pattern or wax in the midsection of your ski will have a forceful grip on the snow.

Techniques for Uphill

In an uphill terrain, you are going against gravity and you need some good techniques to ski you through. Your mind plays a major role in this. Think about what lies ahead before you start moving uphill, not in terms of the distance to the hill but what your technique should be to keep skiing uphill. Instead of focusing on your legs pushing the ground backward, think about how you want to shift your momentum while moving up the hill.

Let us have a look at these techniques in detail:

Uphill Diagonal Stride

The first thing you need to keep in mind while skiing on an uphill terrain is your posture and body position. Standing on an uphill terrain is not exactly like standing on a flatter surface. A common mistake that learners make is to position their upper bodies according to the flat terrain instead of keeping their bodies relative to the slope. Take the example of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. While it is in a tilting position on the flat-surfaced earth, the position would not stay be effective if it were moving uphill. The angle of the hill and our body plays a vital role in this regard.

Uphill Diagonal Stride

The best way is to keep your eyes on the prize – the top of the hill. Your hip position is crucial in this regard. If you flex your hip muscles to bend forwards, your body will move in front of your feet causing you to slip backward. Keep your hips over your feet. To do so, compress your stomach by pulling it in so that your belly button goes in towards your spine. While doing so, roll your hips up and forward in such a way that the arch in your back reduces to achieve the desired pelvic tilt.

To get the grip, you will use a technique known as the “foot stroke”. Here, you stroke your foot ahead of your knee to create a kicking motion. Make sure that the motion of this foot stroke happens below your knee. As a result, our foot moves forward and there is more downward pressure exerted for a stronger grip.

To feel your foot stroke, flex your legs and put one hand over both the knees. Put one foot forward in a sliding manner until your leg is as straight as it naturally can be. Make sure your knees remain next to each other in a parallel way instead of overtaking each other while one of your foot moves forward. You need to practice both feet until you get the hang of it and this technique starts coming naturally to you.

Start skiing up the terrain with shorter strides and the knees following a rhythmic approach. Momentum is also important so for that visualize yourself kicking a soccer ball up the hill. As you push the ball, transfer your body weight as you take every uphill step to achieve a good glide. If the hill is steep, your glide may only be equal to the distance your foot strokes over the snow, which is fine.

Edging and Side Stepping

It is important to learn how to edge your skis because you will encounter a steep hill that you may find it too hard to stride upon. In such cases, the sidestep and herringbone techniques will come to your rescue.

You can begin by opening your feet wide keeping the ski tails together just like the herringbone position. Turn both your knees and ankles towards each other. In case of extreme inside edging, you will turn the knees and ankles as much as you can. Make sure you do not edge them too much otherwise your heels may start to slide off your skis.

Sidestepping is a great technique for snowy terrains that are too steep. When the snow is hard, overedging can be a problem for sidesteps. In many conditions, you will only require certain angles of edging when going uphill, just enough for your skis to bite into the snowy hill.

Your ski poles could come in very handy as they can help you maintain a balance and feel secure when you are going against the slope in your sidestep position. To use your poles properly, stretch your arms out like a bird flapping its wings. Planting your poles will give you the desired stability.

Herringbone

Herringbone is a great technique that works for moderately steep hills. Going uphill can be challenging as you have more chances of sliding and slipping. You can climb a steep hill quickly and conveniently without utilizing all your energy using the herringbone approach. However, your correct body position is crucial, and you may find many skiers struggling with it.

Make sure you follow the rules mentioned below when considering the herringbone technique:

Go for the “V” position when skiing uphill. Make sure the tails of your skis are together and the tips of the skis are apart, just like the letter V. For moderate hills, the narrow shape of V will suffice. However, if you are going on a steeper hill, open your “V” a bit more to make it wider.

When your skis are in the V position, you get a better grip coming from edging both your skis. To set your skis on their inside edge, roll your ankles and knees towards each other. Your ankles should not be touching the snow, if they do, you are over-edging – something you should avoid doing.

Lift one foot and move it forward, then put it down on the inside edge of the ski. Keep the same distance between your feet and take shorter steps – enough to step over the tail of the opposite ski.

Your hips should be kept forward in order to keep your weight on your heels. This will not only give you a stable position to move up the hill but is a better approach in the long run. Many beginners put their weight on the ball of their feet or their toes – this is a mistake as doing so will make you slide back down with your skis.

Many new skiers do not know where to look when heading uphill. In order to remember the steps, they need to take to have the correct body position and motion, they look all over the place. As a result, they are all over the place! The answer to this confusion is simple – look uphill, always.

When you are looking up the hill, it keeps your head up focused towards the top and your hips are in the forward position keeping your body upright. Do not look back but if you have to look back to observe the tails of your skis, make sure you do so by looking over your shoulders. Never look between your legs to check the ski tail positioning, doing so will only make you more prone to falling. Your ski poles should always be planted behind your feet. Many beginners often do not use their ski poles with each step, and this is a mistake. Your ski poles are with you for a reason – they will help you with every step so use them every time you take a step.

Techniques for Downhills

Many novice skiers are looking forward to their downhill glide without preparing themselves for it. Having the right downhill skiing technique will not only make your skiing safe but also enjoyable. And once you use these techniques at the start of your learning experience to channel your pace and body movements, they will become your habit and you will end up skiing downhill without any problems. Here are the techniques you should keep in mind when skiing down the hill:

Snowplow

If you have been to the prepared tracks, you may get the feeling of being locked-in as these tracks are made keeping in mind the grooves for your skis. These grooves are somewhere around 2 inches deep which is quite helpful in making sure you do not slip sideways. These tracks are wonderful when you ski on flatter terrain, but could be a little hard when you try to control your place by using the wedge or the snowplow techniques. What you can do is to cut the wedge in half and the result is a good control on your pace and turning – you will find yourself slowing down and turning around easily.

When you are on double-tracked trails, make sure you wedge between the tracks as you will find the surface smoother. The outer edges have deep snowbanks that could obstruct the movements of the tail of your wedged skis.

You need to keep your arms forward and your knees flexed. Make sure you transfer your body weight to the track ski, then lift the tail of your other ski and put it in a wedge position. By applying pressure to your heel, you will be able to slide the ski tail out and roll in your ankle to edge. When you are learning this, you may find it confusing in the start but in order to get the hang of it, try going downhill on a small hill by keeping the majority of your body weight over the in-track ski and allow the tail of the wedged ski to float over the snow. When you want to slow down, move your hips over to the foot of the wedged ski keeping your knees flexed.

If you are about to encounter turns while gliding down, you need to embrace the right position before you reach the bottom of the hill. You will find it easier to set out your wedged ski while you are slowly moving down. For turning to the left, step out and pressure your wedge ski until the tracks become straight again. Though this works great for planned tracks, this technique is equally good on controlling your speed and taking a turn on packed hills when you are gliding down.

Tuck

The tuck technique uses an aerodynamic position to fight the wind drag that often slows down skiers, especially ski racers. Tuck works great when you are gliding downhill as you have a higher pace with less turning.

You must have seen ski racers tucking at some point in their races. In tucking, you put your hands in front of your face and align your hips with your shoulders by lowering down your hips until they reach the shoulder level. Make sure both your shins are parallel to each other and your stomach is between your knees. How much you need to tuck depends upon several factors including the type of terrain you are skiing on.

Conclusion

With the right techniques for going uphill, downhill, or on a flatter surface, you will find yourself enjoying XC skiing more rather than worrying about your body getting tired and losing breath. Cross-country skiing is a great way to keep your body physically and mentally active and learning the right way to ski is the best way to enjoy the loads of benefits that cross-country skiing offers. Once you are mindful of these techniques and learn and practice them, they will become a part of your skiing habit and instead of working your body up for half an hour, you will enjoy hours on the slopes no matter what the terrain is.