“Why am I doing this?” I don’t know how often I have asked myself this question when climbing uphill. The “No pain, no gain” propaganda starts to float around in my mind. Legs and arms are burning, and the heart rate is skyrocketing. Skating, wasn’t this where you smoothly glide on flat, gentle terrain while enjoying the landscape? In fact when I ask friends why they don’t want to try out cross-country skiing I often get the answer: “Isn’t that where you ski uphill?” Climbing up a hill seems to be one of the biggest deterrents. And it was for me too – until I did one little but surprisingly effective twist in my uphill skiing technique. Read on if you want to know how to skate uphill without getting exhausted.
What are you doing when you cycle uphill? Yes, downshifting!
If you are a cyclist you know what to do when approaching a steep incline: you downshift to a lower gear. Similarly, climbing uphill in cross-country skiing means to shift down gears, to slow down. The principle that the terrain determines the technique applies to almost any outdoor sport, but it is especially evident in cross-country skiing. With skis under your feet, high power demand is required to overcome the resistance of gravity. However, by reducing the speed, you reduce the need for power and prevent the muscles from a quick “burn out”. Seems too obvious? Well, how often have you said to yourself when approaching a hill: “I have to get over it fast!”? You might start fast but also get burnt out very fast. Instead of skating up the hill in one go you end up “breaking up” the hill by doing several mini breaks.
What skiing technique to use to climb hills?
Apart from controlling your speed what can you do with your skiing technique to tackle the hills in a way that it does not prevent you from enjoying the rest of you skating session? To be able to answer that question let’s have a quick recap of the primary skating techniques. There are lengthy discussions on how many skating techniques exist, but I think most of us would settle on the five following ones: Two Skate, Free Skate, V2 One Skate, V1 Pole Technique and Diagonal Style.
Two Skate and Free Skate are the speed techniques. They are used on the flats or when skiing down a gradual slope. Yes, these are the fun techniques where you enjoy the athletic lightness of this fantastic sport. But sorry, as we are talking about how to handle the hills, we won’t touch on those this time.
Now let’s look at the most common skating style, the V2 or One Skate: in V2 or One Skate you do two double-pole-pushes (that’s what the 2 stands for) in each full cycle of left-and-right skate stride (the V represents the shape of tracks in the snow you make in one cycle of skate pushes). It is the most widely used skating style. You might even say that this is the only technique you are using. That is fine because V2 works in flat areas as well as on gentle hills. In fact, one instructor told me to use this technique as long as I can also when skating uphill and not to immediately switch into another style. Others say switch techniques as soon as you can.
Without going too deep into this discussion when and how often to switch techniques, I definitely can say that having a few options for different situations – especially when climbing a hill – improves your efficiency significantly. So in case you are one of those V2-purists my next advice to you is to go and get an instructor to learn some of the other techniques as well. Master the how-to-do first. Figuring out which technique to use when comes automatically with time and practice.
Which other skating technique is there apart from V2?
Ok, gentle hills you might get away with V2. But what if it gets steeper? At one point you will need the other most commonly used skating technique: V1 Pole technique also called Offset. The V1 is a more effective technique for climbing steeper hills. In V1 both poles are used more forcefully and plant at the same time as one ski. The arms are in a staggered position with one leading arm held slightly higher and pushing stronger. This dominant side guides your movements and helps you to better adapt to the terrain. The angle of your ski – the “V” – is wider than on the flats, your strides are more frequent and your glides shorter.
What is the primary factor which takes you up the hill?
Are you already practicing V1 but still feel entirely exhausted when climbing uphill? Your arms are burning, and there is hardly any slide left when pushing your legs. It is in this moment where you think: “If I only had more power.” For a rather petite person with not a huge muscle mass like me, I always felt kind of disadvantaged. But then I watched all these people who seemed to be not much stronger than I flying up the hill and I asked myself what are they doing differently?
It turns out that muscle power is actually not the primary factor which takes you up the hill. It is your posture. The most important thing when climbing is to raise your upper body in a more upright position. This is what I didn’t do for a long time. My gaze was going down to the bottom in front of me, and my hip was bent-over which prevented any decent glide. Whereas once I straighten up, I was able to push my ski further forward. Aha, no I was gliding! It is your upright body position which is the deciding factor!
How to exercise an upright position?
There are different ways how to exercise an upright position. The one which worked best for me was to skate uphill without poles. By leaving the poles aside you eliminate the climbing aid to lean on for support – as a consequence, you naturally raise your upper body not to risk to fall forward. Therefore, when you approach a hill next time take your chance, get rid of your poles and climb it up a few times in V1 technique. Your upright body position will support short but consistent gliding strokes. You will experience that you can get up the slope with much less effort.
Is there anything you need to do with the arms? Yes, practice both sides to be able to lead. As described, due to the staggered arm position there is always a dominant side in the V1 technique. But you should be able to switch sides at any time to prevent quick exhaustion of one side and unbalanced workouts. It is crucial that you train both sides from the beginning. Best way to do this is while skating on the flats – do 10 strokes with one side and then switch to do 10 strokes with the other side.
What to do when it gets really steep?
I think with V2 and V1 you are set for most if not all terrains. However, there is one more technique which might be helpful especially when climbing steep hills: the single-poling style, also called the diagonal style. The body is in an upright position, and the poles are pushed behind the body at each stroke in an alternating way between the left and the right pole.
For some people, it is actually the first technique they learn when starting with skating on flat terrain. I am not exactly sure why this is, but it might be because the arm movements resemble the sequence of classic striding or of the diagonal poling technique in classic country skiing. Personally, I don’t think you need this technique in the flats at all. But it might come in handy to survive over steep hills or when you are tired of V1 on a long uphill section. Again make sure that your body is straightened up. The idea is still to glide, but on very steep slopes your might end up setting only small steps.
When climbing a hill adjust your speed and slow down to be able to control your power demand. Learn different techniques. My advice is to take a hybrid approach when approaching a hill. Start maybe with V2 and when you get tired of V1 (most likely on a steep area), switch to single-poling for a few strokes and back to V1. And work on your posture: keeping your upper body in an upright position is a real game changer!
One last advice: Cross-country skiing is a cardio workout. Done right it is perfect for making your heart working a little harder regularly and to become more efficient. But you also don’t want to over-exercise, which can cause serious health issues. Especially when climbing hills, you should get an idea of how hard you push yourself. Therefore monitor your heart rate (the number of times that your heart beats per minute). Don’t do this manually. Get one of those fitness trackers or watches which gives you real-time info on how you are doing.