Skiing downhill is probably the least of your motivation when deciding to start or switch to cross-country skiing. Just thinking of a descent scares not only beginners. That is where even the world cup cross-country skiers fall. Not to speak of alpine skiers. I have experienced it several times with friends who are downhill diehards in alpine skiing. When they get convinced for a switch and find themselves suddenly on top of a hill in a cross-country trail, they get tensed. Wasn’t that supposed to be one of the safest winter sports?
I consider myself an experienced (recreational) cross-country skier but going down a hill can still be a challenge for me.
What are the main challenges when skiing downhill?
Lack of stability – The main reason why downhills in cross-country skiing are so challenging is the lack of stability. Compared to alpine skis cross-country skis are far less stable. One thing is the binding: your boots are attached to the ski only on the front at your shoe tips. The other thing is the ski itself: it is much narrower than an alpine ski and weights much less. It has no metal edges to be angled into the snow, and the shape is straight and not carved.
The lack of stability makes speed control more difficult, especially in turns. An alpine ski with its parabolic side cut is made for turns whereas a cross-country ski has a straight cut and turning at speed is a real challenge.
The terrain – It depends on where you ski, but in many cases, cross-country skiing trails do not provide wide open spaces. Instead, the available space is often quite narrow with trees on the side and shadowy blind spots. And the groomed tracks provide space only for one skier. The track can be straight or turning. When you get to the top of a hill you have in most cases (but not always) two options: to take the un-groomed skating slope or the classic trail. If you are a beginner – no matter classic of skating – and it is not a gentle downhill section – leave the tracks, especially when it is turning.
Which cross-country downhill skiing techniques exist?
There are several, but all depends on whether you need to control speed or not, which again depends on your skills and on the terrain. If you are advanced and the trail goes straight, you probably want to gain speed to use the momentum from a downhill to glide up the next hill. In that case, you ski down in either an upright position or a squat position.
Essential for the upright position is a loose, yet stable posture with slightly bent knees and the center of gravity above the feet. In the squat position the upper body is folded, the ski poles are trapped under the arms. If done right this is actually a very relaxing state to be in.
Step turns – taking turns fast
But again: These are the racing positions for the advanced skiers who do not need to control the speed. Without brake techniques, you will gain a lot of speed. And that can become very risky, especially when the trail is taking a turn. In that case, you might need to step out of the track while gliding fast which requires confidence and practice.
To move along the arc of the turn experienced skiers then do step turns, these small but fast little sideway steps. Again, this is not a braking technique, the skis actually stay in a V-shape. It is for taking a turn fast. And that is actually where most of the falls are happening during a race.
Skidding – speed control on an advanced level
A common advanced downhill technique which allows you to control speed is skidding. You might know it from alpine skiing. Instead of carving on your edges too much, which can lead to acceleration and losing control of your ski, you take turns with flattened parallel skis and reduce edge carving.
Similar in cross-country skiing: You can position your skis either parallel or more in a snowplow shape. Depending on which skid angle you choose, the faster or slower you will glide. That makes it a very effective speed management tool. It definitely takes some practice to master the full range of skidding. But the next technique, the snowplow, is a perfect starting point for that. Once gained confidence in doing snowplow you can gradually adjust your skid angle and move to skidding.
The snowplow – by far the best beginner’s technique!
A decent snowplow technique is the must-have for every cross-country skier. In fact, the snowplow technique is one of the first practices you should do when starting with cross-country skiing. If you take lessons with an experienced instructor, they will do that with you anyways (if not ask for it!). But if you for some reason start on your own (even just for a day) make sure that you get yourself familiar with this easy but highly effective braking technique.
How to practice the snowplow?
- First look for a gentle broad downhill section.
- Set your skis in V-shape but make sure that they don’t touch or cross over.
- Your legs are slightly bent, and the keens are pressed against the inside. This posture allows you to push the inner edges of the ski into the snow.
- Look where you want to go. Although that sounds obvious, you can always get easily distracted by something going on next to you or behind you. Just look to the point where you are heading to. That also helps you to keep your chest facing in the same direction.
- Start gliding. If confident enough open and close the angle a little. You will see how easy you can adjust your speed by doing just this simple movement.
- To turn you simply need to shift your weight to the outer ski and you gently start to curve.
- Now switch sides. You might feel that one side is working better than the other. Keep on practicing both sides.
- Repeat the process as often as you can
For beginners, the snowplow is the safest way to keep the pace under control. You can go slow, very slow and stop. And that is important when skiing down a hill. There might be a sudden obstacle or other skiers in your way. Believe me that happens all the time. With the snowplow, you are set for most occasions.
Let’s be honest. When we get to a downhill section which is too challenging for us, often we did not properly assess the trail conditions beforehand. In most cases, the trail rating is a good indicator if a trail contains potentially-risky downhill slopes. And sometimes it is just not your day. A downhill you handled in the past perfectly might be scary this time. That happens still to me from time to time.
Whatever it is which has put you in the situation the first thing you have to tell yourself is: I do not have to take it; I can always walk. Sounds too obvious? You would not believe how many people do not encounter this option when they are feeling scared. Their only thought is: I have to go down there on my skis – no matter what.
We have covered the most common downhill techniques. Whichever technique you choose learning some principle downhill skiing skills is one of the first things you should do when starting with cross-country skiing. They are not only essential when you get to a hill, but they are also a fantastic way to gain stability and confidence.