Ski Skating in cross country skiing

what's here

 - - Climb slower with smaller steps | "backward" pelvis rotation move
 - - Engage some muscles more
 - - Reduce range-of-motion, or shift to static transmission
 - - Assist weak muscles + segments

 - - Supporting moves | Don'ts
 - - the Steeper the Hill . . .
 - - Concepts + Perceptions versus Physics + Video
 - - Slow versus Fast

see also


[ under construction ] 


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Handling the hills is the biggest deterrent to enjoying skating for most cross country skiers:   Skiing fast and gliding long on the flats is the fun part.  Climbing up a hill is just a struggle, and even after going over the top, it can leave our legs too burning and tired to enjoy the next section of long gliding on the flats.

What can be done to survive the hills well enough so we can enjoy the rest of our skating?

The question is:

Slow -- How to succeed in skating up a hill slowly?

Here we analyze this problem from the perspective of biomechanics and physics, and propose some solutions.


I think the simpler bigger "wins" for most people on steep hills include:

  • use "backward" pelvis/hip rotation move to make the vertical climb in each stroke smaller.

  • practice controlling slow + slower + slowest glide (and aim the glide more out toward the side)

  • keeping the arm-leg coordination simple with single-poling / "diagonal" / "herringbone" skate leaves you free to focus on bigger things.

  • use lots of (accurately timed) side-to-side motion in hips + torso + shoulders.

  • make sure there's no points where precious muscular work is being absorbed instead of transmitted (sideways hip-knee and sideways hip-shoulder are popular areas for failure to transmit work).

  • keep the shoulders forward, and keep on bringing the hips up forward - (don't let the hips get stuck behind -- not as simple as it sounds).

  • set the foot down further out toward the side, and plant the pole tips farther behind.

  • reduce range-of-motion of most muscle moves -- some even to zero, just holding stable to transmit forces from stronger muscles.

Maybe the range-of-motion in some of your moves is not as big as an elite racer in some video. Or maybe some biomechanical theory or tip from a National-level coach says that some move ought to make a positive contribution, but yours is just holding stable. For most of us non-elite skaters that kind of observation is usually good.

For steep climbing it's normally better to allow the unconscious neuro-muscular control "super-computer" in the brain to make the decisions about which muscles to use and how much. Usually it's better not to try to intervene with conscious rational analysis and control unless there's a point of unstable absorption of work. (in which case a long-term strategy might include specific strengthening of the specific muscles involved.)

  • re-check foundational skills

Lots of athletes tend to assume that the basic skating leg-push on flat terrain must be simple, so they focus on other things like coordinating different kinds of poling with leg-pushes, or clever modifications for hills.  But actually the 3-dimensional biomechanics of the skating leg-push on flat terrain is very complicated and non-intuitive -- and it's easy to miss learning some key aspects -- or lose them when focusing on new things: see not to forget under Engage some muscles More.

Principles of Climbing Hills

three basic problems

The three basic problems in skating up a substantial hill are:

(1) Overcoming the resistance of gravity tends to demand lots of Power (measured in Watts; so . . . How to keep the total Power required for climbing less than the Power rate which the effective skating muscles can deliver without "burning out" for the remainder of your intended perfomance?

(2) Climbing a steep hill tends to require applying high Force intensity; so . . . How to keep the Force load and Power demand on each different skating muscle less than what it can handle without "burning out" for the remainder of your intended perfomance?

(3) Skating up hills with poles effectively is perhaps the most complicated mode of human-muscle-powered propulsion; so . . .  How to coordinate all the moves?  How to learn them?

basic strategies

(A) Reduce the total Power demand by climbing slower.

(B) Increase the total Power supplied, by engaging muscles more (or at least avoid the need to reduce utilization of some muscles).

(C) Move muscles more slowly or through a smaller range-of-motion (or even hold some them static), so they can handle more Force intensity without "burning out"

(D) Find clever ways to reduce the Force load on specific muscles, e.g. by changing the leverage configuration, or sharing the load with other muscles, or across different time phases in the stroke cycle.

(E) Identify high-priority moves and methods, and focus on those.

(F) Find simple ways to verify if you are executing the high-priority methods.

concepts of implementation

(G) Keep some glide in each stride.

The main way to reduce Power demand (strategy A) is to reduce the rate of vertical speed. A radical method would be to just do Classic herringbone "walking" up the hill (we would not still be skating) -- but then there would be some muscle mass that could no longer make a contribution to climbing the hill, because their specific moves can only be transformed into forward propulsion work if the ski is gliding. So for strategy B it's worth it to figure out how to keep some glide going.

(H) Finding more muscles to engage for hill-climbing is not likely.

We would like to engage more muscle mass, or coordinate it more effectively to contribute a higher proportion of its output into forward propulsion Work (instead going to waste somehow).

But this is the same goal and strategy that we're presumably already using for trying to go fast on flat terrain, and skating up a hill has pretty much same set of muscle moves available for effective forward propulsion as skating on the flat.

So there's not much opportunity to find new muscles to engage specifically for hill-climbing -- though hill-climbing might be a strong motivator to learn to engage more muscles more effectively in our general skating.

In fact it would not be surprising if successfully "surviving" a steep hill-climb supplied less muscular Power output than skating moderate terrain -- from less muscle mass. And is using strategy (J), the "survival" method might employ fewer functional muscle moves (a.k.a. "articulations") in active work mode (as opposed to static transmission of work from other muscles).

Possible Exceptions:

Hill-climbing can often benefit from using more side-to-side motion of torso and shoulders than is typically used on flat terrain.

When climbing without poles, side-swing of the arms usually helps, though it's not used much on flat terrain (perhaps because of air resistance).

(J) Avoid lifting the weight of the same body part through the same vertical range of motion twice.

(K) Generate most of the required power and force from "Slow Oxidative" (SO) fibers in the muscles -- and avoid engaging lots more "Fast Glycolitive" (FG) fibers.

High utilization of FG fibers normally produces lactic acid and depletes local stores of glycogen fuel. This might be OK if near the end of a performance, but it's a problem if there's still lots more skating to be done, because it takes time to "clear" acid from the muscle cells and bloodstream, and even more time to replenish local stores of glycogen fuel.

High force demands typically engage lots more FG fibers, or other demands that exceed the capabilities of the SO fibers. SO fibers seem to be able to handle higher forces if they're in "isometric" mode, i.e. not moving. It seems likely that they could handle somewhat higher forces if moving only pretty slowly. And it seems to help use SO fibers if the muscle is moved only through a smaller segment of their available range-of-motion, a segment more favorable for the SO fibers.

Therefore it makes sense that some ways to avoid high utilization of FG fibers are:

reduce force loads on all muscles

reduce range-of-motion on all muscles

operate some muscles only in static "isometric" mode -- zero range-of-motion.

use some muscles in selected segments of their range-of-motion which are favorable for SO fibers

"Gear ratio" selection

(L) Skating Ski:  The "gear ratio" of the skating ski is mostly determined the angle it is aimed out to the side:  The lower the speed, the larger the angle out to the side.  The higher the speed, the closer the ski points to forward.

(M) Poling:  The "gear ratio" of the pole is determined by two angles:

(M1) The closer the pole is to perpendicular straight up from the ground surface plain, the better for maximum average Power transfer at high speeds.  The farther it is slanted away from perpendicular (handle closer to the ground) the better for delivering higher Force at low speeds.

(M2) The more the poles are aimed in the steepest direction up the slope, the higher average Force over the range-of-motion of the pole-push. The more the poles are aimed diagonally across the slope, the lower average Force over the range-of motion of the pole-push (other things being equal).

... because the Work is less by going a similar distance across the hill, since Work is mainly proportional to the product of Body Weight and Vertical Gain (and the Vertical Gain is less moving diagonally across than it is directly up most steeply). So if the range-of-motion distance of the pole-push stroke is the same and the pushing Work = Pushing-Force * Range-of-Motion, then the Pushing-Force is lower.

Different from ski skating on Flats

Skating on the flats or up a gentle hill is:

  • Not subject to concept (J) -- so moving the upper body up and down to generate forward motion is often an effective approach in V2 and Open Field Skate.

  • "Gear ratio" for ski aiming angle (L) makes getting forward less important.  At the higher speeds on the flats, the skis are aimed more forward, so the push is directed more out toward the side, with the line of push-force more inward toward the center, less forward -- so there is less benefit to positioning the skier's center-of-mass more forward. 

  • "Gear ratio" for poling angle (M1) makes getting the shoulders up high more important.  At the higher speeds on the flats, the most effective pole-push angle is more vertical.

  • Less need on the flats to worry about strategy (G) -- keeping the glide going (except in slow snow or headwind).  And less problem with strategy (D) -- spreading load move evenly across time phases in the stroke cycle -- so less need to worry about "low-power spots", like the pole-recovery phase in V2 skate and Open Field Skate.

therefore . . .

Differences between V1 and V2:

  • V1 ("offset", "paddle-dance") and Single-Poling Skate ("coaches skate", "herringbone skate"), is a more effective technique for climbing steep hills.  While V2 ("1-skate", "double-dance") is often better for gentle and flat terrain.


(a) flat terrain permits the full and efficient use of vertical up-and-down motion of the legs and upper body to drive the pole-push -- and V2 has more pole-pushes than V1. 

(b) flat terrain is forgiving of the "low-power" pole-recovery period in the V2 stroke cycle, where on a steep hill V2 would either stall out and lose the gliding "magic" in the pole-recovery phase, or require high-stress peak forces to make up for the low-power gap in the stroke cycle.

(c) the aiming of the ("offset") V1 pole-push diagonally across the slope instead of forward directly up the slope tends to reduce Force load on poling muscles, while still maintaining glide speed.

  • Steep V1 skate focuses on optimal skating leg-push, and compromises on the pole-push.  Single-Poling Skate simplifies the poling, to focus on managing the leg-push. But V2 on gentle terrain focuses more on optimal pole-push power.

Since strong double-poling makes major use of the leg muscles, this is not to say that V2 neglects use of the leg muscles.

  • Steep V1 uses lots of sideways motion of the upper body to assist the leg-push.  While gentle V2 uses lots of vertical motion of the upper body to assist the pole-push.

  • Rising up tall to start the pole-push is good in gentle V2.  But in steep V1 it's normally bad.

In gentle V2 the idea is to fall forward onto the poles.  But in steep V1 the idea is more to stay forward -- when there's any forward fall, it's to fall further forward.

  • Dropping the butt and hips low during the pole-push is usually good in gentle V2.  But in steep V1 it's just bad.

Though even in V2, the idea is to drop the hips down only as far as you have the strength to raise the hips all the way up and forward to aggressively fall forward to start the next stroke.  Lots of skiers have the flaw of their butt "getting stuck" sitting back there "down in the bucket" -- in V2 as well as V1.

Variations on techniques

Even if there were one optimal technique for climbing up a hill, that does not mean it's smart to use exactly that technique in all skiing situations.  Sometimes it's smart to practice a technique that partly contradicts some of the principles of physics and biomechanics on this website.  There are several reasons to practice variations:

  • Simplified technique to manage the complexity while still learning.

  • Controlled isolation of weaker muscles in training situations -- to strengthen them and raise their sustained-power-delivery capacity.   

  • Avoid weaknesses in fun and race-performance situations.  This is why most of us cannot simply copy the elite racers -- because we have not trained some of those special muscles all year long. 

  • Exploit our strengths in fun and race-performance situations.  Each of us has different strengths from other sports:  Like think of bicyclists versus inline-skaters versus kayakers. 

  • Focus -- Prioritize the moves selected in fun and race-performance situations:  Focus on the moves that deliver the most sustained-power benefit and ignore the others -- so we don't get overwhelmed by the complexity.

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specific methods for climbing hills

Which "poling versus leg coordination" motion?

  • Single-Poling Skate (a.k.a. "herringbone skate", "diagonal skate") and V1 (a.k.a. "offset", "paddle-dance") are better than V2 (a.k.a. "1-skate", "double-dance") or Open Field Skate (a.k.a. "V2A", "2-skate", "single-dance") for climbing a steep hill.

see discussion under Hills different from Flats

  • V1 technique is the main motion technique discussed on this page, but most of the ideas are applicable to Single-Poling Skate.

Climb slower with smaller steps

to implement strategies (A) + (C)

Strategy (A) is to reduce the demand for power (as measured in Watts). For climbing a steep hill, the main factor that determines the requirement for power is the vertical rate of climbing. This vertical rate is a product of the vertical gain in each skating stroke and the number of strokes per minute. So reducing either factor will reduce the demand for power. For a specific hill of a certain steepness, the amount of vertical distance gained is proportional to the forward distance advance of each stroke.

The problem with reducing the turnover frequency instead of the forward distance per stroke is that it results in larger range-of-motion and higher peak forces. The larger range-of-motion implies that it is more likely that the high forces will come in a segment of the range-of-motion which is not well suited for high force. Therefore it's usually better to go slower by the method of reducing the forward advance distance per stroke.

Often the turnover frequency for climbing hills is higher than for skating on the flats.

There are three factors that determine this forward advance distance:

(a) how far the foot glides in each stride:  How small this factor can be made is a matter of how slow a glide speed the skater can control. This is mostly determined by the skill of the skater and how irregular or slow the ground surface is.

Usually slow irregular snow is more difficult to control, so you can't take the gliding speed as low without a larger chance of the ski "stalling", losing all its glide. I don't find occasional stalling to be a problem -- if that's the price of surviving to the top of a very steep hill -- but if it's happening a lot then it's kinda disruptive.

I found that with lots of practice at trying to go real slow (especially climbing up hills with no poles) I could get much better at controlling my glide.

(b) the aiming angle of glide:  The more the ski is aimed out toward the side instead of forward, the less the gliding distance gets converted into forward (and upward) distance.

But surprisingly I've found that when I focus on (c) and (a) I find it much easier to climb up a steep hill even though my ski tracks in the snow were not aimed so much out toward the side.

(c) how far forward or backward the hip is at the time of set-down: This determines how far forward or backward the ski starts gliding from. At moderate and high skating speeds this choice is fairly unimportant, but at a very low speed like up a steep hill, it makes a substantial difference in the forward distance in each stroke.

My experience is that (c) is a big win, and lots of practice with (a) really helps, but focusing on (b) on its own didn't seem to make a substantial difference.

Though aiming angle of the foot is surely a critical aspect in the physics of the gear ratio" of skating, typically it seems like it doesn't work much to try to control it directly -- it's more a result of other physical / biomechanical drivers.

backward pelvis/hip rotation

The simplest way I've found to do (c) is to rotate my pelvis/hips about a roughly vertical axis (like the axis of the spine) so the non-pushing hip moves backward relative to the hip of the leg which is currently pushing.

So when the Right foot is set down on the ground, the Left hip is forward ahead of the Right hip. While pushing thru the Right foot, the Left hip moves backward relative to the Right hip, so when the Left foot is set down, the Left hip is back behind. As the Right foot is lifted up off the ground, the Right hip is forward ahead, in correct position to start its own move backward.

Or can visualize it as aligning the navel with the aiming direction of the foot.

Just as the Right foot is set down, the navel is aimed roughly along a line thru the Right heel + toe. Then while the  Right foot pushes against the ground and glides over the ground, the pelvis and navel turn smoothly away from that foot, and toward the Left side, so that at the moment the Left foot is set down, the navel is aimed roughly along a line thru the Left heel + toe.


Head? Not turn the head to face in the same direction as the heel-toe line. It likely makes sense to keep the head quieter, and spending more time looking to check what's ahead in the direction of overall forward motion. Some people find it helps to make the head roughly line up with the direction of their double-pole push, but that's a separate question.

Shoulders? Although it might feel sorta natural to rotate the shoulders together with the pelvis, it is not necessary to do so. By twisting the spine, the shoulders can rotate one direction while the pelvis + hips rotate in the other. Anyway, it's not the rotation of shoulders that can add positive "reactive force" work, but the side-to-side motion, which usually includes some tipping or leaning.

Knee? Not necessarily do anything different with the alignment of the knee at set-down. Pointing the knee outward more or less might be helpful, but it's a separate question about adding propulsive work, not for how to find a "low gear" to climb slower.

Weight transfer sideways? Actually the "backward" rotation moves more mass connected to the non-pushing hip toward the currently pushing foot, not away from it. If the shoulders also rotate in rough synhronization with the pelvis, that would move some mass away from the pushing foot -- but that shoulder rotation is not required, and even if exectuted it's not clear whether the motion of all the mass attached to both hips and shoulders is then moving more toward or more away from the currently pushing foot.

Timing:  This rotation move should be roughly sychronized with the push of the leg, so it starts just after the foot is set down on the ground, and finishes just as the next foot is set down on the other side.

Note that this timing is rather different from what works for "leading" pelvis/hip rotation move used to add propulsive work. There's one timing for "gear selection" and another timing for propulsive work -- and with this rotation, you cannot retain both. (I would not rule out the possibility of finding a very clever timing which retains a lesser amount of both, but it makes more sense to just learn the simpler timing for each and choose which one to use in each performance situation.)  

Amount:  Turning less than fully toward the heel-toe line on each side also works, and then the upward distance of each stride is less small -- so the muscles work a little harder.

Trade-off:  If you normally use the "leading" (or forward) pelvis/hip rotation move to add some force and power to your leg-push, you give that up (at least mostly) when you use this "backward" rotation move to go slower. (Lots of skaters don't use the "leading" move much, so there won't be any loss for them.) So your supply of power is reduced slightly. But on a steep hill the "backward" pelvis/hip rotation move reduces the demand rate for power much more. Therefore it's a win for keeping your rate of work further within your sustainable limits of on supplying muscular power.

Engage some muscles more

to implement strategy (B), but within the constraints of (H) + (K)

As noted under concept (H), finding new muscles to use specifically for hills is not likely.

With most muscle moves, if we try to use them at higher muscle speed or through a larger range-of-motion, in the context of the high Force demands of hill-climbing, we usually engage lots more FG fibers, which soon results in "burning out" the specific muscle -- or at least many of its fibers needed to handle force loads or range-of-motion segments important for future hill-climbs in the intended performance.

Many muscle moves not only need to add propulsive work of their own, they also need to transmit forces from other muscles, and support body weight. To handle higher force load without "burning out", the muscle must operate at a slower speed and/or smaller range-of-motion.

The main exception to these constraints are the torso-shoulder side-swing muscles and the arm side-swing muscles -- because (a) they do not need to transmit much propulsive force from other muscles, since they're not between any other muscles and foot-ground contact; (b) they do not need to support as much body weight, since much of the mass is below them.

Since some of the other muscles are going into "static transmission" mode anyway on a steep hill, they're set to handle transmitting the additional force load from these moves.

Torso-shoulder side-swing

Torso-shoulder side-swing tends to be used less for V2 on gentle terrain mainly because the focus is more on optimizing power from the double-pole push -- for which the torso and shoulder are important. But for the "offset" poling of V1, the pole-push is aimed partly toward one side, swinging the torso + shoulders over to that side actually adds propulsive Work to the early phase of the pole-push. Though swinging the torso + shoulders again the opposite way toward the pole-recovery side might "absorb" some of the propulsive Work which could have been available from the later phase of the V1 pole-push, there's no other pole-push on that side for it to interfere with.

Timing is critical: If get it wrong, could absorb propulsive Work instead of adding to it. The basic idea is to start the move after the Right leg starts pushing, and accelerate the mass of the torso + shoulders sideways toward Left away from the leg-push. The highest sideways speed relative to the hips should be reached as weight is being transferred from one foot to the other. Stop the side-swing move after the Left leg sets down and starts pushing, so their mass decelerates while moving toward the leg-push.

It works by Newton's Third Law. Accelerating or decelerating the mass produces a "reactive" or "inertial" force. The important thing is to be careful about the direction of the reactive force. Many humans are pretty good at feeling this for the starting and acceleration, not as good at feeling it in the deceleration and stopping.

The usual problem is that the positive Work from starting and acceleration is exactly cancelled out by negative Work from deceleration and stopping. Which is what happens if you start this side-swing move exactly at the set-down of the foot, and finish it exactly as weight is transferred to the other foot setting down on the ground.

Arm side-swing

Arm side-swing is only available while the arm is not engaged in poling. The obvious situation is for climbing with no poles. But it can be also be used in V1 poling, by the pole-recovery arm during its recovery phase.

Arm side-swing tends not to be used at higher speeds on gentle terrain because the cost in increased air resistance is much higher at higher speeds.

Timing is critical:  like Torso-shoulder side-swing.


Shoulder "untwist" to help drive the push by the poling-side pole in the "offset" double pole-push of V1 skate. 

moves not to forget

There are other aspects of skating technique which are not specific to climbing hills, but they provide substantial benefits when also used on hills. Lots of athletes tend to assume that the basic skating leg-push must be simple, so they focus on other things like coordinating different kinds of poling with leg-pushes. But actually the 3-dimensional biomechanics of the skating leg-push is very complicated (and there's also some tricks to basic double-pole push).

Here's some key points often overlooked:

  • play with aiming the leg-push more out toward the side, instead of just toward the back. (On flat terrain, how far can it go toward straight out to the side, with no backward push at all?)

  • knee drive / heel drive ankle-flexion move

  • specific focus on the Out-Sweep push moves and training of their specific muscles (in addition to the Extension push)

  • upper abdominal "crunch" to add force to the double-pole push -- it's not just about hands + arms + shoulders.

Reduce range-of-motion, or Shift to static transmission

With many of the effective skating muscle moves, if we try to use them at higher muscle speed or through a larger range-of-motion, in the context of the high Force demands of hill-climbing, we usually engage lots more FG fibers, which soon results in "burning out" the specific muscle -- or at least many of its fibers needed to handle force loads or range-of-motion segments important for future hill-climbs in the intended performance.

Many muscle moves not only need to add propulsive work of their own, they also need to transmit forces from other muscles, and support body weight. To handle higher force load without "burning out", we want to enable the SO fibers to handle most of it, since they normally produce less lactic acid and are more re-usable again and again later in the intended performance.

To handle higher forces with its SO fibers, the muscle must operate at a much slower speed and/or smaller range-of-motion. The best mode is "isometric" -- just hold static -- no muscle move at all. This static isometric mode still burns some fuel and oxygen, but the SO fibers are suited for it (e.g. the SO fibers are normally used by the body to maintain postural stability, while FG fibers are reserved for strong + serious moving).

  • Proportions of motion will change:  Some muscles are better at using their SO fibers to handle higher forces than others, so some muscles are going to retain are larger percentage of their flat-terrain range-of-motion than others.

  • Some muscles cannot escape higher forces because their position in the skeleton requires them to transmit forces from stronger muscles to the foot-ground contact -- and can only hold stable under the load if they reduce their range-of-motion to zero: static "isometric" mode.

  • Some muscles could retain some range-of-motion, but the active contribution of propulsive work would be so small, that it might just be simpler to put then into static "isometric" mode.

  • Different skaters have different strengths and weaknesses, so a muscle move that is active for one person skating up hill might be static for another. It is unlikely to be optimal to try to copy the range-of-motion distances or proportions from an elite racer video.

Active work: Here's some likely candidates for active contribution of propulsive work with larger percentage of flat-terrain range-of-motion:

  • hip-extension move (e.g. "gluteus" muscles)

  • knee-extension move (e.g. "quadriceps" muscles)

  • medial-hip-rotation move (a.k.a. "inward knee roll") -- because it's well-positioned for active work when the foot is set down out toward the side (partly to avoid too much crossing of the tails of the skis without stepping further up the hill). It's not a strong muscle move for lots of people -- but it can be assisted by gravity.

Static transmission: Here's some candidates for static transmission, or for a smaller move through a smaller percentage of flat-terrain range-of-motion:

  • ankle-extension move (e.g. "calf" muscles) -- not because the calf muscle is notable weak, but because it's got so many big sources of load going through it: hip-extension, knee-extension, and body-weight.

  • hip-abduction move -- because it's so not well-positioned for active work when the foot is set down out toward the side (partly to avoid too much crossing of the tails of the skis without stepping further up the hill) -- and for lots of people it's not very strong.

  • ankle-pronation -- because it must transmit substantial side-force from medial-hip-rotation, perhaps hip-abduction, and torso-shoulder side-swing moves -- and for lots of people its not very strong. Many skaters use a high-cuff boot to help keep this move mostly static. Also it's easier for it to hold stable in transmitting the high-force load if the ankle is already somewhat pronated when the foot is set down.

How to decide how much range-of-motion for which muscles? To control the allocation optimally according to rational theory, you would need to know the SO and FG fiber composition and capabilities for each muscle move. But it would be difficult to know that without doing lots of muscle biopsies.  Fortunately there's a simpler approach:

Leave the allocation of range-of-motion reductions to the unconscious neuro-muscular control module in your brain. It's not perfect, but it's designed to be pretty good at that sort of thing -- better odds of it being right than some coaching theory or copying from analysis of an eliter racer video.

I suspect there's two frequent shortcomings in the performance of the neuro-muscular control module:

  • It's not good at guessing to use muscle moves that it has not been well-exposed to, either thru genetic pre-disposition, early childhood history, or well-designed adult practice drills.

  • Sometimes it falls into "bad habits" of using one muscle move to absorb the work of another.

Therefore watch out for cases where it is using a muscle move to absorb work. Two frequent cases in skating are:

  • hip-abduction to absorbs work from medial-hip-rotation (a.k.a "inward knee roll") . . . the Left knee moves down and inward toward the Right as it uses the medial hip rotation move to push the Left foot propulsively outward toward the Left side. But the Left hip moves Left relative to its knee, so it is absorbing work from the medial hip rotation move.

  • torso-shoulder side-swing absorbs work from sideways motion of the hip and leg . . . the Left hip moves toward the Right as the leg pushes. But the torso + shoulder move toward the Left relative to the hip, so they are absorbing work from the leg-push moves.

set down with substantial knee bend?

A puzzle is that it sometimes seems to work to set down with substantial knee bend while climbing a steep hill. Normally using substantial knee bend is associated with large range-of-motion in knee-extension (or also hip-extension) moves -- which is what we're trying to avoid for "surviving" a hill-climb without "burning out" those muscles.

An important difference is if it goes with setting down the foot somewhat out toward the side. In that case it has two benefits:

  • avoids crossing the tails of the two skis too much, but without stepping higher up the hill.

  • put the medial-hip-rotation into a good configuration.

But what about its affect on range-of-motion? Perhaps it is mitigated in this way: The knee-extension move is held mostly static at first after set-down, while the medial-hip-rotation move (and perhaps some ankle-pronation) executes. After that move, the whole leg is in a more Extended position, and the upper body has tended to fall farther more quickly -- both because the foot was set down further outside.

So after the medial-hip-rotation both the hip-extension and knee-extension moves are starting from a more "extended" configuration (so there is less remaining range-of-motion available to them). and that extended configuration is a more favorable segment of their range-of-motion for the SO fibers to handle higher forces (without activating lots more FG fibers).

Assist weaker muscles and avoid stress segments

to implement strategy (D)

Pair with other muscles

Assist weaker muscles by pairing them with other muscles.

  • On the poling side of V1, we use the poling arm muscles to assist the weaker hip abductor muscles during the first phase of the skate-push. 

  • On the pole-recovery side of V1, we use the reactive side-force from stopping the previous torso-swing move to assist the first phase of the skate-push.  And we also use the assistance of the reactive side-force from immediately starting the next torso-swing more back toward the poling side. 

  • In herringbone skate, we use the single-pole-push on each side to directly assist the skate-push on each side.

Momentum to assist

Assist weaker muscles with momentum (or "kinetic energy") from previous work by other muscles.

  • On the pole-recovery side of V1, we use the greater combined kinetic energy from the poling-side skate-push and pole-push to help the skate-push on the pole-recovery side.

Avoid weak segments in range of motion

Use muscles in the strongest section of their range of motion.  Avoid putting peak forces on muscles and joints in the weak sections of their range of motion -- since this results in rapid fatigue and pain -- sometimes even injury.

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Ideas + Tips for Climbing Hills

Positions for best "gearing"

  • The tip of each ski should be angled way out to the side -- in order to deliver power most effectively. 

When the skier's speed is slower, there is more of a backward and downward component to the skate-push -- strategy (L) for leg-push gearing.  (though the side-push remains important).

The further the ski is angled out to the side, and the more you maintain glide out to the side, the gentler the overall path.  Gliding more out to the side takes the steepness out of the hill.

Required supporting move:  Keep pushing out to the side with the leg.  Use sideways torso rotation to add more sideways push.  The more you glide out to the side, the less steep you experience the hill. 

Warning: If you angle the ski out only to provide a platform for pushing your body straight up the hill, then you lose the "gearing" -- because the gearing applies only with the magic of actual skating.  The more you switch to the "walking" paradigm, the less gearing benefit.

  • The handle of the pole should be low, and the tip of the pole angled toward the back.

This pole-push angle delivers power most effectively at the slower speed climbing up a hill -- to support Principle (F) for pole-push "gearing".

Required supporting move:  The shoulders should be forward and low.

Supporting moves

  • Handle ski tails crossing

A problem with aiming the top of the ski more outward for hill-climbing is that the tail is more inward. Since this happens with both skis, the tails are more likely to cross. If the "backward" pelvis/hip rotation move is used to slow climbing speed, the amount of tail-crossing tends to increase. What to do?

(1) Let them cross. Set the tail of the next pushing ski down on top of the tail of the previously pushing ski. You'll hear a "click" sound as they hit. For a short time maybe both skis will be on the ground at the same time. As you glide onto the new ski, its tail will come off the previous ski, and then you can lift the previous ski off the ground.

But there's a limit to how much of this one ski pressing on the other can be handled, so . . .

(2) Set the foot down more out toward the side. This goes well with big side-to-side motion of the upper body. It does not go well with getting maximum range-of-motion from the hip-abduction move. So just use hip-abduction muscles for static transmission. If set down with knee well-bent and pointed out toward the side roughly in line with the aim of the ski, can still get substantial range-of-motion in the medial-hip-rotation move and ankle-pronation move.

(3) ? Step up the hill? This does create more space for the tail of the next skis. But it speeds the rate of climbing, which increases the power demand. So this method is only for hills well within the skier's power delivery capability.

  • Keep pushing the ski out to the side.

If the side-glide is lost, then the "magic" of skating is lost -- and then reactive side-forces from the torso rotation moves cannot help with the climbing.

The leg-push on a steep hill is more backward than on the flats, but it's not all backward.  Use the feeling of strong side-to-side weight transfer and the working of the little-known hip abductor and torso rotator muscles.  Fight to keep the side-glide.

The "backward" pelvis/hip rotation move helps with this.

  • Bring the Hips forward again and again -- by bending strongly at the ankles.

Starting the skate-push from this position engages the strong quadriceps (front thigh) muscles and gluteus maximus (rear butt) muscles.  With the whole upper body forward, the diagonal force from the skate-push against a ski angled out way to the side is aimed more through the skier's overall center-of-mass.

  • Shoulders forward and low -- by bending at the ankles and from the waist -- and by limiting the lifting by the back muscles on the pole-recovery side. 

In this way the poles are angled further back away from the vertical, which is more effective "gearing" for the lower speeds in climbing a steeper hill.  The concept in V1 is to keep recovering the shoulders forward, not upward.  The shoulders are always slumped forward in V1 -- sometimes even more forward.

  • Hang-side hand is extended further out to the side at the start of the pole-push -- but not the whole pole.  Point the hang-side pole tip somewhat inward.

Otherwise the torso-rotation away from the hang-side starts too early.

  • Recovery-side hand starts its pole-push from closer in to the torso. 

So its elbow is more bent (a stronger configuration to transmit force from the shoulders), and so it's tip can be planted closer in and further back for better "gearing" and leverage -- and for longer range-of-motion in its push.


  • Don't drop the butt to assist the pole-push. 

Although that's a helpful move for V2 and Open Field Skate on the flats, when climbing up a steep hill, it results in moving the weight of the entire upper body through the same vertical range twice.

Instead:  Always "lock in" the vertical gain of the hips and upper body.  Once you do the hard work of raising your hips upward, keep them up there.

  • Don't just fall from side-to-side like a pendulum. 

"Let gravity do the work" is too slow, and doesn't generate enough reactive side-force.  And if taken literally, puts more load on the (already-well-utilized) quadriceps muscles. 

Instead:  Actively swing your torso from side to side -- by learning to engage some little-known abdominal muscles.

  • Don't plant your hang-side pole with the tip aimed straight back. 

Because if the hang-side hand and hang-side pole tip are exactly aligned with the skier's overall direction of forward motion, the strong force of the pole-push itself will immediately turn the skier's torso away from the hang-side toward the recovery-side.  This early turning away weakens and shortens the pole-push.  It also applies the reactive side-force during the first phase of the hang-side skate-push -- which is less effective than in the second phase when the ski is more strongly edged. 

Instead:  Start with the hang-side hand further out to the side, and the pole-tip aimed partly inward -- so the force of the pole-push will be self-correcting of its own side-rotation tendency, and the torso-swing will be delayed until the most of the pole-push is over, delayed to the second phase of the skate-push.

The Steeper the Hill . . .

The steeper the hill . . .

  • the more need to shrink the size of each forward step, by using the backward pelvis-hip rotation move.

  • the more forward the hips, for less knee-bend (while retaining full ankle-flexion).

  • the more the aim of each foot is angled out toward the side.

  • the more the foot is set down further out from the center.

  • the less up-and-down motion in the upper body, the more the pole-push work is focused in the arms.

  • the more the pole is planted further back behind.

  • the slower the average speed -- to avoid burning out for the next hour or two after this climb.

  • the more special neuro-muscular control needed to handle the ski at such a slow speed.

practice, practice, practice, going slow in a variety of snow conditions -- and finding slow skaters to just follow, to help enforce skating at a slower speed.

Concepts and Perceptions versus Physics and Video

As if the physics of the skate-climbing motions themselves were not already complicated enough, there's the entertaining fact that our mental concepts and images and sensory perceptions are not well connected with the objective physics of our body skating.

This has several amusing results:


I think and feel I'm doing something with a big motion, when objectively it's only a little motion.  Some of my own hill-climbing examples:

  • I thought my little raising of my back and shoulders before initiating my pole-push was OK.  But in video I could see that it was a big raising, way more than any elite racer climbing up a steep hill.

  • I thought (and felt!) that my hips and shoulders were forward.  But in video I could easily see that I really hadn't gotten anywhere into "forward" territory, compared with any elite racer climbing up a steep hill.

  • I thought I had solid side-to-side motion, and felt that if I had any more it would be ridiculous.  But on video it looked weak compared to a front-view of any elite racer climbing up a steep hill.

Advice with unintended consequences

Coaches have found through long sad experience that sometimes just telling a skier a physically correct concept doesn't work.  Because thinking consciously about one correct thing can sometimes unconsciously activate two other bad motions.   Some examples:

  • Forward-Step:  Thinking consciously about stepping forward up the hill, can result in forgetting to push out to the side.

  • Toe-Push:  Thinking consciously about pushing with the toe, can result in forgetting to fully engage the big leg muscles to push out the side, and can result in reverting into "running" on skate skis.

Concept too early in learning progression

Coaches have found that some motions and perceptions are foundational in learning.  If you try to practice a non-foundational motion too early, even though it is physically correct, it could block the learning of a more important motion or perception.  Some examples:

  • Torso Rotation:  Many coaches have found that trying to use torso rotation to help climb hills actually blocks learning of effective control with the legs and the best engagement of the leg muscles in hill-climbing. 

They might say:  First learn "Quiet Upper Body" with no rotating or tilting of torso or shoulders or hips -- in order to learn the foundational skill of controlled and powerful skiing "below the hips".  Only after the hips are complete solid, consider working on torso rotation moves.  A more zealous subset might say that even then any conscious work on upper body movement could trigger a reversion to unstable hips -- so it's better for the skiers to discover the best sideways upper-body moves for themselves unconsciously.

  • Quiet Upper Body:  Some coaches have found that if they teach "quiet upper body" too early to teenage skiers, they don't learn sound weight transfer from ski to ski.

They might say:  First get them practicing turning the upper body sideways to face with the new direction of each ski.  Once they have really solid ski-to-ski weight transfer, then it's OK to start them on "Quiet Upper Body" drills.

  • Knee Bend:  Actually knee bend is necessary for engaging the big quadriceps leg muscles into an effective skating push, and many good coaches used to explicitly teach it.

But then they discovered that many skaters naturally tend to fall into sitting back "down in the bucket", and then it was very difficult to get their hips up and forward again.  So now more coaches focus instruction and drills on strong forward flex of the ankles ("ankle bend" rather than "knee bend").  And trust that after the ankle-bend is strong, the knee bend will usually take care of itself (or in the few students where it does not, the knee bend can be dealt with some other way).

Instructors not knowing physics

My view is that for a coach to know a sound learning progression and helpful mental concepts is much more important than to know physics and biomechanics.  It is critical for an instructor to be able to see the subtle non-obvious things in a skier's motions that tell where they are now in their learning progression, and what concepts and drills that skier needs to work on now to make their next step in learning.

If an instructor makes a justification or explanation which is incorrect in the physics, for some concept or movement they are teaching -- that does not disqualify them as a coach.  The physics you can learn in books and websites.  The specific personal interpretation for you, and for you now is much harder to discover than physics.

Slow versus Fast

Different skaters have different goals for different hills. The obvious goal is try to go fast up a hill. But for many skaters up many hills, that approach will leave their legs too hurt to enjoy much more skating that day. There are some differences in technique for climbing slow versus climbing fast:

climbing Slow

  • path goes more from side to side

  • smaller forward advance per stroke, by using the backward pelvis-hip rotation move

  • glide way out to the side

  • stretch out side-glide to the point of nearly stalling

  • plant poles further back behind

  • single-pole push ("herringbone skate", "coaches skate")

  • aim pole-push more out toward the side

  • time the single-pole push to help the shoulders and torso to swing over toward the other side, as the skater steps from one foot to the other foot.

climbing Fast

  • path more direct straight up the hill

  • quick into the next powerful push with the other leg

  • aim pole-push more up + down the hill

  • "leading" pelvis/hip rotation

  • double-pole push ("V1 skate", "offset skate")


more . . .

see also

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