by Charlie Dee and Andy Keller
Charlie Dee: Ah, shorter days, cooler nights, leaves coloring up and dropping. Snow couldn’t be far off (allow me to fantasize and conveniently forget about El Nino).
It’s time to start working on technique, muscle memory and specific strength to get ready for that annual first dance of p-tex on white fluffy stuff. Andy, open up your bag of tricks and explain some pre-snow drills that will work for both roller skiers and folks with more sense.
Andy comfortably balanced on right leg, swings his left leg across his body then out to the side against bungee resistance. He then brings his leg back slowly, under control to build skating strength. PHOTOS BY CHARLIE DEE
Classic balance progression
Andy Keller: This drill is for classic skiers. But because it’s all about balance, skaters get benefit from it also. Stand on dry ground, preferably in ski boots. Swing one leg forward and backward, trying to achieve balance and relaxation on the weighted foot.
CD: My first instinct when I feel a tad off-balance is to lean forward at the waist.
AK: Well don’t! Instead, fire your abs and glutes for balance and keep good athletic position with rounded shoulders, knees bent but upper body “tall.” In addition to balance, the goals here are to develop your core muscles and, through repetition, dial proper upper-body position into your muscle memory.
CD: Roller skiers can increase the challenge by putting a ski on the planted leg.
AK: Right. A ski adds to the degree of difficulty. It’s best to do this on grass where there’s resistance to the wheels so your kick doesn’t thrust you forward, but you still have more instability to overcome than you did just on your boot. As you become comfortable with the kicking motion back and forth, add pauses at the rear arc of your swinging leg. This will make you more comfortable gliding in a dynamic position.
CD: Then the next step is to add resistance to build up strength.
AK: We do that by working with bungees. There are several fairly inexpensive products available that you can find at ski shops or online. My favorite is the Nordic Shock Cords available at www.cxcstore.com.
Anchor the bungee to a fence post, car bumper, stake in the ground or anything convenient. Start by facing the anchor. Do the same classic motion back and forth, and you’ll get resistance on your extension back, which strengthens the muscles you kick off with.
CD: Then when I turn around and drill with the anchor behind me, I feel resistance as I thrust forward, which builds up my quads and abs.
AK: You’re a faster learner than I thought, Charlie. The trick here, as always, is to maintain good athletic position with your weight on the forward half of your foot.
CD: Then we can follow the same progression – from boots on the ground, stationary roller skis or bungees – for a skating drill.
AK: Right. Balance on one boot with the other leg off the ground. If you balance on your right foot, in good athletic position, swing your left leg out to the left side and bring it back across the front of your body. The key focus here is to swing with as much range of motion as possible. Once you can do this in a relaxed way, switch legs.
CD: I didn’t feel real comfortable with this until I concentrated on keeping my core stable. Let’s add the bungee.
AK: With the bungee, you break this down into two exercises on each side. Turn your body sideways to the anchor. If the anchor is to your left and the bungee on your right ankle, use your hip to push your right foot away from body and then back in under control. Don’t let the bungee just pull the leg back. Let it offer resistance. Bring it back slowly so you’re building strength.
Then turn around so the anchor is on your right with the bungee still on your right ankle.
Now bring the leg across the front of the body. Start with 10 reps each, then switch legs and do the same things with the bungee on your left ankle.
CD: Unlike the classic exercise, when I try this, I’m not mimicking the skating motion exactly.
AK: Skating requires the ability to balance when applying force side to side. This drill mimics that balance on the stationary leg while bungee resistance strengthens skate-off muscles on the moving leg as well as increases hip mobility for a more relaxed skate-off.
Upper body drills
CD: Moving to the upper body, you told me in the past to mimic classic poling, using the bungees with very little resistance simply as a warm-up exercise. After I stuck a pole into a crack in June and reinjured my rotator cuff, my physical therapist suggested the same thing to build back my range of motion.
AK: Great minds. I like to start workouts by getting the mind thinking and body activating properly. So attach the bungee to both hands and work the classic motion again with the anchor both in front and to the rear. Freely swing your arms back and forth in the “single stick” classic poling motion with the cords offering just slight resistance. Then add more resistance by tightening the cords to build strength and muscle memory.
CD: With the anchor in front, I’m developing muscle memory for the follow through back. And when the anchor is behind me, I’m strengthening my forward thrust with the poles.
AK: Focus on two technique points here, Charlie. First, swing your arms from the shoulder, not the elbow. We’ve mentioned previously that the shoulder is the fulcrum. Next, swing your arm far enough forward that someone standing at your side can see distance between the back of your upper arm and your torso. This insures that your lats are activated, which gives you far more power.
CD: Then we move to double poling, again anchoring the bungee both in front and behind.
AK: With the anchor in front, the resistance comes as you follow though backwards after the imaginary pole plant. Concentrate on a natural follow through down and back. Don’t exaggerate the back swing. As you bring your arms forward, allow the bungee to pull your arms to full extension. Just like with the single stick, I want to see daylight between your body and upper arms.
CD: I like anchoring the bungee in the rear because the resistance allows me to get into an active forward body position, lead with my hips and get on top of the imaginary poles for the pole plant.
AK: Focus on that as well as bringing your arms up to a high position and you can feel your abs stretching. Fire those abs at the moment you bring your arms down for the pole plant, and stay flexed at the knees and ankles.
CD: That’s a lot of things to think about for a simple drill.
AK: But when you get it, this exercise implants that motion into your upper-body muscle memory, and that translates well to poles in snow.
CD: People with roller skis can take this double-pole drill to asphalt. I have a friend who has been racing for five years but just couldn’t free his upper body to get any help from his poles in V2 or double poling. He was very dynamic from the waist down, but was a stiff up top.
AK: I know that guy. This summer he’s been doing a four-minute hill over and over, double poling only, and he looks like a different skier. Not being able to use his legs on that steep of a hill forced him finally to engage his abs and hips.
Deep snow drill
CD: Let’s finish off with the drill that forces me to use my hips and core the most.
AK: With roller skis on, imagine you’re trudging through deep snow and the only way to get through is to bring your knee high enough that your thigh is parallel to the ground.
CD: That’s the easy part. But you said I had to keep my arms locked, holding my poles parallel to the ground above my head.
AK: Keeping your arms up forces you to have a “tall” upper body and your core forward. Once you’re comfortable, take this to a slight downhill. Keep the unweighted ski off the ground but parallel to it as long as possible. This prolongs your commitment to the weighted ski, gaining confidence in your balance and lengthening your glide for either classic or skating.
CD: Well, I sure can’t stick my butt out in this position.
AK: Preventing that is one of the goals for holding the poles up. All these drills are best done at least once under the eye of a coach who can suggest ways to adjust body position and refine technique.
CD: This gives me plenty to work on till the snow hits.
Videos of these drills can be seen at cxcacademy.com. Sign up for a five-day free trial, go to the dashboard on the left side of the screen and click on “video library.”
Andy Keller is head coach of the CXC Team and was an assistant coach of the US Ski Team for the 2015 Junior World XC Ski Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Charlie Dee is a retired professor from Milwaukee, member of the American Birkebeiner Foundation Board of Directors and a CXC Master Skier.