Monday, January 10, 2005

Loosen up, Baby

People confuse tightness with control. They think of the iron fist. This leads to no end of trouble in skiing.

Tension strikes most often on the downhills, but it creeps in everywhere in cross-country skiing to make life harder.

Loosen up. Enjoy life. Git down.

Git down. This is distinct from “get down.” “Get down” is what you say to the cat when it’s on the kitchen counter, or the unauthorized dog on the couch. “Git down”is what you do when the music is good and you just gotta move with it.

Cross-country is a dance. It has its learned steps, but you respond to changes in the surface, the pitch, the tempo, mixing and matching those learned steps in combinations for the moment. Some muscles are tight, but the flow comes from knowing how tight to make the tight ones and how relaxed to keep the rest of them.

Most skiers hate to fall. Beginners especially hate to fall. So they tense up when things seem to be going out of control. Things just go out of control that much faster.

Look at a professional downhill ski racer. They fall pretty frequently. They almost never look tense, even as the whole thing explodes around them in a blast of snow and flying skis. That’s because they are trying to control the situation to the last. As a pilot friend of mine says, “you keep flying the plane.”

A military saying also springs to mind: “In an emergency, you don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to your level of training.” Military sayings are hip right now. Many are annoying, but that one makes a very good point. As you gain experience you will build a repertoire of quick, correct responses to various situations. You won’t always be right. But you will learn that stiffening up, drawing your body up and locking your knees is never right.

Git down. Never bend your waist unless you have already bent your ankles, knees and hips first. You may discover that by flexing from the ground up you no longer feel like locking your knees and sticking your butt out behind you like an awkward puppet.

I have been the awkward puppet many times. Only 12 years ago I despaired of ever learning to ski the wild ungroomed snow of what we loosely call the backcountry. The guy I was with, a skier almost since birth, was laughing so hard I wondered if he would ever inhale again.

You learn to find your speed range. Mine is only medium fast. If you like to go really fast, focus on steering at high speed and stopping quickly in emergencies. If you prefer more controlled speed, focus on techniques to keep yourself in your comfort zone without scraping away all the loose snow that people behind you might have wanted to use.

By starting to flex at the ankles and working your way up you will keep your springs and shock absorbers working all the time. You’d be amazed how much more secure you might feel on a downhill if you crouch right down in a tuck. Your center of gravity is instantly lower, so you feel less force throwing you off the outside of a turn. You are going faster than you thought you liked, but you are back in control. If you do fall, you are more likely to skid out and slide than catch an edge and get tossed airborne into a trailside tree.

Don’t tuck if you haven’t learned how to come out of it to slow down when you need to avoid another skier. But if you are rising from a tuck you have more control than if you were trying suddenly to crunch yourself lower.

Git down when you stride, too, just nowhere near as low. Remember to keep the joints flexed so you can apply power at the right time and follow through smoothly. As you get tired you will be tempted to stand up more. That is appropriate, but remember to mix it up, slowing down and standing up to rest, flexing down and springing along for short periods to keep yourself loose.

A trudging stride on soft skis will lull you into skiing without shifting your weight fully from ski to ski. You get perfectly good exercise and a pleasant slide through the woods. Those are both good. Try to practice some more dynamic techniques occasionally to help you out when things start to go a little faster than you might prefer. Git down. Loosen up. Throw a little jazz into that stately waltz. You can always slow down again.

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