Thursday, February 24, 2005

Classical Observations

The classical skiing has been exceptionally good around here with a series of snowstorms bringing packed powder conditions. Why waste that on skating?

The changes snowstorms bring depend on the type of snow and the time of day. If the snow falls at night, groomers can probably get out on it before you hit the trail. Then all you experience is a clean, fresh surface.

If the snow falls during your skiing day, things get trickier. If the snow is dry and powdery, you need to wax your kick zone longer, to spread your grip over more of the fragile snow. Otherwise, even with the right wax, you will slip because the snow shears away from itself.

With no-wax skis in fresh, loose snow, you may or may not notice any effect, depending on the grip pattern on your skis. You can’t really extend the grip zone of a mechanical-base ski unless you add wax at either end of the scale pattern. And it has to be the right wax.

One storm brought heavy snow and temperatures right around 32 degrees. It damaged trees, took out power lines and made very difficult skiing while the snow was falling. However, the dense snow packed well for later days.

The fresh snow can take a while to pack firmly, making the wide skating lane fragile. Forceful edging digs into the soft platform. The more delicate dance of classical loads the snow less severely.

Even after the snow settles, as long as it shows its powdery origins it provides endless kilometers of reliable kick and glide.

Sunlight is the poor man’s training video. How many of us can afford to have a coach tape us so we can see our flawed technique? But watch your shadow when the sun is at your back or coming directly from either side and you can see yourself in action for free.

A friend of mine likes to use the expression “hips high and forward” to describe proper classical form. In a fully-developed classical stride, you do throw your hip into it on each side, each stride, but I didn’t really feel the lift until recently.

You want to shift your weight fully from one ski to the other, but not so far that you fall to the outside of the track. I can recognize one fellow skier by the way his shoulders swing from side to side. It works for him, but he’s expending energy and losing some power.

When the stride feels the best, my shoulders are perfectly level. I know because my shadow tells me so. But as I shoot the gliding foot forward, ankle and knee flexed, if I consciously throw the hip forward and lift it toward my rib cage with the oblique muscles on the side of the abdomen, it accomplishes the weight shift and loads up that whole side of the body to fire a ferocious kick down into the snow for the next stride.

You can’t simulate this on dry land, because you are shifting your weight onto a moving foot, weighting the ski while lifting and driving the hip forward. Your foot is flat. The kicking leg is swinging back and up behind you.

As the gliding ski slows, remain on it with the hip lifted, until you are ready to kick for the next stride. The previous kicking ski is coming forward again, feeding into the track, but do not weight it until it comes up beside your gliding leg. At that instant, uncork the power of your compressed oblique muscles and all the other muscles from there down your leg. Shoot the hip forward on the new gliding side, lift and compress. Repeat as necessary.

The skier whose shoulders swing is compressing the obliques by bringing the shoulder down. Maybe the hip is also coming up, but swinging the shoulders moves more mass than necessary.

Lifting the hip properly is surprisingly tiring until your body gets accustomed to it. Those are weird muscles to make hurt. It’s funny to feel them get all pumped and sluggish from lactic acid. It also pulls on the muscles of the upper thigh. But when it all comes together it feels perfect.

When you first feel it, you may exaggerate the motion, as I did, to explore its limits. But I discovered it near the beginning of a busy couple of weeks of skiing. As I got tired, skiing day after day, I had to learn how to do it more economically, but still do it. Slow the stride down.
Really focus on balance, and on getting the most out of each kick. Try it on upgrades, to see how steeply you can climb before you have to speed up your tempo. Speeding up is correct, but methodical kicking helps you focus your power.

Striding is a dynamic process. Breaking it down by verbal description can’t help distorting the timing. But perhaps a concept or a phrase will stick in mind, and the rest of the process will fall into place around it.

Instructor Peter Theriault of Jackson Ski Touring observed that when he taught a lesson to a small group whose native language was not English, the students who tried to translate his words as best they could did not do as well as the one who knew no English at all. The one who could not understand had to learn by watching Peter exactly, imitating what he saw, with no distracting verbal filter.

“Don’t try to tell him what I said,” Peter told the other students. “Ask him to tell you what I did.”

Skiers have known for a long time that following better skiers is the best way to learn. But we do love to talk about things. It’s the next best thing to doing it.

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