Monday, March 07, 2005

Skiing Sick

I wasn’t really fighting a cold, but I wasn’t cooperating with it, either. Symptoms were mild, just a little stuffy nose and a general lack of energy. Until anything more definite came along, I would just keep skiing.

Because of the lack of energy, I skied slowly. Because of the excellent conditions, I skied classical.

Continuing to study technique and timing as I had recently observed them, I waxed only slightly heavily, and focused on complete weight shift, loading up for the most effective kick with the least effort.

Each time I have gone out to ski the busy Ellis River Trail in Jackson on a weekend or vacation week day, I have caught and passed everyone in front of me and been passed by no one. The point is not how great I am, because I’m not. It’s just the accumulated benefit of the little things. Even sick, and getting sicker, my slow pace was faster than anyone else’s.

Kick timing makes a huge difference. Fully shifting weight through the hip as the gliding foot shoots forward sets up the next stride. Drive the knee and flex the ankle as you throw the hip forward. Don’t step onto a stiff, nearly straight leg and expect to have any power in the next stride. But cross-country skiing is a whole made up of important parts.

Most people I see on the trail are not holding their poles correctly. Not only do they lose the power the strap would provide, the incorrect grip means they plant the poles at inefficient angles and can’t swing their arms in the proper rhythm to keep momentum going.

Classical skiing uses pendulums swinging in alternate rhythm. The legs have their timing and the arms have opposite timing. If the arms can’t swing freely and the poles can’t deliver power at the right time and strength, the whole machine slows down.

The problem may start with the beginner lesson. In a well-intended attempt to get people thinking about their footwork, instructors have them set the poles aside. Skiers are encouraged to stride without poles, to work on timing and weight shift, but it gives the impression the poles are an unimportant afterthought. This is wrong.

Skiers from alpine backgrounds are accustomed to holding orthopedic grips in their fist, which also does not translate well to cross-country poling.

Holding the poles wrong is worse than not holding them at all. If that pole strap doesn’t cross the palm and support the hand, allowing for a smooth release and follow-through, it blocks all the other movements a skier could do with the poles held right or not at all.

A really fit, technically proficient skier could have run me down and flitted past me easily. But that skier would only have been doing, at full strength, what I was doing on half power or less. At a faster tempo with more power in the kick, the speed range moves up dramatically.

Despite the fact that my cold was getting worse and my muscles felt like melting clay, I was not breathless and could enjoy the scenery. A couple of other skiers stopped me to point out a large beaver foraging along the partially-open river. It was a leisurely tour.

Skiers who started very young often have trouble describing what they do, because they learned it naturally, gradually, by doing it more than by thinking about it. Skiers who start as adults have to learn differently, because the human mind automatically tries to correlate new experience to old experience.

As I was describing the lift of the obliques to an instructor, she cautioned against curling sideways, which risks causing the shoulders to sway back and forth. She also mentioned driving the knee forward and flexing the ankle. When I focused on those elements, I found they reinforced the hip lift. I’d already made sure I was lifting my hip rather than dropping my shoulder to engage the abdominal muscles and lower back. Consciously placing the knee and ankle under everything completed the solid platform from which to kick onto the other ski. It even works amazingly well up hill.

Only by skiing sick and tired did I really discover how little effort I needed to get good glide. I couldn’t pole hard to make up for sloppy kick. I couldn’t speed up my cadence to make up for weak kick. I had to make each kick count, and really ride the gliding ski.

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