A version of this article first appeared in "The Master Skier."
Quiz: Which best describes your downhill skiing style?
A. Now I can pull away from the pack!
B. I'll just coast down the hill now.
C. I just hope I don't crash.
If you answered C or B, then here are some tips that will help turn you into an A skier...
Why race the downhills? First, the momentum you generate on the downhill will carry you further along the next flat or up the next climb I've been skiing on trails where an aggressive tuck got me going fast enough that I was almost carried over the next hill without poling. A couple V2 skates is enough to keep my speed up over the top. The skiers behind me? They stood and rested on the downhill, descending much slower. The lower momentum meant they had to start poling sooner on the uphill. And because they were going slower, they had to use V1.
Going fast on the downhill means skiing faster uphill.
Second, a fast downhill means you can save effort on the uphills. I was skiing with a small group of racers on a hilly course. I was following skiers who were more tentative than I on the downhills - I'd have to slow on the downhills to keep from running them over. At the top of one hill, I made my move: I passed the skier and led the group down the hill, gaining on them the entire way. With the momentum I had, I gained a bit more on the first part of the following uphill. Then I backed off and climbed the rest of the hill at a controlled pace. About two thirds to the way up the hill, the rest of the group had rejoined me - but they worked a lot harder them me doing it. But they couldn't go fast enough on the uphills to pass me. After a number of similar downhill/uphill combinations, I had saved enough energy to sprint the last 2 or 3 kilometers. The rest of the group? The extra effort they put in catching me on the uphills weakened them enough that I gained ground on the entire group those last few km.
Third, downhills present passing opportunities. Some opportunities are obvious: on easier downhills, getting into a tuck will usually allow you to glide pass someone not tucking with very little energy expenditure. As you get better, you can take advantage of mistakes:
- The skier in front of you goes a little wide in a corner, you quickly ski to the inside and take a shorter, faster line past them.
- The skier falls in front of you. With fast feet, you're able to avoid hitting them.
- You're going fast enough that you pass the skier just starting to climb the following hill.
Principles of racing down hills
I'm assuming that you already know how to at least snow plow - this is not a beginner's article!
- Keep you hands in front! The number 1 reason people fall on downhills: Letting a hand get behind you. If your hand goes back, your body twists. If your body twists, you loose pressure on the front of your skis. If you loose pressure, your skis go out from under you. Crash! Keep the hands in front of you at all times. Keep them in sight. They can move up and down or in and out depending on how much balance you need - but keep them in front!
- Keep your knees and feet feet relaxed. Your legs are shock absorbers. Your knees need to absorb all the little bumps and holes on the downhill. Tight legs? You'll be thrown by every little bump.
Advanced skiers: Think about keeping relaxed this way: Fast skis want to flow over downhill undulations, not plow through them. Ever watch alpine downhill skiing on TV? Remember hearing the commentators talking about how important it is to "let the skis run free" in flatter portions of the downhill course in order to maintain speed? By keeping you body relaxed, you let the skis ride over the snow - they run free.
Go with the flow, be one with the snow.
- Be light on your feet. Light on your feet means you can quickly transfer your weight from ski to ski. This ability allows you to make quick moves to avoid obstacles, take a quick skate to the inside when the corner is sharper than expected, or to avoid those rocks the skier in front of you suddenly exposed under the snow.
- Look where you want to go, not at what you want to avoid. Everyone has a built in tendency to to go toward whatever they're looking at. If you're looking at an obstacle, you'll likely hit it.
- Lead with your hands in a turn. As you enter a corner, point your hands in the direction you want to go. This steers your shoulders into the turn which sets your body up to turn. Watch alpine slalom racers: They begin each turn by turning their upper body into the direction of the turn.
- Push your outside ski forward and on edge in a turn. This serves two purposes: it provides a slightly more stable platform and it makes it easier to put pressure on the inside edge of your ski, curving you around the corner. On classic skis, this will make a huge difference in whether you can stay in the tracks around a corner or whether you're forced to get out of the tracks and take a wider - and longer - line around the corner.
- Start your turn from the outside of the corner, ski to the inside, and then back to the outside. Back of the pack and all the snow has been pushed into a bank along the outside of the turn? You can use that bank like the bank on a NASCAR race course! It can help guide you around the turn.
That's all well and good, but how do you ingrain these principles so you actually use them? Numerous dryland drills can help you before you even get on snow. And these drills do not always involve rollerskis.
- Tuck downhills - hands in front! You do tuck the downhills with rollerskiing, don't you?
- While in a tuck step quickly from foot to foot.
- Find a hill with a corner on it. Go down the hill and turn your hands in the direction of the turn.
- Find an empty parking lot with a slight downhill grade (and a nice run-out). Setup a slalom course with rocks, water bottles, whatever and ski down it. It doesn't need to be long, just a four or five gates. Lead with your hands. Start out with a high tuck and work your way down to a lower tuck.
- Push the outside rollerski forward while tucking around corners.
- While in a tuck, skate down the hill.
- Skate down a hill, with poles.
- Start corners from the outside to the inside and out again. Experiment with different corners to see what seems fastest. take different lines to see what they're like. It doesn't need to be fast.
Obviously you want to do all of the same drills on skis as you would on rollerskis. But there are some other drills that are just great!
Skiing, technically, is not a contact sport. But you should get used to skiing close to people, close enough that you're not afraid to touch someone. Would you rather do this in a race first or in practice?
Find a partner you trust - that is with a skiing style that's predictable. Also find a gentle hill. Even better, find a gentle hill with an easy corner.
- First drill: Both skiers ski down the hill in a tuck, without poles, side by side. Talk to each other during the maneuvers!
- Tuck down a hill with an easy turn, side by side. Make sure you're going slow enough that the person on the inside can make the turn without going to the outside and pushing the other skier into the snow bank!
- Draft behind your partner down a hill. As you catch them, jump to the side and pass.
- Draft behind your partner and pass on the outside of a corner.
- Draft behind your partner. Have your partner go wide around the corner. You pass on the inside of a corner.
The difficultly increases by:
- Using poles.
- Going faster.
- Using a sharper turn (not too sharp!)
- One of the skiers taking up more of the trail, leaving less trail for the passing skier.
- The lead skier will go wide or go the inside, but doesn't announce it up front - It's up to the passing skier to figure our which way to go!
As you gain more experience, you will find that you will be increasing more comfortable doing these drills at a faster speed and on steeper downhills.