Strong Double Poling for Efficiency

A slight downhill is a great chance to get some speed and distance for cheap, but many beginner and intermediate skiers waste the opportunity because of inefficient double-poling. Some tips on getting a stronger poling motion.

I love watching beginner and even intermediate cross-country skiers double pole on a gentle downhill. Commonly they stand perfectly upright, bending only at the shoulders, swinging their arms high, lifting the poles way off the ground and then jabbing them back down. What I love is that it looks exuberant and happy, like a cartoon of what winter should be. But then I want to run over and give them a quick lesson in double-poling so they can get more efficient. Maybe they don't care, but I think one of the joys of getting better at cross-country skiing as that you can go farther with less effort.

Before we get too much further, have a look at this video (below) of the US Men's Team doing double-pole training. There's no sound on this, but there's some great video. Look for five things that we'll come back to:

  • The action in the abdominals. Every double-pole these guys do is like a crunch. I don't mean the bending at the waist, but the actual contraction of the abdominal muscles.
  • The upper body position. Roughly speaking, the upper body angle matches the pole angle through much of the stroke.
  • The bending at the knees about mid-stroke.
  • The straightening of the arms at the end of the stroke.
  • The follow-through to full extension at the end.

Run through it a couple of times and start and stop it to freeze the frame, and then read on for a more detailed discussion

So Now that we know how the top skiers do it, let's break it down a little more.

Right Tool for the Terrain

A strong double pole is a great tool to have in your toolbox for classic cross-country skiing and is pretty much essential for skate skiing. But this is oriented at beginner skiers who probably aren't yet interested in perfecting their skate. So sticking to classic for the moment, on steep downhills, you usually want to conserve your strength with a rest tuck (legs straighter and butt higher than an aerodynamic alpine tuck). On steep uphills, you'll be reduced to a herringbone. On moderate uphills and flats under all but very fast snow conditions, you'll resort to the classic and elegant diagonal stride, shorter or longer depending on the terrain. On gentle downhills that are not steep enough to tuck and on very fast flats, double poling gives you a chance to rest your legs and bring your heart rate back down, and yet still get some good speed and distance for your efforts.

Proper Double Poling

A good strong double pole, by contrast to the beginner version, involves a bend at the waist as well as a quick contraction of the abdominal muscles, more or less like doing a crunch. This gives a nice snap at the beginning of the stroke. That in turn gives you more power at the beginning and therefore lets you get more out of a shorter overall stroke, which you might have to do if you aren't going that fast and are poling at a higher cadence. As the speed increases (and the cadence decreases), your stroke will get longer and deeper.

You want your upper body leaned over at about the same angle as your ski poles. At the beginning of the stroke, that means you're fairly erect and as you follow through on the stroke, your upper body comes down to power through the middle of the stroke. You want to use both your arms (actually mostly your lats with a bit of tricep push) and your trunk muscles to get a solid and long push with the poles and solid follow-through. If you remain too upright, your poles are only in contact briefly and the leverage is bad, so you get little out of each pole stroke. Older technique involved bringing your torso and hands very low and going for super long strokes. You can still do that at low cadences, but if you're trying to bump up the cadence, you'll limit your stroke a little to stay in the high power zone.

Extreme Bending

Intermediate skiers often have the balance for a solid double pole, but they don't have the body sense. They think they're bending a lot at the waist, but in fact they're hardly bending at all. I like to have them find a flat stretch to practice on, one where they won't slide unless they pole, and exaggerate the bend when poling in order to get used to a more bent over position and try to cover the distance in fewer and fewer pole strokes (so in other words, we're also going a much slower cadence than in "real" skiing; again, this is just an exercise). However you conceptualize it that works for you is fine, but some things you might try:

  • on the pole stroke, have your hands pass well below your knees
  • bend until you're looking at your knees
  • imagine you're trying to kiss your knees
  • try to see your heels on each stroke

These are all essentially the same thing and all more or less exaggerated. You may feel off-balance and uncomfortable and you don't want to ski this way for real. It's just an exercise to push past the normal point, so that you will create a new comfort point. You only want to do a little of it because you're just trying to get comfortable bent over further, but you don't want to actually get used to skiing like I've described above.

Putting It in Action

After you've done that for a number of pole strokes, now try a nice strong pole stroke involving the abs, the lats and the triceps. This time, we'll stick to a nice, modern, efficient pole stroke like you saw in the US Team video. Your hands should pass somewhere between the top of the knees and the mid-thigh, depending a little on your body geometry and how hard you're going at it. Your upper body should be at roughly the same angle as your poles during the power part of the stroke. This will put you somewhat higher than horizontal, but still your upper body will be laid over quite far. As you bend at the waist, you'll naturally want to bend at the knees a bit too to maintain balance. Play with the length of the stroke, but for starters, longer is probably better. Let your arms follow through all the way to the natural end of the stroke so that your elbows are straight and your arms are back. Then start your recovery stroke.

The combined effect of crunching your abs, bending at the waist and bending at the knees results in dropping your shoulders a lot from your high position. This gives you a powerful stroke that develops power early and builds through the middle of the stroke. This should give you a lot more push and help you cover more distance in less time with less effort.

 

And if that doesn't sound good, you can always go back to the exuberant upright poling if that's what puts a smile on your face. I have to admit, it does actually look fun.