Ski the Birkie More Efficiently – Tips That May Make You Faster, Too.

Igor Badamshin & Charlie Dee
Thursday, February 06, 2014

Editor’s note: On January 24 ’14, CXC Head Coach Igor Badamshin suffered a fatal heart attack while skiing on the Birkie Trail near Hayward. He was 47.


Igor Badamshin

“It is really impossible to try and make sense of it, because it makes no sense,” wrote Peter Graves, a television sportcaster and former cross-country ski coach for Harvard University, in a tribute to Badamshin, an Olympic medalist on the Russian National Ski Team member, posted on the CXC website. “What we all know is that in his 47 years, he led an extraordinary life, from his own racing career to the countless acts of caring, hard work, enthusiasm and most of all his time, to help make the sport grow, but also how to have fun doing it. His love of people and the sport knew no bounds.”

Badamshin’s Facebook page was inundated with memories and well wishes for Badamshin’s family back in Russia. A memorial was held in Cable, Wisconsin, on February 8 and a fund in his name was set up to help junior Midwest skiers compete on the world stage. Donations can be mailed to CXC Skiing, P.O. Box 930442, Verona, WI 53593.

At the time of Badamshin’s death, the February issue of Silent Sports, including the following second installment in a series of conversations on Nordic ski technique between Badamshin and Charlie Dee, had already come off the press but had not yet reached subscribers and newstands.

We considered briefly ending the dialogue there on account of Badamshin’s passing. But because he lived to coach skiers, it seemed more fitting that readers continue to benefit from his instruction and legacy.

So this dialogue will continue in the March issue with a focus on classic ski technique. Dee says he has one more conversation to share in which Badamshin offers skate skiing tips. By April, many of us will have put our skis in storage, but we will include that piece in that issue as a coda, our tribute to the man’s life-long contribution to a sport we love.


Charlie Dee: I’ve been working on everything you gave me last month, Igor, and now I have only a couple of weeks to get faster for the Birkie.

Igor Badamshin: Faster, faster. Everybody wants to get faster. But speed is dependent on more factors than I can deal with at once. So let’s concentrate on a few things to make you and others more efficient between now and the Birkebeiner.

Increasing efficiency will mean you use less energy to get to the hills and up them. Let me know after the race if that makes you faster!

CD: The Birkie is such a hilly, physical course. What’s the most important technique tip to get to Main Street in Hayward without bonking?

IB: Let’s start with two principles that apply to both skaters and striders: Stay on your toes and keep your upper body tall.

CD: The more tired I am, the tougher it is stay on my toes. When I took my first skating lesson 20 years ago, after years spent developing all kind of bad habits, I was taught to push off my ski with the rear third of my foot, essentially my heel. I’ve been working for several years now – and improving – on pushing off with and landing on the balls of my feet. But when I get fatigued, I regress back and push off with my heels.

IB: You and a lot of other people. In the next few weeks, you need to concentrate on consciously catching yourself when you start slipping back to your heels so you can remind yourself to get on your toes. When a boxer is “back on his heels,” he’s not attacking. He’s just a slow moving target for a knockout. The same goes for a skier approaching Bitch Hill on the Birkie course.

I can prove this to you. Stand on skis on a flat portion of the trail. Keep a good athletic position with your knees bent and your shoulders slightly rounded. Very gradually, shift your center of gravity ahead by flexing forward at your ankles, rolling your foot towards your toes and moving your chest forward without bending at the waist.

Just this little weight shift propels you forward. Now, shift your weight back to your heels. That stops you.

CD: Since you’ve been preaching to me to stay on the balls of my feet, I’ve discovered that thinking about my thighs and knees being more forward as I skate really helps me stay on my toes.

IB: They all go together. While it’s not efficient to skate while looking down at your feet, sometimes during clinics I’ll ask skiers to look down to check out how much of their boot they can see when they’re skating. If they only see the toes, their skis are too far back. They should see at least the front two thirds of their boots. This achieves the same purpose as you concentrating on your thighs and knees being forward.

Toe consciousness is crucial for classic skiers also. When you’re fatigued, you may not extend your kick all the way through the toes, like we talked about last month. This cuts down on your power and makes you work much harder for each kilometer.

When you don’t finish the kick with the toes on your right foot, you’re not completely transferring your weight to the left ski. The more body weight you have on the left, the more powerful your kick will be. If both skis stay weighted, you won’t get much power from either.


CD: As long as we’re on classic, let’s talk about upper body position when climbing hills on classic skis. It has always felt natural for me to bend forward at the waist as I climb. My high school cross-country running coach used to yell, “Way to lean into those hills, Dee.”

IB: Was that guy ever on skis? When you bend at the waist, you stick your butt out the other end. So you have upper body weight in front of your wax pocket and lower body weight behind it. That doesn’t leave you much power to kick off with, does it?

It may seem like a natural tendency to lean into the hill, but you’ve got to fight that instinct. Again, train yourself to notice consciously when you start to lean and then correct yourself. Every time you see a climb coming, tell yourself, “Stay tall.”

A key image is to concentrate on your chest. Think of a spot in the middle of your chest and keep that spot facing 10 to 15 feet down the trail where you want to go, not two feet in front of you.

Once you dial this in, you’ll have much more power with each kick because all of your body weight will be over the wax or fish scales you’re compressing against the snow to move you forward.

An added benefit of staying tall is that this allows you to initiate each poling motion with your abdominal muscles. If you’re leaning your upper body into the hill, you’ve totally taken your abs out of the game.

CD: That same dynamic is true for skating up hills. If I lean forward when climbing in V-1, I get very little power from my poling.

IB: And when you’re bent at the waist, your weight is back on your heels, slowing your climb and tiring you out more.

CD: In working on this stuff over the past month, I’ve noticed that when I’m struggling up a hill, I can usually identify that it’s because I’m bent too much at the waist and not transferring weight well, so I’m getting no glide and working harder.

But when my upper body is “tall,” I can see and feel that my knees and hips are more forward, I’m on my toes and I’m actually gliding.

IB: These two principles apply to everybody, but each skier will implement them a little differently. All skiers have to find their own sweet spot that works best, as well as adjust to changing conditions.


CD: Adjusting for different conditions sounds like a conversation for another time. Let’s finish with two tips on double poling you’ve given me that are minor adjustments but work for both classic and skating: The “heel squirt” and “pole tips forward.”

IB: Everybody concentrates on all the uphills in the Birkie, and rightly so. But a skier can gain valuable time and save energy by carrying more speed from the downhills to the next uphill or rolling section by double poling longer and with more efficiency.

The double pole is a compression of the upper and lower bodies at the same time, “falling” on your poles to propel you forward. At the moment of compression, your full body weight should be on the balls of your feet. Imagine there are tennis balls under the balls of each of your feet, and with each double pole you are squashing them with your feet. At the end of this compression, roll your body weight from the balls of your feet to your heels.

CD: That’s “the squirt.” My skis squirted forward with the heels so fast I almost fell on my back.

IB: You have to do it a few times to feel comfortable with it. Think of this as a super charger at the end of each double pole. But don’t stay on your heels. As soon as you initiate the next poling motion by swinging your arms up and stretching your abs, roll back to the balls of your feet for the next double pole.

CD: It’s like getting high fluoro wax for free. An extra foot or two on each double pole with no additional energy expended.

IB: Here’s another freebie. When you double pole on down hills, flats or gradual uphills, plant your poles at slightly more than a 90 degree angle to the snow, say 95 degrees, though of course this isn’t exact. Simply use your hands to swing the pole tips slightly further ahead of you than vertical.

CD: That’s easy enough to do as long as there’s not much of an uphill grade, but what does this accomplish?

IB: You pole by compressing your abs and knees while powering your arms down into your pole straps. You get the most power from doing this at the exact instant the pole tips are right next to your feet. But skiing isn’t static; you’re moving all the time.

Since skis move faster on downhills and flats, many people unconsciously pole too late, actually compressing when the pole tips are behind the feet, thus not getting full power out of the energy they expend on the poling motion. This is easiest to show people through slow motion video.

In these speed situations, planting the tips at greater than 90 degrees (while maintaining 90-degree angles between your forearms and upper arms as well as between your upper arms and your torso) compensates for the speed and perfects the timing, so you’re powering down on the poles at the moment they’re next to your feet. The great Norwegian racer Vegard Ulvang was not just strong as an ox, but he got the most out of every pole because he used this trick.

CD: To summarize: since double polling is less taxing on lungs, heart and legs than any other stroke, people should spend more time double poling during transitions between hills, and these two tips will help us do that more efficiently?

IB: Right. When I was racing, if someone was ahead of me and started skating on a run out after a downhill before I needed to, I knew I had that guy. He was using energy that I wasn’t because I was still double poling. So he was toast, burnt toast.

CD: If your tips keep me from becoming toast, I’ll buy you a beer and brat on Main Street in Hayward, Igor.

Igor Badamshin was the head coach for CXC Team and a former Olympic and World Championship medal winner with the Russian National Ski Team. Charlie Dee is a retired professor from Milwaukee who, as a CXC Master Ski Team member, makes an annual donation to CXC supporting ski development throughout the Midwest and in return gets year-round, complimentary ski technique training and access to the CXC Academy.


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