Man cross-country skiing during sunny winter day.

Cross-Country Skiing: How To Improve Your Classic Stride

Photo: Lukas Gojda

It’s true that it’s easy to fake it on classic cross-country skis.

You can move forward by mimicking a walking stride and swinging your poles back and forth while stabbing them into the snow. However, to actually improve your kick-and-glide movement—you know, what you see really good skiers doing—you have to put in a little work. That’s OK if you’ve already tried cross-country skiing; you likely understand there’s a degree of physical challenge involved. Cross-country skiing is, arguably, the most full-body workout around. It also serves up a cardiovascular ass-kicking. So whether you’re hitting the tracks at a groomed Nordic center, venturing through rough tracks through rolling woods, or even breaking ground yourself, a handful of the following cues and drills can improve your efficiency.

Take it from Colorado’s Meghan Cornwall. The USSA Level 100 certified coach and Head Development Coach and Program Manager of the Boulder Junior Nordic Racing Team has spent years grooming athletes into better classic skiers. Anyone interested in racing on cross-country skis should start with her training advice and preparation tips.

Work on Form

“The biggest cues to help with classic skiing are keeping your weight forward and being able to shift your weight from ski to ski,” says Cornwall. “Even World Cup skiers are constantly doing weight shift and balance drills to get better.”  

In keeping your weight forward, she explains, you’re able to get the full compression of what’s known as the “kick pocket” of your ski—the wax, fish scales, or skins that contact the snow and enable forward momentum (if loaded with your bodyweight). “If you have your weight back, like you’re sitting in a chair,” explains Cornwall, “you can’t compress that pocket and get any glide.”

The other big thing to work on, she says, is shifting your weight from ski to ski. Weighting one leg and ski at a time—with your center of gravity leaning forward and not back—adds to the full compression of the kick pocket and helps each ski engage in a gliding motion.

Man cross-country skiing during sunny winter day. Photo: Lukas Gojda


A few practice routines can only help you improve.

  1. Stand still and balance on one leg. Pretend you’re squashing a bug or standing on a puddle covered in thin ice. “Try to squash the imaginary bug or crack the ice underneath you,” says Cornwall. “The point is to put all your weight on one leg by pressing down. That’s the motion you want to be doing when you’re skiing.” Also, she notes, you don’t need to be on your skis to do this drill: “You can do it at home in front of the mirror before bed.”
  2. On your skis, practice shuffling (and resist the urge to glide). “Shuffling allows you to practice the kick motion,” says Cornwall. “You won’t get any forward momentum, and might slip backwards, if you don’t kick properly.” The shuffling motion quickly exposes a lack of kick.
  3. If feeling confident with shuffling, try skipping on your skis. “This can be awkward and pretty funny,” says Cornwall. The motion of skipping combines the downward pressure you’re after with the act of lifting yourself off the ground (snow) and landing with balance. “It’s OK if you fall,” assures Cornwall. “That just means you’re pushing your limit.”

Race Ready

If you’re looking to test your mettle in a classic cross-country ski race, time on snow is the most important form of training. “For the marathons, which are usually 50K in distance, you’ll need to get those long skis of two to four hours in to train,” says Cornwall. Most of your ski sessions can be an hour or two long, but the longer sessions teach you what it feels like to get really tired and keep going.

For shorter races, like 5Ks to 10Ks, your long outings should be in the hour to hour-and-a-half range, she says. And like in running or cycling, you’ll want to add in some shorter, higher intensity intervals where you push the pace for a couple minutes and then allow yourself to recover before starting another interval. “Intervals teach you how to get into that next gear,” says Cornwall.

Whatever you’re training for, you don’t need to push the pace all the time, as Cornwall explains that skiers spend most of their time at an easy conversational pace.

Other tips: Practice nutrition and hydration on-the-go. You may not need to ingest anything during a race up to 10K, but the longer events require proper fueling and hydration. “You actually lose a lot of water skiing,” says Cornwall, who suggests using an insulated water bottle carried in a waist belt, or a ski-specific drink belt.

“Classic cross-country skiing is a very technical sport, which is super fun,” says Cornwall, “especially if you like just going out in the woods.” She points out that, even as Nordic centers are getting busier and busier, or if you don’t have access to one, in many places, you can ski on national forest trails or in local parks.

“It’s such a fun activity that you can just go out and do,” says Cornwall. “You can make it as competitive or recreational as you want.”

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.