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Why You’re Still An Intermediate Skier: 14 Skiing Tips to Raise Your Downhill Game This Winter
I know what it’s like to be stuck on the blues.
I skied my first run at four years old, clumsy and adorable in an overstuffed puffy jacket (I’ve seen pictures), and have been hitting the slopes of Tahoe semi-regularly ever since. Not quite regularly enough though, especially given my cautious approach to sports where I feel I could hurt myself (like, for example, strapping slippery things to my feet and sliding down steep slippery surfaces).
Thus I spent most of my high school years mired in casual blue ski run purgatory: a skilled enough skier to be bored on intermediate runs, but not confident enough to seek out harder and more interesting terrain.
Finally, with some skiing technique tips from my dad (a badass lifelong skier), motivation to impress a boyfriend or two, and the natural process of getting older and taking ownership over my own skill development, I managed to break into the steep slippery world of black and even double black diamonds.
If I did it, you can too. Make this the winter you finally become an advanced skier. Here’s how.
I know I know, this one is kind of cheating. Skiing is expensive(!) and we don’t all live close to the slopes. But if you have the option, it really does help to get out more.
Whenever I get back on the snow after a long time, it takes at least half a day to regain my “ski legs” and – more importantly – my “ski eyes” and “ski brain.”
What do I mean? Well, my eyes look downhill and tell my brain “you’ve got to be kidding me!” My scared brain tells my legs to stiffen up and my body to lean back, away from the void. This creates bad technique and guarantees that at the end of the run my brain will be saying “I told you so” as I slink shakily into the lift line.
But once I get used to all this again, it gets easier and I can actually make progress and work on my technique. My eyes and brain get better at looking downhill and telling my legs “We can do this.” That’s when things start to get good.
If you can manage it, try to schedule a couple weekends where you ski two, or even three, days in a row. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much more normal it starts to feel.
Ski something different.
We all have our favorite type of run. If you’re an intermediate skier chances are you like smooth groomers. Who doesn’t? They can be great for practicing technique, but you’re also missing opportunities to fast-track your progress.
For me, the groomers never feel better than right after I’ve flailed my way down a nasty bump run or braved some deep crud. It’s surprising, because it feels like my skiing technique totally falls apart on these more difficult runs and yet it’s better than ever once I return to something easy.
Skiing harder and/or different stuff forces us to work on our technique without even thinking about it. So give yourself permission to flail. Embrace the flail. Venture down something you would normally avoid – maybe a bump run, or an ungroomed line through the trees, or a groomer that’s just a wee bit steeper than you’d like. Try to keep the technique tips that follow in mind, but don’t worry if it doesn’t all come together. Your body will put the pieces together eventually.
Now, for some intermediate skier technique tips…
Lean forward from your ankles.
This is possibly the most counter-intuitive ski technique tip out there, and also arguably the most important. When we look down a steep hill and feel nervous, it’s natural to lean back, away from the momentum that wants to carry us downhill. It happens automatically.
But, this actually makes our problem worse. When we lean back, we unweight the front edges of our skis. Do you know what part of the ski works to control speed and direction? The edges. The more inches of edge we have in solid contact with the snow, the slower and more precisely we can move.
So leaning back does exactly the opposite of what we want: it speeds us up and makes us feel totally out of control. No wonder we’re nervous looking down that mountain!
Break this cycle by practicing the correct forward-leaning posture on easy not-too-steep slopes, then work up to steeper ones. Here are a few different mental cues you can use to find the correct posture:
- Lean forward slightly from the ankles, NOT the waist. If you’re bending forward and sticking your butt out, you’re doing it wrong. Your knees and hips will both flex naturally when you get this position correct (meaning your butt will stick out a little), but I find it helps to think about bending from the waist as little as possible.
- Instead, think about standing tall. Picture a line from the top of your head to the bottom of your boots. Make that line as long as possible.
- That line from your head to your boots: make it perpendicular (at 90 degrees to) the slope of the hill. So if the hill is almost flat, you’re almost pointing straight up. But if the hill is steep, you’re basically falling forward down it (skiing is basically just controlled falling, after all).
- Let your shins rest against the front of your boots. That’s why ski boots are so damn uncomfortable – I mean rigid. They’re meant to promote this forward-leaning posture.
- “Stay out of the back seat” – another cue my dad used to tell me when I would forget to lean forward.
Personally I find these tips easy to do for about 1.5 seconds, then as soon as I stop thinking about it my legs ski ahead of my torso and I end up leaning back again. It helps me to focus repeatedly on my posture, like once every 2 seconds, for as long as I can. Be patient with yourself and keep trying.
Remember, leaning forward properly actually slows you down. Get this right and you can ditch the pizza / snowplow technique for good.
One last note on this: in deep snow (think powder or soft deep slush) you can actually ignore all this. In these cases staying “in the backseat” will help your tips glide over the snow instead of sinking in.
Bob with your turns.
That part up above where I said to feel tall and straight? That doesn’t mean you should be stiff and immobile. Though it’s helpful to think about keeping your body aligned vertically and not crouching forward too much, you need to keep all your key joints – ankles, knees and hips – mobile and flexy so you can change the amount of bend throughout your turns.
During the turn, as you transition toward the other side of the slope, your ankles, knees and hips should be the most bent. Between turns, as you’re pointed down the hill and transitioning weight from one leg to the other, you should stand taller.
As ski instructor Ana suggested in the comments below (thanks Ana!), try thinking “as tall as a house, as small as a mouse” to practice this. The idea is to get as big and tall as you can between turns, and as small and bent as you can during turns, exaggerating the motion to help you learn.
While doing this exercise, keep an eye on your skis. They should be wider during the turns (while you’re bent) and closer together between turns (while you’re tall). Keep them parallel to each other or with tips closer than tails (pizza), never the other way around (tails closer than tips).
You can also try dragging your pole tips on the ground as you practice “tall as a house, small as a mouse” to make sure you’re bending evenly on both sides of your body, instead of leaning too much to one side.
Point your shoulders and hips downhill.
Most speed-averse intermediate skiers use turning to control speed and avoid facing straight down the scary slippery hill. This means they spend a lot of time with their body pointed across the slope rather than down it.
This does control speed, but advanced skiing requires an ability to embrace gravity and forward downhill motion.
To break this habit, think about keeping your shoulders and hips pointed as close as possible to straight down the “fall line” (the line that something – say you for example – would follow if it were to simply “fall” straight down the steepest part of the slope).
Obviously there’s going to be a little rotation, but the goal is to spend less time with your body and skis pointed across the slope. Eventually you’ll learn to let your torso and hips rotate so that your skis can turn while your upper body stays stable and pointed almost straight downhill.
Worried about speed getting out of control? Scroll back up and re-read “Lean forward from your ankles.” The two tips work together nicely.
Hold your poles up and in front of your body.
It’s pretty much guaranteed that if my hands are creeping backwards toward my hips, or even – heaven forbid – behind them, I’m not skiing in control. Try it sometime and see what I mean.
The best position for your hands while holding ski poles is out in front of your body somewhere between waist and chest height. Imagine that you have lights on your knuckles, are skiing in the dark (work with me here) and those lights need to stay pointing downhill so you can see where you’re going.
The pole planting action is mostly in the wrist. You can keep your arms in roughly the same position and simply flick your wrist up and down to control the snow end of the pole.
Plant your poles downhill at the end of each turn.
Timing your pole plant is important. When done properly, you plant at the very end of your turn on the side you’re about to turn toward, almost like you’re creating a pivot point that you intend to turn around.
A strong pole plant also mentally signals your commitment to the next turn, getting you ready to point those skis straight down the mountain as you transition back to the other direction.
When you plant your pole, think about reaching out and planting it down the hill in front of you (not just out to the side). This helps develop the forward-leaning posture that’s so important for good skiing technique.
But wait! Don’t reach forward so much that you’re bending at the waist. You still want to stand tall, bending from the ankles, and point your shoulders and hips down the slope.
A good pole plant feels almost like a dance move, where your torso bends a bit toward the planting side and your hips sway a bit in the opposite direction. This digs the edges of your skis into the snow even more solidly, giving you more control. It feels neat too.
Good pole technique is critical for good skiing. If you don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, or you do but want to dig deeper, check out this cool site with lots of visuals.
Work those hips.
As I hinted at in the pole planting tips above, part of good skiing technique is in the hips. As you get better, you’ll start to notice (usually on runs that are easy for you) that you almost feel like you’re dancing. This is a good thing.
First, there’s rotation that happens at the hips as your skis turn but your torso stays pointing downhill. Your torso and shoulders go one way, your hips and legs go the opposite way. Kind of like doing “the twist,” if you’re not too young to know what that is (thanks Mom and Dad for the education).
Then there’s angulation, moving your hips and knees toward the outside of a turn to so your edges dig in more strongly. It’s hard to explain, but this site has some helpful images.
Put these together and you might feel like you’re at a fast-moving, very cold dance party. When it comes to good ski technique, your hips definitely don’t lie. 🙂
Finish your turns.
I find this a helpful cue for doing what’s known as carving turns. Loosely speaking (I’m no ski instructor) this refers to turning using the edges of your skis to aggressively bite into the snow, as opposed to steering or skidding them around the turn with just a weight shift.
A lot of the tips above help promote carving, as opposed to skidding. While both are valid and useful in different cases, carving sure feels good. When done right it can add rhythm to your skiing that helps other technique tips fall into place.
When I’m carving, I remind myself to keep my edges engaged with the snow just a split second longer than I naturally would, not giving up on that edge until I’ve executed a full, round turn. This prevents me from bailing out to a skid in order to drop speed. It also gives me a really fun feeling of bouncing out of one turn into the next, making efficient use of energy. To cue this I think “finish your turns” – don’t let them end too early.
Carving is best practiced on intermediate slopes, because it’s really hard to do well on steeper stuff. So find yourself a comfy blue run and get your carve on.
Find a rhythm and don’t worry about speed.
If you’re practicing all the technique tips above, sooner or later you’ll hit a nice patch of smooth snow and feel something just click. And I don’t mean your knees. It’s your technique! That’s a really great feeling and means you’re on the right track. Good skiing feels good.
Some intermediate skiers think they just need to get up the nerve ski faster. I disagree. Spend enough time skiing slowly and in control, focusing on feeling the subtleties of your technique and finding a rhythm, and you’ll naturally start to ski faster. The increased control you feel over your skis will translate into greater confidence and less emergency braking.
I’m not an adrenaline junkie and can’t speak for those who are, but my favorite skiing moments are those that feel like dancing, flying, falling with rhythm… Not hurtling downhill in a straight line.
Commit in short bursts.
The paradox of good ski technique is that you kind of need to fake it to make it. A lot of things fall into place once you simply commit to working with gravity instead of against it. But, this is hard to do.
To work on this I suggest committing for short sections. Pick a bump run that’s not too steep and commit, absolutely commit, to executing a tight line. What do I mean by this? Turn inbetween alternating bumps, probably sooner than you want to, instead of bailing out and skidding across several bumps before getting up the nerve to point downhill again.
Obviously make sure you’re doing this in a safe place where a fall wouldn’t endanger yourself or other skiers. And then go for it. When you’re finished, take a few deep breaths, congratulate yourself, and commit to the next few turns. Over time you can extend the period you’re comfortable committing to.
On a related note, to be successful with this you also need to…
Worry less about falling.
I really suck at this. I hate falling. Sometimes I go literally years without falling on skis. This means I’m a great skier right?
Wrong! It means I’m not trying hard enough.
To get better at skiing we need to push outside our comfort zones, and sometimes this will lead to falls. That’s normal and ok. Properly adjusted ski equipment is designed to safely release during falls, and you are not likely to get badly hurt unless you’re skiing at irresponsibly fast speeds or amongst a lot of obstacles.
So stop letting number of falls be your measure of success on the slopes. Instead focus on getting better and skiing more interesting terrain. Spend more time skiing slowly in tricky but safe terrain (bumps or ungroomed snow, not too steep and without lots of rocks or trees around) and make it your goal to (safely) fall once a day while trying something that’s hard for you.
Oh, and you are wearing a helmet right? Good.
Remember to relax.
Easier said than done! I know. But all these tips work better if you can loosen up a little. Our bodies work way harder skiing when we’re stressed out, because we end up tightening all these unnecessary muscles and working against ourselves.
So take some breaks to shake it out, breathe deep, and remind yourself that tensing every muscle in your body in terror isn’t actually going to help anything. Bend your knees and let them flex like shock absorbers. Loosen the death grip on your poles.
Just like our bodies, our minds can lock up due to stress. After all, I just gave you a dozen things to think about while you ski. How on earth are you supposed to focus on doing all these things AT THE SAME TIME?
You’re not! Just keep them all in a mental file folder. Next time you head down a run, pick out one to focus on. Then pick another. Rotate through. Eventually you’ll find some that go well together and you can start focusing on them in groups.
With enough practice, this stuff will start to happen automatically and you can focus only on the parts that are still hard for you. Take it from my dad, who’s been skiing for over 4 decades at this point: there will always be something to focus on if you want to keep getting better.
This is more of a long-term journey, but good skiing requires a certain amount of strength, particularly in our hips and core.
I recommend that anyone and everyone – especially if you love outdoor sports – take up a regular weight lifting program (or as regular as you can, between all the trail running / mountain biking / downhill skiing you have to do). It’s worked wonders for me and allowed me to keep doing all the cool things I enjoy without the pain that plagued me when I first got into them.
It’s also made me a better skier. True, good technique often requires less strength than you might think, and strength is no substitute for bad technique. But it feels great to dance downhill with powerful hips and a stable core, knowing I have the strength to control a sudden change of direction or unexpected bump.
It’s also great that my knees don’t ache anymore after a long day on the slopes. Who said we can’t be in better shape in our thirties than in our twenties?
Upgrade key gear.
This one is at the end because I firmly believe good skiing is more about the skier than the equipment. That said, the right gear at the right time can accelerate your progress. In my case, switching to a beefy pair of wide all-mountain skis while working hard on my technique was exactly what I needed to break out of my skiing rut.
Related: Wide Skis vs. Skinny Skis
At the same time, I upgraded my old pair of ski boots – purchased used about a decade earlier – and discovered I’d been skiing in the wrong size boot all along. Once I discovered the control, stability, and lack of pain that skiing in properly sized boots allows, I could never go back. It’s definitely worth making sure your boots fit properly.
Finally, sometimes it’s the little things. My fingers are ALWAYS cold. Pretty much every ski day used to come with at least ten guaranteed minutes of agony as my frozen fingers thawed. When I finally splashed out on a pair of mittens and luxurious heated glove liners, I started enjoying my ski days more. Go figure!
No need to go crazy with expensive gear, and consider looking for used gear to save money. But if there are one or two things that really make skiing less enjoyable for you than it could be, consider treating yourself.
Then use that spiffy new gear as a reason to hit the slopes more often this winter and focus on your technique. You could be an advanced skier by spring.
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