Proper poling technique can decide Olympic winners

Jørgen Danielsen is writing Norway’s first doctoral dissertation on poling in cross-country skiing. Several of the athletes he studied are participating in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games.

Anyone who is checking the medal counts for the 2018 Winter Olympics knows that Norway is a skiing powerhouse. So how does a country of 5 million field so many strong athletes? Part of the secret lies in technique.

“You can gain a lot of time with good poling,” says Jørgen Danielsen, a PhD candidate at NTNU’s Centre for Elite Sports Research (SenTIF). “Some of the Olympic podium places will definitely be decided by athletes’ double poling technique.”

Actively falling onto your poles

A lot of avid recreational athletes, like those who do the Birkebeiner cross-country ski marathon, would really benefit from knowing more about when to double pole or diagonal stride.

Forget long pole extensions and the old-fashioned forward bend over the skis.

Now you have to thrust up and forward with your legs and actively fall onto your poles. The right technique involves stiffening large parts of the upper body as you make snappy forward poling strokes. You use your entire body to create pressure that generates momentum.

Double poling one’s way to the podium

“Then you use gravity to move forward efficiently,” says Danielsen.

Double poling has changed dramatically in recent years. The number of skiers who double pole their way to the podium has increased so much that the international FIS cross-country skiing committee introduced double poling-free zones in certain classic races in the summer of 2017.

The fear is that if classic technique evolves into purely double poling, the style will die out. FIS has also implemented a maximum pole length for classic events for the same reason.

“Personally, I don’t think there should be zones where double poling is prohibited. There are big differences between the individual elite skiers. Some have such a well-trained upper body and are technically so good at double poling that they can double pole the whole race or a good part of it. Others may have less upper body strength and are technically better at diagonal technique, so they choose to do more of that. If the trails are laid out so that the hills are steep enough and long enough, the athletes will naturally choose the diagonal technique. It’s all about getting to know yourself,” says Danielsen.

Dedicated double-poling skis debut

Some sports shops are now selling dedicated double-poling skis. Even for regular skiers like you and me. The ski manufacturers say that double-poling skis have a different camber than regular skis, and a different pressure point against the snow. You can even buy your own poling ergometer.

Danielsen studied double poling on flat ground, slight inclines and steep inclines – all at varying intensities. He looked at overall effects in terms of energy created, oxygen uptake, and how the work was distributed between different parts of the upper and lower body.

“About 60 per cent of the workload in low-intensity poling happens in the upper body. But as the intensity and incline increase, more and more of the work comes from the legs. Then the legs are doing well over 50 per cent of the work,” said Danielsen.

Results from Danielsen’s study have been published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology.

Good conditioning perhaps most important

Danielsen compared double poling to diagonal technique on uphills of varied steepness in his study. Given a choice, elite athletes chose diagonal stride on the steep uphills and double poling on the gentler inclines. Their choices were consistent with lower oxygen uptake in their chosen technique as compared with the other technique, although the athletes created the same amount of  overall power on both hill types and with both techniques.

But there’s a little catch here when it comes to most people. You need a certain level of fitness to be able to power forward by falling onto your poles – especially when you need to pole at a high tempo on the uphills.

“If a hill is steep and long enough, it’s probably more economical in terms of energy to use a diagonal stride. But depending on the snow and what the rest of the course is like, you might be able to gain a considerable amount of time – and glide – by not using kick wax,” says Danielsen.

Pole your way to better fitness and strength

Danielsen emphasizes that even though using your legs is important in double poling, you have to build good upper body strength – in part to resist the high force of the poles striking the ground.

“For a lot of people, probably the biggest way to improve speed is by improving their fitness level. To improve your skiing conditioning, you can choose to do more double poling during workouts. More double poling will build your upper body strength, and simulating the technique of the Olympic athletes will help you gain a lot of time on easy terrain,” says Danielsen.