For those interested in cross-country skiing this winter, nothing will be more important than the very first ski of the season.
A lot can go wrong. A skier could fall a bunch of times, get cold and wet and determine that maybe a winter of videos and cable TV on the couch doesn't seem so bad after all.
Potential skiers also could struggle through a day on skis and pick up bad habits that will not only drag down their enjoyment of the sport, but will be nearly impossible to break once they are programmed into the muscles.
Or, the skier could start working on principles of balance and weight shift that will have them swishing through snow-capped spruce and peaceful glens for years to come.
A high school racer uses the classical technique to kick toward the finish line. With hip forward and toe, knee and nose all in a straight line perpendicular to the ski, the skier is showing adequate weight shift from one ski to the other. Beginners should work on proper weight shift from the time they first set foot on skis.
Peninsula Clarion file photo
Stephanie Kind, entering her fourth year as the cross-country skiing coach at Kenai Central High School, has guided many skiing careers through that pivotal first day.
"The key the first time skiing is not to be miserable, otherwise you'll never do it again," Kind said. "Nobody's perfect. Nobody gets it the first time out. Be very forgiving to yourself."
The key to a pleasant first ski starts with the old real estate axiom of location, location, location. Learn to ski at a flat place like the Kenai Golf Course, the soccer fields by Skyview High School or a thoroughly frozen lake or pond.
"The danger is, if skiers go on some hilly terrain that first day they'll never want to do the sport again," Kind said. "Skiers probably don't want to get off the flats the first day unless they've had some previous skiing experience, like alpine skiing."
Kind also recommended that first-time skiers try the classical technique, which is one of two methods of cross-country skiing.
In the classical technique, skiers shuffle forward in a motion that resembles walking. The other technique is called freestyle or skating, which involves a motion with footwork that resembles that of an ice skater or in-line skater.
"(The classical technique) most closely resembles walking and it's typically easier for people to pick up the basics of," Kind said.
Unless a person has experience ice skating or roller skating, skiing's skate technique will be difficult to tackle for a beginner.
When arriving at the parking lot, Kind suggested a little jogging and stretching for those who haven't been very active of late.
One of the good things about cross-country skiing is that it uses a lot of muscle groups. But if those muscle groups aren't prepared, it can lead to some damage.
After warming up, Kind suggested putting on the skis, grabbing the poles and shuffling around on the snow for a little bit.
"Get used to the skis sliding underneath you," Kind said. "Get used to that feeling.
"But don't ski around for too long. You could pick up bad habits that will be hard to break later."
After getting the feel of being on snow, drop the poles. The next step is to learn how to balance and shift weight on skis. That's going to be tough to do if the poles are available for a crutch.
To find the balance point, stand on flat terrain with feet shoulder width apart, and skis parallel and facing straight ahead. Slowly roll body weight from the heels to the toes of the feet and notice the effect this has on the skis.
The point of greatest stability should come when the weight is centered on the balls, but not on the toes, of the feet.
"Finding that balance point is something every skier has to do to start the season," Kind said. "Even when top skiers get on snow for the first time of the year, they find their balance point."
The next step is to work shifting weight from one ski to the other -- a principle that is fundamental to all skiing, whether it's classical or skating.
The idea is to get all of the weight on one foot with the hip forward and the toes, knee and nose all in a straight vertical line perpendicular to the ski.
Sound tough? That's why skiers should get this essential position down in tennis shoes on dry land before attempting it on snow.
To get the position:
Stand straight up facing a sturdy wall. When arms are extended toward the wall, the fingertips should remain about six inches from the wall.
Lean forward slightly, keeping the body straight, and place hands on the wall at about shoulder height.
Lean forward even more, keeping the body straight and using hands to support weight, until the forehead is pressed against the wall.
Gradually stop supporting a little bit of the body's weight with the hands. A headache should swell up pretty quickly. Let hands absorb the weight again.
Start moving either the right or left foot gradually toward the wall. Stop the foot every few inches and try using the foot, and not the hands, to support the body's weight. If a headache occurs, the proper balance point hasn't been reached yet.
The foot should eventually get to a point where it can support the body's weight without causing the head to press against the wall. At this point, the nose, knee and toes should all be in a straight line. The back should be straight, as if there were a board from the head to the bottom of the torso.
"The hip has to be forward, so concentrate on bending at the ankle. Ultimately, this bends the knee as well," Kind said. "Many skiers look like they're squatting, or getting ready to sit down. That means their hip is too far back."
To finish off the position, lift the hand opposite the foot being used to support the weight straight ahead at shoulder's height. Then take the free leg and extend it behind the body.
Not only is the position great for establishing proper weight transfer, but holding the position can be great for getting the thigh muscles essential to skiing into shape.
"If there's no snow, I'll have my skiers stand in that position. It can be tough to hold," Kind said. "I'll even do it in the grocery store sometimes when I'm looking for something on the shelves."
Alan Boraas, a former ski coach at Skyview High School, suggested doing one more exercise with the position while on dry land. When standing in the position, the skier keeps bending at the ankle until balance is lost and the skier falls forward, landing on the other foot.
This balance point and falling forward is so important to skiing that Kasilof Olympic biathlete Jay Hakkinen used to do it in high school when he watched television, taking a break during the commercials.
When on skis on the first day, first practice simply stepping from one foot to another and getting into the position, without falling forward. Once comfortable, start falling forward with one foot and gliding with the other, and the basics of skiing are in place.
What's more, if doing the classical technique, the position of the arms is the same as walking (right foot and left hand forward at same time, and vice versa). Just make sure the arms are staying close to the side and are being used primarily for propulsion, not balance.
"The idea is to get the weight forward and feel as if you're about to fall over," Kind said. "Most beginners are just standing up and walking on skis. Commit the weight to the ski. Beginners have a fear of commitment."
Finally, don't be afraid to fall while learning the weight shift. Even experienced skiers like Kind, who has been at it 22 years, will fall early in the season while the body is still figuring out balance points and weight shift.
"If you're falling forward, that's a good sign. That means you're trying to get out over your skis," Kind said. "If you're falling backward, that means you're too far back.
"Falling is a great learning experience. It lets you know what you're doing right or wrong. Beginners feel embarrassed about falling. Advanced skiers know it's part of the territory."
The final step is a pat on the back. Anyone getting this far on the first day has a base that should provide for years of enjoyment.
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