Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Art of the Ski Throw

Nordic skiing is arguably the sport where the finish-line-lunge makes the biggest potential difference. Every sport seems to have a potential finishing move, from the bike throw, to the sprinting lean, to that silly thing alpine skiers do with their pole to break the laser 0.005 seconds earlier. Each of these moves have an effect, and can sometimes be the difference between winning and losing, but none of them can compete with the nordic ski throw in terms of ground made up. A good (tall) skier throwing can gain nearly 3 feet of reach over where he would have been without the throw.

If you have never practiced a ski throw, but think you'll "just be able to do it" when you're barreling toward the line, heart in your throat, dead even with a competitor -- you're almost definitely wrong. The most likely outcome in that case is this:
It's close, but the skier at the bottom has won this heat with a gorgeous ski throw despite being behind by a foot or more at the line (2007 Junior Olympics).

The fundamentals of the ski throw are simple, yet easily missed in the heat of the moment. Let's review them.

The overarching goal of the motion you are making is to get one toe as far ahead of your center of mass as possible. Obviously, then, one leg must be extended as straight and as low as possible. Beyond that, your shoulders need to be falling backward. Leaning forward moves your center of mass closer to your toe, so even though you might feel like you want to reach for the line with your head, don't do it! Lay back as much as possible.

Here we see Ola Vigen Hattestad and Boerre Naess employing the backwards lean to full effect in a semifinal at the 2008 Drammen World Cup.
Beyond the torso going backward, what should you do with your other leg? This seems to be where the two techniques of the perfect ski throw diverge. In an ideal world, your back leg reaches straight out behind you, moving your center of mass as far back as possible. The problem is, you're only human. Your hips have limits, and you can't simultaneously lean back with your torso and completely stretch the leg out. Somewhere you must compromise -- full lean or leg outstretched?

Here we see Harry Poole (top) narrowly defeating an unknown skier at the 2007 Junior Olympics, with both electing to stretch their back legs at the expense of falling backwards.

This is the safer of the two techniques, because you can hold this position while you glide. Throwing too early with this particular form is not a problem, because even if you reach full extension 5 feet before the line you will slide across with no decrease in speed.

Sometimes, however, you're an unknown Polish guy throwing against one of the tallest Scandinavians, in Scandinavia, when he's in contention for the sprint World Cup title. In that case, you have to pull out all the stops. Bend your back leg under your hips and throw your torso and arms back as far as possible.
Maciej Kreczmer over Trond Iversen, Stockholm World Cup Sprint 2007

This one is so close you might think Iversen (right) is advancing, but Kreczmer's boot is actually further over the line, it's just a bit airborne.

The risk with this technique is that you have to time it perfectly, as maximum extension comes only a few tenths of a second before striking the ground. Throw too early, and you'll hit the ground before the line, wasting all your efforts.

Nevertheless, when it really matters, it's the only way to go.

All of the pictures we've looked at so far were of classic sprinting -- throwing while skating appreciably harder, as the motion doesn't extend easily to a stretch and the boots have a less free ankle. Sometimes the results are an awesome tie for gold:
Thomas Alsgaard ties Frode Estil for gold in the 10k Pursuit, 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics

And sometimes they are slightly more comedic:
Josh Peterson (Wyoming) over John Erickson (Cornell) despite a lactate-induced loss of coordination, 2006 USCSA National Champs Relay

I believe the best way to throw while skating is to take your final stride straight towards the line and lean/stretch as far as your boots allow. I would like to experiment with placing the back ski in line with the front (just like a classic ski throw), but you never see this on the world cup, which suggests that the excessive movement and lack of a final push make it suboptimal.

Here we see two biathletes lunging, one of whom tries this technique:
Ole Einar Bjoerndalen vs Raphael Poiree, Angle 1

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen vs Raphael Poiree, Angle 2

From the poor form (Bjoerndalen leaning waaaay forward, Poiree not getting much extension), I think we can conclude that even elite athletes cannot ski throw well without practicing -- and apparently biathletes don't practice it!

Two guys that do practice are Vassili Rotchev and Andy Newell:
Vassili Rotchev def. Andy Newell, Oberstdorf World Cup 2007

This is from the famous sprint final where Newell thought he had 3rd place (and his first podium) wrapped up, and made the mistake of looking back to check, eventually losing by the tiny margin shown above.

To summarize, ski throwing looks awesome and is awesome. If you haven't practiced it, you should, and then you'll be as awesome as Odd-Bjoern:

Odd-Bjoern Hjelmset over Jon Kristian Dahl, Drammen World Cup 2008

Here's a collection of some other good ski-throwing pictures. If you have any I've not listed here, send them in! You can leave a comment or send an email to We'll definitely do another "best of ski throwing" post in the future.

Alex Harvey def. Zach Violett, 2006 (?) Spring Series Team Sprint, Fort Kent, ME

Canadian kids can ski throw too!

Tore Ruud Hofstad throwing for unknown reasons, about a mile behind Per Elofsson, 2003 World Champs Double Pursuit

Unknown Scandinavian skiers.

Unknown Scandinavian Cup Finish

Martin Koukal (CZE) over Christian Zorzi (ITA) and a disinterested Marcus Hellner (SWE), 2007 Davos World Cup Relay


Jess said...

I need to practice this...

... but maybe not on my rollerskis.

Christopher Tassava said...

Agreed - on snow only. But the pictures are fantastic. I can't imagine a better way to convey the power and speed of really good racers.

My follow-up post is going to be screen caps of the last finishers in World Cup pursuits doing half-hearted throws to stop the clock.

Luke S said...

Unfortunately, the race organizers at the Weston Ski Track don't generally recognize the ski throw as a means of beating a competitor. Generally in a close finish the person closest to whoever was taking times gets the nod. I know from bitter experience. Oh well, better get practicing.

Alex said...

Is there some way to make your awesome background not show through the pictures? Because that would make it even awesomer.

I feel like ski-throwing, getting up from falling, and rolling out of a fall are three techniques that ski teams don't practice NEARLY enough, but really should.