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Pro Team Tactics For Long-Distance Skiing

The evolution of tactics in long-distance skiing has come a long way since cross-country skiing was a sport where the skiers started one after another and headed into the woods.

Photo: Reichert/NordicFocus

The men's front group during La Venosta Criterium last weekend.

Steady improvements in tracks and grooming, ski equipment, and training approach have increased the overall speed, putting more emphasis on chasing marginal gains, and tactics have become a more critical part of long-distance skiing.

These are 12 tactical elements frequently used in long-distance skiing racing.


In long-distance ski races, there will usually be multiple surges where 1-6 skiers form a breakaway group. Often, these athletes will not be the biggest stars but some of the more unknown skiers. The teams that are part of the breakaways will gain an advantage. Having a skier in the lead group means they don’t have to help set the pace of the main field but can sit back in the pack. The teams without racers in the breakaway who want to win the race must lead and increase the speed. Sometimes, this tactic can determine the outcome of the race.


This tactic was more prevalent in the past before the racers were carrying their bottles. Back then, skiers relied on getting feeds from their service crews on the side of the course. These days, drinking belts have made racers less dependent on feed zones and aid stations, but the tactic is still applied in certain situations. The goal is to surge every time you get close to a feed zone and prevent other skiers from refueling. If used consistently, your competitors may run out of fuel. 

The disadvantage is that you spend a lot of energy on frequent surges.


This tactic is most efficiently used toward the finish line or an intermediate sprint but can be applied on all downhills in a race. The timing is crucial. The distance you should keep to the skier in front depends on several factors, including:

  • The Hill Length – The longer the hill, the more significant the gap you can afford.
  • Your Own and Your Competitor’s Skis – If you have outstanding glide, you can afford a bigger gap than if you have inferior glide.
  • Your Weight – A heavy skier glides faster than a light skier.
  • The Conditions – Snow conditions and temperatures impact the necessary gap.

The advantage of being behind makes you gain on the skier in front. For most of the race distance, it’s better to push on the pole tips of the racer in front of you or stand up slightly to increase your aerodynamic drag and decrease your speed. But when approaching a sprint or the finish line, there are other considerations. Assuming you nail the timing, the idea is to allow the racer in front the biggest possible gap at the top of the hill, then dart out to the side and pass them on the finish line. In races with a downhill finish, such as Jizerská50, it is crucial to master this tactic.


This is one of the most frequently used tactics in Ski Classics. When the skiers come close to an intermediate sprint or a sprint finish, teammates of the prioritized athlete will try to speed up in order to string out the pack and make it harder for the competitors to get up and pass. In contrast, the prioritized skier can draft and save some energy. Then, closer to the sprint or the finish line, the domestique pulls to the side and lets his teammate go. 


This tactic is most efficiently used on narrow race courses with few tracks or when the weather/snow conditions are such that a few tracks have better glide. Marcialonga is a race where skiers must be tuned in to this tactic. If several skiers from one team manage to get to the front and spread out across the tracks, one of them can easily surge and get away before the competitors can follow. 


This tactic has become more widespread over the past few years because of more sophisticated teamwork. The teams have an internal hierarchy, and the teams prioritize the best skier. Accordingly, the weaker skiers on the team will have to give up their poles and sacrifice their race to serve the strongest teammate. Of course, to use this tactic, all the skiers must use poles roughly the same length.


This is a classic. The idea is to breathe hard and look as exhausted as possible, even if you are not. When the competitors want you to take your turn at the front, you raise your arms and say you’re too spent or lead only for a short time and then slow down. The goal is to save energy and make your competitors work harder. When you think the others are sufficiently tired, you can spend your saved energy on a surge. 

There are countless stories of skiers who hang out in the back of the pack and never contribute to the group’s speed. They just appeared to be at the end of their ropes. But then, a few kilometers from the finish, they are the ones who surge and get a gap.


The Ski Classics women’s competitions sometimes start before the men’s races and are overtaken by the men. In those cases, the strongest women conserve energy, wait for the men to catch up, and then try to hang on to the guys as long as possible to drop their competitors. 


In some races, women end up in large men’s field, which can sometimes be confusing. Several hundred skiers can be together. Using some cleverness, you can take advantage of disappearing in the crowd and get further ahead in the men’s field than the other women. When the group then bursts open, you get some advantage. Then, it’s about being smart and having control over where your biggest rivals are in the field.


This tactic is most frequently used in determining phases of the race and when the speed is high. Usually, the tactic is used by fast skiers who can stay cool and calculated even when exhausted. Without slowing down too much, they let the skier in front get a small gap. When the gap is about five to ten seconds, they surge in order to drop any competitors in the group and overtake the skier(s) in front. 


We talked earlier about the drinking belts and how they have made it less important to drink from the side of the trail. The disadvantage of the belt is the weight you have to carry with you. Especially on the uphills, you want to avoid pulling on 1-2 kg extra. It has therefore become more common in recent years to plan when receiving the belt so that you prevent skiing with it in the heaviest parts of the course. An example is Marcialonga. Many start the race without a belt and go uphill to Canazei before they get it. Then you can go with it all the way down the valley before throwing the belt at the bottom of the last hill.


In certain snow conditions, there are considerable differences in the glide from one track to the other, even if the tracks are very close. There are different reasons for this, including how the sun hits the trail, snow falling from trees next to the trail and into the tracks, how the grooming machine is operated and where the TV/media snowmobile drives. 

Skiers learn to recognize these factors, and these considerations are often the reason why skiers might choose to change tracks. They want to find out if the glide is better in one of the other tracks. In many long-distance races, skiers choose to stay behind the TV snowmobile, even though the other tracks look perfect.

However, when the snowmobile drives on the course, there is air mixed into the snow in its wake, which decreases the friction and makes the snow faster. This is a significant advantage, especially in falling snow. While very few – if any – skiers prefer to ski behind the snowmobile, it is sometimes necessary because the glide is much better there. This tactic can determine the race’s outcome if used close to the finish. Accordingly, the sprint for the track with the best glide often starts several kilometers before the finish line.

The upcoming Ski Classics Pro Tour event is Pustertaler Ski Marathon, a 62km classic technique event in Italy on January 14, followed by Prato Piazza Mountain Challenge, a 30km race also in Italy on January 15, 2023.

Ski Classics Pro Tour Season XIV (2022/2023) 

  • Event 1: December 10, 2022 – Bad Gastein PTT, Bad Gastein, Austria, 15km
  • Event 2: December 11, 2022 – Bad Gastein Criterium, Bad Gastein, Austria, 35km
  • Event 3: December 17, 2022 – La Venosta Criterium, Val Venosta, Italy, 40km 
  • Event 4: January 14, 2023 – Pustertaler Ski Marathon, Sexten, Italy, 62km
  • Event 5: January 15, 2023 – Prato Piazza Mountain Challenge, Niederdorf, Italy, 30km
  • Event 6: January 21, 2023 – Engadin La Diagonela, Engadin Valley, Switzerland, 55km 
  • Event 7: January 29, 2023 – Marcialonga, Trentino, Italy, 70km
  • Event 8: February 12, 2023 – Jizerská50, Bedrichov, Czech Republic, 50km
  • Event 9: February 18, 2023 – Grönklitt Criterium, Orsa Grönklitt, Sweden, 50km
  • Event 10: February 19, 2023 – Grönklitt ITT, Orsa Grönklitt, Sweden, 15km
  • Event 11: March 5, 2023 – Vasaloppet, Sälen-Mora, Sweden, 90km
  • Event 12: March 18, 2023 – Birkebeinerrennet, Rena-Lillehammer, Norway, 54km
  • Event 13: April 1, 2023 – Reistadløpet, Setermoen-Bardufoss, Norway, 40km
  • Event 14: April 2, 2023 – Summit 2 Senja, Bardufoss- Finnsnes, Norway, 67km

More info about the Ski Classics Pro Tour you can find at skiclassics.com.

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