Ski Racing 101

What is Alpine Ski Racing?

The objective of Alpine Ski Racing is to pass between all the gates and get to the bottom of the course and across the finish line as quickly as is possible. Ski Racing involves making turns around gates in a race course. Elite competitive skiers participate in the World Cup, as well as the Olympic Games and the World Championships. Slalom (SL), and Giant Slalom (GS) are the most technical alpine racing disciplines. Downhill (DH) and Super-Giant Slalom (SG) are considered speed events. Higher speeds are reached in the speed disciplines and jumps are provided. Ski racing is controlled by a set of rules which are enforced by FIS, the worldwide governing body (Federation Internationale de Ski). These rules include such things as regulations detailing what configurations are allowed or mandated for an official course, ski sizes, ski sidecuts, boot heights, binding risers and other regulations which seek to establish safety and ensure that one particular skier has no advantage over another. In the United States, skiing events are managed by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association


Slalom is a discipline, involving skiing between poles (gates) spaced much closer together than in GS, SG or DH, thereby causing quicker and shorter turns. The race winner is decided by the combined time of two runs on two different courses down the same race trail. Courses are set by alternating pairs of red and blue poles. The skier must pass between the two poles forming the gate. A course has 55 to 75 gates for men and 40 to 60 gates for women.

For slalom the vertical offset between gates is around 9 meters and the horizontal offset around 2 meters. The gates are arranged in a variety of different configurations to challenge the competitor, including delay gates and vertical combinations known as hairpins and flushes. A hairpin is a series of gates including two gates with one closing gate. A flush is a series of gates including three or more gates with one closing gate. Because the offsets are relatively small in slalom, skiers take a fairly direct line and often knock the poles out of the way as they pass, which is known as blocking. (The main blocking technique in modern slalom is cross-blocking, in which the skier takes such a tight line and angulates so strongly that he or she is able to block the gate with the inside hand.) In modern slalom, a variety of protective equipment is used such as shin pads, hand guards, helmets and face guards. Slalom skis are the shortest of the four disciplines.


The Giant Slalom discipline involves skiing between sets of poles (gates) spaced at a greater distance to each other than in slalom but less than in super-G. Giant slalom and slalom make up the technical events in alpine ski racing. This category separates them from the speed events. The technical events are composed of two runs, held on different courses on the same ski trail. The vertical drop for a GS course must be 250–450 meters for men, 250–400 m for women. The number of gates in this event is 56–70 for men and 46–58 for women. The number of direction changes in a GS course equals 11–15% of the vertical drop of the course in meters, 13–15% for children. As an example, on a 300 m vertical course, there would be between 33 and 45 direction changes for an adult race. Giant slalom skis are shorter than super G and downhill skis, and longer than slalom skis. Helmets are mandatory. Protective padding is worn on the arms to allow the racer to take a tighter line and brush up against the poles.


The Super Giant Slalom is a discipline in Alpine Skiing regarded as a speed event. It consists of just one single run down a longer track with gates spaced 8-12 meters apart. In Super-G you get to inspect and race once. The varying terrain of the mountain is utilized to flow with the speed of the course. Turn shape, speed anticipation, air anticipation all play a role. Super G courses must be at least 30 meters wide. The vertical drop on a Super G hill will be between 500-650 meters for men and 350-500 meters for women. The FIS imposes a minimum ski length of 205 centimeters for men and 200 centimeters for Women. Helmets and protective padding are also worn.


The Downhill discipline involves the highest speeds and therefore the greatest risks of all the alpine events. Racers on a typical international-level course exceed speeds of 130 km/h (81 mph) and some courses, such as the notable Hahnenkamm course in Austria, speeds of up to 150 km/h (93 mph) in certain sections are common. Competing in the Downhill event requires skiers to perfect an aerodynamically efficient (tuck) position to minimize drag and increase speed. This contrasts to the technical expertise required in slalom events where turns are progressively more emphasized. For the downhill, each skier gets to take one run down the course, and the skier with the fastest time wins. To get acclimated to the course and the conditions, skiers are required to participate in one of three official training runs held prior to the race.

The downhill stakes its reputation on speed and danger, but there are some limits. According to International Ski Federation rules, it must be possible to slide down the downhill course from start to finish without using poles. The terrain must also be clear of stones, stumps and any such obstacles in order to eliminate all objective danger. In the event of excessive speed, control gates can be set, forcing skiers to slow down as they navigate the course. Gates must be at least 8 meters wide, colored red or ”international orange” and set at right angles to the racing lane. Medium and high-speed turns must have a clear “safety zone” to provide ample room for fallen skiers. Padding or fencing is also be placed long the side of the course, and any stretches through wooded terrain must be at least 30 meters wide. The vertical drop in downhill for men is between 800 – 1,000 meters and it is between 500-700 meters for women. In all forms of Downhill, both at a local youth-level as well as the higher FIS international level, racers are allowed extensive preparation for the race, which includes daily course inspection and discussion with their coaches and teammates as well as several practice runs before the actual race. Racers do not make any unnecessary turns while on the course, and try to do everything they can to maintain the most aerodynamic position while negotiating turns and jumps.

Unlike Slalom and Giant Slalom, where racers have two combined times, in the Downhill, the race is a single “run.” In all forms of Downhill, both at a local youth-level as well as the higher FIS international level, racers are allowed extensive preparation for the race, which includes daily course inspection and discussion with their coaches and teammates as well as several practice runs before the actual race. Times are typically between 1:30 (1 minute, 30 seconds) and 2:30 for World Cup courses and must be over 1 minute in length to meet international minimum standards. Tenths and hundredths and, occasionally, thousandths of seconds count: World Cup races and Olympic medals have sometimes been decided by as little as one or two hundredths of a second, and ties are not unheard of. Equipment for the Downhill is different from the technical events. Skis are 30% longer than those used in Slalom, for more stability at high speed. They usually have rounded, low-profile tips rather than pointed tips. Ski poles are bent so as to curve around the body as the racer stays in a “tuck position” and may have aerodynamic, cone-shaped baskets. As in other alpine disciplines, Downhill racers wear skin-tight suits to minimize drag, and helmets are mandatory. Minimum ski lengths are regulated 215 centimeters and 210 centimeters for women.



Light, fluffy snow, found during and immediately after snowfall. Skiing and snowboarding in deep powder snow is a favorite among skilled, experienced skiers and snowboarders; sometimes known as ”powderhounds” hunting for the next big dump. Because Western snow generally has a lower moisture content, western powder is lighter and easier to ski than heavier eastern powder. Utah and Colorado snow is especially known for being extremely light and dry as well as a lot of snow found in New Zealand.

Packed Powder

Packed powder is compressed powder that is formed after the snow is groomed. Whereas hard pack (see below) is extremely dense and hard to ski on, packed powder is slightly less dense and able to support skis without sinking. This makes it very easy and fun to ski on.


Chopped up powder. Powder that has fallen in the prior few days and remains light and fluffy but has been skied or tracked up.


Once powder snow settles and becomes tracked up by skiers and snowboarders it firms or freezes into texture that is challenging and usually undesirable. Crud may contain “chicken heads”, balls of frozen snow.

Groomed or corduroy

Snow that has been tilled by a grooming machine. This snow condition is favored by beginners and the majority of recreational skiers, in that it tends to be relatively forgiving, easy to turn upon, and requires less skill to negotiate than powder snow. The name comes from the look of the snow after it as groomed, as it looks like corduroy fabric.

 Granular snow

Snow with large crystals, i.e. small pellets. Depending on sun and temperature conditions, it may be wet granular snow — meaning that there is a considerable amount of unfrozen water in it, or loose granular snow, which has no unfrozen water. Wet granular snow will form a snowball; loose granular snow will not. Wet granular conditions are often found in the springtime. Loose granular conditions are generally produced when wet granular snow has re-frozen and then been broken up by snowgrooming apparatus.

Corn snow

The result of repeated daily thaws and nightly re-freezing of the surface. Because of the thaw-refreeze cycle, snow crystal shapes change over time, producing crystal shapes somewhat akin to wet granular, but larger. True corn snow is a delight to ski or ride once it softens in the afternoons.

Ice Cookies/Snow Snakes

Similar to corn snow but much larger. Snow has melted, re-frozen, and been “skiied out”, creating hard snowballs of ice- sometimes as big as tennis balls. Skiing in these conditions can be tricky and sometimes dangerous.


When the sun heats the snow and causes it to become very wet and very heavy. Skiing in these conditions can be difficult.


Skiers and snowboarders typically regard any snow condition that is very hard as “ice”. In fact, true ice conditions are comparatively rare. Much of what is perceived to be ice is actually a frozen granular condition — wet granular snow that has refrozen to form a very dense surface. Telling the difference is comparatively easy; if one can get a ski pole to stand up in it, the surface is likely to be more of a frozen granular surface than an icy one — and while it is certainly not as enjoyable as many other snow conditions, skilled skiers and snowboarders can successfully negotiate it. In fact, ice is a preferred condition among racers, in that the surface tends to be quite fast and race course conditions tend to remain more consistent during the race, with fewer ruts developing on the course. Another form of icy condition can be found at higher elevation resorts in the Rocky Mountains and in Europe; direct sunlight can melt the top layers of snow crystals and subsequent freezing produces a very shiny, slick surface.


A crust condition exists when soft snow is covered by a harder upper layer upon the surface. This crust can be created by freezing rain (precipitation formed in warmer upper levels of the atmosphere, falling into a temperature inversion at which surface temperatures are below freezing, and freezing on contact with the ground), by direct sunlight, and by wind loading which packs down the upper layers of the snowpack but leaves lower layers more or less unaffected. Crusts are extremely challenging conditions.

 Dust on crust

A trace of new snow on top of crust. Undesirable.

 Spring conditions

A catch-all term ski areas use to describe conditions when numerous different surface types can be found on the mountain — usually in the later part of the season, although the term is sometimes used during an extended midwinter thaw. The term also generally reflects the presence of bare spots and/or areas of thin cover. With spring conditions, the snow is usually firm in early morning, breaking a softer corn or wet granular surface mid-day, and is often very soft and mushy in afternoon (many skiers refer to this type of snow condition as “mashed potatoes”, due to its heaviness). In some instances when the snow is untracked, sun baked, slightly dirty, with the consistency of a snow cone, it is called “tecate powder”. The speed with which conditions change on a given spring day is directly related to the exposure of the slope relative to the sun. In the northern hemisphere, east- and south-facing slopes tend to soften first; west-facing slopes generally soften by mid-day. North-facing slopes may hold on to their overnight snow conditions throughout the day.


A type of snow that forms when powder isn’t skied on for a long period of time. It is essentially powder past its expiration date. The consistency is that of a thick and “sticky” powder, that provides lots of resistance; it often is covered by a crust of hard packed snow. It is prone to happening in large, open areas where there is little shelter from the wind. Its appearance often fools inexperienced skiers to believe it is fresh powder.


“Variable” simply means that all types can be on the mountain, ranging from hard pack to crud. It is usually a secondary classification.


Across the fall line - Gates set across the fall line require the skis to complete the turn perpendicular to the fall line (or close to it).

Angulation - The body’s action to edge the ski and to balance on the edged ski.

Carving - Cleanly edging the ski without skidding.

Closed Gate -A pair of poles between which the racer must pass, set vertically down the hill.

Countering - The dynamic balancing of the upper body to the pressures built up in the turn by edging and pressure. In a countered position the shoulders are level and the upper body is directed downhill over the outside ski. aiming toward the outside of the turn.

Downhill Ski -The ski that is down the hill from the other in the turn. The ski that will be downhill at a turn completion. Also called outside ski. The ski farthest away from the gate.

Edge Angle - The degree to which the ski is edged in the snow

Edging - The action of the skier placing the ski on edge to allow the skis to turn.

Fall Line - The line down a slope that gravity would follow. Picture it as the imaginary line a snowball would travel if rolling down the slope.

Fall Line Turns - Turns requiring little direction change, where the skis mostly remain in the fall line

Breakaway Gate - A pole that is hinged at the snow line so that it bends out of the way when hit by a racer. Also called flex gate.

Fore-Aft Balance - Forward-and-back balance.

Gate - Pairs of poles through which skis and boots must pass.

Hip Angulation - Edging the ski by moving the hips to the inside of a turn.

Independent Leg Action - Moving easily from ski to ski.

Initiation Phase - Phase of the turn where the skis begin to be steered into the turn.

Inside Ski - Ski closest to the center of the turn.

Knee Angulation - Edging the ski by moving the knees in the direction the skier wants to turn.

Lateral Balance - Side-to-side balance.

Line - Path a race takes through the racecourse; where to ski in the course.

Line Markers - Small, unobtrusive, but visible flags used to point out the line.

Open Gate - Pair of poles between which the skier must pass, set horizontally across the hill.

Outside Pole - Used with the turning pole in a gate to help mark the imaginary line - the racer must cross.

Panel - Wide flag tied to two poles, pairs of which form gates for giant slalom, super-g, and downhill.

Pole Plant - Touch of a ski pole to the snow between turns; serves to signal. the end of one turn and the beginning of the next.

Pressure Control - Actively adjusting weight distribution for powerful turns.

Rhythm - Tempo of turns, usually a repetitive beat.

Rotation - Turning of the body to turn the skis in the same direction.

Speed Elements  - Skills tested in the speed events.

Steering - Guiding the skis into the turn by a twisting action of the lower legs in the direction of the turn. Used with edging in advanced levels.

Stubby Gates - Flex gates with 2 ft. shafts used to introduce slalom.

Tactics - Strategy of where and when to turn in a race course.

Technique - Basic skiing skills.

Timing - When to turn in a race course to maintain momentum while racing.

Traverse - Skiing straight across the hill from one side of a slope to the other.

Tuck - A Low, aerodynamic position on skis.

Vertical Combinations - Hairpins and flushes in a slalom course.

Vertical Drop - Change in elevation from one point to another (usually start to finish).

Weight Distribution - Where the skier’s weight falls on the skis.

Weight Transfer - Shifting the skier’s weight form one ski to the other.


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