What Are The Rules And Techniques Used In A Skiathlon?

by Travis McCullough | Published: March 17th, 2023 |  Skiing Articles

Historically, the skiathlon has been a cornerstone of Olympic cross-country skiing events. Stylistically it is quite different than other cross-country skiing events in the Olympics, which is perhaps why it is so popular.

Whereas other Olympic cross-country skiing events tend to be structurally uniform throughout the race, Skiathlon combines two separate techniques that require different types of skis to perform. This additional room for error helps keep fans on the edge of their seat when cheering for their country to take home the gold medal.


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History Of The Skiathlon


Contrary to popular belief, the skiathlon has been a part of skiing culture for almost a century.  Its roots date back to 1924 when it was still referred to as the Pursuit Ski Race, in 2003, it was renamed the Paciut, and finally, in 2011, the FIS dubbed it the Skiathlon to differentiate the event from the Nordic Combined event.

Technically it falls under the umbrella of a cross-country skiing event, combining multiple cross-country skiing techniques. Today it is considered one of the most popular skiing events within the Olympics and FIS.

Techniques Used In Skiathlon


What sets the Skiathlon apart from other cross-country skiing races is the combination of styles used in the competition. Usually, cross-country events stick to either classic or freestyle techniques, but in a Skiathlon, both classic and freestyle forms are utilized.


Classic techniques are what most people picture when visualizing cross-country skiing, and as of 2018, the FIS allows the following techniques:

  • Diagonal Stride - Easy to learn and versatile technique where the skier kicks with one leg and pushes with the pole on the opposite side, alternating back and forth. Either one or no poles are in the ground simultaneously.
  • Double Pole w/o Diagonal Kick - A three-part technique that focuses on transitioning between pushing off with both poles, transferring your weight forward, and gliding
  • Double Pole w/ Diagonal Kick - A combination of the double pole and diagonal stride techniques.
  • Herringbone w/o Glide - Used in uphill situations, the skier points their toes outward (creating a herringbone shape) to avoid sliding backward downhill.
  • Step Turns - A turning technique where the skier pushes with the outer ski to change direction. These can only be utilized in designated areas

These are generally done on skinnier skis, lacking metal edges, and waxed with incredibly tacky wax to help the front ski from sliding back as the skier pushes the rear ski forward.

This is repeated until the contestant reaches the halfway point of the race, where they swap their skis out for another pair that is more suited to the freestyle technique. The skier has to quickly and flawlessly disengage from one pair of skis into another all while gasping for breath as they head into the second leg of the race.


Skate Skiing

The freestyle technique employed in the race's second half is also known as skate skiing because it resembles ice skating, where the skier uses the inside edge of each ski to push off at an angle to create momentum. The FIS allows all other cross-country skiing techniques, including the herringbone w/ glide and all other skate styles.

A shorter and broader version of the cross-country ski, using a slicker type of wax, is swapped in. This style of skiing is easier to maneuver and makes it easier to maintain momentum, especially on hills and around turns.

Balancing Endurance And Speed

Speed Skiing
Photo by Bysprinten Mosjøen licensed under CC BY 2.0

This event is a true test of endurance and focus. In the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the gold medal times were 76:09.8 minutes for men and 44:13.7 minutes for women. Skiers are pushing themselves to keep the fastest pace possible while avoiding burning out in the middle of the race, a precise balance must be struck to grab the gold.

In 2014, members of the Swedish Winter Sports Research Centre set out to create an experiment to analyze how the physical impact of the classic section of the Skiathlon affects the skier in the freestyle portion of the race. They found that a skier's heart rate and blood oxygen levels took about three minutes to transition and match the pace of the freestyle leg of the race.

This means how the skier handles the classic part of the race will directly affect the freestyle part. Exerting yourself too hard in the first half causes a detrimental effect in the second half, so finding this balance of speed and endurance is key to winning the event.

Olympic Skiathlon Rules

Cross Country Skiing

The Olympic Skiathlon consists of a 30km (18.64 mi) race for men and 15km (9.32 mi) for women, split up into two legs for each skiing style. In other words, men’s events consist of 15km of classic cross-country skiing and 15km of freestyle skiing, whereas the legs of women’s events are 7.5km each.

Unlike other cross-country events, Skiathlon contestants are equipped with two different pairs of skis, one for each technique. Classic cross-country skis with a very tacky wax are hot-swapped halfway through the race and replaced with shorter and broader freestyle skate skis.

There aren’t multiple heats or races like other cross-country events where the best time is taken or times are averaged. The three skiers with the shortest final time take home the bronze, silver, and gold medals.

Skiathlon Sounds Super interesting! Where Can I See One?

FIS Junior Nordic National event

Skiathlon is a unique cross-country skiing event that combines the two primary techniques used in other styles of cross-country skiing to make a completely new event. This distinctive structure is part of what makes it so popular, especially to skiers that don’t usually find cross-country as entertaining as freestyle skiing.

For those looking to dive into Skiathlon even further, the FIS hosts the event as part of their Nordic World Ski Championships, the next one happening in February 2023. Outside of this, fans will have to wait for the 2026 Winter Olympics in Milan, Italy to see which country will clinch gold.