Ski Race Glossary

Ski Glossary

Expand All | Collapse All

Cross-Country Racing

All the race formats are held in both classical (traditional/diagonal) and freestyle (skating). Skating is definitely the faster technique, so skating in a classical race is illegal and results in disqualification.

Women typically race between 5 and 30 kilometers while men usually compete in events between 10 and 50 kilometers. Marathon races are the longest of this endurance sport and around 50k in length.

Craftsbury Marathon

Distance races: interval or mass start
Nordic or cross country ski races are done in either an interval or a mass start format. In interval start races, skiers generally start one after another, separated by 15 or 30 second intervals. The skier with the fastest time wins.

In mass start races, all the skiers start at the same time and the first skier across the finish line is the winner.

Relay races are some of the most important events in Nordic skiing history. Winning an Olympic or World Championship relay is an incredible honor as teams compete to win the title of the top Nordic nation in the world. Women's relays are 4x5 k while men's relays are 4x10k.

This is one of the few races where competitors make use of classic and skating technique in one race: the first two legs of a relay are classical while the last two legs are raced in freestyle technique. Relays are started in a mass start format.

The first leg of the relay is called the scramble leg and is generally contested by someone who is quick off the line and skis well in a pack. At the end of the first, second and third legs racers ski through an exchange zone and tag their next teammate. A tag involves hand to body contact within the confines of the 50 meter exchange zone. The final leg of the race is the anchor leg and these skiers are usually picked for their strength in a sprint finish.

Sprint courses are between 1 and 1.5k and typically take between two and four minutes depending on the course profile and the snow conditions. Skiers first compete in an interval start qualifying round. The fastest 30 competitors qualify for the sprint heats which showcase exciting head to head action.

In the quarterfinal heats, the 30 competitors are split into five heats of six ranked by qualifying times. The first two skiers across the line qualify for the semifinals as well as two "lucky losers" or the next two fastest times from all the quarterfinals.

The semifinals start as soon as the quarterfinals end, this time there are two heats of six skiers. Again the fastest two skiers from each heat advance to the finals as well as two more lucky losers. The last heat of the day is the final and the skiers race head to head, competing for the top six places. Places 7 through 30 are determined by the finish order in the heats while everyone else is ranked by their qualifying time.

Craftsbury Dash for Cash

Sprints are fast and exciting and involve lots of tactics, crashes, and broken skis and poles. Sprint races (as well as team sprints - see below) are held in both classical and freestyle techniques.

Team Sprint
Team sprints or sprint relays showcase two person teams racing around a sprint course. Both team members use the same technique. The first skier races a lap of the course and then tags their teammate who skis a lap of the course before tagging his teammate. Each teammate skis three laps of the course for a total of six laps per heat. Teams are seeded into two semifinals based on their overall international or national ranking. The top two teams from each semifinal qualify for the finals as well as the next six "lucky loser" teams resulting in a ten team final.

The final is raced in the same format a couple hours after the completion of the semifinals. Like individual sprints, team sprints are a very exciting event with lots of fast and aggressive skiing. The shorter break between laps in the team sprint, though, makes it an interesting combination between aerobic and anaerobic racing.

Skiathlon (Continuous Pusuit)
Skiathlon races are held in the mass start format. Racers start by using classical technique and equipment and complete a lap of the course.Then while the clock is still running, racers enter an exchange zone where they have previously left a pair of skate skis and poles, quickly change skis and poles, and then complete the second half of the race skating. Like triathlon on dryland, a smooth and fast exchange is necessary in skiathlon success. Competitors do not change boots in the exchange zone preferring to instead us use a combi or pursuit boot with a flexible classical sole and a stiff ankle cuff for skating. Changing boots in the exchange zone would be very slow. Women's pursuit races are usually 10k (5k classic and 5k skate) or 15k (7.5k classic and 7.5k skate) while men typically race 20 or 30k (each half classic and half skate).

Prologue races are usually held at the beginning of multi-day stage race events where several days of racing are combined together, modeled after cycling events like the Tour de France. The prologue is a short race of 2.5k for women and 3.75k for men typically completed in a time between 7 and 10 minutes. Prologue races are held in the individual start format.


Biathlon is an Olympic sport combining cross country skiing and rifle marksmanship that originated in Scandinavia. Participants use a 0.22 caliber rifle that is worn like a backpack while they ski. They approach the shooting range midrace with a heart rate of about 180 beats per minute, maneuver into shooting position with their skis still on, and then shoot as quickly as they can. Each missed target results in an extra penalty loop of skiing (150 m) or an added minute to the final race time, depending on the race format.


While cross country ski racers compete in both skating and classic disciplines, biathlon competitors compete only in the skating technique. Biathlon rifles have very little kick, weigh about 8 lbs, and are outfitted with biathlon-specific accessories including a harness, sling, and sight covers to keep falling snow out. Races have either 2 or 4 shooting stages, including both prone (lying down) and standing positions. During each stage, biathletes have 5 bullets to hit 5 black circular targets in a white box 50 meters away. Targets are 4.5 cm wide for prone and 11.5 cm for standing, and they turn white when they are hit.

Notable Biathlon Facts:

  • Biathlon is the most popular winter sport in Europe; World Cups have millions of television viewers
  • The fastest shooters complete an entire shooting stage in under 30 seconds
  • Exact race times depend on snow conditions, but a sprint often takes women over 21 minutes and men over 26 minutes
  • "Cleaning" a stage is hitting all 5 targets. "Dirtying" a stage is hitting none of them.
  • The penalty loop is located immediately after the range and one loop takes competitors 23-25 seconds.
  • Biathletes describe how well they shot in terms of penalties: for example if a biathlete shot 2-0 in a race that means he missed 2 targets in the first stage and cleaned the second stage.

Distances for adults - 7.5k for women/10k for men
Number of ski loops - 3 loops with 2 stages
Shooting order (p=prone, s = standing) - P S
Each missed target = 1 Penalty loop
Start style - Interval start. Competitors start 30 seconds apart, fastest time wins.

Distances for adults - 10k for women/12.5k for men
Number of ski loops - 5 loops with 4 stages
Shooting order (p=prone, s = standing) - P P S S
Each missed target = 1 Penalty loop
Start style - Competitors start in order of finish in the previous day's sprint race and are handicapped by their time back in the sprint. For example, if the 2nd place competitor from the sprint finished 19 seconds behind the leader, he/she starts 19 seconds behind the leader in the pursuit. The first person across the finish line wins.
Pursuit races are limited to 60 starters.

Mass Start
Distances for adults - 12.5k for women/ 15k for men
Number of ski loops - 5 loops with 4 stages
Shooting order (p=prone, s = standing) - P P S S
Each missed target = 1 Penalty loop
Start style - Competitors all start at the same time; first person across the finish line wins.
Mass start races are limited to 30 starters, the maximum number of shooter that a regulation size ranges can hold

Distances for adults - 15k for women/20k for men
Number of ski loops - 5 loops with 4 stages
Shooting order (p=prone, s = standing) - P S P S
Each missed target = one minute added to final race time; no penalty loops
Start style - Competitors start 30 seconds apart; fastest time wins

Distances for adults - 4 people x 6k for women/7.5k for men
Number of ski loops - Each leg completes 3 loops with 2 stages
Shooting order (p=prone, s = standing) - P S
Penalties - After shooting 5 shots, competitors may "handload" up to 3 spare bullets as needed
Penalty loops required for any remaining missed targets after spares have been shot
Start style - The "scramble legs" (first legs) from all the teams start at the same time; first team across the finish line wins.