#4 - Skiing Inside The Boot
At Harb Ski Systems we are always striving to put our customers and ourselves in the best products available in the ski industry. My staff and coaches are all professional skiers and have been for many decades. These people are not just instructors and coaches, but also boot fitters, footbed specialists and alignment experts. We feel that to teach skiing properly at the highest level you must understand the whole system: feet, ankles, boots and alignment.
With this level of understanding, ski instruction becomes very precise and effective. My staff and I are always looking to enhance our own experience on snow. Therefore I encourage them to try many products and to modify their own. Recently, we have been working on ski boot modifications.
Last summer, I modified many ski boots at Mt. Hood for FIS Junior US development racers with great success. We began this season modifying ski boots for many other racers including World Cup and US Ski Team racer, Erik Schlopy. This has become an ongoing relationship. We send modified boots to Europe for Erik and he sends his new boots to us from Europe to modify. Erik, remember, has access to the best boot technicians the World Cup can provide, but prefers to send his boots to us. We are working on two different modifications on Erik's boots. They increase the ability of the foot and ankle to produce edging power and the ability of the ankle to access the boot wall through medial wall and boot board modifications. These are the same movements of the ankle we try to provide for all our footbed and alignment customers.
The functional articulation of the ankle and foot in the boot provides and enhances the skier's ability to make refined, fine-tuning movements to adjust the ski edge angle on the snow. If this articulation is not available, movements are made at the hip using the adductor muscles to lever the ski on edge. This is a very gross motor movement and does not allow for much adjustment once the movement to the edge begins. In high-end expert skiing or World Cup racing the combination of ankle, foot and leg edging adjustments is essential.
So, why do so few recreational skiers have access to these movements? Because most industry footbeds are overposted and too rigid. This concept has been in my mind and I have applied it for generations as a ski racer, skier, coach and instructor. I have always felt that foot and ankle articulation in the boot are critical to skier performance, especially in the areas of ski edging, holding and controlling. But everywhere I investigated, even to this day, I find that the ski industry is trying to accomplish exactly the opposite.
With hard footbeds and ski boot walls that are very tight on the medial (inside) ankle, most products reduce lateral movement of the ankle toward the boot wall - reducing or eliminating foot articulation. In some ways of thinking this can be justified and explained to seem like a benefit. For example, if rigid footbeds with dense material filling the arch stop any foot movement, one could think that you would get immediate edge and energy transfer. Yes, this does seem to make sense - until you begin to understand that you are now forced to use your upper leg muscles to achieve this immediate edging and transfer. The upper leg muscles (adductors) do not have the ability to fine-tune the edge, thus eliminating any presumed "benefit" of the rigid footbed/immediate-edge-power concept.
Skiers whom we have converted from rigid footbeds to those that allow articulation become more balanced, smooth, and fluid. They also benefit from better foot circulation and therefore have warmer toes. Many overposted and rigid-footed skiers fight their edges. The lack of foot articulation creates chatter on hard snow and over-steering on soft snow. The skis are also super-reactive and feel nervous. Many skiers complain of arch pressure or even pain, but are afraid to mention it because they supposedly bought a "special upgrade". All these problems can be immediately relieved with a more compliant and accurately designed footbed. Now we must keep in mind that every body has different abilities and needs. Some skiers have excess foot movement that needs to be controlled, though not eliminated. A rigid foot and ankle demonstrate the opposite needs.
The rigid foot and ankle are particularly interesting because increasing range of lateral movement in the ankle and foot is much more difficult than reducing range of motion. Hence every footbed needs to be carefully designed and built for the needs of the individual foot to optimize lateral edging power, allowing the range of articulation of the foot and ankle required to apply force to the boot wall. Applying force to the boot wall can only be achieved if the muscles that tip - evert - the foot can function. The peroneal muscles that run up along the outside of the tibia must be able to move the foot through some range of motion for this to occur.
In our painstaking effort to evaluate a skier's balance on snow, we came across some interesting findings. We video all of the skiers who come to our camps while they perform on-snow balancing exercises. After careful analysis of the skiers before and after alignment, over a period of six years, we have determined that skiers with rigid feet and skiers with flexible feet both suffered similar consequences from rigid, inflexible footbeds. These skiers were not able to use their lower joints in the ski boot to help balance or edge the ski. They instead leaned or otherwise used the upper body in a contrived manner to lever the ski to an edge. Most of these skiers cannot engage the edge of the ski â€“ make it slice into the snow. Instead, they demonstrate slipping of the ski.
After a complete set of range-of-motion measurements are taken and a footbed made to allow for proper articulation of the ankle and foot, the skiers again perform the on-snow balance exercises. This second set of exercises yields very different results. Again, slow motion video analysis is used to determine differences in balancing and skiing abilities. One noticeable difference is a new, relaxed body position. The lower body acts as an adjuster of balance and the upper body a stable unit over the boots and feet. Some observers go so far as to say that, the skiers skied as if they had another joint to use in the boot to edge and balance over the ski. Another noticeable difference is an improvement in the skier's ability to engage the edge of the ski, eliminating the slipping that was previously evident. In this season alone we have assembled quantifiable evidence that the footbed and movements I am describing in this article are not only effective but also necessary for higher performance and comfort. We have documented major performance increases with ski racers the very next day after footbed changes. In one particular case, the ski racer improved by thirty FIS points on three different occasions. This occurred without further coaching or equipment changes.
We can document such changes in recreational skiers by video and observing their improved edging and ski performance characteristics, but many objectors and detractors would claim that this is unscientific. When we have quantifiable results based on huge improvements in racing times, there is very little left to doubt. When the top ski racers in this country are noticing the performance benefits, and when our recreational skiers are noticeably skiing better and improving faster, that's all the proof they need.