Originally Posted by Srozing
What is a "plug" boot exactly?
Not Just For Racers 1
One enduring equipment myth holds that race-stock gear—laminate skis and race-room, a.k.a. "plug" boots—is so macho and demanding that only actual racers should be using it.
More on laminate skis when reviews are posted, but having just finished a season-and-half-long test of plug boots, wed conclude that this myth, like most, is mostly smoke and mirrors.
It is important to be clear at the outset that the impressions to be presented in Part 2 are but those of one skier. The golden rule of boot fitting remains: "boots are personal; only a top technician can help you make the right choice." I share my findings in the hope that we can debunk myth and illuminate benefit of precisely fit, top-performing boots often overlooked by aspiring technical skiers out of concern that race boots hurt, are too stiff and unsuitable to all but the most elite of aggressive skiers.
Lore vs. Reality
The truth about plug boots is that they are expensive, labor-intensive to fit, difficult to find and so outperform most retail boots that comparison is all but meaningless. Moreover, far from being uncomfortable, when properly fit, race boots are as—or even more—comfortable than stock models. Granted, one sacrifices some convenience, especially in putting them on and taking them off, but performance gains are dramatic and once experienced, addictive.
Let's start by dissecting "common sense lore," to wit that race boots are too stiff, too uncomfortable and too aggressive for most skiers except racers—although one of the boots reviewed in Part 2 is a race-derived boot designed specifically for bumps and off-piste skiing and enjoys considerable success within the Masters racing cadre to, er, boot.
Race Boots are Too Stiff
If you are addicted to bumps or deep powder, are not polishing carving skills or seldom spend time on groomed or hard snow, then, yes, most race boots may be too stiff. But if fast skiing on groomed snow or ice is your thrill of choice, if you are a masters racer or hard core weekend NASTAR athlete, if you spend time honing technical skills with instructors, coaches, at camps or on your own, then not only are these boots likely to prove a surprising boon, but, as do I, you may wonder how you ever got along without them.
Stiffness refers, to most skiers, to forward flex resistance. Although lateral and rearward stiffness are crucial components of boot performance, generally we speak of how easy or difficult it is to flex the boot forward. This is a time-honored concept, basic truth to boot technicians, and to most skiers.
The notion has its roots in another time-honored, if currently discounted, notion: to turn a ski, pressure the tip and steers the tip into the turn. This lingering technique is still taught, alas, by too many instructors (but that's another subject).
Let's consider stiffness from a different perspective.
Think of a stiff boot as defining stance zone. That is, when the boot is well fit and aligned for innate athletic stance, the boot exerts even pressure about its entire shaft circumference. Not too much pressure on tongue or spoiler, but even pressure surrounding the entire lower leg, stiffer than but like a second skin. Coupled with efficient technique, the boot defines a "zone" within which the skier maintains balance. If pressure builds fore or aft, this is feedback to the skier that he or she is beginning to move out of balance.
[note key phrases in that paragraph: "well fit", "properly aligned", "athletic stance" and "efficient technique"]
There are certainly occasions on which the skier must pressure the tip (or, for that matter, the tail), but a stiff, "second-skin" boot enhances results of such pressuring, with less shell distortion, itself a cause of many foot, ankle and shin discomforts.
Race Boots are Too Uncomfortable
Any ill-fit, mal-aligned boot is likely to be uncomfortable. Moreover, the opposite is true; well-fit, correctly aligned boots, including plug boots, are, by definition, comfortable. Case closed!
What is true is that race-room boots can be difficult to put on and take off, particularly when cold. I confess that I drive to the mountains with my personal boots (revealed in Part 2) propped against the heater vents of the pickup. This makes them easy to put on, although removing them at the end of the day can be tricky. In Part 2, I'll discuss some tricks for donning and doffing boots that make the task easier than is commonly understood.
Race Boots are Too Aggressive, Too Demanding, Too "Technical"
In this notion as well, there resides a kernel of truth, which manifests itself in a surprising, and largely self-eliminating, manner.
Race boots and weighted-ski steering technique do not go well together. Only skiers who either possess strong modern carving skills, or skiers who are working on acquiring cross-under technique, will likely fare well in plug boots. But, even here, there is a "Catch 22".
Many skiers become frustrated while attempting to modernize technique, concluding, incorrectly, that they do not have the basic athletic skill to improve, or that they simply don't understand, for example, Harald's Wedge Blocker® exercises or books.
The truth is that boots themselves are often the problem. Beyond misalignment, a prime "confidence thief," boots that Harald calls rotary boots, as opposed to lateral boots, actually render true carving all but impossible. We present a summary discussion of rotary vs. lateral boots in the archives [here], but in a nutshell, rotary boots usually have high ramp angles—formed by the difference in height between ball of foot and heel—and a surplus of forward lean. Leaving other performance-compromising characteristics aside, these two actually force skiers to squat slightly, placing them in the backseat and creating conditions that all but guarantee tail-wash at the end of the turn.
Stiff rotary boots, even moderately stiff rotary boots, make smooth arc-to-arc skiing all but impossible and even create problems in pressuring tips. Hence, the prevailing caution about stiff shells.
Conversely, and this is the Catch 22, race boots make weighted-foot-steering technique difficult. Race boots and modern technique are complimentary. Race boots, which are relatively upright and which have low ramp angles allowing the skier to stand upright, with hips forward in what I like to call the "power zone," thus self-correct difficulties created by slight squatting. Volia! Stiff boots become advantageous for any strong skier using modern technique.
All legitimate plug boots are designed thus and are actually easier to ski technically correctly than are many retail counterparts.
What are "Plug Boots"? (back)
The label "plug boot" is universally used within the race, coaching and boot design communities to describe race boots and was coined decades ago by Lange.
Their process called for plastic to be injected into a mold, which contained in the middle a plug to create space where the foot eventually would reside. Lange, so the story goes, used small plugs to make shells for racers, which had the effect of creating thick sidewalls that could then be scooped out by grinding, so that the ultimate product would be a fairly exact "negative" of the racer's foot.
Hence the name plug boot, but by whatever name, they are better performers by an order of magnitude than off-the-shelf boots, can be made to fit as well and provide precise transmission of skier input to edges while returning precise feedback. That is, they help you ski better.