Ski Whisperer: Get It Straight
My last column, Boots 101, surveys boot fitting, including defining characteristics of an effective boot fit process to help identify true boot pros, but space did not allow discussion of one of the most important and least considered performance requirements.
Warren Witherell first observed in his seminal book How The Racers Ski that the average skier can improve more by having boots aligned than through an entire season of private lessons. Warren doesn't malign lessons—au contraire—but his wry observation remains right on the money.
The arrival of shaped skis a decade ago rendered the need for alignment even more important for recreational skiers, as Harald Harb detailed in the best sellingAnyone Can Be An Expert Skier, but even after all this time, it seems word has yet to reach every corner of ski land.
Many skiers are better skiers than they may know. Handicapped by out-of-balance boots, they blame themselves, thinking, "I just can't get this!"
They resignedly accept "terminal intermediate" status.
This is unfortunate and unnecessary. Most skiers “improve” immediately once even minor alignment issues are corrected.
One noteworthy point is that, despite claims of manufacturers and shop personnel to the contrary, cuff alignment adjustments do not affect ski/boot alignment; they but allow the lower leg to be aligned properly with the foot and do nothing to enhance the relationship between boot and ski. True canting takes place beneath the boot.
Some people's natural anatomical structure when coupled with rigid plastic boots forces them to stand not neutrally, but on outside edges, as in the picture below of a bow legged skier. This makes it all but impossible to manage edge angles efficiently. The bow legged skier can find it difficult to engage the big toe edge or to release an edge during turn transition and may experience inadvertent skidding or even "railing."
Knock-kneed skiers face another problem. They stand on inside edges, which produces an opposite effect. These skiers have trouble releasing big toe edges and compensate with exaggerated unweighting and weighted ski steering. Result—poor edge hold, skidding, abstem and, in extreme cases, even crossed tips.
The challenge is to balance the boot, which in turn places the skier in a neutral stance, allowing maximum athletic, biomechanical and balance efficiency. About 20% of the population is blessed with naturally neutral stance. Everyone else can be aligned.
Corrective action begins with selection of good footbeds, either custom or off-the-shelf self-
molding models like the Downunder, to support and align the foot inside the boot for enhanced balance, strength, endurance, circulation and weight-bearing capacity.
For even better results, consider replacing stock liners with high performance custom inners like those from ZipFit or Conform’able.
With footbed, inner boot, shell and cuff configured to complement individual anatomy, the skier/boot system is ready for balancing.
Individual boot fitters use various systems to diagnose needed alignment corrections. Some “old school” pros may make
the diagnosis using seeming primitive methods involving plumb bobs or right-angle carpenter rulers; other shops use more sophisticated
methods including single-purpose stance alignment machines or even computer controlled pressure pads which show actual distribution of weight on the bottom of the foot.
At realskiers, we use an on-snow method to diagnosis needed corrections.
First, let’s make it clear that we do not recommend this method be used except under guidance of a professional. This exercise can be dangerous if not performed correctly and it requires a highly trained eye to analyze and interpret results.
Here’s how we do it:
We ask the skier to run straight on one ski on an uncrowded gentle (read beginner) slope toward an observer. The request is to force the ski to go straight regardless of any tendency it may have to do otherwise.
The observer notes what the skier must do to make the ski run straight. If no, or very subtle, foot or ankle adjustments need be made to maintain balance, alignment is either true or requires only minor adjustment.
If, at the other extreme, the skier must make gross balance adjustments involving torso and waving arms, major alignment issues are present.
The observer notes both where the ski wants to track, either in or out, and what magnitude of adjustments the skier makes to maintain balance. This information determines both which side of the boot must be modified and approximately by how much.
We then use 1 degree canting shims under the boot to make corrections, adding shims until the skier can balance and run straight on the single ski with ease, noting how many degrees are required.
With diagnosis complete, it remains to make the same adjustments either by shimming beneath the binding or by actually shaving the boot. Sole shaving, performed by a few ultra-high end performance shops, generally shops with a strong race clientele, offers the advantage that the boot will work in any ski. Under-binding shimming must be done ski by ski.
The final check takes place on snow or on a ski simulator to identify the last minor adjustments that Witherell and Harb consider among the most important of all.
For more on any of this, including personal consultation, we invite you to visit and subscribe to realskiers.com.
Until next time,
Have Fun, Don’t Fall