In for Alignment

The best skiers are already perfectly aligned—skeletons that stack up in perfect balance over a carving edge. The rest of us—the bow-legged, the knock-kneed—muddle through with skis that feel either too edgy or not edgy enough. The solution: Take your body in for an alignment. We did just that with two guinea pigs, to see if even longtime skiers can still improve their game with a simple equipment fix. And yes, they can.

By John Balmain, with Bob Gleason

When I was asked to become involved in this Alignment/Movement makeover I immediately thought, “Great, a chance to work with Bob Gleason.  I’ll definitely learn something about bootfitting!”  Bob is consistently acknowledged as the No. 1 bootfitter in Telluride, Colo., and one of the best in the nation. In his work for Masterfit University, he helps to train bootfitters across the country.

Having the two of us combine our talents was an exciting prospect as there have always been two schools of thought when it comes to alignment. One is that a skier can make compensatory movements to work with their natural alignment, the other that without correct alignment, efficient skiing cannot be achieved. Our goal in the project was to take two skiers with poor alignment and outdated gear and correct both their equipment and movement patterns. This, we hoped, would allow them to achieve their maximum potential.

Bob recruited Maribeth Clemente from ski school to be our “under-edged” skier.  For years she has been bothered with the alignment problems we were after.  Although she is a ski teacher, she keeps to the groomers and moderate terrain due to the gear issues she is plagued with.

Maribeth has difficulty in engaging and holding a carving edge when skiing.  Like most female skiers, she stands in a knock-kneed (or “A-frame”) position when resting in her ski boots.  Since the knees are already tipped towards each other and the legs are rotated inward before she starts a ski turn, there is very little range of motion available in the knee and leg to increase the angle of the ski edge. As she progresses through a ski turn there is not enough edge purchase to hang on as speed and centrifugal forces increase. So she skids the turn and has little arc in the turn shape. She can compensate by rotating the hips and upper body. Twisting the body towards the inside of the turn will engage the ski edges.  But she finishes the turn with the body facing up the hill—in no position to link the next turn. Because of this lack of edging power, she avoids steeper terrain and feels uncomfortable at speed. Since she has to rotate to complete the turn, she is not quick enough from turn to turn to stay on line in bumps. The rotation puts her out of balance in powder.

Maribeth was skiing in a boot that was state-of-the-art nine years ago, the Tecnica Icon—which was actually designed approximately three years before she bought it, making the boot design 12 years old. Twelve years ago was early in the development of modern ski shapes. As skis have gained shape, width, and have been refined in flex patterns, boots have evolved to better match the mechanical needs of the skis. They’ve become softer in forward flex and firmer in medial and lateral strength. This increase in side-to-side strength reduces the inward collapse common among female skiers. Boots have become more upright, too. This lessened forward lean also reduces the inward collapse of the leg, in contrast to the older, more forward-pitched position of the leg, which led to more rotation of the leg shaft and more issues with the under-edging and A-frame stances.

Being a ski instructor, Maribeth has been trained.  She has been taught to hold the body in ways that disguise the body mechanics needed to compensate for her under-edged, knock-kneed stance. She uses a softer flexing, older K2 ski, which lets her mush turns. In a higher performing ski, the inherent grip of the ski would require more dramatic display of the body position symptoms of her under edged boot alignment.

Don Hannah was standing on the top of the mountain in his alpine-touring boots. Like most male skiers, he looked like he had just dismounted a horse. There was gaping space between his knees. His thighs rotated outwards. His knees centered over the outside edge of his skis.  He seemed to be a perfect example of an over-edged skier. When Bob asked him why he wasn’t in his alpine boots he responded that “they are just done.” We outlined our project, and he agreed to put back on his seven-year-old Salomon X Wave 9 boots for our indulgence.

Around 70 percent of male skiers stand bow-legged in their boots. The male hip structure is typically narrower and more tightly strung than the female hip. So the femur (thigh bone) exits the hip with an outward rotation. In the softness of most shoes, the ankle can collapse inward and counter the outward rotation of the upper leg. However, when the ankle is braced in the structure of a ski boot the typical male looks like he is at the rodeo, roping and riding. There is little forgiveness in a ski boot. As a result, when bow-legged men try to bring the knee into balance, they are commonly over edged.

So Don has difficulty finessing the start of a ski turn and has to compensate. The first thing that needs to happen when changing direction on skis is the hip moves towards the new turn. When the legs are bowed the ski edge hooks up with the first inkling of the hip moving inside the new turn. So long before Don is in a position to stand on the turning ski, the ski hooks up. This makes it almost impossible to just ride the ski, which is trying to carve without Don being properly balanced on it. So the compensation is to shove the ski away from the body before the edge grips. The bow-legged skier can accomplish this with a step of the outside ski, stemming, or with a big up-motion.   Releasing the ski from the snow allows Don to get his hip to the inside before the ski reacts.

As the turn progresses things continue to be difficult for Don. As the skis accelerate and gravity pulls, the legs need to incline towards the center of the turn to brace against the growing forces. With Don being bow legged in these boots, this leg inclination over-edges the skis—tipping them up too high—and they react with a rough, bouncy ride, hooking up and releasing, hooking up and releasing.

Compounding the problem, the five-year-old Salomon X wing Fury skis he rides are strong and grippy. With Don’s alignment issues, a softer, more forgiving ski would be easier to deal with. So his compensation is to bank the turn leaning his shoulders inward.  This reduces the leg incline and softens the ski edge. But if he encounters hard snow, it’s a compromised position—an inherently imbalanced position for moving to the next turn.  Don’s a fit and athletic guy who’s been skiing avidly since he was a kid, so with the adjustments he’s made, he’s still having fun skiing anything Telluride throws at him in his 80 ski days a year. But he powers down the run instead of finessing his way.

So let’s change it up. Both skiers are fit in new boots. The boots are equipped with molded and posted footbeds to hold the feet in an optimal position.  The boots are chosen by foot shape.  Performance alterations are then done to accommodate the skiers in the new boots. The boot soles are canted to adapt to the alignment problems. The skiers are set up in current demo skis. Then we’ll head out to the hill to see what differences appear.

Maribeth has a moderately high instep, a tapering heel, a pronounced calf muscle, and a spreading forefoot. The boot we chose for her foot shape was a Salomon Idol 9. The liner and custom shell were heat-molded. A footbed was molded to the base of her foot then shaped to sit properly in the boot liner. Finding that her ankle joint had a limited range of flex, Bob added quarter-inch heel lifts. The final and most important step was assessing her canting needs and grinding that cant into the boot sole. Because her knees collapse inward, she needed both boots to be tilted outward so as to give her leverage over and access to the inside edge of her ski. Bob ground her soles at a 1½ degrees, high on the arch side of the foot, low on the outside, to reduce her knock-kneed alignment. Bob then attached lifters to the soles and ground the tops of the toe and heel lugs at the same angle as the soles, making the top and bottom faces parallel again so that they would properly interface with a binding. Then we set up her up with a pair of Dynastar Exclusive Pro demo skis with a good tune and carve-ready sidecut. 

Don has an average width mid- and rear-foot with some enlargements on the sides of his forefoot. He was fit in a pair of Lange R130 boots. The liners were heat molded, then new footbeds were molded and filled with a heel post, leaving the mid foot flexible in order to accommodate the rigidity present in his mid foot. With his cant wands—designed for locating where the center of the knee is in relation to the center of the foot—Bob decided Don needed 1 degree of cant—high on the outside, the opposite of Maribeth—to bring his knees in and reduce his bow-leggedness. Since the Lange R130 has rubber sole plates that do not grind well. Cant strips were added between the sole plates and the boot chassis, then the toe and heel lugs were routered to binding height standards. Thus corrected, Don should be able to get his hips into the new turn without tipping his skis too high too soon—that is, over-edging.   

We set Don up with a pair of Kaestle MX 88 demo skis—nicely tuned and well suited to his style—and we were ready to hit the hill.

When big changes are made in ski gear, it takes a bit of time to become familiar with the new gear. Good technicians will advise that it is best to change one piece of gear at a time. But for this exercise, we changed the entire lot. Fortunately the perfect snow conditions and meticulous grooming of Telluride Resort allowed this to be an easy transition. The wide runs and almost nonexistent crowds gave our two skiers plenty of space to adapt to the new sensations they were feeling.

It was certainly a new feeling for Maribeth to have strong edge grip. Accustomed as she was to the soft smudging of an under-canted boot and a flexible ski, the sudden strength and precision of the ski edge dominated everything else. That 1½  degrees of outward cant, barely visible to the eye, made a big difference. With a boot that was properly canted and set on a well-tuned ski, skidding became more difficult, and Maribeth was required to ride the ski through an arc. Speeds get higher fast when a ski is carving, and she was not mentally prepared for this dramatic change. From the observer’s perspective, the knock-kneed angles of the old boots were gone. Her leg shafts were parallel and things were happening underfoot, where she had more leverage over the inside edge.

Still, the combination of properly aligned boots with strong sidewalls on top of a rigid carving ski were clearly too much for Maribeth. After one run we returned to the shop and traded the powerful Exclusive Pro for the more forgiving Volkl Attiva Luna. This combination was friendlier, and though she still was not totally at home, Maribeth began to adjust to the physics of sidecut. She made rounder turns and stayed in the arc longer, skidding less. With instructional help, she began linking turns. Her hips began to follow the direction of the turn, rather than rotating through the turn, and she was beginning to unlock the secret of carving. It was a lot to process in one ski day, but it was evident from watching her that with practice, she’ll finally be able to tip and rip—setting the ski on edge, balancing on it, letting sidecut bend it into an arc, then riding that bent ski through a fully carved, skid-free turn.   

As for Don, he too had initial—and quite understandable—difficulty synchronizing with the new equipment. Instead of the bracing against the aggressive edge he was used to in his old gear, he started steering with the upper body. At first this impaired the ability of the skis to finish a turn and come across the hill. He needed to drive the hips into the hill and incline the legs more than he had before—something he was inherently afraid to do, given how hooky his over-edged skis felt in the past. His first reaction was to rotate through the turn and steer with his shoulders, with his outside arm leading through the turn. But with gentle coaching from a trained instructor, his upper body motions quieted. His shoulders squared back up to the slope, and his legs started taking on the work of driving the ski. His turns gradually started to become more complete, and the Kastles soon were leaving clean trenches in the spring snow.

The verdict? A predictable success. After lifetimes of adjustments and compensations, both skiers still need time—a whole season, perhaps—to fully adjust to the not-insignificant changes Bob made to their gear equations. Maribeth, faced with a season-ending week of lessons, admits she ran back to the security of her old stuff. But in both of them, we saw the beginnings of fundamental technique improvements, and we hope to check in with them after they’ve had time to get used to things. Here’s what we expect: A combination of equipment alignment and corrected movement patterns will equal more fun on the hill for both of them.

John Balmain is a PSIA Level 3 instructor.  He is an APSI (Australia) Level 3 instructor. John has spent 29 seasons working as a professional instructor.  In 2009 he was voted Ski Instructor Of The Year in Telluride.

Bob Gleason Operates the Boot Doctors ski and snowboard shops in Telluride, Colo., and Taos, N.M.  He is the senior faculty member of the Master Fit University training centers.  He conducts “Boot Balancing” clinics for the PSIA-Rocky Mountain Division.  Bob is a boot tester for Ski Magazine.  He was voted Telluride’s “Bootfitter of the Year” in 2009.