It was early March, and I was in ski boot hell. There I was in Third Bowl, the epic extreme limits terrain on Mount Crested Butte, Colo. that only opens during heaping snow years (and this happened to be one of those really ridiculously good-looking winters). I was standing in thigh-deep powder, watching my brother spoon perfectly symmetrical turns down the open bowl in front of us, hearing him hooting and hollering, having the time of his life—and that’s when I started to cry.
Not tears of joy, mind you, though my current environment certainly would have warranted those. These were tears induced by unbearable pain, both physical and emotional.
My shins were on fire, my trusty (but old) 130-flex ski boots having beaten my poor lower legs to a bruised, actual bloody pulp over the course of an epic season of hard charging. The emotional pain came from realizing that the only way I would be skiing this powder in front of me would be with linked sideslips.
Shin bang is no joke, people. It kills the joy of skiing for four in 10 skiers every season (#alternativefacts). Chances are you’ve experienced the symptoms at some point in your skiing life: bruising on the front of the shin; irritated skin and possibly even blisters on the front of the lower leg caused by intense friction between the tongue of the liner and your ski sock; deep, throbbing pain in the gastroc and/or soleus muscles of the lower leg; and, according to Cody Townsend, "strains and micro-tears of dorsiflexor muscles on the front of the shin."
The symptoms can vary from skier to skier, and can range from slight irritation to excruciating pain. Once shin bang sets in, it’s hard to alleviate within the span of a weekend or a week, and as a result has been known to ruin a ski vacation or two. That said, shin bang is highly preventable. It all comes down to the fit and condition of your ski boot. In my case, it all came down to the poor condition of my ski boot liner (see cause and solution #4).
Causes of Shin Bang
“Shin bang can be due to a number of reasons,” says boot pro Sam Tischendorf, who custom-fits ski boots for a living at the reputable Bootdoctors shop in Telluride, Colo. “It really comes down to the fit of your boot as well as the type of boot you have.” According to Tischendorf, the following are the most common causes of shin bang.
1. You’re not buckling properly.
The most common source of shin bang is too much space between the shin and the tongue of the ski boot. When there’s a gap between the lower leg and front of the boot you’ll find that when steep terrain or variable conditions force you into an athletic stance, your shin will bang up against the front of the boot.
“The buckles across the upper cuff of your boot should be buckled so that you get a nice snug fit and the cuff is contouring to the leg,” Tischendorf explains.
And don’t forget about your power strap, the Velcro strap across the top of the boot. That strap should be cinched as tightly as you can manage at the start of your run. “Keep your buckles a little looser across the top part of the foot but make sure the upper cuff buckles are nice and snug,” Tischendorf says. “You might do your first few runs of the day and feel like you’re moving around. Go ahead and snug those buckles up. Don’t get fixated on a notch across the buckle ladder—if there’s too much movement, buckle down tighter.”
2. Your ski boot is too big.
You might find that no matter how hard you try, you just can’t buckle your boots tightly enough to ensure there’s no movement within your ski boot. If that’s the case, then you’re in a ski boot that’s just too big.
“Are you a human rattle within the confines of your boot? If you’re trying to pull down on the buckles to give you that snug feeling but you just can’t get there, maybe you’re in a boot that’s too big volume-wise for your foot and leg,” says Tischendorf.
Ski boot volume refers to how much room there is from floor to ceiling and side to side within the boot. Ski boots come in different volumes, and some brands are known for making lower-volume boots ideal for narrow feet, short insteps and skinny ankles and calves, while others are known for having high volume boots for wider feet and bigger calves. Visit a bootfitter to get an accurate picture of what volume and size of boot you should be in.
More reasons to see a bootfitter: If the Boot Fits...
3. You’re in a boot with the wrong flex.
Flex refers to the stiffness of the boot—so how easy or difficult it is to bend the cuff of the boot forward when you apply pressure with your shin in an athletic stance. Flex numbers range from 80 to 130; the higher the flex number, the stiffer the boot. If you find that your shin is becoming bruised because you’re trying drive your boot cuff forward, but it just won’t give, you may be in a boot that’s too stiff for you.
Ski boot flex is a personal choice that comes down to your physiology as well as your skiing style. Beginner to intermediate skiers generally do well in softer boots with a flex of around 85 to 100 because those boots are more forgiving and require less effort to flex. Smaller and lighter skiers may also prefer softer boots because they require less force to drive.
On the other hand, aggressive or taller and heavier skiers may need a stiffer boot with a flex between 110 and 130, because their style of skiing and their weight or strength may make it easy for them to overpower a softer boot. For comparison, World Cup racers and professional big mountain athletes generally ski in a 130+ flex boot.
“Flex is relevant company to company, there’s no industry standard,” says Tischendorf. So even if you have an idea of what flex you’d like in a ski boot, try on different brands in that flex range to determine which best suits your biomechanics and style of skiing.
4. The ski boot liner has reached the end of its life.
The soft liner within the hard shell of your ski boot is the only thing protecting your delicate shin from harsh impact and friction that naturally occurs during skiing. “We don’t have a lot of meat on the shin, so that area is really sensitive,” says Tischendorf. When the liner becomes worn down or packed out from many days on the hill, it will no longer protect your delicate shin from the hard shell of the ski boot. It’s worth noting that a ski boot liner may reach the end of its life well before the boot’s hard shell.
More about liners: The Assurance of Fit
“If you’re consistently experiencing banged up feet, toes or shins, that may indicate that the liner is packing out,” explains Tischendorf. “If that’s the case, you can look to alternatives. If your shell is still intact, you can get aftermarket liners that will certainly prolong the life of your boot.” Not to mention prolong the life of your shin. Some great aftermarket liner options include Intuition, Zipfit, Sidas, and custom liners by Surefoot.
5. You’re wearing the wrong socks.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a quality pair of ski socks—shin bang can be caused by something as simple as wearing the wrong pair of socks. Avoid socks with ribbing on the shin, as this may cause unnecessary friction between the shin and the tongue of the ski boot and result in blisters. Also, make sure you’re wearing socks that are moisture-wicking. Socks that don’t adequately handle moisture could also lead to uncomfortable friction. “Thick, wooly socks could cause folds, blisters, and irritation,” says Tischendorf.
Speaking of folds, the biggest mistake beginner skiers make is tucking long underwear into their ski boots. This extra material in your boot is a recipe for shin bang, as it can also cause bunching, unnecessary friction, and prevent you from fitting the cuff of the boot snuggly against your shin.
Fixing Shin Bang
If you’re doing everything right to prevent shin bang—you’ve got the right socks, your liners are still in good shape, you’re buckling down snuggly—and yet you’re still having issues, visit a bootfitter. “Ensuring that you are in the right boot for your foot and your style of skiing, making sure you’re angled correctly in the right boot, that’s the number one fit aid,” says Tischendorf.
“When you go into a bootfitter, they’ll measure the length of your foot and look at your instep and your arch flexibility, as well as ankle range of movement.” Using this information, a knowledgable bootfitter will be able to help you determine the source of your shin bang and the best course for correction, whether that entails a quick fit fix, custom foot beds, or a new ski boot that actually fits your foot and your skiing style.
Sam Tischendorf is one of the very few professional female ski boot fitters—or as she likes to say, professional toe-ticklers—in the world. She currently works at Bootdoctors in Telluride, is a member of the Masterfit University teaching team, and collaborates with Blizzard/Tecnica on the Women To Women project.