Balancing skills for Alpine Skiing 2- ALC how to ski series
Skiing/Alpine Balancing Skills part 2
Chapter 2 Alpine Stance and Balancing skills
It’s just leaning forward and keeping your hands forward, isn’t it?
No, not at all!
I’ve deliberately not put many images in this segment, for reasons explained before, any will be of Skeleton Bob.
To finish off the 1st segment of Stance into stances – Stances into Shape;
Shape into Balancing
Balancing is 3 dimensional, in other words when skiing there are 3 planes of balancing;
- Fore/Aft (forward and back), altering where you are standing along the foot and skis length
- Lateral, or sideways (left and right), altering which foot/ski you are standing on or whether the feet/skis are flat or on their edges
- Vertical (up and down), altering the height and shape of the skier, which helps create and control the changing pressures experienced when skiing
When these 3 planes are blended and combined, they arguably create a 4th dimension, that of rotational balancing – how we deal with the varied terrains and differing directional forces we encounter as we progress.
You do not need to be on snow or skiing to benefit from the following ideas, feel free to experiment in bare feet, slippers or trainers well before trying it on the mountain so the process is well imprinted in the mind before hurtling down the hill at mach 3. It is always a good idea in learning to use this approach with any new technique or tactic. If already on snow, play around in ski boots without skis on for a couple of minutes, maybe while walking to the lift or in the gondola.
Fore/aft plane – 0 x o
Look at the word or series of letters 0 x o and imagine the 0 represents the ball of your foot. The toes of your foot would be to the left of the zero. The o represents the heel of your foot and the x marks the centre of your foot (near or close to a bone called the cuboid). We could call this x, the sweetspot, lots of activities have sweetspots including anything you hit a ball with; hit the ball out of the middle of the club, bat or racket and it goes further, gives you more control/power, feels sweeter and or all of the above. (See Relating to other sports/activities) and a ski is no exception to this.
Note-not the geographical or measured centre but the actual or near actual centre- ski/balance wise. This centre is nearer the heel than the toes. Have you noticed that historically most skis are longer in front of the foot/bindings than behind? It could be said that the ski is mimicking the foot; the exception to this being modern binding set-ups that are more geographically centre-mounted (park and pipe skis for example).
In this idea you are:
- Aiming to share your stance between the 2 circular parts of the foot-ball and heel-while trying to find the x and are standing on the whole length of the foot (and width too at this point)
- You are using visual understanding to then learn to feel it within the boot
All on the ball, too far forward, all on the heel too far back and on ball, heel and the x, accurately in the middle.
Experiment with this idea, especially during straight running on easy terrain, for beginners. Then revisit along with the more complex ideas that follow, to help in the other planes of balance. Also useful for any level of skier’s accuracy and fine tuning.
If you, like me, have a high arch (not flat feet) then you may not be able to feel the x without custom or orthotic foot-beds. These are an extremely good investment for the fanatic for sure but also for anyone with foot problems or pain; burning under the ball of the foot or pins and needles, as you’ll be able to feel, be more accurate and ski for longer without discomfort. (See Equipment Issues) Skiing in pain isn’t FUN! As all you’ll focus on is the pain.
Imagine a comfortable pebble (bean bag or half a tennis ball ruined by the dog) under the arch of your foot the last time you were at the beach. Choose well the size and fit of the pebble, we’ve all probably stood on a sharp one before. With this your weight is supported by the whole foot, just like someone with flat feet, not just ball and heel. I find this much more comfortable as I can be on my feet all day.
Is there an added thing to be gleaned here?
While teaching a client a long while ago and explaining to them the idea of finding the x in 0xo, the client (who was into the eastern arts) advised me that; the middle spot I was describing is close to an acupressure point that equates to the kidneys and which, when pressed, can alleviate fear (see Dealing with Fear).
Although maybe a strange idea in the west, and obviously impossible to actually manipulate by hand, on snow, in ski boots, I have used it in the past to good effect with nervous clients; i.e. absolutely frozen with fear of heights – getting them pressing on these points on the foot rests of the chairlift, or just focusing on the imaginary pebble.
Before experimenting and attempting what follows, make sure you can accurately find and achieve the targeted focus above.
It can be beneficial to experiment and or deliberately make mistakes on easy terrain, to build a repertoire of different feelings and learn the actions and reactions of recovery, at any level of skier. Use a scale to measure your stance on your feet, from; forward of centre +54321 towards the balls of your feet, x exact centre and back of centre 12345- toward your heels, accurately.
Here we are widening the focus of before but could still target, say; staying between +2 and -2, or stay exactly on +3 or -4 all the time to gain the experience of this feeling but not because it is the desired outcome in every situation . This doesn’t mean that all the pressure or weight has to be on any one point, you could share the pressure percentage subtly between two points; 30% on -5, 70% is on + 3 and any other mix you can invent.
TIP. You may find that you have been moving the upper body over the feet (like a flower or tree blowing in the breeze). Turn this on its head and try to move the feet back and forth under the body as this requires more subtlety and skill and will be more beneficial later on.
To take this idea further it is linked to pressure distribution where we deliberately place the weight and therefore feel the pressure on different parts of the foot/ski. (See Pressure and or How we turn)
Up until now we have only been looking at it from the side but it is important from every angle. So front on:
- Our knees are above our feet
- Our hips are above our knees (both represented by blue dots)
- Our shoulders, spine and hips resemble a capital I (the one that looks like H on it’s side)
Here’s Skeleton Bob again to outline the idea, I’ve used him/her for the same reasons in the previous part; lay your build over this generic skeleton/template. The capital I is highlighted in blue.
The idea here is to acquire maximum benefit of the skeleton’s strength, known as skeletal alignment – each joint is as closely as your build allows, directly above the one below; allowing the body to use little to no muscle input/strength (See Stacked later).
Note, all of the above are only there as a guide and not something you should force your body to conform to as your build may not allow these; you may be naturally bandy legged, knocked kneed or have a curvature of the spine. Work within your own bodies natural limits, bear in mind though, that these can be changed over time but be safe and patient.
Lateral 0 x o
Instead of the x being slap bang in the middle of the fleshy part of the foot, imagine 2 x’s or just move the one in the middle to the inside of the foot and therefore the edge of the ski! This will happen quite naturally when moving the skis into a plough shape as the skis will tilt onto the inside edges. You will now have an x for straight running (flat skis) and an x for left and right edges (tilted skis). You’re still trying to be centred in the fore/aft plane of balancing but also encouraging yourself to be acquainted with the sides or edges of the centre too.
You’re also not trying to slow down using the plough (See Why we Snowplough). Choice of terrain is paramount!
As the plough becomes less important to the learner and you rely more on turn shape for control, then the emphasis will evolve to a smaller and smaller plough and eventually more parallel. You may notice or want to encourage; one foot on the inside x and the other more toward the centre x and therefore flatter.
As you evolve toward parallel perfection then you should evolve this idea to having a 3rd x on the outside edge of the foot and therefore the ski.
You now will have an x for going left, right and straight ahead on each foot in between the 0 and o.
Left, Right, Inside and Outside
The important thing here is to discover the 4 different sides of the feet, in other words the edges of the skis! We need to be able to differentiate these;
- Left and right edges of each foot, this can be confusing (left edge of the right foot while turning left for example)
- Inside and outside edges of each foot, this can be confusing too (inside edge of the outside ski for example). But combined with left and right can work well or be more confusing (inside edge of the right foot while turning left for example)
- Big toe and little toe edges (including pressure on that side of the heel) of both feet (right big toe edge takes you to the left)
There is no right or wrong answer here, just find out the best way that works – Tom, Jerry, Jack and Jill – A,B,C,D, it’s up to you. Maybe a combination may prove useful! (Big toe edge of the outside ski while turning left).
Width affects Balancing
The width between your feet will have an effect on what edges you’re standing on as will your own bodies make up or build – bandy legs or knock knees, as will whether you are narrow or wide track parallel or in a plough. If you make a plough you may be more aware of the inside or big toe edges. The width will also affect the base of support, think of it like a flower vase;
- A vase with a wide base will naturally be more stable and will carry more flowers
- A vase with a narrow base will be unstable even in a slight breeze with only one flower in it
This isn’t to say a wide base of support is better, as some find the act of wide stance and ploughing uncomfortable; it will be governed by each individual by their build, ability, flexibility and desire too. The larger surface area (or V shape) of a snowplough and wide track parallel for that matter, creates bigger opportunities for balancing and recovery in some instances. However this is negated if too wide for it may inhibit the chance for movement and reaction especially through tension if using it as the sole method of speed control (See Why we Snowplough).
As we start to explore the lateral plane and therefore the edges of our feet and skis, we are taking our feet away from being directly under the upper body or hips (creating lateral separation). This will happen and have to happen whether we are ploughing (size dependent) or parallel and the body may start to look a little different to standing upright – think Da Vinci’s Vetruvian man – and although we can keep our knees above our feet and hips above our feet vertically as before but in relation to a different direction (or force). Imagine an upside down Y representing the spine and the separated legs.
The more we explore this plane and get our centre of mass (generally around and behind the belly button, depending on build) away from being directly above our feet and our body’s shape changes and separates or bends at various joints, the more skill is required so as not to rely on muscle strength.
As we progress along to the athlete/skier we want to become we will want to be able to be inventive with where we are standing on our feet and therefore our skis for many reasons;
- To influence where the weight is placed, along the skis length or edges
- To influence where the pressure is felt, along the foot’s length or sides
- To be able to correct mistakes, either our own or terrain induced
The vertical plane will also play its part, as this affects what we feel under foot and what happens to the ski.
Up and down in old money! Think of this plane as being suspension – your legs act and react as the springs or shock absorbers on a car. The movement of stretching or lengthening and folding or squashing the legs allows you to deal with and absorb the terrain and forces and to some extent create pressure.
The amount of movement you’ll need to use will be due to how dynamic the following are;
- Terrain – variations of pitch or steepness, rises and falls and lumps and bumps
- Speed of travel creating variations in pressure
- Variations in the snow texture; 2 extremes of firm – ice to soft – fresh snow or deep powder
Vertical Movements +/- Scale
Find a shape that enables you to move away from it both upwards and downwards (too tall and only movement is down, too small and the only movement is up), then move away and return to it. Use the scale from before but now in this plane; tallest +54321 0 12345- smallest. This uses stretching and squashing movements when moving in one direction or the other from 0.
Note – be subtle, use a small not a full range of movements i.e. you shouldn’t reach your full height or go too small as this will require more strength and whatever range you’ve decided to use, neutral will have to be near the middle. Once again you could stay within a smaller range +3 to -2 or experiment and increase it +8 to -10 or stay at a fixed point say -2, not because it’s right or wrong just to see what’ll happen.
As you adjust in this plane you may notice that the pressures change along the length of the foot within the boot; it will affect the fore/aft plane – as you get taller your leg’s joints open – the ankle’s, knee’s and hip’s angles change. Therefore your weight or perception of pressure on the sole of the foot changes toward the ball of the foot. The heel may actually lift. The opposite will happen when you close these joints and become smaller and become more aware of your heel.
While doing this you will also notice that the pressure on the cuff area of the boot changes too! When making yourself taller you will be more aware of the calves or back of the lower leg and when going smaller the shins. If you are not centred you will feel the cuff too much, known as hanging on the boot and you are therefore relying on something else to keep you upright. The pressure felt or applied here should be subtle and light.
Light shin pressure
The boot is the only thing that connects you to the ski (via the binding). It is also the only thing that you can physically feel (via the feet and lower leg). It is important to know what should be happening in this area.
The padded cuff of the ski-boot surrounds the tibia (shin) and fibula bones and lower calf muscle area of the leg and should fit well (See Equipment Issues). Your shin should be in the middle of the cuff, not off to one side or the other and poorly aligned, putting you at a disadvantage-either on or off the edges when wanting the complete opposite.
The pressure/weight** felt on the shins will vary, ranging from;
- Light; just aware of the tongue of the boot, ounces/grams/grains of sugar (finger pressure, imagine resting your fingers or hand on your cheek lightly or my hand resting on your shoulder), to
- Heavier; more aware, pounds/kilograms/a few of bags of sugar (hand pressure, imagine pressing a tennis ball between your hands or me pressing my hand gently on your shoulder to wake you from a nap) at most
And everything in between these two.
Target being accurate and subtle; use constant tiny changes/inputs on the shin and base of foot rather than massive differences. Learn the reactions to maintain the outcome you are after. Once again you could use the +/- scale; 2 bags of sugar on shins +54321 0 12345- 2 bags of sugar on the calves. Experiment once you’ve mastered a given outcome.
The percentage of your bodyweight that is being used or pressure felt on the shin is surprisingly nominal; let’s say an average person weighs 50-90 kilos, a bag of sugar is approximately 1 kilo so even if you feel 5 bags of sugar on your shins, this is only 5 kilos and in some cases not even 10% of total. What is the correct weight/pressure to feel? There’s no real answer but somewhere between the above and it’ll constantly change, either as an action or as you progress as a consequence of outside forces.
If you press your shin very hard on the tongue of the boot especially without skis on, you’ll notice the heel of the boot may come off the snow or the toe will bury itself into soft snow, making it hard to stay in the centre. Therefore, use a subtle light touch.
Bear in mind that ski equipment can be very strong and the connection between ski/boot/binding to skier is strong enough to enable you to not fall over, even though you’re not fully centred. This is useful when you have made a mistake and do not want to fall but if our skills are highly attuned we should only rely on this in emergencies, not as default.
Challenges; Can you ski (in control) down a slope of your choice with your lower legs (shins and calves) hardly touching the cuff of the boot at all?
Not because it’s right or wrong but to see if you can and therefore create power and accuracy on the sole of your foot! Relax, don’t stiffen up, you still need to move your joints and react to terrain but not allow your lower leg to behave like a stick in a bucket – hitting the front and back uncontrolably. Work on staying centred, be subtle and share the pressure along the bases of the feet and when skiing, ski as though you don’t have ski boots on!
I’ll say this again as this is important; ski as though you haven’t got skis or boots on, we don’t want to HAVE to rely on strength or put strain, either on our own muscles or the equipment. (See Surfing in Relating to other Sports).
Eventually after first becoming a subtle performer you may have the desire or skill to change this for some reason or mistake (See Racer’s Perspective) and adding strength to skill is better than trying to add skill to a bull in a china shop mentality, IMHO.
**Anyone into physics or science reading this will know that pressure is not measured by kilos etc. etc. wait for the next instalment…
The next segment deals with Science/Biology, Pressure, Weight, Force or Mass? Along with some questions I get asked a lot, Jose