I love to tell the story about how I earned the nickname Crash. My first season training with the Rabbit Hill Ski Club in Edmonton was a trial by fire. Prior to that my training had taken place at the largely volunteer run Brazeau Race Club at the Drayton Valley Ski Hill. I had a lot to learn in a short amount of time to catch up to my team mates. I routinely blew out of courses in a dramatic fashion with a lot of snow spray and equipment flying everywhere but this was not the reason for the nickname. Once day training GS with my team mates on a weekend camp I was the last to make my way down the pitch. We were practicing a drill that involved high speed large radius turns. I really liked this type of turn because it was fast and you could feel the force build up in the skis and when it would release the snap back would shoot you across the hill. The skis are designed to bend and rebound not unlike the fabric of a trampoline. If you have ever jumped on a trampoline and accidentally lost balance in the air causing you to land at an angle you have likely experienced being shot precariously off into a direction not of your choosing. This same is possible in skiing. If you load up the ski in a misaligned way you are going to be shot out of the turn with little control over where you go.
I had a really deeply ingrained habit of making this turn happen by counter rotating meaning turning my upper body opposite the direction my ski tips were pointing. Counter rotation causes the hips to move inside the arc of the turn increasing the degree of edge angle between the skis and the snow. The ski edges bite into the snow increasing the friction and slowing down the feet meanwhile the centre of mass or the hips want to keep traveling with gravity downhill. The resulting force is Angular momentum often referred to as centrifugal force. That same force you experience on a mery-go-round that allows you to tip your body inward without falling. There is a lot of pressure at this point causing the skis to bend like bananas but due to their construction the skis will eventually need to snap back just like a trampoline. This is when it get's interesting if you happen to be misaligned. In the skiing business we have some excellent descriptive metaphors for what happens in this event. Words like rodeo, bucked, slingshot, and my favourite; rocketed. You get the idea.
Back to my story, I loved the sensation of being rocketed. I had come to associate that with proper technique because like much of alpine ski racing it felt a little violent, very fast and exciting. Unfortunately I had very little control over the rocket due to chronic misalignment. The radius of my Salomon Equipe 9100 GS skis was somewhere in the neighbourhood of 21 meters. That means I needed at least 21 metres of downhill travel to complete one turn relying on just the sidecut of the ski. With my awesome counter rotate and rocket technique I could tighten that up slightly but not predictably.
The last of my team mates to head down the piste practicing my GS turns everything was going quite well until I approached my group. All bunched up watching my approach first with indifference then fascination that quickly gave way to horror as it became apparent I had badly misjudged my approach trajectory and speed. I rocketed myself right towards the group and was forced to chuck my skis sideways to try to stop in time. In the process of doing this I completely lost my downhill edge and turned from rocket to missile, my team mates the terrified targets.
I just wrapped my arms around my helmet closed my eyes and held my breath. Body's went flying everywhere! When the snow settled I was absolutely mortified. A mess of bodies and equipment lie in my wake. Thankfully no one was seriously injured, all the same they were none to impressed with me. If doing that wasn’t bad enough I did the exact same thing just a few runs later earning me forever the nickname Crash and the not so generously intended honour of always being made to go first while performing drills.
My team mates suggested that maybe I might need to get my eyes checked to make sure I can perceive depth. I was hopeful that this could vindicate me. Proclaiming great concern I convinced my mom to take me to the eye doctor hopeful there was a perfectly logical explanation for the whole thing. Imagine my upset when I learned I had perfect vision!
The hard truth was that by counter rotating and dropping my hip to the inside of the arc so aggressively as a way to start the steering effort I was crippling myself in a hopelessly misaligned position. I could not have steered with the lower body even if I knew how, which at that time, I completely didn't. For that reason I had no control over my direction and hence destiny on the mountain. I was operating on the belief that racers need to get their hips on the ground. I felt validated that my technique was correct because it felt like I expected it should feel. I became so attached to the notion that my ideas about performing high speed carving turns were correct that even in the face of incredible evidence to the contrary i.e. crashing into my team mates not once but twice because I couldn't steer, I was willing to consider my eye sight was to blame before considering that perhaps the way I was turning was to blame.
Now here I am all these years later I am very satisfied when I consider how much I have improved since those crazy rocket turns. And yet, as I reflect on my experience at this seasons CSIA Level 4 course, I realize I am still learning and refining my understanding of ski technique. In fact, I realized on the course that some of my ideas about alignment and pressure control have changed. Therefore, I have decided to hit pause on publishing this 26 part blog series to allow time to reflect on these new insights. I must confess there is a little excitement in my fingers as I type this. I love the process of research and experimentation. So that is what I am off to do until the rest of the season.
Stay tuned for the second half of Samadhi On Snow next season!
“Once in a while you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but, when you are right in the midst of it, you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about.”
― Thor Heyerdahl
I am someone with problem feet so I can write this blog post with a great deal of authority. In fact, as I write this post I am looking down at my poor feet and I am quite horrified. There is frost bite damage, bone spurs, blisters and sections of missing skin that just won't heal because I haven't had days out of ski boots in some time. This did not happen all at once. I have been in ski boots since mid November and what I am experiencing is cumulative damage.
I had originally written a fairly cheerful optimistic sounding post over the summer that was filled with helpful tips for how to keep your feet healthy for the ski season. However, I can't bare the hypocrisy. Hear I am, having difficulty walking in the mornings because of the shape my feet are in. So instead, I am going to tell you everything I have done wrong that has lead to the less than favourable predicament I find myself in, so that you may learn from my mistakes.
First of all a little context. As a full time professional Ski Instructor training for the next level of certification I am in my ski boots seven hours a day, six days a week. I love this! If I could I would ski eight days a week. I consider Ski Instructing a privileged calling and so I forget sometimes that it is a job. When I am not teaching skiing I am training and when I am doing neither of those I am free skiing for my own enjoyment.
Over the Christmas holidays I worked a twelve day stretch right on the heels of a ten day stretch. Nothing is remarkable or strange about this in my line of work. All my colleagues have been doing the same and many of them have feet that look even worse than mine. You will notice the injuries happened during or shortly after this busy Christmas period as that was when my body was under the most strain and yet the thing I needed to do to prevent those injuries should have been done far before I ever got to that point.
My first and most regrettable mistake this season was to not replace my foot powder when I ran out in November. It was one of those things relegated to the bottom of of my shopping list when in fact it should have been at the top. The reason foot powder is so important is that it keeps your feet dry. On very cold days that alone can be enough to prevent frost bite. Even though it sounds pretty docile frost bite is no trivial matter. Once you get it once you are prone to getting it in the same spot again even when it's not as cold as the temperature that caused the original injury. Always apply foot powder before putting on your ski socks in the morning. If you are putting your boots on at the resort make sure you exchange the socks you have been wearing in your shoes en route to fresh dry ski socks. The dryer your feet are, the warmer they will remain.
My second unfortunate mistake was that I waited until after the Christmas holiday period to buy boot gloves. A boot glove is a neoprene slop that goes over the toe box of your ski boot fastening around the heel piece with velcro. They work remarkably well to keep the feet warmer. Instead of boot gloves I was using disposable toe warmers on the top of my toes inside my boots. This was inferior for two reasons. First of all, they held my foot in a slightly different spot than normal causing a pressure point. Secondly, because of the lack of foot powder, the toe warmer made my toes sweat. As these disposable toe warmers are good for only five hours on hours six & seven my sweaty toes were very vulnerable to frost bite.
My third mistake was not addressing the above mentioned pressure point sooner. The minute I noticed my tailors bunion swelling I should have been into the boot fitter to get the plastic shell punched. I only waited two days but that was enough time for the swelling to extend to my pinkie toe and get far worse. Even with the boot punch I was in a lot of pain. I started to rely on Voltaren gel, a topical anti-inflammatory, just to get through the days. That meant my feet were wet so I got frostbite on the bone spur.
In one of my daily morning meditation practices I had a difficult time sitting cross legged as the outer edge of my foot resting against the floor was really uncomfortable. Of course, the point of meditation is to be mindful of what is happening in the present moment. I realized that this was my sign and I needed to heed my bodies message. That is when I bought the boot gloves and stopped using the disposable toe warmers. Now the swelling has gone down but the frostbite damage is looking pretty ugly.
My fourth and by far most catastrophic mistake was attempting to break in new, high performance, race fit ski boots on a cold training morning after there is already damage to my feet. Ideally I would have bought and started breaking in the new boots early season when my feet were fine. That way I could have figured out where the pressure points were and visited the boot fitter to get punches in the appropriate spots.
I was feeling lucky so I went ahead and wore my boots for a full morning of training. The super snappy edge pick up that I was getting was so awesome that I completely didn't realize I had lost the skin off both navicular bones. That was unfortunate. In-spite a very creative combination of corn cushions and gel mole skin the resulting blisters just will not heal. I am in a situation now where I need to be really careful about infection and I need to take time off, so no free skiing for me for a little bit.
The navicular bone is on the inside edge of the foot below and slightly ahead of the ankle bone. Normally it is a small protrusion that acts as to provide leverage for a tendon that wraps around it. In ski boots this bone can rub against the hard plastic shell of the boot. This rubbing is traumatic enough that the body responds by thickening the bone just like it would do for any bone injury. As the navicular bone grows it rubs more and then grows more, you get the picture. The only solution is boot punching early enough in the season to head off the growth.
So I have been absolutely terrible at taking care of the outer edge structures of my feet. I have to give myself credit though for all the good stuff I do daily to protect the inner structures of my feet. I give my feet a daily massage before I put on my boots. This is very good for stretching the connective tissue and muscles surrounding all those little bones. One quarter of all the bones in your body are located in your feet. That is a lot of inter joint cartilage that can become damaged if you do not ensure they all can move easily as they are intended to do.
I practice during all of my standing yoga poses separating the toes. I have become quite good at this over the years. Separating or abducting the big and pinkie toes of your feet strengthens muscles that support healthy toe alignment. Bunions are bone spurs that over time will distort the alignment of the toes detrimentally to balance. I have to be extra conscious of this as I have already started to form bunions, however, I have noticed this simple practice of separating my toes has slowed down their progression.
I roll out the muscles of the metatarsal arch using a lacrosse ball and sometimes a frozen water bottle if they are especially inflamed. Standing with the ball or water bottle under one foot I apply a little pressure as I roll the length of the foot. This is helpful for maintaining the full range of motion of the plantar fascia. This is a very powerful band of connective tissue that runs the length of the base of the foot and wraps around the heel bone connecting to the achilles tendon. If the plantar fascia sustains trauma it is incredibly difficult to heal it as to do so requires immobilizing the foot for weeks. I also stretch and strengthen the muscles of the metatarsal arch during my yoga asana practice.
I am confident that I will learn from my mistakes this season. Admitting them openly in this blog will certainly keep me honest if the pain alone is not enough. I hope you keep your feet healthy this season. You only get two after all.
Next Week: How I Earned The Nickname Crash, a story about alignment or lack thereof.
"When you stand with your two feet on the ground, you will always keep your balance."
We know that sports performance in enhanced when the proprioception system reacts quickly to changes in the body pertaining to balance, speed and position. There are three primary locations in the body that have a high density of proprioceptive nerve endings these are the feet, the spine and the neck.
These nerve endings in the feet are of particular interest as they are responsible for a lot of innate reflexive reactions important for balance while moving in an upright orientation. As skiers we lock our feet into hard plastic shell boots that restrict their natural movement. We let our feet freeze until we can't feel them and they become like two blocks of ice on the ends of our legs. We also don't take enough time to stretch, strengthen and massage the tissues that support the health of our feet. The result is often bone spurs, bunions and fallen arches.
All of these injuries dampen the proprioceptive feedback we get from the feet to help us master stance and balance while skiing. The good news is we can do a great deal with the ski boots and insoles to keep the feet healthy and the body above aligned. As skiers we should take seriously the task of keeping our feet healthy. With healthy feet proprioception improves, balance and reaction time improve and thus on snow performance improves.
You stand on them all the time but you probably don't know a lot about them. The feet are a marvel of biological engineering. They are strong enough to withstand tremendous pressure over the course of a long distance run and at the same time possess the flexibility to adapt to a wide variety of terrain.
One third of the bones in the body are located in the feet and ankles. This means there are a lot of joints and a lot of inter joint cartilage that can become damaged with repetitive force trauma. Joint instability from misalignment will result in forces distributing unevenly causing wear and tear to inter joint cartilage which turns into inflammation, restricted range of motion, bone thickening. This is the path to inter joint degeneration and osteoarthritis.
Generally, healthy feet have strong metatarsal arches and straight toes with a full range of motion. Standing and walking with healthy feet feels like not much of anything where as standing and walking on feet that have misalignments will result in foot pain and not uncommonly pain throughout the body. If the base of support is misaligned then the rest of the body will compensate but this could mean other parts of the body are chronically misaligned and further pain and injury is the likely result.
In most cases however there is a lot that can be done for foot misalignment. Wearing properly fitting ski boots that are not too old and worn out is incredibly important and a topic of such depth that I won't even attempt to get into it in this blog series. Instead I will suggest locating a good boot fitter a having custom footbeds made and engaging in daily stretching and strengthening exercises thought the season will go a long way to correcting misalignment issues.
It is very important if you spend a substantial amount of time in ski boots to invest in a well made foot bed. There is a large range of options out there that vary significantly in price and support. A footbed will ensure the neutral alignment of the ankles and feet while standing in the skis. It is ideal to work with a skilled boot fitter who will take some time to analyze your stance and alignment. If you have significant imbalances in the feet then seeking out a podiatrist who is skilled in preparing orthotics for athletes might be appropriate.
A good custom footbed is moulded to your foot so that you feel contact along the entire length of the base of the foot instead of pressure under only the ball and heel of the foot. With this great contact there is more sensory feedback. It is easier to pressure the inner edge of the ski evenly. If arches are falling extra support will help keep the ankle joint optimally aligned while rolling the skis on edge.
There is a surprising variety of materials and techniques used to create custom footbeds. Each method has it's proponents and it's critics. Ultimately it's important that you work with a boot fitter who isn't only going to give you a footbed that they like to create but one that will actually work for your unique foot needs.
The two main scales are hard posted vs soft posted and weighted vs unweighted. The first scale has to do with the stiffness of the material used. A firmer material or hard posted footbed is an older technology that creates a solid arch support but may reduce the mobility of the ankle joint to invert the foot to tip the skis on edge. The softer material is currently more popular and believed by some to be superior in allowing the natural movement of the foot and ankle to roll onto edge but offers less arch support thus is not terribly beneficial for skiers who have pre-existing foot alignment issues like fallen arches.
The second scale weighted vs unweighted refers to how the footbed is moulded. Weighted refers to either standing on the heated material or sitting but with the boot fitter pushing down on your feet while the moulding is taking place. A weighted foot bed will be in the shape of your foot while you are standing upright normally which makes a lot of intuitive sense, however if you have a problem foot the mould will be of the problem not the needed correction. Unweighted involves sitting with legs supported so the mould is of the foot with it's arch at it's highest point.
I have a developing bunion on my left foot that is compromising the strength of my arch. My footbeds from seven years ago were made hard posted and weighted. I immediately noticed a dramatic difference in the fit of my boot and ability to get the skis on edge. However, I do feel that the left footbed has a lower arch support than the right and this makes a subtle but noticeable difference in the amount of effort I need to expend turning to the right.
My most recent foot beds were soft posted weighted where the boot fitter guided me to align my stance so as to keep the arches of my feet engaged. I find that this foot bed allows for a more natural movement of my foot within the boot however as the boot has broken in and packed out I feel like my foot no longer sits in the right place and the arch support of the softer material does not give me nearly the same amount of sensory feedback as the older firmer footbed.
For my next footbed I am taking the middle path with a semi-stiff material and unweighted moulding for really high arch support. I am hoping this will help support my left arch which is falling and a new intuition liner should help with the packing out problem. I will definitely let you know how it goes.
While it may take a little effort and at least a couple trips to your boot fitter to get the right fit it is absolutely worth it. The best strategy for foot injury is prevention because once it starts it's hard to stop. Once you have taken every step possible to prevent foot injury by optimizing the hardware you are ready to focus on the daily maintenance of your feet. Foot therapeutic practices like daily stretches, strengthening and strategies for dealing with bone spurs. More on this topic next week.
Next Week: Essential Therapy for Skier's Feet
“As it is, we are merely bolting our lives—gulping down undigested experiences as fast as we can stuff them in—because awareness of our own existence is so superficial and so narrow that nothing seems to us more boring than simple being. If I ask you what you did, saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted yesterday, I am likely to get nothing more than the thin, sketchy outline of the few things that you noticed, and of those only what you thought worth remembering. Is it surprising that an existence so experienced seems so empty and bare that its hunger for an infinite future is insatiable? But suppose you could answer, “It would take me forever to tell you, and I am much too interested in what’s happening now.” How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god? And, when you consider that this incalculably subtle organism is inseparable from the still more marvellous patterns of its environment—from the minutest electrical designs to the whole company of the galaxies—how is it conceivable that this incarnation of all eternity can be bored with being?”
~ Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are
I remember very clearly the first time I was introduced to Pigeon Pose. This is a deep hip opening posture performed on the floor with one leg forward externally rotated and knee bent anywhere between ten and ninety degrees. The opposite leg is extended straight back from the pelvis. In the full version of the pose the back knee is bent to allow the foot to rest in the elbow of the corresponding arm or touch the head while held by both hands.
Not only do the hip flexors of the back leg get an intense stretch but the external rotators of the front leg, most notably the piriformis muscle, are lengthening in a way is not commonly experienced during daily, what we call in the dance world, pedestrian movement.
I was a nineteen year old dancer at the time with the requisite crazy flexibility. However, this did not prevent Pigeon Pose from bringing me near the point of tears when I first tried it. It was like a lightening bolt inside the hip! Looking back it was not so much that the stretch in the deep hip muscles was so intense it was the fact that we stayed in the pose long enough to pay a great deal of attention to it.
As a dancer I most definitely had manipulated my body into positions that called on the lengthening of those same muscles but it wasn't part of my training yet to pay conscious attention to how that felt. I had been dancing from age five to nineteen with all my emphasis on the mechanics of performing the movement without taking time to feel the movement, to breath into it and let it unfold organically.
I became a real dancer the day I learned to train kinesthetically and yoga was a key part to this transition. To train kinesthetically one needs to understand two things, the desired outcome of a movement and how to feel the sensations that correspond with that movement. It won't happen immediately, but if you practice training kinesthetically in a dedicated fashion for a while, you will evolve from a robot simply copying movement in a mechanical fashion to an artist performing movement with grace and elegance. This is when your personal style will emerge and your own movement vocabulary will develop.
Where people get hopelessly stuck is in learning to recognize the difference between a picture and outcome. An example of picture is watching your yoga teacher execute a seemingly effortless Eka Pada Galavasana (Flying Pigeon Pose) and trying to copy by configuring your body into the shape of the pose. Emboldened by how effortless your teacher made the pose look you place your shin on the backs of your arms and simply cantilevering the entirety of your lower body weight forward. The pain of your shin bone digging into the back of your arms causes you to fall in a heap on the floor. You can't fathom how your teacher is managing to withstand all this pain. This is because you do not understand what is going on inside your teachers body to achieve the outcome of the posture.
The outcome is a feeling of lightness as the lower body ascends into the air gently balancing on the backs of the arms as if the legs and pelvis are filled with helium. The outcome is achieved by engaging deep core muscles and hugging to the midline. These terms, engaging core & hugging to midline are descriptors of actions that the teacher is employing that are completely invisible to you the outside observer.
Engaging the core is making sufficiently tense the core, back, gluteus & leg muscles so the lower body becomes rigid in Pigeon Pose. This has the effect of consolidating the weight of the lower body into a central axis point that can be balanced on top of a support structure. Hugging to midline is a series of actions that create sufficient tension the back, shoulder, chest and arm muscles to make a solid support structure for the axis point of the lower body to balance upon.
I could write paragraph after paragraph about externally rotating the upper arm bones and squeezing the shoulders together etcetera and it would not give you the slightest clue how to perform Eka Pada Galavasana. You would need to train with me for a period of time where you would learn each action, reflect on the sensation of that action and it's contribution towards the outcome of various poses progressing from simple to complex.
By this process, one day, you will inevitably find yourself in Eka Pada Galavasana but that won't be terribly special to you. The remarkable accomplishment will be the superhuman feeling of lightness that no one can witness but you. You will probably start laughing with a mixture of shock and delight when it happens just like children do when they first experience the revolutionary milestone of taking their first steps.
This is what is called in Buddhism beginners mind. By abandoning pre conceptions and surrendering to the process without expectation the outcome arrives somewhat spontaneously. There is no magic, just the process. All the same the results seem to arise magically. You can't do it, you can't do it, you can't do it and suddenly, you can!
Next Week: Skier's Feet: The Critical Weak Point