Ski Biomechanics & Range Tests

Ski technique is a very popular subject in the world of skiing.  For many years technique has been put across to skiers getting usually moderate to great results.  With all tuition it’s limited to what people’s bodies can physically do.  Nearly all skiers have a weaker turn.  This is due to physical and mental limitations on one side of the body.  Because of this one side of the body usually absorbs the learning better and as a result a weaker turning direction is left.

This doesn’t show itself generally if you’re inside your comfort zone, but as soon as you ski faster, steeper and away from the piste the weaker turn becomes more apparent and will consistently let your technique down.  When flat light sets in, slopes become icy and you’re feeling fatigued you’ll also feel your weaker turn more.  When skiing on very steep or exposed faces, your weaker turn can actually put you in vulnerable situation as on these slopes you are truly only as good as your weaker turn!

Most skiers are always trying to improve their performance, speed, style and general grasp of the sport from your beginner right through to a competitor.  Quite a lot of the time improvement is slowed down by the weaker or restricted direction.  The job of a ski instructor would be a whole lot easier if he had a complete understanding of ski biomechanics and physiology.  The plateau’s that are often talked about in skiing (normally intermediate plateau) usually boil down to handful of issues that are more times than not fixed by a combination of ski coaching, ski biomechanics and ski physiology exercises.

One other issue that ski biomechanics awareness can benefit is ski safety and injury prevention.  If you make turns that are symmetrical and generally equal, you’ll become a more consistent skier.  This makes you a safer skier in all environments from the piste to big mountain.  Also, if you’re skiing with better symmetry and actually know which muscles to drive the mechanical movements with, you’ll reduce the risk of injury and damage to your skeleton and joints.

Overall, the true fact of the matter is that ski instruction is not as effective without the added factors of ski biomechanics and ski physiology.  It is our hope that more and more ski instructors across the globe will gain further education in these areas and better themselves so as to give out a much better product to the clients or athletes they work with.


TYPICAL ISSUES IMPROVED WITH BIOMECHANICAL + PHYSIOLOGICAL AWARENESS

1.  CORRECT SKI LEG FLEX PATTERN (Unlocking the Ankles)
Most skiers flex their knees more than their ankles.  This unfortunately causes body weight to rest consistently over the middle and back of the skis.  Also fatigues the thighs and puts strain on the knee joint.  Reasons for this are:

a. Ski Boots perhaps too stiff 
b. Calf muscles perhaps too tight
c. Over use of knee flex and knee flex as a habit (due to both of the above)

Solution is 
a. Ski Boot flex check
Many skiers ski for years in ski boots that they don’t have the ability to actually flex.  It’s important to check your boots and make sure you can flex them.  The way to do it is stand up straight in them then try to make a forwards flex movement by pushing the shin against the tongue of the boot. You will feel a little resistance from the boot but it should be a resistance you can cope with and be able to dominate.

If you don’t manage to flex your ski boots very well, or not at all, your ski boots maybe too stiff for your body weight or skiing ability.  At this point it is worth getting a ski professional or expert fitter in a shop to check them out.  If you find that your boots do have the correct resistance for your body weight and skiing ability then it could be an issue with range of movement in your ankle joint.  You can easily test this range with the Ankle Flex Drop Test.

b. Ankle flex drop test
To find out if you have a lack of range of movement in your ankles, stand against a wall with your heels, backside and shoulders against it.  By focusing on flexing your ankles, see how far you can drop down.  You need to keep your heels on the ground and back against the wall.  Your limit will be when your heel or heels lift off the ground.  When measuring people, drop tests generally range between 6cm drop (poor range of flex) to 30cm drop (good flex).  Anything less than 20cm drop you should develop your calf muscle stretches.

You can easily help to stretch your calves by using a wall and standing with one foot in front of the other.  Flex the leg in front keeping the back leg straight and you will feel the calf muscle of the straight leg stretch.  Stretching is best done after exercise.

In the process of working through your drop test, you may find that one heel lifts off the ground before the other.  This is common when testing your ankle flex abilities.  Most people have muscle imbalances that affect their skiing.  Many people have a tighter calf and tighter hamstring on one side that will affect their skiing.  If you find this on the ankle flex drop test, try to give the tighter calf an extra repetition of stretching each time you do it.

c. Ankle flex exercises on skis  
A way to improve your ability to mechanically get the ankle joint firing better is to flex your ski boots in the Ankle Flex Development Test.  The test is to hop 180 degrees across from one direction across the fall line to the other.  Most people when trying this for the first time end up over flexing the knee joint and do very little ankle joint flexing.  You need to really concentrate to dominate with ankle flex to stay in balance.  When the knee joint flexes without the ankle flex the body weight goes back on the skis and the skis jet away from you.  A common thing for many skiers on steeps, moguls and higher speed turns.  By repeatedly working this exercise you will develop your ability to flex correctly from the ankle, knee and hips, not just the knees as it is with most recreational skiers and first level ski instructors.  Once you are dominating your ski boots you can get on with your ski technique development, but remember, if you build your technique on a foundation that is imbalanced or lacking in mechanical movements, the future of your skiing will become vulnerable the more you test yourself against challenging terrains and speeds.

Result of all the above is mechanical ankle flex improvement and equal flex between the ankles and knees creating better balance and an ability to use muscles to steer instead of using them to simply support your out of balance body weight.

2.  SKIER SYMMETRY 
Most skiers ride from turn to turn with an a-frame shape in the legs. This is when the feet are wider apart than the knees.  This can happen by either the knees dropping in or the feet splitting out or both.  This makes the shape in the legs non symmetrical and the skis usually at different angles between the turns.  This can cause inconsistency between turns due to the skis being tilted at different angles.  This a-frame angle in the legs will put stress on the knee joints and tension in the muscles throughout the body.  An a-frame is one of the biggest factor behind skiers having problems in powder and variable terrains.  A-Frame’s are usually more predominant on one direction.  The reasons A-frame’s are so common are:

a. Ski Boot set up (foot beds and canting)
b. No awareness of lateral control muscles
c. Ski technique issues such as pressure, edge and steering control
d. Pelvic instability or position

Solution is
a. Professional ski boot fitting with boot/leg alignment check
b. Lateral control exercise on dry land environment 
To improve your lateral control you need to activate your inner thigh (adductor
muscle group).  It’s a muscle group that doesn’t get used heavily in sport and
everyday life so a specific training routine is need to first raise awareness to the muscles and then develop your strength and skill at using them.

The lateral control exercise will easily raise your awareness and develop strength and you can do it in the comfort of your own home or in an area with a polished surface.  Use a t-shirt or cloth and lay it on the floor beneath you.  Then with a foot either side, pull your feet towards each other.  The goal is to pull your feet towards each other without your knees dropping at the slowest possible speed. If done properly you should be recruiting the gluteus maximus to assist with the strengthening of your adducturs. You should be able to feel your gluteus maximus firing, by gently prodding into the tissue of your behind.

Try to pull in about 10 times in a set and repeat that about 4 times. If you trained
with this exercise 3 to 4 times a week you would certainly switch on control laterally in your stance when skiing and help avoid the legs dropping in at the knees or splitting away at the feet into the dreaded A-Frame.  You would end up skiing with a P-Frame (power frame) and conquering all the terrains you dreamed about skiing with performance and control in your legs.

c. Professional ski coaching from a teacher with good understanding of technique and the English language The result is a mechanically sound power frame stance rather than an a-frame stance.  Steering from turn to turn will feel smoother and take a lot less energy for a higher level of performance.  This power frame stance will reduce the risk of knee injury and also leave you feeling less fatigued.

d. Refer to a Sports Therapist or Myofascial Release practitioner for pelvis balance work. Normally within 1-3 sessions your practitioner should be able to achieve the balance.


3
.  INCREASE LEG STEERING RANGE – DECREASING UPPER BODY ROTATION 
Most skiers get told one time or another by a coach that there is too much upper body or hip rotation in their skiing.  This usually gives the skier a weaker edge support in the turn and poor body positioning over the skis.  The Result – A vulnerable and weaker set up for overall dynamic balance.  Upper body or hip rotation is usually more apparent in one direction.  Steering needs to come mainly from the legs with the ball of the thigh bone rotating inside the socket joint of the hips.  This allows the hips to remain generally facing in the direction of the fall line.

In most cases skiers can step their feet around approximately 50 or 60 degrees across either side from the fall line.  This means that when they steer from turn to turn and the steering of the skis is greater than say 50 or 60 degrees, the upper body will start to rotate as the skis try to achieve 75 degrees and 80 degrees of angle across the fall line (this is typically what’s needed of steeper slopes). The reasons for a poor leg steering range are:

a.  General tightness in the hips 
b.  Lack of range in exterior and interior leg rotation
c.  Many years skiing without finishing off of the turn shape

Solution is
a.  Therapist and Yoga.
Check in with a sports therapist or myofascial release practitioner to work to achieve balance and help you gain a better range of flexibility in the hips. Attend a yoga workout class, buy a yoga DVD even.

b.  Static leg rotation dry land exercise
This exercise below helps improve your awareness of your leg steering range and capability.  Once you can measure you range off of snow you’ll know what you’re capable of on snow.  You’ll also be able to identify the turn direction that has a lack of range of steering. No matter what type of turn your making, you nearly always want the steering to come mainly from the legs. If you’re getting it right, the ball of the thigh bone rotates inside the socket joint of the hips. From this correct way of steering you’ll a get stronger edge hold in the turn. Try to make your turn shape like semi circles meeting semi circles, S shaped turns as opposed to Z shaped turns.

In the Static Leg Rotation exercise test the range at which you can steer your legs without rotating your hips. To do this simply stand with your hands on your hips bones. Use your hands to stabilise your hips and start to step your feet around. Keep stepping until the point where you feel you can’t step anymore without your hips moving around. This is your limit. When you get to your limit try to measure the degrees of steering range across the fall line from zero to 90 degrees. In an ideal world for skiing you would want to be able to step around 90 degrees in each direction.  This would mean that you can steer in each turning direction without any tension in the hips stopping the upper body from rotating.  The average in most skiers is to step around to approximately 50 or 60 degrees. It’s common that most people have one side they can step around more than the other and this is usually a starting point at identifying the weaker turning direction even before a skier puts their skis on and is usually an indication of either past injury or misalignment in the pelvis. Make a note of your stepping around range and try to better it over several weeks of monitoring.

c. Try to finish your turns off and make the turn shape like semi circles meeting semi circles, S-Shape turnsThe result is an increase in the range of leg steering allowing the skier to steer to greater angles without the upper body rotating, leaving the skier with a stronger edge hold and greater leg steering strength at the extremities of each turning direction.

4.  POWER STEERING THE SKIS (foot + thigh steering, not just foot)
Most skiers have a good knowledge of steering the feet which usually gives an adequate result of steering the skis in each direction. However, not all skiers get educated on steering the thighs.  If thigh steering is added to foot steering, the overall process of the steering action is much stronger.  If muscles are more responsible for the steering action in the legs, it takes the torque out of the knee joint during the steering process by engaging all the major thigh muscle groups, the core and gluteals..

Also, if skiers are wishing to ski at higher speeds, ride on steeper slopes and freeride on big mountain terrain it’s essential that the power steering of the upper legs is switched on. The main reasons skiers don’t use upper leg steering are:

a. Foot steering usually being the only description of steering mentioned in a skiers first few weeks 
b. Lack of power and endurance in the upper leg steering muscles and misfiring of glutes and or core

Solution is 
a. Early education of power steering in ski instruction and coaching 
b. Thigh steering dry land exercises
To make the thigh steering movement, lift one leg and move the knee across your body.  Keeping the hips and upper body facing forwards, rotate and steer your thigh across to the opposite side.  This makes the ball rotate inside the socket joint of the hips.  To get the exercise correct make sure that your foot doesn’t swing out.  Keep your foot tucked in near to your knee with the thigh crossing over your foot.  With repetition you’ll feel the burn kicking in those specific muscle groups.  Just before skiing it’s sometimes a good idea to use this exercise and get the burn so you know what muscles you should be using as your making your turns.

There are not so many sports like skiing were the rotational action in the legs is performed so many people feel weak when trying this for the first time.  It is normal to get fatigue kicking in at around 25 rotations at first.  After 3 weeks you can find yourself reaching over 50 rotations without fatigue.  After a couple of months you would be able to get to over 100 rotations before fatigue set in.

c. Low speed turns on piste
Simply skiing on piste at a low speed so as to encourage muscles to switch on.

After all these 3 points have been worked on the result is a much stronger steering action that won’t lack power when speeds increase or terrains get tougher. Also, the risk of injury is greatly reduced because the muscles are much more in control of the mechanics of steering the skeleton.


5.  LATERAL ANGULATION
 (differences between leaning / falling left and right)
If you watch video footage of most skiers in slow motion over 25 frames per second, you will nearly always see a difference between the angles skiers fall into with each turn direction.  Lean or Falling from the hips into each turn direction can be a technically demanding exercise.  Most skiers either lack confidence or lack range of movement falling towards the left or the right.

Usually we all favor either our left or right side of the body in many things in life.  Because of this when learning to lean the legs or fall with the hips in each direction, we will naturally fall to one direction and have a restriction to the other.  On the direction with the mental restriction you will normally see skiers leaning their head and shoulders across and not really moving the hip too much.  There is also a physical issue that can affect the falling in each direction which is being tighter in the muscle groups down one side of the body in the legs, hips and lower back.  Tightness in one side can restrict the range and speed someone can fall and lean their legs. The main issues are:

a. Left and Right sides of the brain can make use favor falling / leaning the legs in one direction more than the other and actually make us lack confidence in one direction
b. Tight muscles around the pelvis can create imbalance on one side of the body and can make us lack range of movement and speed of movement for falling / leaning

Solution is 
a. Lateral Range Test
Best thing to do first is a lateral range test on each side of the body to see which side is tighter or lacks range.  Do this by putting one foot across your body and use it to support your body weight.  Then slowly let your legs lean and hip drop across towards the wall your hand is leaning against.  As you lean you will normally find one side slightly tighter than the other.  This is usually the side than needs extra work to help balance out your ski turns.


b. Dry land Falling / Leg Leaning training, literally practising falling with the hip against a wall on the weaker side
Put a pillow down the side of your trousers or fall against something soft.  Try to build up repetition over time.  Put in an extra set each time for the side that is tighter or less skilful.

c. Stretching out the muscles on the tighter side of the body to make falling easier
You can do this by following the same process as the range test but make it more of a stretch for the muscles concerned.  Do this after exercise.  2 set of 20 seconds on each side with an extra set for the tighter side

d. Hip and rib connection exercises on snow during your ski turning to help educate the skeleton and get it into the correct angles
If you connect the top of your hip with the bottom of your ribcage it will automatically pull the body into a good angle for leaning the legs and keeping the upper body upright.  The hip and rib exercise avoids the upper body and shoulders leaning into to the turn.

The result is a much more equal falling / leg leaning action that will give you more consistent dynamics and turn shapes allowing you to increase speeds and ski steeper slopes with more variable conditions. Also, the risk of injury is greatly reduced because the angles you naturally falling into are biomechanically sound allowing the skeleton and muscles to work in relation with each other.

6.   MIDDLE BODY CORE STRENGTH (activating core on the move)
So many skiers spend most, if not all, of their time skiing from turn to turn with very little or no middle body strength.  If you ski with not much middle body and core strength you run the risk of allowing your hips (centre of your mass) to drop back during your turns.  This puts you out of balance and leaves your body weight on the tails of your skis.  Also when you’re skiing moguls and variable terrain you’ll often find that you’re constantly skiing into lumps of snow that cause there to be a sudden impact on the body.  If your middle body is weak with no core activation, you’ll find your upper body collapsing forwards as your body breaks at the waist.

To ski with middle body strength you need to learn how to activate you core and develop overall middle body strength and endurance and balance.  This can be done by focusing on strength building exercises for your lower back and stomach muscles and your transverse abdominal (core) group of muscles.  Once you can become aware of how these muscles work you can then start to try skiing with them activated full time during your turns.  This is not as easy as it sounds and work off of snow is required to achieve full time core activation. The main issues are:

a. Most skiers ski without middle body strength and full time core activation making themselves vulnerable when performance levels are pushed or the conditions get more difficult 
b. Skiers can suffer from lower back compression injuries when skiing without a strong middle body

Solution is 
a. Dry land training to develop core strength and endurance.  This can be done by following some simple exercises given to you by professional fitness instructors
b. Using a pre ski Core activation exercise to wake up the middle body and rehearse the position to hold it in when skiing.  The following explains a pre-ski core activation routine:
1. Lie on your back with your feet pulled towards your hips so that your knees are in the air.  In this position use your hands to feel the gap in the small of your back.  It’s a bit like an arch.

2. Using your middle body muscles, slowly activate the core and get rid of the gap in the small of the back between your lumber and the ground. Try to avoid pushing off your feet to help.  It’s a progressive control that’s a bit like pulling your belly button way from your trousers.

3. Now you’ve gone from one position to the other, find the middle ground position between the two and hold this with the middle body muscles.  With the position held slowly pull the foot of one leg towards the hips and then away from the hips repeatedly 5 times on each side.  Repeat this 3 times.

4. If you regularly train your core, try lifting the leg off the ground with the position held and slowly lower the leg over 10 seconds.  Repeat this 3 times on each leg.
This is a great way to train and rehearse activating the muscles that hold your middle body in the correct position for skiing.

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