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 Conventional Skiing Wisdoms (CSW's) 

by Bill Jones, Ski Instructor
Certified Professional Ski Instructor (Registration #110478), Level III
private ski lessons at Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail, Beaver Creek, other areas

 CSW # 28: "Buckle your boots tightly to make your boots stiff"

How often have skiers been heard to say--or be told that--they must buckle their boots tightly! But why should they do so? We also have heard repeatedly that our boots are our most important piece of ski gear. Why is this so? And what anatomical and physical factors might help answer this question?

Ski boots should be stiff laterally so side to side tipping of the boot transmits itself directly to the ski and tilts the ski firmly to engage the ski's edges in the snow at the desired angle and pressure. But the boots should allow some flexing forward and most--but not all--are designed to do this. Such forward flexing allows the skier to absorb and extend the legs when passing over terrain highs and lows thus reducing jolts to the body. Forward flexing also aids in adjusting the angle the skis can be tilted, for a flexed knee allows the leg to be moved to the side with an angle between the upper and lower legs at the knee. If the boots do not flex forward, the skier must bend another joint--either the knee or hip or both--to absorb terrain shocks, and bending these joints often leads to changes in weight distribution on the foot, usually toward the heel. If the ankle can be bent inside the boot because the boot allows forward flex then the lower leg can come forward, and with the knee and waist brent in response, the skier is more likely to keep weight centered on the whole foot (see CSW #31: "Put (or keep) the weight on the balls of the feet" for why keeping weight on the whole foot is important).

Boot manufacturers now may rate their boots with numbers like 90, 100, 110, 120, 130, etc., with the higher numbers indicating flexes that are stiffer. The numbers used, however, are not standardized among manufacturers, only within a particular boot model line. Skiers who ski fast may consider higher numbers. Forces that recreational skiers typically develop are less so a lower-number flex will still produce the same bending of their boots as would a skier skiing faster and/or on a steeper hill in higher-numbered stiffer-flexed boots.

Boots should be buckled firmly enough that they give the desired support laterally but still allow the desired flex forward. But a skier going at a slower speed on gentler terrain will not create forces that bend the boots excessively and so that skier does not need to buckle as tightly as a skier on a steep hill or going at high speed or on an icy slope and/or in a race course. In fact, if the slower skier buckles boots too tightly, the forward bending of the boot may be inhibited and the desired flexing may not be possible if the ankle joint is thus locked in place and cannot be bent.

A tightly buckled boot may also inhibit use of the foot inside the boot, even cramping it, which can reduce the skier's capability to articulate and rotate the foot, an important factor in managing the ski's orientation.  Perhaps this is like clipping some of the wing feathers of a bird so the bird cannot caress the air as it fine-tunes its flight trajectory. Or like immobilizing the ailerons of an airplane's wings.

Nowadays boots are mainly made of plastics. Most of us know not to leave our boots in the cold and then try to put them on, for the plastic is less flexible when cold. Thus on a colder day, it may not be necessary to buckle as tightly. On a warmer day or after coming out to ski after an indoor session, however, the plastic may be warmer and may have even expanded to make the boot bigger and so may need to be buckled another notch or so. Thus always using the same notch in the buckle could lead to either too tight or too loose boots.

If renting boots, stand in them when buckled and bend your ankle joint so your lower leg tilts a bit forward and you feel like you can lower yourself at least a few inches while feeling your weight stay evenly distributed along the length of your foot. If you can't do this, try another pair or another rental shop. If you own your boots and cannot flex them forward, try loosening the buckles a bit, especially the upper ones, and see if you get the flexing you want.

Be aware that if boots do not allow the ankle to bend and cause the boot to flex forward some, it will be difficult to bend the legs at the knees without shifting weight to the rear. And if one does not bend the legs at the knees, one cannot effectively create an angle to the side at the knee and thus cannot tilt the skis as much to create desired edge engagement. Neither can one rotate the foot so the toe and the heel move equally in opposite directions and instead the toe rotates around the heel as the pivot point.

Here is another reason to have boots that can flex forward: Test your leg strength with your knee almost straight and then again with it bent some at the knee. Sit in a chair with your leg out and have another person hold your foot for this as firmly as possible as though to stop any rotation you apply. Attempt to rotate your leg straight and then bent. Likely the holder person will easily hold your foot steady when your leg is in the straight position but will be a bit stressed to do so when your leg is bent. Your leg muscles apparently have a leverage advantage in the bent position and thus can steer and/or hold your skis with greater strength and precision. The amount of strength you achieve with this will vary in different amounts of bending at the knee. Too great a bend and you will begin to lose strength. (If this is so, what advantage if any do some telemark skiers get when they bend deeply at the knee?)

Be advised that not all good skiers agree with the thoughts above. Some prefer boots that do not bend forward much or at all and they have adjusted their skiing style to accommodate their preference. Thus, as in so many questions of skiing wisdom, you must decide for yourself what you prefer. However, read , “The Master Boot Laster” by Jackson Hogen in Skiing History for May-June 2014.  The master laster is Sven Coomer, whose profession has been designing ski boots.  For reference the article is here: https://skiinghistory.org/news/master-boot-laster. The pertinent quote I want to share is on page 26: 

…The Redster race boot concentrates on stabilizing the rear foot with an ultra-solid spoiler so the skier’s forefoot is allowed to flex and move naturally within the confines of the shell. This liberation of the previously stunted, frozen and crushed forefoot is what allows for the subtle edging and foot steering that initiates the slalom turns of World Cup champions Marcel Hirscher and Mikaela Shiffrin. Coomer suspects that if racers would only fit their boots more accurately, coupled with a dynamic molding inner boot medium between the foot and shell, and without down-sizing into short, narrow, thick-sidewall shells, their results just might improve...But then, Coomer, the Cassandra of the ski boot world for the last forty-five years, knows all too well that just because you can prove you’re right, doesn’t mean your advice will be heeded. 


main CSW contents
prior CSW #27: I use the snowplow and/or a stem for control.
next CSW  #29: "Skiing slowly is safer"

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