Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Saturday, November 17, 2012
Paul had already heard the basic theory behind my ski teaching and had seen the Skitools CD Rom twelve years ago, but we had never had the opportunity to work on any of it on the mountain. The main aim of the session was to make sure that Paul was on the right track and working on the right stuff now that he is living in Chamonix. Normally only successful racers and fully certified ski teachers (International) ever really get their skiing to a solid level. My work is a game changer in that respect giving any adult the chance to get on a level playing field with the best without a disproportionate investment in time or energy.
Prior to starting any work it was important to film Paul and to observe for a while. The weather and snow were excellent at 3500m in Tignes and the slopes were quiet. Paul first of all skied with medium radius turns as relaxed as possible while I filmed. The initial impression is of a neat and competent skier who has worked on his skills and managed to avoid developing any unusual habits. This is a good starting point. Paul then demonstrated his short radius turns but ended up too much on his edges so those were repeated on flatter skis. The fourth video scene is of “carving” which was the only area where there was a clear misconception.
Before getting to work I decided to take Paul indoors and look at the video. Doing this allows me to see things more clearly because I can focus on the skiing instead of the filming and also pause or run passages in slow motion. It also allows Paul to see himself and to ensure we are both clear on the important issues. Paul was aware himself that he had not skied quite his best and that he was too edgy on the first set of short turns, which demonstrates a relatively high level of physical awareness. He was also aware that he was popping up a bit too much at the start of his turns, something he had worked to reduce the previous year. My objective was to replace his whole fundamental outlook of skiing so although I started by outlining the faults and weaknesses this was only to highlight issues that cannot be changed directly within his current system and understanding of skiing. The following symptoms are visible and recognisable to even the untrained eye. The components that are missing and required to correct those issues are not listed here and would not be visible to the untrained eye. Suffice to say that you cannot simply “eliminate” the listed problems directly – although most instruction actually attempts to do just that.
- Timing was back to front – up/down
- Skis were pushed out to the side
- Pressure would come on the ski late in the turn
- Pole plant timing was inappropriate – including excessive arm motion
- Body rotation when turning right
- Hip rotation when turning left
- Poor edge control in short turns
- No edge awareness for carving
- Blocked hip joints / forced angulation
- No use of core muscles
- No use of adductor muscles
In addition to the above list Paul had basically only one limited movement pattern for every eventuality. The good news was that Paul turns out to have good physical awareness and ability to understand, to adapt and to feel things. The above issues all stemmed from previous teaching and in Paul’s case they were not set in stone.
We began making changes by working on dynamics. For this I used the “shoulder” exercise where by standing uphill of Paul he could lean his shoulder against mine and push. This pushing gives a force against his shoulder and a reaction force at his lower foot. Initially Paul mixed this up slightly and tried to stand on his uphill leg when pushing – but eventually he corrected this and realised he could push harder with the leg farthest from the shoulder he was pushing with. Creating a gap between our bodies I had Paul close the gap slowly to feel that all the weight would have to go onto the uphill ski until he had pressure on my shoulder. Then Paul tried closing the gap with an acceleration and could feel the instant pressure on the lower leg instead. A slow or hesitant movement of the body creates exactly the opposite effect from a rapid acceleration. It’s essential to be aware of the difference. The message is that it’s the active acceleration of the centre of mass that counts here. We tried the same process with me on the downhill side. I explained that the force against the shoulder would eventually be replaced by the acceleration of the mass of the body - acceleration of mass and force being quantitatively interchangeable in physics. With some speed and the then the acceleration of the skier’s body – laterally to the direction of travel of the skis - the skis immediately create a sustained angular acceleration that replaces the force against the shoulder for the duration of the turn. The more the skier tries to fall over the greater this reactive force under the ski and the greater the angular acceleration – and the harder it becomes to fall further. Dynamic Range – the distance you can fall over – becomes the skier’s limit – not the ability to stay upright in balance. No matter how hard you try to fall over in this way you will not even get close because the ski becomes exponentially more powerful and eventually wins. Skier “level” should really be based on the extent of the skier’s current Dynamic Range.
Paul took this on board immediately. He commented that it felt like less effort and that it was exhilarating to throw yourself over but not fall. He was instructed to follow the skis and try not to anticipate or angulate – but just to topple and incline into the turns letting with the body facing forwards all the time. He was also instructed to avoid using poles. This use of the body simplifies the motion and helps it to resemble a bicycle in action. The feedback from Paul was useful because this is the common reaction from people who make this change for the first time. It also confirms that he was not attempting to do this before regardless of what he had heard from me – and that direct “on snow” work is critical for success.
The dynamics are based on a fundamental timing. Like a pendulum the body falls down into a turn and then gets lifted back up out of the turn to finish. Skis are built to function with this timing. The advantage of minimising the other motions of the body and facing forwards is that it allows the body to be receptive and to feel the pressure cycle created by this pendulum action – and to concentrate on just being active with the centre of mass. Once that was in place with Paul we went straight to skating. I used the direct method of skating down a gentle gradient and then gradually falling more into the centre and letting the ski respond by making arcs – changing the skating seamlessly into skiing. Paul caught on very quickly and we didn’t need to do any of the usual skating exercises to build up to turns on the main slope – he could do it immediately. The timing of a skate with the leg matches the up/down timing of the pendulum effect of dynamics and so creates a strong resonance. Some people can easily tune into this resonance – some can’t. Usually women identify it more easily than men who are used to using brute force, but Paul got it very clearly and strongly from the start. The first scene in the following video clip shows the correct timing with skating and dynamics. This stops the skis from being pushed out to the side because the centre of mass is being displaced instead of the feet (they are mutually exclusive). There is early pressure and grip from the stat of each turn. Angulation is natural and coming from the freedom of motion of the legs in the skating action/timing. Within a very short time almost half of the problems listed above had been eliminated – without trying to stop any of them from happening. Those “problems” are symptoms of flawed basic principles – not as sign of incompetence. They can be made to directly disappear over time but they simply become irrelevant and vanish instead if the basics are correct.
Before finishing up with the skating we took some time out to watch some of the racers training on the glacier. There was a small group of strong skiers practising technique out of the gates with no poles. One of the guys had a very clear skate at the start to accelerate and very smooth progression into full turns with no loss of rhythm or range of motion in the legs. He was beautiful to watch – smooth, powerful, functional, active and dynamic with his centre of mass. None of the others either had the skating action or the dynamics of the centre of mass. They would react to pressure rather than generate it. Paul could see this very clearly. When somebody gets it right it is very distinct. Very, very few people even recognise this because if you don’t fully understand it then you can’t even see it. The chances are that Paul will wait years before seeing another skier like this at Chamonix. The image that he saw in Tignes will last forever though.
I think Paul would have been happy to just take this away with him for the day – but it wasn’t enough to give a complete framework for him to build upon during the season ahead. We still had to look at short turns and carving at least. The issue with short turns is that for control on steeps they should be done by using the uphill edge of the ski for the first half of the turn - as a brake – controlling the entry into the turn and then also after the rapid edge change in the fall-line to control the speed of the end of the turn. Short turns can also be done in a racing manner on the inside edge – but not on steep terrain and not with real control over speed – plus that also demands excellent control over dynamics and skating timing. For Paul the most important issue is the awareness of alternative use of the ski edges (uphill edges) and being safe and controlled in steep terrain.
We started by sideslippiing into the the turns. Effectively the turns resemble linked sideslips where the skis are always on their uphill edges except for a brief moment when they point directly downhill. I wanted Paul to stand up on his uphill ski and sideslip downhill on the uphill edge. This is a bit tricky if you are not used to it but doesn’t take long to pick up.
With both his skis on the ground I asked him to raise the tip of the uphill ski off the ground and placed my ski pole into the snow at the inside edge of the ski – asking him to pull against the pole with the tip – in an “inwards” pull. Paul’s heel and ski tail swung outwards as he pushed against the tip which showed that he was twisting or torqueing his leg – forcing the ski outwards and onto the outside edge of his foot inside the ski boot. To overcome this he had to isolate his adductor muscle on the inside of the leg and just pull inwards – the resistance of the tip blocking movement there and the heel and tail then moving inwards instead. The key was now to apply this same muscular action to the ski while standing and sideslipping on it. This swings the ski downhill with no resistance and keeps it beneath the skier – preventing it from changing edge until in the fall line. The pulling inwards must continue through the second half of the turn also.
To facilitate the use of the adductors the foot must be allowed to roll onto its inside edge inside the ski boot. Now the ski is on its uphill edge and the foot is on it’s downhill edge – something which most skiers don’t really expect. The lateral stiffness of the boot is what permits this. The skier remains on the inside edge of the foot throughout the turn.
The body must be projected slightly forwards at the start of the turn so that it goes towards perpendicular with the mountain or the skier is left vertical and standing of the tail of the ski in the back of the boots. (Paul understood that correction straight away)
Pole use: The pole is actively used in this instance and the pivot is greatly assisted if the pole is strongly weighted. The pole permits the centre of mass to get downhill without a big acceleration or use of dynamics and so the skis follow the centre of mass into and through the turn. It’s like instead of a “shoulder” to lean against or an angular acceleration to rely upon there is now a pole instead.
We then worked on pivoting into the turn on the uphill edge of the lower ski (the “wrong” ski”). Oddly enough it’s still necessary to hold the foot on its inside edge inside the boot and to hold the ski on its uphill edge. The pole is now critical and gives the confidence to get the body far enough downhill for the ski to pivot through the turn. Most people fail this exercise due to fear of commitment of moving the body downhill over the lower ski onto the pole. The ski tip now gets swung downhill and into the turn by using the abductor muscles on the outside of the leg. Coordination is slightly tricky because the adductors are also active aiding the foot stay on its inside edge. Needless to say this takes some practice. I demonstrated then to Paul how this leads to a very controlled way of skiing on one single ski.
When we filmed Paul putting this into practice in the first scene of the video clip he managed to combine skating timing, dynamics (more subtle in a pivot) and pivoting – but was too rapidly on the inside edge to really control the turns. On the second attempt where I film from behind he managed to correct the edge control but then lost the timing and dynamics – but this is still impressive progress at this stage.
Posture: We did a little bit of work on upper/lower body separation. I explained that the outside hip needed to be pulled back into an anticipated position – but not the shoulder. With Paul standing with his right leg downhill his caused his spine to twist anti-clockwise and his core muscles to engage. If he tried the standard “winding up” with the shoulders facing outwards/downhill then his spine would twist clockwise and his core would disengage leaving his lower back vulnerable. We didn’t dwell on this but I just wanted the idea to take root because it is eventually of critical importance for short turns which require upper lower body separation – but are guaranteed to destroy your back when done the way they are normally taught (and with the wrong timing!)
Two Feet: The mystery of “two feet” or “one foot” and “narrow” or “wide” stance is starting to be resolved here. Basically, when pivoting either ski can be used or both skis can be used , creating a wider platform. This can work incredibly well in soft snow. It is the principle way to ski bumps too. Dynamics must be used – despite the strong illusion that the body is not moving. Keeping the feet close together allows the skis to remain on the uphill edges as long as possible. It also allows the skis to be constantly kept below the body on the mountain – which increases security on steep terrain. When racing and using the downhill edges to initiate a turn a wide stance gives rapid access to the downhill edge of the uphill ski. Most skiing should be on one leg with a skating action. It is possible to pivot both skis independently with a wide stance and this actually permits even more control on the steeps because it prevents hip rotation induced by one foot having to come below the other on the hill – in which case the pelvis remains facing downhill and the femurs rotate independently in the hip sockets during the pivoting action (cause not effect). We tried a bit of all of this
Compression Turns: I showed Paul how by using the pole very strongly as a support and bending the hips and knees to 90° when lowering the body towards the pole the skis would pivot dramatically into a turn. This is a very secure way to guarantee a turn in difficult deep snow at slow speed. It’s also the basic movement imposed upon the body when skiing bumps more rapidly – the bump actually causing the compression and sometimes beyond 90°. This should always be practiced from the top edges of the skis but the centre of mass action is so effective that even the lower edges will work too if the movement is made confidently and without hesitation. The pushing up from the legs is also through the end of the turn, just like skating but it begins a bit earlier and in bumps would allow the legs to extend into the following trough.
Leg Retraction: When in deep powder with the ski rebounding after the base loading up, to maintain a pivoting action, the rebound can be used similarly to a compression by just relaxing the legs – or sometimes actively retracting them slightly. This allows the turns to be quick instead of the body lumbering about all over the place with big dynamics.
To demonstrate carving to Paul I used a traverse on two edges leaving rail lines in the snow. Both feet were rolled over onto their uphill edges – the uphill foot being on its outside edge. Paul was unable to hold the skis on edge even at low speed. This problem is partly due to the Zag skis being wide underfoot, which can cause leverage pulling the ski off the edge. The lateral stiffness of the ski boots is designed to deal with this but you also need a feel for it. We were running out of time by now but Paul clearly got the message and knows what to look for. Applying it to full turns on very gentle terrain is the next step. Paul would have found it easier with a wider stance. His previous tendency to push the skis outwards has developed a narrow stance for the wrong reasons to some extent and that needs to be re-trained and the appropriate stance used for the appropriate reason. Carving on two skis wide apart at low speed gives a stable secure platform. At higher speeds the force will go to the outside ski.
For anything other than pivoting the timing of pole use is linked to the walking/skating action. There should be very little movement of the arm, only a flick of the
wrist as the leg extends towards the end to the turn with the pole flicking forwards. The body passes over the skis perpendicular to the hill as it crosses the hill – skis flat and legs extended. This is “neutral” position and is part of a dynamic process. As the body then topples and drops into the next turn the pole touches the ground due to the motion of the body – not the arm. Paul had a tendency to reverse this timing due to being trained to sink down and plant the pole at the end of the turn instead. The best way to overcome this tendency is to stop using poles or even ski without them for a while. Timing exercises linked to the skating action help also.
Dynamics part 2
The most important part of dynamics when off-piste is not the start of the turn but the end of the previous one – or end of a traverse. You have to come up out of the turn or traverse just like a motorbike comes up out of a turn – but not to the vertical – all the way to the perpendicular. In tricky snow that can be intimidating so you need to be very conscious of the commitment. Use a strong exit of the turn on the lower leg and it guarantees a successful start to the following turn. We applied this on some off-piste on the descent at the end of the day and Paul once again understood straight away. It’s probably the key issue for off-piste because it always works and if ever in doubt it’s the magic gateway out of trouble.
Apart from practising the new skills as in the exercises there are a few things that Paul needs to watch out for. Timing of the pole touch is a key issue to be resolved. The angulation problem on the right side is caused by twisting the foot slightly to torque the ski and pushing outwards. It’s important now that those movements are not needed that the pulling inwards of the adductors and a slight pulling backwards of the hip combine to generate a relaxed hip joint. Paul’s posture was affected due to the blocked hip and angulation was coming from the spine instead of the hip joint on the right hand side. Angulation was slightly more natural on the left side but this was due to a bigger upper body rotation with the right hand coming behind the body at the end of each right turn. ( the rotation stopped the angulation at the spine). Once again the key is to “pull inwards”, “move inwards” and aim for a relaxed hip joint.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Increased snow cover at altitude this week, less snow lower down but the pistes are now complete and good down to Val Claret. Very quiet on the mountain.
Skinned up again to 3000m altitude. It’s amazing how much more you appreciate the ski back down when you have climbed up by yourself. It’s not even logical but that’s how it is. The off piste was powdery this time and deeper than last week. Managed a 6ft sideslip on a smooth rock as the snow slipped away due to the steepness. The skis have no edges at the moment so rocks and ice feel the same.
Aches and pains from the first climb last week turned out to be just teething problems. This week the arms and shoulders were fine, no shin problems and no tendon issues (medial, right knee). It was another nice day weather-wise – improving with altitude. Mentally I find it difficult due to progress being so slow. Cycling is less tedious due to the speed and constantly changing scenery but climbing at walking speed feels interminable. I find that it takes about 40 minutes for me to switch off to that and focus more internally, then time just slips by.
I used nasal breathing all the way. It’s a good opportunity to condition the nervous system to higher CO2 blood content levels (hence more effective oxygenation). For the first 20 minutes it was a real effort to avoid breathing through the mouth, but then the body adapted and nasal breathing was fine. The average heart rate over 1hr 54mins was 151bpm so this shows how quickly the body adjusts to high CO2 tolerance if permitted.
One fascinating thing about climbing with skis is that the “chi” mechanics is practically obligatory. If you try to “push off” from your support ski then it just slips away downhill with the skins failing to grip. Instead you have to use the glutes and core muscles to extend the hip and lift the centre of mass – then use gravity to topple forwards and then lift and recover the trailing leg using the posas muscles. The twist of the spine is also automatic due to using the opposite ski pole for support and lift. It is a very “upright” and mechanically natural activity – much more so than cycling. It feels good for the lower back.
I tried to take a more direct and steeper route – which was fine, but although it shortened the climb by 600m it took about 3 minutes longer – which was interesting.
The summit of the Grande Motte 3500m
The summit of Mont Blanc (Italian side)
Glaciers at Tignes
The summit of the Grande Casse – there is a glacier on the far side which is visible from Courchevel.
Saturday, November 10, 2012
I’m not sure now how long ago I started to change running technique – perhaps three years. Despite having made an enormous range and depth of changes it was frustrating to be continually forced back to square one with “delayed onset muscle soreness” even after a short break. It appeared that this was the price to pay for a lifetime of poor mechanics and that full adaptation was a long term job. It was however always in the back of my mind that there was still something wrong mechanically. There is a lot of information out there but nothing truly definitive or scientifically verified.
When I initially started reading ChiRunning it was with a great deal of scepticism. That scepticism melted the more closely the material was scrutinised. Bit by bit it became clear that the author Danny Dryer was very accurate and correct on just about everything. One aspect that appeared to be unlikely to be correct however was his assertion that the foot strike on the ground should be just in front of the heel. That seemed perhaps fine for walking but perhaps not for running; after all there is so much new information extoling the virtues of a forefoot strike and pointing out the inappropriateness of a heel strike when effectively barefoot. It dawned on me that due to this new indoctrination I’d never even attempted to run in the way that Dryer describes – the hypnotising effect of all that information making me protect the heels like they were going to shatter if they ever contacted the ground first. This attitude was strengthened due to Dryer’s use of raised heel running shoes – such as standard Nikes – which makes it easy to imagine this is the real reason for his “heel strike”. Now I’ve managed two runs this way with minimalist shoes and guess what – no d.o.m.s. and no heel pain when running. It’s ironic that the whole idea of “barefoot” is to avoid heel striking but the the solution to better mechanics appears to actually be both barefoot and heel strike! The immediate sensation was “this is how I ran as a child”. When a teenager all the kids of my generation had flat plimsoles (named after the plimsole line of a boat – as your feet got wet if the water went over the rubber sole) : Wikipedia… In the UK plimsolls were compulsory in schools' physical education lessons. Regional terms are common: in Northern Ireland and central Scotland they are sometimes known as gutties; "sannies" (from 'sand shoe') is also used in Scotland. In parts of the West Country and Wales they are known as "daps" or "dappers". In London, the home counties, much of the West Midlands, and north west of England they are known as "pumps".
The was certainly never an issue of hurting the heels as a child and yet those shoes had no real protection. I remember my first ever pair of real “running shoes”. They were “Brooks” and they felt amazing – I must have been about 22 or 23 years old at the time and was in Cork in Ireland. Little did I know that I was buying into the Nike marketing concept and learning to over-stride. The way back from this fundamental error has not been quite so easy. It appears that the real issue is not really “heel strike” or “forefoot strike” but over-reaching ahead in the stride. When you avoid over-reaching then it feels impossible to land hard on the heel even with minimalist shoes. Once again Dryer seems to be correct – the point of impact to aim for appears to be just in front of the heel. The test will come soon when I try to increase either speed or distance – but it looks like the 3 year period of sore calf muscles is finally over – thank goodness!
Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Beautiful sunny day, no wind and warm on the body when in the sun – very much like an early Spring day. The snow cannons are working hard which means that the ambient air temperature must be around minus 7 °C.
Today I was trying out touring equipment and trying to get some exercise in. With only the train working up to 3000m it was a good opportunity to try some skinning. I generally dislike being closed up in the train. It resembles the city underground too much.
Photography is a good excuse to take a break!
Mont Pourri in the foreground and the higher Mont Blanc in the background.
The valleys heading to Champagny at the back of La Plagne.
Panorama view from the Panoramic Station – just before I get blown away by a gendarme helicopter that lands with its blades about 10 ft from my head!
The Signal over in Val d’isère and Le Fornet skiing area and glacier beyond.
Back in Tignes – race training ruts in fresh snow.
Snow covering crevasses – but there is no lift at the bottom which is why nobody has skied there. The Leisse Glacier.
It took 1hr 51mins to climb about 1000m and the skiing was really enjoyable off piste on the descent. Best of all was the solitude with the snow and spectacular views – a great feeling. Combine that feeling with the endorphines from the exercise and it’s hard to beat. Going up the train is slightly depressing unless the weather is bad – but climbing up feels really good! My shoulders aren’t working now though!
During the climb I applied my understanding of Chi technique from other sports and it was excellent. The twist of the lower spine as the leg extends behind just gets all the power out of the glutes and lets the body almost topple up the hill seriously improving economy of effort. This also keeps the posture strong and functional giving a restorative and healthy workout. The ski equipment from Paul might be old but it is very good. It might not be the lightest out there but it skis very well. Much lighter and the skis would only be good for ascending. My Garmont Adrenaline boots are finally being put to good use! The first few turns descending were off piste and were a bit sketchy – until the rust came off the edges and the base got used to sliding! After a few minutes I felt comfortable in the wind packed snow and had a good feel for the equipment. I used to ski everywhere on 150 World Cup slalom skis so that taught me how to use my body to adapt to just about anything and make it work well. Skiing is not about the skis it’s about the body. I applied the Chi technique to descending too – protecting the back and progressively getting more out of the skis even when back on the piste. The old Hagan skis actually felt very responsive and quite sweet. The old Silvretta bindings are surprisingly practical and well designed making them a pleasure to use.