Saturday, December 14, 2013

Brian Day 4

The intention was to begin the day working on pivoting because I felt that it might be too soon for the next stage in carving and it could cause some confusion. For the previous three days the focus had been on avoiding facing downhill but now that was sorted out the next stage would be - to face downhill. To avoid this apparent paradox I thought that we might just sidestep the issue and go into pivoting – until I realised that pivoting also needs the body to face downhill. There was no way out of it so we might as well continue with the carving and I just crossed my fingers that this wouldn’t reverse all the gains of the past few days.

Mont Blanc ;



The first step was to show how skating – as in ice skating  - propels the body forwards with the legs diverging outwards.  The basic skating action requires the body to face ahead and the feet face towards the side. Skates are designed to track in a straight line but skis cause an arc. The result is that the ski turns from initially travelling outwards to travelling inwards – turning the leg in the process. If the skier avoids the body being turned during this operation the “skating” can be continued making complete linked turns and the body itself never changes direction. This of course is a very different process from just blocking the body facing downhill and forcing the skis around below you on the hill.

Until this point Brian thought the skate was just a movement towards the end of the turn to bring you up – which explains his initial confusion with timing when he was trying to make a dip down to push back up just before turn completion. That “dip” disappeared on day 2 by linking the up motion to the turn dynamics (toppling in and out of the turn) but now the whole picture would be seen more clearly.  The turn dynamics had been built up by following the skis around facing square to the skis and just toppling sideways into and out of the turn – similar to riding a bicycle. This is done initially to avoid confusion and to develop awareness of the fundamentals of skiing – the falling with gravity and then the lifting up from the ski itself being key issues that must be felt and ingrained without any interference.  Facing the body away from the direction of travel of the ski immediately complicates things. Brian had however managed to generate solid and clear feedback from carving with his slalom skis by day 3 so the chances were that this feedback would help him through the next phase already. 

The analogy I use to describe skating in skiing involves a slalom course.  Most people skiing slalom are just hanging in there at best or even braking. Good racers are actively skating straight down the hill trying to generate more speed practically all the time. They face downhill and skate downhill with displacement across the hill of the body through the turns just happening as a consequence of the skis arcing on the snow or ice.

Brian’s initial attempt went very well – retaining all the correct dynamics and stance from the previous day. The second attempt saw it begin to fall apart. This is common. Learning something is a process of “getting it” then “losing it” and then working your way back again even stronger and with more understanding – over and over.

One of the main issues is that skating actually spontaneously generates angulation and this has the effect of keeping the upper body upright. There is nothing wrong with that except the sense of inclining against a self-generated banked track disappears and we find ourselves back in a false 2D world instead of 3D.

One thing Brian picked up on surprised me and that is the beginning of the turn when skating actually had the body facing inwards – so that helped him as he had already found the “facing inwards” exercise most helpful. That’s a great observation which had never specifically occurred to me.

I explained to Brian that skating can mean that the support leg extends at the beginning of the turn – but this is not to pop upwards – it’s to extend the centre of mass down and into the turn while muscularly adding to the pressure the ski itself is already generating. At more advanced levels “leg retraction” can also be used where both legs retract at the end of the turn to let the body out of the turn (still surprisingly causing an upwards “centre of mass” motion) and then starting from a low position extending both legs driving the centre of mass down and into the next turn. This last variation requires legs like tree trunks.

Keeping a wide stance helps encourage skating actions because the legs work independently – one being flexed while the other is extended. The wide stance makes it easy to get from one inside edge to another because the body doesn’t have to move far to achieve this. Skating and two legged leg retraction are quite closely related (though not the same) so it’s easy to develop one from the other.


The slalom course was empty and in good condition and I felt that Brian was ready enough to take his carving into the course. We first of all practised a few turns maintaining all the combined movements of dynamics and skating but without carving. I knew that Brian wouldn’t be able to maintain a carve down the race course at this stage so it was important to get used to the fact that whether carving or not the movements should remain fundamentally the same. On his first run Brian was a second faster than on his fastest run last year – despite deliberately taking a slow line. On the second run another second was gained. All the time we were focusing on technique and not on tactics for racing. I did explain however that reaction times had to speed up. The normal tendency is for people to wait far too long to both exit one turn and to move the body into the next – so when speed builds up they become too late in the movements. Part of the experience of slalom involves conditioning the brain to this far earlier response time – something that can only be achieved through actual practice in confronting the physical constraints of poles.

It was clear after a few runs that Brian was not able to get the benefit of his greater speed from carving because it then presented him with trouble staying in the course. He wasn’t managing to skate properly and that was visible due to the lack of angulation being obvious. In addition his left arm in particular was frequently held high in the air because he would fall off the left hip and onto the right leg and ski during a right turn. This was both an angulation issue and a postural issue. Absence of angulation in slalom would prevent Brian from increasing his dynamic range and so getting his centre of mass down into the turn and holding it there – and easily getting it back up and out of the turn when required. I explained to Brian that this dynamic range needed to be increased and that the hard part is to stay down and low in the later section of the turn when working against gravity. The only way to achieve that rapidly enough in slalom is with angulation. The best will in the world would not achieve the necessary dynamic range when the technique is absent. The video made it clear that angulation and stance would need to be improved.

Raising the Inside Hip and Arm

Only one exercise was required to deal with the angulation and posture – that was simply raising the outside arm above the head. In the video clip the change this brought to Brian’s stance is very obvious.  More work on stance and skating would develop appropriate angulation.




Off Piste

The off-piste was treacherous wind pack everywhere with narrow sections of ski-pisted consolidated snow. Although we had transceivers working there was less chance of an avalanche here than almost anywhere else on the planet.  Dynamic skiing is the safest way to ski unpredictable off-piste snow. From one turn to another you can’t tell whether or not you will break through the surface – so if the body is systematically moving well down and inside the turn then it makes no difference whether or not you break through. The real key however is the commitment to using the end of the turn to come up and out – this guaranteeing immediate entry into the next turn. Any delay in getting the body down into the next turn can cause the skis to simply track off straight across the hill – especially if they happen to skink in deeply at the end of the turn. Racing turns like this simply work. Their only limitation is in steep narrow couloirs – or any place where serious speed control is desired. “Freeride” is really carving off-piste on wide skis so that they don’t sink in. The whole base of the freeride ski is used for support in soft snow instead of just the edge on racing skis. Although such techniques are great they are also very tiring over time – and one run off-piste had Brian realising this – leading us straight inside for an early lunch as tiredness was causing his technique to deteriorate.


The big divide in skiing is between those who pivot and those who carve. Feedback from carving is very clear so it’s probably easier for those who can handle the speed to develop carving correctly. Pivoting might appear to be easier on the surface but it is in fact harder to do well. Most people force things in pivoting and create more problems than anything else. 

We did the exercise of pulling of the ski tip (inside edge) against a ski pole – aiming for the heel to pull inwards as the adductor muscles engage. My goal with this exercise has always been to ensure that the adductor muscles are being used to pull inwards rather than the abductors (outside of leg) to twist the knee inwards. Due to the issue with Brian’s foot my attention was more specifically on the feet and interestingly the pressure was against the inside of the ball of the foot. This pressure was there as a consequence of the ski being blocked – not because of trying to push inwards with the ball of the foot – however the feeling would be the same. This is probably what previously prevented Brian from distinguishing the difference in the actions.

Separation of the upper/lower body (facing downhill) is critical in pivoting – the leg having to be rotated by the ski independently from the upper body. This is essential because the angulation created through both upper/lower body separation and rotation of the hip is required for all aspects of control. In pivoting as in carving if the body comes around with the skis there will be little or no angulation. Angulation permits solid support from the the ski pole and correct positioning of the centre of mass for both a clean start to the pivot (maintaining the ski on the outside edge as long as possible) and a clean finish (solid platform). Preventing any body rotation also prevents the skis from locking on edge and running away out of control towards the end of a turn – which in a steep couloir might be extremely important.

Brian struggled with angulation – as most people do – and so it made all aspects of pivoting relatively difficult. We tried linked pivots on one ski and also two ski pivoting (two footed close stance). We did static exercises with the skis off – standing facing uphill and swinging one leg around from behind to in front with maximum rotation in the hip joint – just to get the feel of in into the body.

Pivoting is skilful and  requires work, practise and development. The normal teaching of “pivoting” is a parody referred to as “steering” where the skis are forced into the turn with a torque from the legs.

The upper/lower body separation that is taught in that parody leads directly to herniated discs and a hospital bed. The instruction that goes along with this is to wind up the body (facing downhill at the end of the turn) and prepare an edge set and platform, then on jumping release this tension like a coiled spring and whip the skis around. When the body is twisted the ribs end up compressed against the pelvis and the core of the body is compressed with nothing functioning. If instead the hip is pulled back (lower ski) then the spine actually twists in the opposite direction and stretches the lower abdomen opening up a space and activating the core muscles – protecting the back.  This pulling back of the hip also leads to a smoother pivot into the turn and natural angulation to help it all happen instead of the classic problems associated with “hip rotation”. Instead of an “unwinding” there is a muscular impulse from the core itself. The “upper body” is now defined from the bottom ribs upwards and separation takes place at the 12th thoracic vertebra instead of at the base of the spine.

Short Swings

Short Swings are just an extension of pivoting. The first part of the turn is carried out in the air. This can be very useful in a tight spot! Mainly Short Swings are used as a training exercise and there are several variations that need to be mastered. Brian immediately reverted to his old timing and jumping up from his uphill leg. This caused various problems including a twisting fall at one point with the skis being crossed. Once this error was exposed Brian was able to correct it and to jump mainly from the lower leg – so maintaining the same coordination that had been developed over the previous few days and gaining reasonable control over the Short Swing. It’s a very demanding exercise to link rhythmically – and correct timing is critical for success – even more so than angulation and control over rotation.



Chi Cycling

After skiing we visited the gym for a closer look at the chi mechanics. Starting with cycling it was clear that Brian is not a big cyclist. The clear give-away was that the heel always ended up below the ball of the foot at the bottom of the pedal stroke – so lots of energy was dissipated through flexing the ankle under load instead of extending it. This made me realise that this is also the same problem in skiing when skiers make the mistake of flexing the ankle when under load. I hadn’t previously noticed that this was an error common to both sports.

The goal was to simply show the difference in coordination between following the foot with the hip in the pedal stroke – as is commonly done - and using the chi coordination to make the hip go the opposite way from the foot. When the foot pushes down and forwards the hip has to move backwards with a slight rotation of the spine. Brian was immediately confronted with the typical issue of the timing flipping straight back the the “follow-through” version. It can be very confusing. The exercise has to be worked through very slowly at first and then practised. Brian tended to let his pelvis rock from side to side and spine twist sideways – obviously finding the coordination a bit too difficult at this stage.

I explained that following through with the hip might actually be more powerful overall but that is was probably not as economic in the long term. Timetrialers need to bend over horizontal to eliminate air resistance and so they are almost forced into a follow-through action. Hill climbers sit upright and use a chi hip action – pulling back the hip to “kick down a door”. For me the acid test is that the chi action protects the lower back over time. If you sprint using the chi action then it feels like a belt of steel clamping around the lower abdomen. With the common follow-through action there is no feeling of the core muscles involved.

Chi Running

Moving onto the chi running it became clear that although Brian had some of the concepts he wasn’t fully aware of the most significant ones. The key is learned in a simple exercise of running on the spot by simply lifting the heels up behind and dropping the feet back down – then tilting (very) slightly forwards (from the ankles) and letting yourself fly off – without any propulsive effort. Gravity making you topple provides the propulsion – all you do muscularly is maintain your height. Here is a direct connection with skiing dynamics – once again gravity and falling being the key. As in skiing, if force is used then something serious is wrong. We increased tempo so that Brian had a cadence approaching 180 strides per minute (which enhances elastic energy return from the tendons) and used the relaxed lifting and dropping of the feet to achieve this. Increasing the speed of the treadmill the stride length was increased by extending further behind, pushing back the knee to get a fuller extension and rotating the spine so the extension went all the way up to the ribs. Normally when people try to increase speed they do so by trying to be more powerful with the quads and hamstrings, but here the objective was to go faster by simply relaxing more and focussing on recovering the legs from behind and tilting the body very slightly to adjust speed. Brian could feel the difference between his normal forcing and using gravity instead.  It’s important here to avoid even pushing off with the claves at the end of the stride. Avoiding reaching ahead with the foot and leg and striking on the front of the heel (not the back), even if barefoot, completely eliminates aftershock that often can reach up to seven times body weight.

Just as in cycling the forcing might work for short efforts – but it’s probably best saved for a sprint finish at the end of a long run. Using power all the way on a long run would guarantee nothing left in the legs at the end.

Chi Walking

When walking it is even more critical to not have heels interfering with the mechanics. Walking uphill you can feel that by letting the body fall forwards and extending behind the glutes are used to straighten the leg and lift you up. This means the big core muscles are used instead of the quads and lower leg muscles. When reaching ahead with the leg is avoided and the mechanics are correct, pelvis lifted up at the front (for most people) and spine rotating along with the hip moving backwards, then the core muscles work by reflex and the entire posture becomes active and very upright. The use of the muscles can be felt through the glutes, lower abdomen and back. This also applies to walking on the flat.


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