Sunday, March 8, 2015

Alistair Day 2 Into The Unknown!

Today’s session started off innocuously enough with a simple brief warm up run. My intention was to just do a small amount of revision on the way up to the wide pistes high on the glacier where we could proceed from where the previous lesson had left off. Alistair had fundamentally changed his short turns on day one – involving mainly developing new pivoting skills. This however left us with the issue of how to get the same results when NOT pivoting!

Until now Alistair’s skiing had been locked in “no man’s land” – with an inability to either pivot or carve effectively – both issues generated by the same tendency to stem or push the new turning ski outwards to look for early inside edge grip. This “push out” (either one foot or two) had become a ubiquitous ‘one stop” solution for all of Alistair’s skiing. We had rectified this for the pivot and now the goal was to rectify it for the carve. In both types of turn the “push out” has similar consequences in that control, grip and dynamics are lost from the entire first half of the turn. Timing tends to become reversed with postural and multiple body management problems being generated by the poor mechanics.

Recent attempts at teaching carving to others had left me feeling dissatisfied with the methods so given Alistair’s ability to relate to his body and follow instructions accurately the session was about to turn “experimental”! The problem when breaking new ground in teaching is that any new explanations or exercises won’t necessarily be optimised or simplified.

Pivot Revision (Unconscious Mind – Skill)

Revising the two footed pivot Alistair found himself stemming again. We clarified that this was caused by him twisting the outside foot into the turn – instead of pulling the ski tip inwards laterally with adductor support and following the centre of mass. This was an example of the unconscious mind taking over. At least 90% of brain activity is unconscious and this is obviously necessary because we cannot focus on every detail at once. Most instinctive unconscious actions are usually defensive or simply inappropriate for complex tasks. We have a conscious mind so that we can re-program our unconscious mind – it’s just a feedback loop that allows us to learn and so alter our behaviour . Mindful and attentive repetition of an action progressively trains the mind – until a new unconscious skill is acquired that will replace the inappropriate action. Until this work is done we can expect to automatically regress to the old ways when under pressure. This is why revision is always necessary while new body memory is being developed. When a correctly functioning and appropriate new skill is acquired it tends however to remain permanently. This then opens the door for new skills to be built on top. (In the video clip – between carved traverses Alistair executes a good two ski pivot.)

Our main focus today was on two fundamentals elements: Skating and Dynamics

Skating - Carving

Dynamics (Entry)



The edge of a ski gives the ability to grip – solidly – but at the same time provides the liberty to slide forwards. This quality is used for everything from side stepping, skating to turning (specifically carving). When sliding forwards the ski is actually trying to flatten itself – which is how it lifts a skier up. This phenomenon easily overwhelms the skier’s efforts to remain locked on with the edges. If the skier is actually pushing a ski outwards then carving becomes impossible. The opposite of “pushing a ski out” is “moving the centre of mass in” – as we do in skating. Poor skiers displace their skis – good skiers displace their centre of mass. There is of course an interplay with gravity and momentum here so it’s not all that simple and ultimately it comes down to feel. As a rule, carving is controlled by the centre of mass and thus powerful – even brutal dynamics ensures carving. Carving is dependent upon intelligent ski design, reasonably well aligned equipment and anatomy, laterally stiff boots, sharp skis, good body management, skill, terrain and snow/ice conditions. Modern FIS standard racing skis are retrograde in this respect – they are designed to NOT carve very effectively – in the same way that Formula 1 cars are constantly hobbled by new regulations. Racers overcome this limit by so-called “stivoting” the start of many turns – which is a horrible high speed pivoting – followed by dramatic dynamics into the turn – often almost sitting or lying on the snow to get the centre of mass right down and lock the ski on edge to carve only the latter part of the turn.

Carving is best learned on short parabolic skis to avoid unnecessary problems.

How Skiing Works: It’s your job to fall over – It’s the ski’s job to bring you back up – the outcome is a turn.

Introduction of Carving Skills

Carving Introduction is usually tackled by making shallow traverses across the hill in a fairly wide stance. This can be preceded  by working on foot rolling skills indoors (boots off) and showing how the subtaler joints function – though often there is not a suitable opportunity for this. Although commonly attributed to Canadian race coaching and teaching methods the origin of this theory is actually a university thesis from the Italian ski instructor Mauro Anagalnti. The unfortunate fact is that it both looks and is basically crap and that’s probably why his own skiing skiing never looked right either. It tends to lead also to a passive, compensatory displacement of the hips into the turn. Somewhere from deep within the depths of this murky area is where our lesson today would veer off on a trip into the unknown – resulting in some rewarding insight relating already established (by me at least) pivoting knowledge with carving.

Adductor Muscles (Foot/Ski Edging Skills)

Standing across the hill the heavily weighted downhill ski tries to flatten and so it’s necessary to roll that foot on its inside edge (subtaler joint) and to use the adductor muscles to hold it there. The far less weighted uphill ski is also on its uphill edge, however instead of rolling the foot onto its outside edge it’s far more natural to (once again as in pivoting) allow the foot to come onto its inside edge – keeping the ski on the opposite edge through the lateral stiffness of the ski boot . A small amount of weight on this uphill ski helps to anchor the body to the ground – aided by contracting the adductor muscles also on this leg  – linked to using the inside edge of the foot (the rolling of the subtaler joint and contraction of the adductor muscles work together). This surprisingly doesn’t cause an “A frame” stance and it does assist a natural placement of the centre of mass uphill when the traversing skis start to turn uphill due to carving. The physical act is the same as the “uphill ski pivot”  - standing on the uphill ski (outside ski edge / inside foot edge) – though in this case only enough weight goes there to aid the control of the motion of the centre of mass. Principal support comes from the lower ski.  The stance remains natural and relaxed overall despite active adductor muscles in both legs. Two clean railed tracks are left behind in the snow. If that uphill foot is rolled over onto the uphill edge as is often required  by instruction methods (outside edge of the foot) then the knee is pulled outwards (abductors) from the body and the ski tracks away from the other ski – destabilising the body at low speeds and making the skier vulnerable to accidents at high speeds. This unnatural body position is sometimes compensated for by an artificial hip angulation (lateral displacement). The key here is to borrow from pivoting – so during the carved traverse the uphill ski and foot are on opposing edges. Essentially, the foot/ski edging skills from pivoting are accurately maintained and reproduced – adductor muscles being used actively in both legs.

Alistair was able to bring all of this together and when he had trouble it was due to his unfamiliarity with moving the centre of mass slightly over the uphill ski to maintain some pressure and receive feedback – leaving two carved tracks instead of one. This active use of the adductors required a slightly stronger and more upright stance than he was used to. It became obvious that Alistair’s frequent “knee tuck”, skidding inside ski and inappropriately close stance (unless when intentional) were due to the tendency keep a “balanced” centre of mass directly over the lower ski and not (an active centre of mass) between the two skis. When weight goes through one ski it should be through the use of active dynamics (disequilibrium) – not balance.

Transitions (Edge Changing)

On flatter terrain using pole support we worked on changing edges by moving the centre of mass across the skis (skis rolling edge to edge on the spot)– working the adductor muscles and familiarising the correct relations between the edges of the feet and skis. This is the simulation of a carved turn transition – going from one set of edges to the other with no skidding. The exercise is quite tricky to do facing across the hill as the skier has to become aware of getting onto the downhill edges by only moving the centre of mass. Initially Alistair was displacing his hips to try to find the edge change but this was corrected. This is probably an error that will return so attention will have to be paid to it in future.

Shallow Linked Turns

Flatter sections of the hill could be used for almost straight running downhill with transitioning from one set of edges to the other – linking very shallow carved turns. When this was correctly executed it immediately revealed the need to move onto skating – so that the full context of dynamics and body management could be appreciated.


Skiing Is: Skating with Dynamics

After quickly verifying on the flat that Alistair can skate strongly and correctly we moved onto skating across the hill. The first issue to address here is to point out that it doesn’t really matter which edge the uphill ski is placed on – it can be either edge – but always the inside edge of the foot!

The main point of skating exercises is to get people to actively move their centre of mass – particularly to displace it towards the turn centre. Skating a turn with several skating steps – either a half turn across a hill or a whole turn passing through the fall line gets the skier to feel the level of work necessary to move that centre of mass – particularly when working against gravity! Skating the body off downhill at the start of the turn is physically easier but emotionally much harder! Those sensations require development. When working with beginners the first turning should be on flat ground and by using skating steps – so that the centre of mass is always actively moved in the direction of the turn.

Diverging Skis

Another aspect of skating is to help people understand that the natural way to stand on skis is with them diverging – not with them converging. You can ski perfectly well with skis constantly diverging and you can slow down in a traverse with the uphill ski pointing uphill. Traversing in a snowplough is in contrast often a disaster due to the uphill ski pointing downhill on its downhill edge (an accelerator pedal!)

Upper Lower Body Integration (Posture)

Powerful skating requires the hip on the “outside” leg to be pulled back into position – as on day one this requires awareness of a stretch of the abdomen and a twisting/tension of the spine up to the bottom of the rib cage. Alistair struggled with this initially due to the pelvis dropping down at the front and a hollowing of the lower back. Good posture is critical here so this is something Alistair will need to pay attention to. On one video clip from day one his hollow lower back and affected posture can be seen clearly – though it’s not present all the time. Posture is a “chicken and egg” situation! Poor mechanics and non-functional movements will promote bad posture. Good mechanics will reflexively encourage good posture. Good posture will be broken down by poor mechanics. However, good mechanics will be hard to achieve without the support of good posture.

Skating Downhill

I explained to Alistair that a slalom racer is effectively skating straight downhill – the body simply being driven across the hill by the skis in the process. The real racer wants to go faster and will be highly active in skating – though this becomes invisible within the context of skiing. Most skiers in the same situation would be defensive and braking – trying to “make turns”. The aggression of the racer actually renders him far more stable and secure and despite the high speed he will feel that there is “too much time” between gates. The single element that increases turning power the most in skiing mechanics is “speed” – but this has to be harnessed!

Initially when Alistair began skating downhill he didn’t appreciate that the shoulders – although facing downhill – had to travel across the hill during the consequent turns.  Most people are caught out by this because when they separate the direction of the shoulders from the direction of overall travel they normally try to force everything to follow the shoulders. The body is simply facing downhill because it’s the only way that skating can be effective from the start to end of a turn. The ski at the start of the turn is skated forwards – across the hill – while the body is projected downwards, downhill – face first. This simply cannot be done if the whole body follows the ski around a turn and it brings us into the realm of more advanced Dynamics!


Dynamics drives skiing. In terms of physics dynamics is the “mechanics of disequilibrium” – or more simply put – “accelerations”. There is no change of either direction or speed without an imbalance of forces. A dynamic skier by definition has to exploit this physics to the maximum. Due to a combination of “fear of falling” and ignorant ski instruction most people are brainwashed into trying to remain in balance – when they should be desperately trying to fall over.

Dynamic Range

The hard thing for a skier to do is to fall (laterally into a turn) because the “lifting up” power of the ski increases exponentially as the edges grip during the fall. Most people find their maximum possible inclination (centre of mass) is about 20° to 30° from the perpendicular to the slope. The development of a racer might be best measured by the ability to extend this dynamic range to close to 80° – or the physical maximum that the body and equipment will permit. I specify “racer” here because they are only developing the ability to ski on the “inside edge” with extreme dynamics – very much the opposite technical requirement from pivoting and bump skiing – where constrained and more subtle dynamics (either by the ski poles or terrain) and different skills are required.

The simplest analogy to hold for dynamics is a racing motorbike falling down into a turn and coming back up out of it.

To give Alistair the sense of how to access more powerful dynamics I had him push against me – his hip pulled back in a skating action and his shoulders facing me (opposites) – pushing very hard from his outside ski so that he was leaning over at about 45° face first. Despite me being uphill from him I explained that this is what he needs to do downhill at the start of each turn – as powerful and extreme as this. The centre of mass must come strongly down towards the snow – face first – downhill – while the ski is skated outwards across the hill. This increases the divergence between the trajectory of the centre of mass and the ski – amplifying the dynamics.

When applying this to skiing it was the first time that Alistair had ever felt the power of the acceleration/displacement of the centre of mass causing the ski to bite right from the start of a turn.


From early on in our skating exercises I’d made Alistair aware that the skating action was the source of real angulation. This is far less obvious during pivoting and is completely obliterated  by inappropriate “carving coaching”  but it becomes very clear when actually skating. Hip angulation is desirable when a bending at the hip can facilitate rapid vertical displacement of the centre of mass – as in shorter turns. In longer very high speed turns the body is generally best kept straighter (although inclined) so that the bone structure stacks up for strength – which is fine when rapid changes of direction are not so critical.

One goal for the day was for Alistair to understand how the “park and ride” approach of just rolling both feet and displacing  the hips laterally was a complete and ineffective parody of the real mechanics of skiing. Understanding how skiing is constructed from a combination of skating and dynamics – and how angulation emerges naturally from this is critical for effective skiing development.


Although I didn’t mention it to Alistair his timing once again sorted itself out naturally when his dynamics were corrected and made active. This may be part of skating but maintaining it constantly in skiing is more an issue of dynamics itself – impossible to achieve if the skis are being displaced laterally instead of the centre of mass.


Alistair commented that we had worked on completely different things than on day one. I suggested however that we hadn’t. All we had really changed was the edge of the ski being used for the first half of the turn. Other than that we were only developing already established themes.

Body Management

We terminated the carving session by making sure that Alistair wasn’t too fixated on keeping his shoulders facing downhill. For this I asked him to go to the other extreme and turn his shoulders to face towards the inside of the turn (not the hip – only the shoulders) – only bringing them to face downhill at the very start of the next turn – then repeating this keeping the shoulders directed towards the centre of each turn. I knew he would be lucky to just end up following the skis by attempting this – but that it should enhance his inclination and dynamics on longer turns.

Taking this further we would have to work on the inside knee actually crossing over in front of the belly button. The shoulders wouldn’t actually be facing inwards (later in the turn) but the inside knee would instead fold across the belly – the adductors and core muscles pulling it inwards and some pressure being on the outside edge of the ski – but inside edge of the foot. This is effectively “double carving” though there is not intentionally a lot of weight on the inside ski. The important thing to realise here is that to achieve this you don’t stand on the outside edge of the inside foot with the foot rolled over (outwards) and the knee leading into the turn. Instead - the body remains integrated with all the adductors pulling inwards – only the ski boot’s lateral stiffness maintains that inside ski on its outside edge.

Pivoting - Bumps

On our way home we stumbled upon a nice black bumps run to venture into. Anything to avoid a crowded main piste back down into the ski station at the end of the day. It’s also important to get into the bumps and practice. Skiing is made interesting by three sets of physical constraints – bumps, racing poles and off-piste (deep snow and steeps). There is a big crossover in skills required so it’s important to build experience of all of them.

In the bumps I showed Alistair how by standing on the crest of a bump the tails and tips became airborne and made the pivot really easy. The constant motion of the centre of mass into the next turn provides good grip and a sideslip down the face of the bump and sets the body up to be ready for the next turn – with the use of a strong pole plant and “check” against the crest of the next bump. It’s just important to have good posture, upper/lower body integration and to prevent the shoulders from rotating.

The bumps highlighted the need to work on developing timing for the next session. For the moment there was enough to think about – but retraction and compression issues need to be sorted out here – as well as for carving and off-piste.

Nutrition - Fitness

Yesterday I ran 10.5km working on “barefoot” technique – and what pleased me most was that when skiing today there was no tiredness. This is probably much more to do with nutrition than anything else. All season I’ve managed to get comfortably through each day on the mountain without any hunger but having eaten nothing since 7am. There are no energy dips and no cravings – all due to being on a ketogenic diet and remaining constantly in a state of ketosis (producing ketones). This has the effect of keeping the body weight optimal as well which is a seriously important issue in skiing. I intend to write much more about this in future.

Meanwhile of more importance was the fact that the zero-drop minimalist (very little cushioning) trail running shoes didn’t leave the legs tired or feet damaged. My focus had been on a rapid cadence to help to prevent “over-reaching” forwards and to ensue the footstrike directly beneath the body. One key I spotted to guarantee a safe footstrike is the active use of the adductors with both legs – so that the foot doesn’t flop over onto its outside edge just before landing. This allows me to focus on a midfoot landing – just in front of the heel – and avoid stressing the metatarsals by contacting with the outside of the forefoot first. The tendency to “reach down” with the forefoot causes the calf muscles to contract – this seemingly being a cause of calf muscle pain (both during and for several days following) – due to an eccentric contraction as the muscle is forced to elongate while remaining contracted with the footstrike. Corrected footstriking, stride mechanics, length and the active use of the adductors seems to have removed all of those problems.

The recovery of the trailing leg uses the same “chi” derived body management as with skiing so that the core muscle use is coordinated identically. The knee swinging forward – being pulled by the abdomen is the same as the inside leg/knee coming forward and in line with the belly of the skier during a very strongly inclined or angulated carved turn. Likewise as the knee comes forwards the opposing shoulder comes forwards (visually cancelling each other out!)

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