Today’s overall objective was to work on “end of turn” dynamics for off-piste application and bumps.
Checking Alistair’s progress at the start of the session, despite the obvious progress, some problems were immediately obvious and especially visible when carving. Developing the dynamics would also have to involve addressing those specific problems.
Two images extracted from video show the symptoms of an underlying problem. On the left we have whole body inclination with knee angulation but no hip angulation. On the right we have an artificial “hip angulation” formed by a lateral displacement of the pelvis. Not only is each side completely different but neither is correct. This would clearly be a priority to sort out – but as all of it directly affects dynamics then whatever the solution it would be possible to achieve it working within the general framework of developing dynamics. Carving, although improved from last week, was still not strong with the start of the turn being very ineffective or missing. At this stage I made the decision to proceed with directly working on dynamics.
Today we worked on five fundamental elements:
Dynamics (Exit - “End of Turn”)
Independent Leg Action
Dynamics (Entry – “Start of Turn”)
Dynamics (Exit - “End of Turn”)
Until now we had not worked at all on the dynamics of the second half of the turn. There are two aspects here of critical importance:
A: The ability to use pressure (combination of gravity, the lifting power of the ski, extension or flexion of the legs/hips (simultaneously or independently)) to control the motion of the centre of mass coming out of the turn.
B: The ability to lower the centre of mass towards the snow while working against accelerations and gravity during the last half of the turn – to increase pressure – prior to ending the turn.
In reality there are many variations and possibilities – but the options are functional and structured. Problems with angulation or inclination will strongly affect both A and B above. During the session we would work on “Core Activation” so as to attempt to sort out those particular issues – as are very visible in the two photographs above.
Today we would focus on the two most basic movement patterns – those mostly associated with 1: off-piste (difficult snow) and 2: bumps. The off-piste requires the normal “skating timing” of flexion/extension – and the bumps requires a “retraction timing” of extension/flexion. In all cases the actual centre of mass always follows the pattern of down/up (relative to the snow) – because this is fundamental (…a bike falls into a turn and comes up out of it.) There is very little deviation from this principle. Working on Core Activation and stance in carving would enable us to confront “retraction timing” through developing it from independent leg action – and then to take it into the context of bumps with a two footed pivoting platform.
We began work by revising short swings and jumping. Alistair clearly hadn’t done his homework here because he struggled. When training for my own skiing examinations while working as a ski teacher in California I used to start each day with between 400 and 600 consecutive short swings – taking them to exhaustion so as to encourage the body to find efficiency for itself. Practice, practice, practice! We recommenced without the skis – just jumping – blocking the upper body with the ski poles in front and then swinging the feet in the air – left – centre – right etc. After repeating this on flat terrain with the skis on we then started to jump around turns – with several jumps in the same direction. Alistair needed to be reminded that this is all about moving and directing the centre of mass and it is controlled by effective use of the ski poles!
The jumping UP motion is NOT the start of a turn. People have an emotional default setting that makes them believe that any jump has to be to start a turn. The jump is the end of a turn or a traverse.
Jumping takes the centre of mass either out of an existing turn – or out of a traverse with the aid of first deliberately bending to facilitate the spring up and out from the vertical towards the perpendicular (to the slope). Alistair had not yet appreciated this very important distinction. The continued swinging of the skis or pivoting (after landing) into the new turn should not be confused with the launching upwards from the grip of the uphill edges of the skis. This is all about controlling the centre of mass and actively bringing it out of the turn or the vertical stance of a traverse.
We then worked on jumping to make complete turn transitions – changing edge in mid-air, taking off from the uphill edges and landing on the downhill edges.
Alistair was now asked to stop the actual jumping but in place of this to simply extend the downhill leg (or both legs) - almost jumping - so as to actively come out of the turn right over the lower ski. This exercise was taken into full blown “hanger turns” where the entire turn transition was made on one ski (downhill ski).
All of the above exercises were intended to develop an awareness of the need to actively come over the lower ski to complete a turn. We need to be aware that the end of a turn is what sets us up for the next turn. While this is constrained and controlled effectively with pole use when pivoting – it is a far more powerful and dramatic action when moving forwards in fluid skiing.
In the video Alistair is showing good rhythm derived from his new Exit Dynamics and his stance accordingly improves – with much less “sitting” or being left in the back seat with his centre of mass. (However there was still a problem connected with accurately controlling the build up of pressure during the turn and this would only become clear later on through working on the Core Activation – without correct angulation you can’t accurately build up the pressure required for an effective directing of the centre of mass – hence the continued “back seat”).
Skiing off-piste on steep or bumpy terrain was immediately rendered easier with the new dynamics. Going directly into messed up, crunchy, crusty off-piste snow with strong dynamics posed no problem for Alistair. The key here is that the worse the threat of the snow is the more you have to commit to standing on that lower ski to launch the body downhill across it. This is an emotionally challenging thing to do – but amazingly rewarding because it always works!
Dynamics is in fact the master key to always nailing your off-piste turn.
If in doubt revert to big Exit Dynamics. When snow is of good quality and offering no serious resistance then pivoting is ideal. Obviously there is a crossover here where various degrees of blending between dynamics and pivoting are possible – depending on snow quality. The worse the snow the more dynamics are obliged.
Although Alistair had opposite problems on his right and left side we managed to cure both issues by working simply on improving posture and the integration of the upper and lower body through activating the core.
When working on the jumping earlier on I had reminded Alistair of the need to avoid winding up the spine in a compressive manner by allowing the outside hip to come around in front of the ribs. I reminded him that the correct movement to protect the body was to pull the outside hip backwards – stretching the lower abdomen instead of compressing – and activating the core muscles instead of closing them down. I allowed this to be overlooked with the jumping because there was just too much to coordinate at this stage. Now however we were working on static exercises with the skis off so the “core” issues could be properly addressed. “Core” issues are exactly what this means – not just core muscles – but central to everything.
Foot Forwards Technique
In the photos at the top of this post when Alistair turns left his right leg is trailing and he is falling onto his left leg. This is typical when somebody tries to create angulation through a lateral displacement of the pelvis. This is also a sign that the skier is not actively pushing the outside foot forwards. To ensure that Alistair was familiar with the correct sensation for pushing the outside foot forwards we started to work with the skis off – pivoting around the inside leg/heel – while pushing forwards the outside skil boot on its inside edge in a natural arc – scribing an arc in the snow.
With the left leg the big hip rotation was obvious – with Alistair being unable to keep his weight over the central pivoting support leg later in the turn. This is a standard effect of hip rotation. Attempts to correct this with Core Activation caused the knee to move outwards. This happened due to incorrect pelvic tilt/posture leading to a breakdown of Core Activation when on this leg. When Alistair corrected his posture he could feel that the pulling back of his outside hip felt different – which he related to a rotation hinged on the supporting hip of the other “support” leg”. What he was really feeling was a twisting centred on the spine – but because the other leg was static and supporting the entire body everything would have to swing around somewhat on that leg. This correct Core Activation produced a natural hip angulation.
At one point we stopped so I could allow Alistair to feel the difference in abdominal contraction reflexes due to posture. When lifting up against a strong resistance with the pelvis tilted down at the front the lower back hurts instantly. With the pelvis tilted upwards the the abdomen contract creating a “hydraulic sac” which protects the spine. You can tell if this alignment is correct simply due to whether this reflex works or not. Correct Core Activation is dependent on this alignment and of course helps to maintain it.
Many aspects of correct or appropriate body mechanics in skiing are about ensuring that reflexes work in your favour - and are not deactivated or even working against you.
With the right leg the Core Activation immediately eliminated the lateral displacement of the pelvis.
On both sides there was now natural angulation with the ability to both pull the respective hip backwards and simultaneously push the foot forwards (the actions are after relative to each other!).
With this functional hip angulation in place I explained to Alistair that we could now use it to rapidly move the centre of mass up and down – the hip acting as a hinge for that purpose. The down motion would allow a better build up of pressure during the second part of the turn and thus correctly set up the Exit Dynamics. The correct angulation would also facilitate those exit dynamics directly and in athletic terms – by reducing unwanted muscle tension.
This was the first time we were able to work on part B of the “Exit Dynamics” - B: The ability to lower the centre of mass towards the snow while working against accelerations and gravity during the last half of the turn – to increase pressure – prior to ending the turn. In other words Alistair could use this to improve turn control and stance together – (avoiding that “back seat” issue)
Prior to succeeding with correcting the left leg, when sorting out the posture we had to use the Core Activation to correct alignment. When Alistair pulled back his left hip his left knee went outwards. The pulling back of the hip should activate the adductors and pull the knee inwards – facilitating the foot rolling onto its inside edge. The core/hip action re-aligns the body. Supportive foot-beds should be avoided in the ski boots so that the feet muscles can work properly and actively.
Until now we had worked from the feet upwards – but now it was time to reverse this. All motion (both global and of relative to the rest of the body) should begin a the centre. (In boxing – a punch comes from the hip not the hand.) Activating the core by pulling back the hip begins a cascade of events leading to the adductors pulling in the knee and the subtaler joint rolling the foot onto the inside edge. Meanwhile the entire centre of mass is moving down and into a turn – or being controlled exiting the turn.but with the same muscular support all the way through.
Independent Leg Action
Given that all our work on Core Activation was being applied to carving it was logical to exploit carving for introducing “retraction timing”. In addition, Alistair was still struggling with feeling the carving a the start of the turn and could not maintain a wide stance so this issue could be addressed too. In carving we can use a very wide stance which allows independent leg action to be experienced – giving a good stable and secure support for building body awareness and dynamics along with carving skills.
Standing stationary across the slope with the legs wide apart I wanted Alistair to move the upper body directly over one ski by flexing that leg and extending the other one. When doing this the Core Activation had to be correct. This was a new feeling for Alistair and gave a whole new meaning to “wide stance” and Independent leg action.
Going through a carving turn – towards the end with the outside leg fully extended and the centre of mass close to the snow towards the turn centre – the goal was to exit the turn by flexing that extended leg. This creates a reduced upwards motion of the centre of mass as it exits the turn – but it is still upwards. When there is a lot of pressure at higher speeds the leg is not just “flexed” under load, it is actively retracted and the body is propelled (at a tangent to the arc) out of the current trajectory over the skis. Some people refer to this as a “cross under” of the skis – which is inappropriate terminology because we are always focused on the motion of the centre of mass and moving it actively. It’s just a faster way of transitioning from one turn to another – but is can use a lot more force from the extending outside leg. It can be done with either on leg or two when in a close stance.
Dynamics (Entry – “Start of Turn”)
Independent Leg Action naturally leads to a greater perception of dynamics a the start of a turn. When the downhill leg is retracted then the uphill leg has to be actively and powerfully extended to get the centre of mass down into the next turn.
Alistair had no idea just how powerful this has to be so initially he was still missing the starts of his turns because he was waiting for pressure to build up against the ski before really letting himself fall into the turn. The pressure needs to come directly from both the power of the leg extension and the speed of the dropping down and inwards (either angulation – for rapid turns – or whole body inclination). There is actually a drop in pressure when falling/dropping inwards due to gravity – but gravity is so fast that the ski will edge and respond with powerful supporting feedback way before the body reaches the snow. There is a moment of “faith” however required before this connection is made. Most of the time the leg extension problem is the opposite – instead of a moment of “lightness” there is nothing but immediate pressure – pushing the centre off mass downhill, requiring legs like tree trunks and enormous power.
Alistair was developing a feel for all of this but often his upper body orientation was blocking him due to the shoulders being puled back along with the hips. Statically - with a wide stance - we worked on Getting him to separate at the ribs so that the shoulders would be over and facing the tip of the inside ski while the hip (outside ski) was pulled backwards. When looking down while skiing it should be this inside ski siting central between the hands – not the outside ski. This immediately allowed Alistair to extend his dynamic range down into the carved turn.
Alistair had now improved his posture, angulation, dynamics (entry and exit) and so his carving was taking shape and his stance changed completely.
Leaving bumps to the very end of the day was not an ideal scenario. I explained and demonstrated a “compression turn” on the flat – staying on the uphill edges through the turn (edge change in the fall line). Alistair had difficulty flexing knees and hips to 90° while moving the centre of mass into the turn – probably due to his history of weak pole use. Soon however he had the coordination along with the full extension towards the end of the manoeuvre. This exercise has a slightly different timing from the leg retraction we used in carving because the retraction here is being increased or maintained when entering the turn.
The feet are kept in a close stance and legs work in unison – returning to the two footed pivot. In this case what we look for is not a “retraction” but an actual “compression” from the bump itself. At slow speed we don’t get compressed so we have to artificially retract – which doesn’t feel natural. However practicing the timing and applying this in good bumps means that when some speed is possible the compression should happen automatically. Compression / retraction here is more through the whole turn transition – the bump itself giving pressure during a continued flexing instead of an early extension of the legs.
It helps to sometimes allow a retraction of the heels during compression so that the ski tips can be pointed down into the next trough.
Right at the end of our session at 5pm we had to remove the skis to walk up a short hill – the perfect opportunity to look at Chi Walking – especially as at the bottom of the pistes there was no danger of being driven off the mountain by irritated, overbearing and bad mannered, grim faced French ski patrollers. (as frequently does happen!)
The reason for looking at Chi Walking is because Core Activation is derived from the principles of this correct mechanics of walking. I have adapted the key aspects to fit it to skiing (in some very counterintuitive ways) and hence solved the major issue of how to protect the lower back (having had major surgery twice now on the spine myself there is a high level of motivation in this direction on my part!). Learning to walk this way creates the opportunity to practice and develop the correct awareness and mechanics at all times – all year. Running is totally enhanced by the same process – but it takes a lot more time to evolve the new skills. (many years!) With walking the key changes are instantaneous.
Alistair took about 5 minutes to “get it” and then felt how it was much easier walking uphill. I’ll not go into the details of Chi Walking detail because there is a dedicated page to it here: http://www.skiinstruction.blogspot.fr/p/chiskiing.html
Barefoot – “Road Runner”
Later this evening I went for a 10k run with minimalist (barefoot style) trail shoes and used Chi Running technique. Having been working from the core with skiing – focusing on teaching this – I found myself copying the exact same actions and sequence of motion when running. The difference when running is that the leg extends behind when the hip goes backwards. Working from the core outwards I found myself controlling the adductor muscles, aligning the leg and controlling the foot (in this order) so as to avoid dropping the forefoot and landing on the outside edge of the foot. I thought about how the “barefoot” shoes are an incredible help for accessing corrective feedback through the feet and how in skiing this is so similar to the importance of avoiding supportive foot-beds. It’s just unfortunate that there is no way to remove the heels from ski boots. Heels are only any use for catching stirrups in horse riding – being the reason they were originally invented – otherwise they are a pure disruptive nonsense.
When running, one key aspect is lifting the heel up high behind. This works along with the pulling forwards of the knee and hip – altogether - like a pulley system. Get if right and it feels like “Road Runner” with the foot literally giving the sensation of going in a circle behind the body. When done correctly it feels effortless like a well oiled ball bearing. In a very real way the “leg retraction” in skiing is the same act of profound muscle relaxation and efficiency. During the run I could feel how the effective mechanics caused the spine to be erect and the glutes and lower back muscles to be both active and supportive. This reminded me of the upright body of Michael Johnson the 400m legend – now I understand what’s going on here! (at least some of it!)
Teaching and skiing all day, with having to think deeply, creatively and coherently… Remembering every detail, without tiredness or energy swings… Driving one hour each way to the mountain and back then writing and editing a complex blog – can probably only be properly handled when on a ketogenic diet. My breakfast was at 6:00 am and the next food was at 7:00 pm – with no hunger, a very clear head and and no physical or mental fatigue.
When on the mountain the temptation is to eat sugary energy bars, stodgy lunches and sugary or alcoholic drinks. This is not only destroying the energy levels in the body but the clarity of the mind – yet carb addiction makes it practically impossible to do otherwise. We get away with it for a while when young – perhaps! Perhaps not! If only people knew – the best drug on the market is 100% natural – ketones! Made from fat!
Part of the key to good metabolism is “Cold Adaptation”. Simply allowing the body to experience cold – over the period of a few weeks - boosts fat metabolism and develops the capacity for Cold Thermogenesis. Thermogenesis (spontaneous heat production) is conventionally attributed to food – protein giving a high rate of heat production. However at a more profound level the body adapts properly to the cold only in the absence of carbohydrates (summer food) and the absence of round-the-clock central heating and warmth. Tolerance for the cold rises dramatically and sensitivity to pain is greatly reduced.