Few would dispute the position that balance is everything in skiing. It is probably widely assumed that in most, if not all sports, the most highly trained athletes, especially those at the highest level, have the best balance. It is also probably assumed that this would be especially true of the best racers at the World Cup level of competition. However, a paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine states, “……few studies have analysed subjects’ postural performance in order to discriminate the expertise level among highly skilled athletes of a specific discipline and results remain controversial…….. no study has been carried out to evaluate postural control in alpine skiers”.
Is postural control affected by expertise in alpine skiing? (F Noe ́, T Paillard: Br J Sports Med 2005;39:835–837. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2005.018127)
I have long been critical of the claims made or implied that securing the foot and lower leg in what amounts to an orthopaedic brace or splint is a good thing. My US patent 5,265,350 (November 30, 1993) states:
“Existing footwear does not provide for the dynamic nature of the architecture of the foot by providing a fit system with dynamic and predictable qualities to substantially match those of the foot and lower leg. The stated position of various authorities skilled in the art of the design and fabrication of footwear for skiing is that the foot functions best when movement about its articulations is substantially prevented or restricted. Existing footwear does not adequately anticipate this re-alignment of the architecture of the foot and thus such footwear inhibits the wearer’s ability to assume a balanced position.”
In other words, conventional ski boots make balance more difficult for the skier. My position was based sound principles of functional anatomy and studies of human balance and movement performed in laboratory settings. But until the recent study by Noe ́and Paillard, the impact of the conventional ski boot on skier balance had never been studied. For Noe ́and Paillards’ study, fourteen healthy male competition skiers voluntarily participated. They were divided into two groups. The first group consisted of seven regional level skiers. The second group consisted of seven national/international level skiers either in the French junior national team or in the French senior reserve national team. Candidates with balance disorders were excluded from the study. A number of different balance tests were performed including tests done on a force platform and on a seesaw device that generated instability. Tests were done with and without shoes and while wearing ski boots. Foot pressure data captured sway patterns associated with balance.
The analysis revealed no significant group effect in the AP (front to back sway) posture. But the analysis found significant differences in the STA (stable) and ML (side to side) postures. The Centre of Pressure excursions (a reliable indicator of balance), were significantly greater for NAT skiers compared to REG skiers as in worse for NAT skiers.
“The results obtained in the REF condition are not in agreement with previous studies concerning expertise in sport and postural ability since they illustrate reduced postural performance as the level of competition increases (my emphasis added). However, the results can be explained by considering the specificity of alpine skiing, which involves the necessary use of ski boots over most of the training period. As Schaff and Hauser demonstrated, very stiff ski boots as used by competition skiers act as an external ankle support which mechanically restricts ankle joint motion. The effects of such ankle immobilisation are similar to those induced by ankle braces, and it is known that restriction of ankle movement has a significant detrimental effect on postural control (my emphasis added). Hence, the inferior postural performance observed with NAT skiers in the REF condition may illustrate a long term effect of repetitive wearing of ski boots, which impairs postural performance by restricting the range of motion of the ankle-foot complex. REG skiers may be less affected by this long term effect since they spend less time training.
“The present study shows that skiers at the highest level of competition presented inferior postural performance compared to lower level skiers when standing without ski boots. This result illustrates a long term effect of repetitive wearing of ski boots which impairs the postural performance of high level skiers.”
There will no doubt be some who will challenge the conclusions of Noe ́and Paillards’ study. To them I say, “show me your studies”.