I originally published this post on May 12, 2013. This is a revised and edited version.
Before I started ‘tinkering’ with ski boots in 1973, I didn’t just read everything I could find on the subject of fitting boots, I devoured every bit of information I could find on the subject. The assumption I made at that time was that the experts in the field not only knew what they were talking about, but that they also had the requisite knowledge and understanding of the underlying principles to back up their positions with applied science and/or research. Based on this assumption, I started modifying ski boots by doing all the things the experts recommended such as padding the ankle to ‘support’ and ‘stabilize’ it in the boot shell and cuff and adding cants between the soles of the boots and the skis to make the skis sit flat on the snow. But the big breakthrough for me came when I started making footbeds to support the foot.
Within a year I had gained expertise in my craft to the point that skiers from all over Canada were starting to seek out my services. In response, I started a company called Anatomic Concepts. Soon, I was spending most of my free time working on ski boots. But while I was helping a lot of skiers ski better, none of what I was learning or doing was helping my own skiing. I was still struggling after switching from low-cut leather boots to the new stiff, all plastic boots.
The (Un)Holy Grail
Despite the inability to solve my own problems, my thinking remained aligned with conventional thnking right up until my experience with Mur and the ‘Holy Grail’ of ski boots; the perfect fit of the boot with the foot and leg of the skier.
In 1977, Roger McCarthy (head of the Whistler Ski Patrol), whose boots I had worked, on introduced me to Nancy Greene Raine in the Roundhouse on top of Whistler Mountain. The timing was perfect. Racers on our National Ski Team were having boot problems. They needed help. It was a classic case of me being in the right place at the right time. Nancy recruited me, flew me to Calgary at her expense and introduced me to the National Team and Dave Murray. She set up a working arrangement with the team, one in which I was completely independent. Nancy also introduced me to Glen Wurtele, head coach of the BC Ski Team. At Wurtele’s request, I began working on the boots of members of the team.
I started working on the boots of NAST (National Alpine Ski Team) racers with Dave Murray; ‘Mur’ as he was affectionately known. My thinking at that time vis-a-vis the need to immobilize the foot and achieve a ‘perfect fit’ of the boot with the foot was aligned with the approach of the ‘experts’ in the field. Mur didn’t live far from me. When I was working on his boots, he seemed to spend more time at our home than his. Because of my ready access to Mur, I saw an opportunity to achieve the Holy Grail of skiing with a fit of the boot with the foot so perfect that the foot was for all intents and purposes rendered rigid and immobile and united with the structures of the ski boot.
To achieve this lofty goal I spent the better part of 2 weeks working for hours every night carefully crafting a matrix of heat formable 1 mm thick vinyl around Mur’s foot and leg and the shells of his boots with my inserts inside the liners of the boot. When Mur finally confirmed he was ‘loaded, locked and ready’ he went skiing to test the results. I waited for the inevitable confirmation of success and certain celebration that would follow. But after what seemed like an eternity, instead of the expected good news, Mur called to tell me that he could barely ski with my perfect fit. He had little or no balance or control. The Holy Grail had reduced a world class skier to a struggling beginner. I didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that the industry had to be way off track especially in view of the recent publication of Professor Verne T. Inman’s seminal book, The Joints of the Ankle.
After this experience I knew that there was way more going on than I understood. I started learning about human physiology, in particular, about the mechanics, neuralbiomechanics and physics of skiing. I started asking hard questions that no one in the industry seemed to have answers for. And I started going off in a very different direction from the one the industry was acquiring increasing momentum in. If the perfect fit could impose what amounts to a severe disability on one of the world’s best skiers I could only imagine what such indiscriminate constraint was doing to the average recreational skier. It could not be good. For me it certainly wasn’t.
A major turning point came for me in 1988 when a husband and wife radiology team who had heard about my efforts to try and develop a ski boot based on anatomical principles presented me with a copy of a medical text called The Shoe in Sport published in German in 1987. This seminal work contains an entire chapter dedicated to The Ski Boot. I discuss the issues raised about the design and fabrication of ski boots by international experts in the articles in chapter on The Ski Boot in my most viewed post to date; THE SHOCKING TRUTH ABOUT POWER STRAPS (1.)
The Root of Misinformation
Unfortunately for skiing, the relevance and significance of the knowledge contained in The Shoe in Sport was overshadowed by the publication in 1971 of the book, the Biomechanical Examination of the Foot, Volume 1 by Drs. Merton Root, William Orien, John Weed and Robert Hughes. The book lists what the authors call their “Eight Biophysical Criteria for Normalcy”. These criteria, which have since been challenged and shown to be largely invalid, were claimed to represent the “ideal physical relationship of the boney segments of the foot and leg for the production of maximum efficiency during static stance or locomotion”.
A key component of the biophysical criteria was that a bisection of the lower third of the leg be perpendicular to the ground and the subtalar joint rest in neutral. Root described neutral as occuring when the subtalar joint was neither supinated or pronated.
In order to be considered normal, a foot had to meet all eight biophysical criteria. The effect of this criteria, which was arbitrary, was to render the majority of the feet of the world’s population abnormal and candidates for corrective interventions. Although Root never stated, implied or suggested it, his neutral sub-talar theory appears to have been misinterpretated in the ski industry to mean that the foot functions best in static ski stance when its joints are immobilized in neutral (sub talar).
In recent years, Root’s Sub-Talar Neutral Theory has come under increasing challenge with calls to discontinue its use (2.).
Taken as part of a wider body of evidence, the results of this study have profound implications for clinical foot health practice. We believe that the assessment protocol advocated by the Root model is no longer a suitable basis for professional practice. We recommend that clinicians stop using sub-talar neutral position during clinical assessments and stop assessing the non-weight bearing range of ankle dorsiflexion, first ray position and forefoot alignments and movement as a means of defining the associated foot deformities. The results question the relevance of the Root assessments in the prescription of foot orthoses.
The results of the wider body of evidence have the potential to have profound implications for skiing in terms of the application of Root’s Subtalar Neutral Theory as putting the foot in the most functional position for skiing by supporting and immobilizing it in neutral (subtalar).