Footbed posts

TO SUPPORT OR NOT TO SUPPORT THE FOOT?

To support the foot or not support the foot? That is the question and the subject of this post.

Some followers of this blog are asking  whether they should use custom insoles, aka orthotics or footbeds, in their ski boots. My views on issues pertaining to the structures of ski boots and interventions in general that affect the physiologic function of the user are predicated on whether they accommodate and support the physiological processes of the user and especially whether the proponents of specific structures and interventions can support their positions with explanations predicated on sound principles of science and especially whether the explanations will withstand intense scrutiny. In addition, any explanations, conclusions or claims made should be based on the actual environment in which the use is occurring. Conclusions made in an indoor environment, or even in a controlled laboratory setting where gravity is the sole external force acting on the subject or subjects, cannot necessarily be applied to skiing maneuvers where the forces are both three-dimensional and dynamic in nature.

The question of whether the foot should be supported or not in skiing can only be answered by putting the issue under the high powered lens of the microscope of sound science.

THE DREADED DIAGNOSIS: PRONATION

You may have been told by a boot-fitter or even a ski pro or coach that your feet pronate and that this will make it difficult, if not impossible, for you to hold an edge and/or control your skis. Or you may have overheard a boot-fitter run through a pronation diagnostic drill with a customer having a boot fit and/or alignment session. It goes something like this.

Boot-fitter to customer: Now stand with the weight even on both feet and flex your boots. Oh yes, I see your problem. Look down at your knees when you flex forward. See what happens. Your knees move towards each other. This explains why you are having so much trouble skiing. Your feet are pronating.

Customer, fearing their situation is terminal: Is this bad? Is there any hope? Can you help me?

Boot-fitter:  Yes, pronation is very bad. But don’t worry. I can help you. A pair of custom footbeds and an alignment job and you will be a World Cup star.

Customer: Wow! Sign me up!

It all sounds good. But there’s one small problem……. OK, it’s a big problem. Standing on two feet and flexing ski boots has nothing to do with skiing. In fact, it has nothing to do with the normal function of the lower limbs (ergo – the legs). The boot-fitter may not realize it, but the boot-flex procedure is something of a con, a sleight of hand. The basic balance strategy of the body when standing erect on two feet is to maintain position Centre of Mass slightly in front of the ankle joint so that gravity tends to disturb balance and cause a forward fall by causing the ankle to flex forward. This tendency is opposed by muscles in back of the leg starting with the soleus.

The soleus is an extensor muscle. It’s job is to extend or plantarflex the ankle so that the forefoot is pushed down; towards the floor. This pushes Centre of Mass backward, against the force of gravity to the isometric contraction position.

The foot is configured for standing on one foot so that gravity will tend to cause the foot to evert or pronate. Eversion is the turning of the sole of the foot away from the centre of the body. The tendency of gravity to cause the foot to evert or pronate is opposed by a group of muscles that I refer to as the inverter sling. Here’s the kicker. The inverter muscles of the everter sling are also extensors.

Think of the front of the boot cuff as a resister of forward ankle flexion. Guess what happens when the resistance of the boot cuff starts to support your weight when you flex forward and your shins press against the front of the shaft? Your hard working extensor muscles start to go on vacation because there is less and less for work for them to do. Since the inverters have also turned off, guess what happens next? The feet relax and fall inward in a quasi-pronation movement. It’s not the same as functional pronation. The knees turn inward towards each other more than they would when the extensors and inverters are in isometric contraction. There’s nothing wrong with your feet. It is just that muscles only do their job when they have something to do. Things are not really what they appear to be. But the illusion sells footbeds and alignment programs.

 

THE MYTH OF PRONATION AND THE COLLAPSING ARCH

If you purchased a pair of ski boots or had work done by a boot-fitter you may have been told that your feet pronate and that this will cause your arch leg to collapse creating a myriad of problems including a lack of control and especially an inability to effectively transfer energy. You may have also been told that your foot functions best in skiing when it is immobilized, preferably in a neutral position, one that completely prevents pronation. All of the preceding are myths. But more than simply being untrue, they are potentially dangerous. ‘Pronation is bad’ is nothing more than a good story; one that most people buy into simply because they have no idea of what pronation is. So they tend to assume that the store clerk or boot-fitter actually knows what they are talking about.

When I first started modifying ski boots in 1973 in an attempt to help my own skiing I bought into the pronation is bad story after reading an article in a running magazine about how over-pronation (an invented term) was causing injuries in runners. The article implied that the human feet, far from being a marvel of complex engineering, are riff with problems like ‘pronation‘  that require corrective devices such as footbeds or prescription orthotics to make feet function properly. This made sense to me at the time, but only because of what I didn’t know. After reading the story in the running magazine, I had what I thought was an epiphany; ‘If foot defects can cause a myriad problems in running, imagine what havoc they must be wreaking in skiing’. Thinking I was on to something, I had prescription orthotics made for my wife and myself by a sports podiatrist. Later, I began making custom footbeds for ski boots. In the 1970s, I was one of the few boot-fitters in world making custom footbeds. And while the response of the majority of skiers I made them for was overwhelmingly positive there was one problem, my own custom footbeds didn’t work for me. In fact, footbeds and prescription orthotics made skiing much more difficult for me than insoles with no arch support. Unfortunately, the pronation is bad story caught on. Soon the evils of over-pronation morphed into the evils of pronation period; any and all pronation was bad and should be stopped or at least greatly restricted.

As Mark Twain quipped, “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”. For the past 30 years most of the world has known for sure that pronation is bad. Now a study published this month (1) confirms what I and others have maintained for years, not only is pronation not a predisposition to injury but there are significantly less injuries in those whose feet pronate.

Far from being a bad thing in skiing, pronation is the key to setting up the over-centre mechanism that makes the forces of skiing work for you instead of against you. So what is pronation?

In future posts I will explain what pronation is and why it is essential to sound ski technique and the ability to balance on the outside ski.


1.  British Journal of Sports Medicine (http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2013/06/12/bjsports-2013-092202.abstract?sid=3e90eba8-f3ca-46f7-88e0-d8a28f83b729)

Sources of the story on the Danish study include:

A Popular Myth About Running Injuries – New York Times
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/26/the-myth-of-pronation-and-running-injuries/?_r=1

Speciality running shoes may not reduce injuries – Health – CBC
http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2013/06/27/running-shoes-injuries.html