Never heard of the Stretch Reflex (SR)? You’re probably not alone. Even though the SR was the central focus of the research I did in 1991 with the Birdcage, I have yet to encounter anyone in skiing who knows what it is, let alone how it can function to assist skier balance by maintaining the major joint angles associated with a strong stance. The SR is what enables the world’s best skiers to ski with precision and with a fraction of the effort of lesser skiers.
After Nancy Greene Raine began supporting my work in 1978 and I started to work with world class racers and coaches I began to hear the comment that skiers like the legendary Toni Sailor or Nancy Green Raine ‘knew how to stand on their skis’. This implied that the reason other skiers could not ski like the Toni Sailors and Nancy Green Raines of the world was that they didn’t know how to stand on their skis. I found this puzzling. If it were that simple (it wasn’t and still isn’t), why hadn’t someone figured out how Sailor and Raine stood on their skis and started teaching the rest of the skiers how to stand the same way?
It was also about 1978 that the story began to take root within the ranks of the ski industry that ‘the foot functions best in skiing when it’s joints are completely immobilized in the ski boot’. The holy grail of skiing, a perfect fit of the ski boot that precisely mirrors the shape of a skier’s foot, emerged soon after. In this paradigm, if tight was good, tighter was better.
Aside from the obvious contradiction (the foot functions best when it is rendered dysfunctional?), it was a good story. On the surface, it made sense to most skiers, myself included, right up until I watched Nancy Green Raine undo all the buckles on her boots and ski better than any other skier on the hill. In observing and speaking with numerous elite skiers, a consistent pattern began to emerge; they all skied with their boots relatively loose compared to the boots of the average skier or racer; a stark contradiction to the ‘tighter is better’ story. A tight fit/loose fit paradox existed. This caused me to start to question the official position on boot fit.
By 1989, I had hypothesized that the SR was the ‘secret’ of the world’s best skiers. If I were right, these skiers weren’t flexing the shaft of their boots to put pressure on the front of the ski. They were flexing their ankles to set up the static preload that enables the SR. I had concluded that it wasn’t so much that elite skiers knew how to stand on their skis, but more a case that they were able to stand on their skis in a way that enabled them to use the SR. It seemed probable to me that these skiers had acquired a feel for the SR when they were first learning to ski. Once the feel was acquired, they were able to select boots and adjust them as required to enable the SR. The majority of skiers never acquire a feel for the SR when they first start to ski because the design and structure of their ski boots prevents this. If they don’t learn the feel of the SR early in skiing, the odds are great that they never will acquire it. If my hypothesis were correct, then the entire ski industry had gotten it wrong. The Birdcage experiments validated my hypothesis.
When Steve Podborski asked me to try and invent a new ski boot that did the same thing for all skiers as the in-boot technology I invented in 1980 did for him, I needed confirm my hypothesis that the structures of ski boots were preventing the majority of skiers from using the SR. This was especially important because preiminent safety experts had raised red flags in the Shoe in Sport (published in 1987) about the lack of sound principles in the design of the plastic ski boot. They had specifically flagged the shaft of the boot.
“The lack of proper technique seem so often is not due to a lack of ability, but to an unsatisfactory functional configuration of the shaft in so many ski boots. This is particularly true in models designed for children, adolescent and women.”
- Sports Medical Criteria of the Alpine Ski Boot – W Hauser P. Schaff, Technical Surveillance Association, Munich, West Germany
A principle objective of my research in 1991 was to valid my hypothesis that structures of the ski boot prevent the overwhelming majority of skiers from being able to use the SR.
As far as I know, I am the first to describe how to set up the static preload that primes the SR and how to configure a ski boot so it accommodates and supports the SR. In the application of the SR to skiing, it is a powerful balance mediator and a PROTECTIVE mechanism.
The science behind the SR is complex. The best and perhaps simplest way to appreciate it is to acquire a feel for it by going through a static preload exercise barefoot on a hard, flat surface and then applying the acquired feel in progressive stages while standing in ski boots. This aspect involves correcting or removing any factors that prevent attaining the static preload. The process starts by learning how to set up a static preload on the shank-angle dorsiflexion angle.
- In barefeet, stand erect on a hard, flat, level surface as show in the left hand figure in the graphic below.
- Relax the major muscles in the back of the leg (mainly the hamstrings) and allow the knees to move forward as shown in the right hand figure.
- As the knees move forward, the hips will drop down towards the floor. The ankle joint will dorsiflex and the angle of the shank with the floor and the angle of the knee will increase until a point is reached where the shank stops moving forward on its own.
- As the knees are moving forward, bend slighly forward at the waist. The angles of the shank (ankles) and knees will decrease as the pelvis moves back and up and the back rounds. If you bounce up and down lightly, your stance will return to the static preload position.
- Move forward in the hips until you feel good pressure under the balls of your feet. Feel the whole system tighten up. You have set up a static preload on the shank of the leg. This is the foundation to build an SR stance on.
Try doing this in your everyday footwear. A number of factors can prevent the setting up of the static preload that enables the SR. The ZeppaDelta Ramp Angle in ski equipment is a big factor as is drop in shoes. Over more than a few degrees of ramp angle, it is not possible for the SR to engage.
If you try the preceding exercise in your everyday shoes and the shoes have significant drop (toe lower than the heel), it is probably not possible to set up a static preload on your shank. Instead of stopping, the shank will keep going until it reaches the physiogical limits of ankle dorsiflexion.
In my next post, I will describe how to build an eccentric muscle contraction (EC) tensioned stance from the static preload shank angle.