The transition to a higher level of skier performance for my spouse and I started in the 2012-13 ski season. After a ten-year hiatus from skiing we were returning to the ski hills with renewed enthusiasm coupled with a desire to reach a higher level of performance. I purchased new narrow waisted skis for both of us. I intended to purchase new ski boots as well. But I quickly backed off from even considering this after assessing a number of new boots as too difficult to work with.
I started The Skier’s Manifesto in the spring of 2013 for a number of reasons. The primary reason was that the forum provided me with an opportunity to acquire new information and increase my knowledge so I could learn how to transition my spouse and I to a higher level of skier performance. The process of attempting to explain complex technical issues by writing articles and posts serves as the impetus for me to think deeply, thoroughly and analytically. As the process unfolded, I discovered issues I had overlooked in the past or not fully explored.
One issue I had not fully explored, let alone addressed, is a way of identifying the optimal ramp angle specific to each skier. Ramp angle is the angle of the ramp of the plantar plane under a skier’s foot with the base plane of the ski. Finding a method of identifying optimal ramp angle proved far more difficult than I had anticipated. But when I succeeded in identifying and then implementing the optimal ramp angles for my spouse and I last ski season this proved to be the gateway to a higher level of skier performance than I could ever have envisioned. After identifying and then confirming my optimal ramp angle as 1.2 degrees (bindings zero) I finally understood after almost 45 years how and why changing from the leather ski boots I learned to ski in to the new plastic boots had such a devastating impact on my skiing. It was the change in ramp angle. The ramp angle in my leather boots was much less than the ramp angle in my plastic boots.
By 1978 I had subjectively found that a ramp angle greater than 3 degrees adversely affects skier performance with some skiers affected more than others. I knew there was no one size fits all, only that more than 3 degrees seemed to cause problems. From 1978 onward I was improving skier performance by ensuring the total ramp angle of the combined boot board/binding (zeppa + delta) was about 3 degrees. For females with small feet this required grinding the boot board in Lange boots flat or even negative (heel down) to compensate for binding ramp angle which increased as the toe and heel pieces moved closer together for small boots. I wasn’t always able to get the ramp angle set at 3 degrees. But getting it in the 3 degree range consistently resulted in significant improvement in skier performance.
It was becoming increasingly apparent to me that finding the optimal individual ramp was critical.
Critical Ramp Angle
In 2018 I identified the critical ramp angle as the angle of the plantar plane in relation to the base plane of the ski that enables a skier to apply maximum vertical force to the ball of the outside foot when the COM in the pelvis is stacked vertically over the head of the first metatarsal.
The vertical force is applied passively by force transfered to the plantar aponeurosis ligament (PA) by Achilles tendon (AT) tension. As COM moves forward towards the head of the first metatarsal in the support phase where skier resists the force of gravity, AT-PA tension applies an increasingly greater down force to the head of the first metatarsal. Ramp angle is optimal when the vertical force peaks just prior to the end of the support phase in what is called Mid Stance in the Gait Cycle of walking. I qualified this mechanism as enabling a skier to apply maximum vertical force to the head of the first metatarsal. Studies have shown in the skiing the position of the pelvis in relation to its vertical position with foot is the most reliable indicator of the position of COM. A skier is able to control the vertical force applied to the head of the first metatarsal by controlling the position of the pelvis.
The photos below show Marcel Hirscher and Tesa Worley applying maximum force to the head of the first metatarsal of their outside foot by stacking their pelvis over it.
The Problem with Adapting
The primary determinant of the critical ramp angle is the length of skier’s Achilles tendon (AT).
The length of the AT can and does vary significantly among the general and skier populations. The type of everyday footwear worn and especially what is called drop (heel elevated above the forefoot) can affect the length of Achilles tendon.
Drop affects the timing of the process that stiffens the foot transforming it into a rigid lever for propulsion. Over time, the predominate wearing of footwear with significant drop can cause the AT to shorten as a way for the body to adjust the timing of the stiffening process. In activities such as walking and standing, a shortened Achilles tendon may not have a noticeable affect on performance. But in skiing, the timing of the AT-PA tensioning process is critical. Those who learned to ski in boots with ramp angles close to optimal for the length of their Achilles tendon typically excel at skiing regardless of athletic prowess while gifted athletes who learned to ski in boots with sub optimal ramp angle can struggle in spite of innate athletic ability. For a racer whose equipment is close to their critical ramp angle a change in equipment that significantly changes ramp angle can be fatal to a promising career.
Most skiers would assume that they can just adapt to a sub optimal ramp angle. But adaptation is precisely the reason why skiers and racers with a sub optimal ramp angle reach a threshold from which they cannot advance. When their brain makes repeated attempts to apply force to the head of the first metatarsal without success it starts to make adjustments in what are called synaptic connections to create a new movement pattern to adapt to sub optimal ramp angle. The more the equipment with a sub optimal ramp angle is used the more the associated synaptic connections are strengthened and reinforced. Once the movement pattern associated with sub optimal ramp angle is hardened, optimal ramp angle is likely to be perceived by the brain as wrong. Telling a racer with sub optimal ramp angle to get forward or get over it (what that means) will only make matters worse because a sub optimal ramp angle makes it impossible. Correcting the ramp angle and/or the length of the AT will not help because neither will change the hard-wired movement pattern in the brain. Deleting a bad movement program can be done. But it usually takes a structured program and a protracted effort.
Mid Stance Misinformation
A factor that I believe may have contributed to the critical ramp angle issue being overlooked is misinformation about mid stance. The story used to sell footbeds and even some orthotics is that skiing is a Mid Stance activity and in Mid Stance the foot is pronated and weak necessitating a foundation under the arch to support it. While it is true that the load phase of skiing occurs in Mid Stance the statement that the foot is weak is only partially true because it doesn’t encompass the whole picture.
The Stance or Support Phase of what is called the Gait Cycle of walking consists of four phases:
- Loading Response
- Mid Stance
- Terminal Stance
All four phases happen in a ski turn sequence. The support phase, where one foot is flat on the ground and the leg is supporting the weight of COM, is called Mid Stance. The position of COM in relation to the head of the first metatarsal in Mid Stance and how fast COM can move forward over the head of the first metatarsal (center of the ski) of the outside foot in the load phase is a major factor in dynamic control and the ability of a skier to apply maximum force to head of the first metatarsal. But Mid Stance is a range and a sequential stiffening process, not a fixed point as has been misrepresented for decades by many in the ski industry.
The graphic below shows the relationship of 1. Achilles Tendon Force with 2. Plantar Aponeurosis Force with 3. Vertical GRF and how the tensioning process and transfer of force to the head of the first metatarsal occurs as COM progress forward in the Mid Stance cycle. The timing of the forward advance of COM/Pelvis to sync with peak AT-PA force transfer to the head of the first metatarsal is shown with a red circle and vertical arrow.
If I had only shown the segment of Mid Stance in the grey rectangle at the beginning of Mid Stance on the left I could have made a case that the arch is weak and in need of support since Achilles Tension is zero and Plantar Aponeurosis Force (called strain) is very low. But this would be misinformation because it does not show the whole picture. If the foot were weak as is alleged it would be impossible for it to act in the capacity of a lever in propelling the weight of the body forward in locomotion.
In my next post I will explain how I used NABOSO surface science technology to confirm my optimal ramp angle.