Birdcage Experiments

THE ULTIMATE LOOSE FOOT TEST OF METAL

The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.

                                                                                                                  Leonardo da Vinci

Despite what da Vinci said, skiers seem to have an inherent distrust in the structural capacity and integrity of the human foot.

In skiing demonstrations with ski boot prototypes based on the Birdcage it didn’t matter how hard I tried to explain to testers how the dorsal loading system worked and how little force was needed to secure their foot, it didn’t stop them from attempting to crush their foot by tightening down the dorsal plate until their noses bled. They were so conditioned by the persistent, ‘the tighter the boot, the better the ski control’ message that they just didn’t want to believe how little force it takes to activate the auto stiffening mechanism of the longitudinal arch (FIT VS. FUNCTION) and retain the foot in solid contact with the base of the boot.

In order to try and convince testers how little force was required to make their foot dynamically rigid one of our team members had a device we called the Logan Chassis designed and fabricated. The photo below is of the Logan Chassis aka The Convincer.

If it’s not obvious from the photo  the Logan Chassis was very heavy. The components were milled from solid blocks of aluminum. The heel counter and a few other components are missing. But the photo should give you a good enough idea. This thing was a tank. This device was not intended for skiing. It was a pre-ski boot skiing test conditioner.

To demonstrate how little force it takes to make the foot so rigid it is like steel I would get the test subject to put their foot in the Logan Chassis. Then I would try to get them to adjust the knob on the screw to the point where it applied firm but gentle pressure on the dorsum of their foot making sure there was no discomfort. Then I would ask them to stand up and lift the foot in Logan Chassis off the floor and tell me what they felt. They were shocked. Hell, I was shocked when I tried this.

The Logan Chassis feels incredibly light and the foot feels glued to the base with no sensation of pressure or discomfort. It defies logic. But I doubt I would have to convince da Vinci.

The truth is whatever people are willing to believe.

The problem is that most skiers have been convinced to believe that tight is not just right, tight is might.

THE MECHANICS + BIOMECHANICS OF PLATFORM ANGLE – PART 13

The  article that follows was published on June 18, 2010 on an internet group called EPICSKI.  I have revised the article to improve clarity and consistency with the technical terms used in the THE MECHANICS + BIOMECHANICS OF PLATFORM ANGLE series of posts.

The Birdcage Experiments

 by David MacPhail

In the summer of 1991 a science team Steve Podborski and I had assembled to develop a new ski boot conducted pioneering studies on the Blackcomb summer glacier with a device we affectionately named the “Birdcage.” The purpose of the studies was to test my hypothesis of the mechanics and biomechanics of platform angle as it pertains to skier dynamic stability and the basic premise of my hypothesis that explains how  GRF acting on the inside edge of the outski is extended out under the platform of the ski. The Birdcage is shown in the photo below.

Birdcage

The Birdcage was fit with 16 sensors each with its own channel as shown in the legend below.

Specific mechanical points of the foot, in particular the ends of the eccentric torque arm, connected to specific points of the rigid structure of the Birdcage while leaving the remaining areas of the foot substantially unconstrained. The object of the experiments was to study the effects of specific forms of constraint applied to key mechanical points of the foot we had previously identified on skier balance as it pertains to steering and edge control. The experiments also included tests that studied the effect of interfering with specific joint actions. The experiments were designed in accordance with a standard scientific protocol; one that standardized conditions from test to test while varying one factor at a time.

For example, to study the effects of cuff forward lean angle on specific muscles, the range of rotation of the cuff was kept the same from test to test while the initial angle at which the cuff was set was varied from test to test. The cuff was fit tightly about the leg so as to reduce to a minimum any effects of movement of the leg within the cuff. Other aspects of the test such as position of the heel and ball of the foot in relation to the centerline and inside edge of the ski were kept the same.

By using such test protocols the firing sequence of specific muscles and their effect on dynamic stabilty could be studied. This data could then be used to determine the sequence of events and relationship steering to edge platform angle control. It was discovered that by varying the conditions that affected the firing and effectiveness of the soleus muscle, it could be played like a musical instrument. For example, if the cuff angle were set too erect the soleus muscle would make multiple attempts at the start of each loading sequence to try and get COG over the head of the first metatarsal.

Our primary tester for the experiments was Olympic bronze medallist and World Cup Downhill Champion Steve Podborski. Steve is shown in the photos below having the Birdcage adjusted to his foot and leg.

The cable coming from the rear of the device is connected to a Toshiba optical drive computer (remember, this is 1991) that Toshiba loaned us in support of our program. The biomedical engineer and the Toshiba computer are shown in the photo below.

Since telemetry was too costly and less positive we used a 1200 ft cable that linked the Birdcage to the Toshiba computer set up in a tent. Although the technician could not see the skiers being studied within a short period of time he could easily analyze their technical competence in real time by assessing the incoming flow of data from the sensors fit to the Birdcage. This was even more remarkable considering that the technician had no background in skiing, ski teaching or coaching.

The testers wore a harness to keep the cable from interfering with their movements. A chase skier ensured that the cable remained behind the testers and did not pull on the testers. Of interest is the fact that I was unable to elicit any interest in the results of the Birdcage study

As far as I know a study of this nature had never been done before and to the best of my knowledge a similar study has never been repeated since the Birdcage experiments. The Birdcage remains one of the most sophisticated analytical sports devices ever conceived even by todays’ standards. The Birdcage research vehicle is the barefoot minimum standard for the ski boot.

THE MECHANICS + BIOMECHANICS OF PLATFORM ANGLE: PART 10 – SUPPLEMENTAL INFORMATION


Because of the complex issues I am about to start discussing in the next series of posts I am providing supplemental reference information to assist the reader in understanding the issues associated with platform angle mechanics and biomechanics and underlying process of dynamic stability.

Background of events leading up to the outside ski platform ground balance solution

In late 1989, after gaining valuable insights from the medical textbook, The Shoe In Sport, I had formulated a hypothetical model that explained the macro details of the mechanics and biomechanics of platform angle and the mechanism of user CNS postural balance control.

Insights from The Shoe in Sport:

Correct positioning of the foot is more important than forced constraint and “squeezing” the foot.

Forward sliding of the foot should not be possible. 

From a technical (skiing) point of view, the ski boot must represent an interface between the human body and the ski. This implies first of all an exchange of steering function, i.e., the skier must be able to steer as well as possible, but must also have a direct (neural) feedback from the ski and from the ground (snow). 

The comment about the importance of correct positioning of the foot and the ski boot  representing an interface between the human body and the ski gave me insights that led to the discovery of key mechanical of the foot whose position in relation to the inside edge and X-Y axes of the ski affects the transfer and control of steering and platform forces to the ski and control.

When I wrote the application for US Patent No 5,265,350 in late 1991 and early 1992 I described the mechanics and biomechanics of plantar angle in great detail knowing this information would be freely available to the entire world to use once the patent was published. The only exception was the information covered by claims. Known mechanics and biomechanics are not in themselves patentable.

Patents and Research

It is important to note that patents, even when granted, do not apply to the use of a patented device for the purpose of pure research. Knowing this at the time I wrote the patent, I described the Birdcage research vehicle in sufficient detail with many figures to enable the device to be constructed at minimal cost so research could be conducted by others as soon as possible for the purpose of advancing the knowledge base and science of alpine skiing.

The following unedited text is excerpted from the patent.

……. the teaching of this (patent) application is that force must be applied and maintained only to specific areas of the foot and leg of the user while allowing for unrestricted movement of other areas.

The performance of such mediums (skate blades and skis) is largely dependent on the ability of the user to accurately and consistently apply forces to them as required to produce the desired effect.

In addition, in situations where the user must interact with external forces, for example gravity, the footwear must restrain movements of the user’s foot and leg in a manner which maintains the biomechanical references with the medium with which it is interacting.

Precise coupling of the foot to the footwear is possible because the foot, in weight bearing states, but especially in monopedal function, becomes structurally competent to exert forces in the horizontal plane relative relative to the sole of the footwear at the points of a triangle formed by the posterior aspect and oblique posterior angles of the heel, the head of the first metatarsal and the head of the fifth metatarsal. In terms of transferring horizontal torsional and vertical forces relative to the sole of the footwear, these points of the triangle become the principal points of contact with the bearing surfaces of the footwear. 

The most important source of rotational power with which to apply torque to the footwear is the adductor/rotator muscle groups of the hip joint. In order to optimally link this capability to the footwear, there must be a mechanically stable and competent connection originating at the plantar processes of the foot and extending to the hip joint. Further, the balanced position of the skier’s centre of mass, relative to the ski edge, must be maintained during the application of both turning and edging forces applied to the ski. Monopedal function accommodates both these processes. 

Yet a further problem relates to the efficient transfer of torque from the lower leg and foot to the footwear. When the leg is rotated inwardly relative to the foot by muscular effort a torsional load is applied to the foot. Present footwear does not adequately provide support or surfaces on and against which the wearer can transfer biomechanically generated forces such as torque to the footwear. Alternatively, the footwear presents sources of resistance which interfere with the movements necessary to initiate such transfer. It is desirable to provide for appropriate movement and such sources of resistance in order to increase the efficiency of this torque transfer and, in so doing, enhance the turning response of the ski.

In skiing, the mechanics of monopedal function provide a down force acting predominantly through the ball of the foot (which is normally almost centred directly over the ski edge). In concert with transverse torque (pronation) arising from weight bearing on the medial aspect of the foot which torque is stabilized by the obligatory internal rotation of the tibia, the combination of these forces results in control of the edge angle of the ski purely as a result of achieving a position of monopedal stance on the outside foot of the turn. 

The edge angle can be either increased or decreased in monopedal function by increasing or decreasing the pressure made to bear on the medial aspect of the foot through the main contact points at the heel and ball of the foot via the mechanism of pronation. As medial pressure increases, horizontal torque (relative to the ski) increases through an obligatory increase in the intensity of internal rotation of the tibia. Thus, increasing medial pressure on the plantar aspect of the foot tends to render the edge-set more stable.

There are many figures that illustrate the concepts expressed in the above text which I will include in future posts.

The photo below shows the strain gauges (black disks) fit to the 1991 research vehicle. These gauges recorded first metatarsal forces under and to its inner or medial aspect and the outer and rearmost aspects of the heel bone.

I’ve learned a lot since the above information was made public after the patent was issued on November 30, 1993.

In Part 10, I will discuss the mechanism by which forces applied by the ball of the foot to what I call the Control Center of the platform provide quasi ground under the outside foot and leg in the load phase of a turn for a skier to stand and balance on.

SKIER BALANCE: IT’S ABOUT BALANCING OPPOSING TORQUES

The subject of my 4th post published on May 14, 2013 was the role of torques in skier balance. That this was one of my most important yet least viewed posts at 109 views suggests that the role of torques in skier balance is a concept foreign to skiers especially the authorities in the ski industry. This post is a revised version supplemented with information results from a recent study on balance control strategies.


While everyone recognizes the importance of good balance in skiing, I have yet to find an definition of what is meant by good balance, let alone a description of the neurobiomechanical conditions under which a skier is in balance during actual ski maneuvers. In order to engage in a meaningful discussion of balance, one needs to be able to describe all the forces acting on the skier, especially the opposing forces acting between the soles of the feet of the skier and the snow surface (ergo – applied and ground or snow reaction forces). Without knowing the forces involved, especially torques, any discussion of balance is pure conjecture. In 1991,  I formulated a hypothetical model that described these forces.  I designed a device with biomedical engineer to capture pressure data from the 3-dimensional forces (torques) applied by the foot and leg of the skier to the internal surfaces of the boot during actual ski maneuvers.

Test subjects ranged from Olympic and World Cup champions to novice skiers. By selectively introducing constraints that interfered with the neurobiomechanics of balance even a World Cup or Olympic champion calibre skier could be reduced to the level of a struggling beginner. Alternatively configuring the research device to accommodate the neurobiomechanical associated with skiing enabled novice skiers to use  balance processes similar to those of Olympic champions. To the best of my knowledge, no one had ever done a study of this nature before and no one has ever done a similar study since.

When analyzed, the data captured using the device called into question just about everything that is accepted as fact in skiing. This study was never published. For the first time I will present the data and describe the implications in future posts. We called the device shown in the photo the Birdcage. It was fully instrumented with 17 sensors strategically placed on a 3 dimensional grid.

Birdcage

The Birdcage instrumentation package was configured to detect coordinated neuromuscularly generated multiplane torques that oppose and maintain dynamic balance against external torques acting across the running surface of the inside edge of the outside ski in contact with the source of GRF (i.e. the snow).

  1. plantarflexion-dorsiflexion
  2. inversion-eversion
  3. external/internal vertical axial tibial rotation

Ankle torques are applied to the 3 points of the tripod arch of the foot (heel, ball of big toe, ball of little toe) and can manifest as hindfoot to rearfoot torsion or twisting wherein the forefoot rotates against the rearfoot.

A recent study (1.) on the role of torques in unperturbed (static) balance and perturbed (dynamic) balance found:

During perturbed and unperturbed balance in standing, the most prevalent control strategy was an ankle strategy, which was employed for more than 90% of the time in balance.

In both postures (unperturbed and perturbed) these strategies may be described as a single segment inverted pendulum control strategy, where the multi-segment system is controlled by torque about the most inferior joint with compensatory torques about all superior joints acting in the same direction to maintain a fixed orientation between superiorsegments.

The alignment of opposing forces shown in typical force representations in discussions of ski technique is the result of the neuromuscular system effecting dynamic balance of tri-planar torques in the ankle-hip system.

NOTE: Balance does not involve knee strategies. The knee is an intermediate joint between the ankle abd hip and is controlled by ankle/hip balance synergies.

The ankle strategy is limited by the foot’s ability to exert torque in contact with the support surface, whereas the hip strategy is limited by surface friction and the ability to produce horizontal force against the support surface.

Ankle balance strategies involve what are called joint kinematics; 3 dimensional movement in space of the joint system of the ankle complex. Contrary to the widely held belief that loading the ankle in a ski boot with the intent of immobilizing the joint system will improve skier balance, impeding the joint kinematics of the ankle will disrupt or even prevent the most prevalent control strategy which is employed for more than 90% of the time in balance. In addition, this will also disrupt or even prevent the CNS from employing multi-segment balance strategies.

Regardless of which strategy is employed by the central nervous system (CNS), motion and torque about both the ankle and hip is inevitable, as accelerations of one segment will result in accelerations imposed on other segments that must be either resisted or assisted by the appropriate musculature. Ultimately, an attempt at an ankle strategy will require compensatory hip torque acting in the same direction as ankle torque to resist the load imposed on it by the acceleration of the legs. Conversely, an attempt at a hip strategy will require complementary ankle torque acting in the opposite direction to hip torque to achieve the required anti-phase rotation of the upper and lower body.

Balance is Sensory Dependent

As a final blow to skier balance supporting the arch of the foot and loading the ankle impairs and limits the transfer of vibrations from the ski to the small nerve sensory system in the balls of the feet that are activated by pressure and skin stretch resulting in a GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) adverse effect on balance.

Spectral analysis of joint kinematics during longer duration trials reveal that balance can be described as a multi-link pendulum with ankle and hip strategies viewed as ‘simultaneous coexisting excitable modes’, both always present, but one which may predominate depending upon the characteristics of the available sensory information, task or perturbation.


  1. Balance control strategies during perturbed and unperturbed balance in standing and handstand: Glen M. Blenkinsop, Matthew T. G. Pain and Michael J. Hiley – School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, Loughborough University, Loughborough, Leicestershire LE11 3TU, UK – Royal Society Open Science

THE MECHANICS OF BALANCE ON THE OUTSIDE SKI: HEEL/FOREFOOT ROCKER

An essential mechanism to the ability to create a platform under the outside ski to stand and balance on using the same processes used to stand and balance on stable ground, is the Heel to Forefoot Rocker. A slide presentation called Clinical Biomechanics of Gait (1.) by Stephen Robinovitch, Ph.D. (Simon Fraser University – Kin 201) is a good reference for the various aspects of gait.

Slide 19 of the Gait presentation describes the ankle Inversion-Eversion-Inversion sequence of the ankle. The sequence begins with heel strike (HS), followed by forefoot loading (FF), followed by heel off (HO) followed by toe off (TO).

The normal foot is slightly inverted in the swing phase (unloaded) and at heel strike. It is everted through most of the stance phase. The ankle begins to invert in late stance. The kinetic flow of pressure is from the heel to the ball of the foot and big toe. This is what should happen in the transition phase of a turn sequence when a skier begins to transfer more weight to the inside foot and ski from the outside foot and ski. Up until the start of the transition, the skier’s center of mass is behind the inside foot with the majority of pressure under the heel on the transverse center of the foot and ski where is exerts an inversion torque that is tending to rotate the ski into contact with the surface of the snow. The skier maintains the edge angle by applying a countering eversion torque with a combination of external rotation-abduction of the inside leg.

When the skier begins to transfer more weight from the outside ski to the inside ski, the leg releases the countering eversion torque and the ski begins to invert in relation to the surface of the snow.

The presentation on the Clinical Biomechanics of Gait did not include important aspects of the stance phase that occurs in late stance. Nor, did it mention Achilles forefoot load transfer.

The Three Rockers

Slide 23 shows the Three Rockers associated with the gait cycle.

First Rocker – occurs at heel strike. It causes the ankle to plantarflex and rock the forefoot downward about the heel into contact with the ground. The rocker movement is controlled by eccentric dorsiflexor torque.

Second Rocker – shifts the center of pressure from the heel to the forefoot. Eccentric plantarflexor torque controls dorsiflexion of the ankle.

Third Rocker – occurs at heel separation from the ground that occurs in terminal phase of stance.

Slide 13 shows how the knee shifts gears and transitions from flexion in early stance to extension in late stance. In late stance, the Achilles goes into isometric traction. At this point, further dorsiflexion of the ankle passively tensions the plantar ligaments to intiate forefoot load transfer. Load transfer is accentuated when the knee shifts gears and goes into extension moving COM closer to the ball of the foot increasing the length of the lever arm.

Two Phase Second Rocker

Classic descriptions of stance and the associated rockers do not include a lateral-medial forefoot rocker component that occurs across the balls of the feet from the little toe side to the big toe side in conjunction with the heel to forefoot rocker creating what amounts to a Two Phase Second Rocker.

In his comment to my post, OUTSIDE SKI BALANCE BASICS: STEP-BY-STEP (2.), Robert Colborne said:

….… regardless of where the centre of mass is located relative to the centre of pressure in the above-described mechanism, when you go into a stable monopedal stance, as you would when you are in a turn, the ankle is dorsiflexed forward and as this occurs the tibia rotates internally several degrees.

COMMENT: The tibia rotates internally (i.e. into the turn) as a consequence of ankle dorsiflexion. It does not require conscious action by the skier.

This means that the main muscle forces acting across the ankle (the plantarflexors) are no longer acting along the long axis of the foot, but rather partly across it, medially toward the big toe.

So, the beneficial effect of that muscle force is to force the base of the big toe into the ground, and that becomes the centre of the turn (centre of pressure).

In the absence of this internal rotation movement, the center of pressure remains somewhere in the middle of the forefoot, which is some distance from the medial edge of the ski, where it is needed.

The photo below shows a skier in bipedal stance with weight distributed equally between the two feet standing on a plush carpet with foam underlay. Black hash marks show the positions in space of key aspects of the right foot and leg.

The photo below shows the same skier in monopedal stance with all the weight on the right foot. Forefoot loading from the Two Phase Second Rocker has pushed the toes down into the carpet by compressing the underlay.

The video below shows the dynamic action of the Two Phase Second Rocker.

The Two Phase Second Rocker results in a heel to ball of foot diagonal rocker action acting towards the centerline of the body; i.e. diagonally across the long axis of the ski with the load acting inside the shovel.

A primary objective of the Birdcage studies was to validate my hypothetical model of the Two Stage Diagonal (heel – forefoot) Second Rocker in creating a balance platform under the outside ski for a skier to stand and balance on.

The graphic below shows the alignment of the Two Stage Diagonal (heel – forefoot) Second Rocker.

In my next post, I will discuss the Two Stage Diagonal (heel – forefoot) Second Rocker Turntable Effect.


  1. http://www.sfu.ca/~stever/kin201/lecture_outlines/lecture_17_clinical_biomechanics_of_gait.pdf
  2. http://wp.me/p3vZhu-29n

THE POLISH SKIER BALANCE STUDY: IMPLICATIONS FOR THE FUTURE OF SKIING

The foot functions best in skiing when it’s joints are immobilized in a tightly fitting ski boot, preferably in a neutral position with the arch fully supported by a footbed.

This widely held position within the ranks of the ski industry implies that immobilizing the joints of the foot in a ski boot has positive benefits for skiers.

But the authors of the Polish study (1) that was the subject of a recent post cite research that indicates otherwise:

Wearing ski boots for a few hours can lead to a weakening of the muscles that operate within the ankle joint. This works as though one joint was excluded from the locomotive function.

………. according to Caplan et al. [3], the muscle groups that determine strength and are responsible for the function of stability in the ankle joint are very sensitive to changes caused by immobilisation. They found that immediately after immobilising the ankle joint for a week, the balance parameters were 50% lower than before the immobilisation.

The authors of an earlier Polish study (2) on skier balance also cite research that indicates otherwise:

It must be mentioned that the stiff ski boots of skiers facilitate the transfer of power to the skis, but they also increase the difficulty in maintaining postural control. Mildner et al. (2010) showed that balance performance on the MFT S3-Check was negatively influenced when wearing ski boots.

The authors of the recent Polish study (1) further commented:

Publications on issues related to the biomechanics of a descent, with particular emphasis on the balance parameters, are rare in the literature on alpine skiing.

The authors of a 2014 Polish study (2) on skier balance, similarly commented:

Our results were in agreement with the scarce information available regarding balance changes during or after a ski training camp.

The authors of a 2013 Italian study (3) made a similar comment with regard to ski equipment.

Despite the large market of ski equipment, not many scientific papers have been published on this subject in the past.

If research on balance in alpine skiing is rare and scarce in the literature and not many scientific papers have been published on ski equipmentwhere did the foot functions best in skiing when its joints are immobilized in a ski boot story come from?

The most plausible explanation is that the story was simply invented to distract attention away from the fact that no one knows what happens when the foot is constrained within the rigid shell of a ski boot.

Inventing a cover story is a typical strategy used when an issue can’t be explained. Using fact-deficient or obfuscating generalities to appear knowledgeable on a subject is not the same as being knowledgeable. Yet, few question this tactic. Instead, they assume that they’re just not smart enough to understand it and they ignore their judgment and common sense. Once people buy into a cover story, information bias sets in and they unconsciously filter out any information that challenges what they have chosen to believe.

The two Polish studies (1), (2) should be taken seriously by the ski industry because that the authors used barefoot balance as a reference against which to assess the effects of the ski boot and balance training on skier balance. In addition, the recent Polish  study (1) employed a systematic protocol; one that standardized conditions, controlled variables and acquired data that could be objectively quantified as opposed to subjectively interpreted based on uninformed observation. If balance was worse or improved after training, or in tests done with subjects wearing ski boots compared to the barefoot baseline, the protocol provided compelling evidence of the cause of the change.

The test subjects were closely matched in terms of physical characteristics and included both skiers and non skiers.

The findings of the study were as follows:

In the trials involving standing barefoot, there were no significant differences between the measurements taken at the beginning and at the end of the training programme. 

In none of the tests conducted on both feet were significant differences in the length of the COP path observed between the group of beginners and the group of advanced skiers.

In the case of standing on one foot, no signifcant differences were observed in the sway range in the frontal and sagittal planes between the measurements taken before and after the training camp (Table 3).

In both groups, a statistically significant improvement in stability was observed after the training camp only while standing in ski boots, both with the eyes open and the eyes closed (Fig. 2). 

The earlier Polish study (2) also did balance tests without subjects wearing shoes. The authors commented that:

It must be mentioned that the stiff ski boots of skiers facilitate the transfer of power to the skis, but they also increase the difficulty in maintaining postural control. Mildner et al. (2010) showed that balance performance on the MFT S3-Check was negatively influenced when wearing ski boots.

A study by Noé et al. (2009) found that mechanical effects of wearing ski boots resulted in changes in postural strategy through the reorganization of muscle coordination in experienced skiers. The improvements in balance performance in our study could also be explained by guided skiing including a number of lateral and fore-aft drills over a week of skiing. Exercises such as skiing only on the outside ski with the inside leg raised or skiing without poles are part of the curricula of ski instructor associations.

While this may sound like a good thing, the Polish study (1) found that the normal balance process was worsened:

What is interesting is that in the measurements involving the participants standing barefoot with their eyes open, significantly greater sways in the sagittal plane were observed after the training camp than before it.

My Hypothesis on How Elite Skiers Balance on the Outside Ski

In 1991, after having spent more than 10 years trying to solve the mystery of how the world’s best skiers are able to balance on their outside ski, I was about to embark on a project to design and produce a radical new ski boot. The design of the ski boot was based on my theory that the world’s best skiers balance on the outside ski through a sequential tightening of the bio kinetic chain that engages the processes of pronation followed by the application of internal axial rotation of the femur of the outside leg of a turn from the pelvis. The  bio kinetic chain is closed through inclination. Once the bio kinetic chain is closed by locking the inside edge of the ski into the snow,  internal axial rotation of the femur applied to the outside leg is translated through the subtalar joint into dual plane torque that opposes the torque that is inverting the outside ski (i.e. rotating it away from the turn). In effect, this bio kinetic mechanism enables the world’s best skiers to truly balance on the outside ski by balancing multi plane torques. The problem I faced was that I had no way to prove my theory. The technology I needed did not exist.

With the immobilization works best cover story already under a microscope as I was poised to move forward to try and design and develop a new ski boot, I found myself staring down the barrel of a loaded gun. I needed to prove my theory. But since the technology  to do this didn’t exist, I insisted that MACPOD retain a science team to work with me to see if we could develop a technology with which to confirm my theory and the bio kinetic sequence it predicted. The process resulted in the Birdcage and the on-hill studies done in the summer of 1991 using elite, intermediate and novice skiers. The most significant aspect of the Birdcage research vehicle was that it allowed the capture of baseline skier data equivalent to barefoot function and the study the effect of constraining specific joints.

The increasing use of protocols such as the one used for the Polish study (1) in combination with the rapidly evolving field of micro sensor technology and data analysis  is making quickly making the vision of the Birdcage as an analytical tool for activities like skiing and skating a reality. As this unfolds, widely held beliefs that are the foundation of skiing will increasingly come under the lens of a microscope.


(1) Influence of a nine-day alpine ski training programme on the postural stability of people with different levels of skills  (April 2016, Biomedical Human Kinetics (DOI: 10.1515/bhk-2016-0004) – Michał Staniszewski, Przemysław Zybko and  Ida Wiszomirska,  Józef Piłsudski University, Warsaw, Poland.

(2) Changes in the Balance Performance of Polish Recreational Skiers after Seven Days of Alpine Skiing – Beata Wojtyczek, Małgorzata Pasławska, Christian Raschner

(3) Materials, Designs and Standards Used in Ski-Boots for Alpine Skiing: Martino Colonna *, Marco Nicotra and Matteo Moncalero

ZEPPA-DELTA ANGLE AND THE STRETCH REFLEX

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.

static-preload

  • 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.