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THE SHOCKING TRUTH ABOUT SKI BOOTS

In this post, I will expand on the content of The Shocking Truth About Power Straps (1.) which was by far the most popular post since I started this blog in 2013.

While the truth about what power straps can potentially do if improperly adjusted is shocking, the lack of support in principles of applied science for the basic premise that I describe as indiscriminate envelopment as the approach to achieving a fit of a ski boot with the foot and leg of the user with the objective of substantially immobilizing it’s joints with unknown consequences, is even more shocking. Little or no consideration appears to be given to the effects of indiscriminate envelopment on the balance and motor control systems of the skier.

What is done to the foot and (lower) leg can affect the entire body. In his post, Foot biomechanics is dead. Discuss (2.), Professor Chris Nester states:

The foot is not a compilation of interconnected mechanical components that respond precisely to the laws of mechanics. It is a complex matrix of at least 11 biological tissues (i.e. skin, fat, muscle, tendon, joint capsule, ligament, bone, cartilage, fascia, nerves, blood vessels….) that responds to external loads through the symbiotic relationship between the motor control system and tissue properties.

Professor Nester goes on to state:

I believe the integration of our current foot biomechanics knowledge with insights from motor control, neurophysiology and related domains (e.g. tissue biology) will drive advances in foot function more than pursuing a pure mechanics paradigm.

Professor Nester proposes that the term biomechanics be replaced with the term Neurobiomechanics. I concur.

How Does the Ski Boot Affect the Human Performance of the Skier?

The short answer is that when the structures of a ski boot indiscriminately envelop the structures of a foot and a portion of the leg (aka the Perfect Fit or the Holy Grail), no one knows. While it is essential that a ski boot create a secure connection of the foot of a skier with the ski, it should not achieve this connection at the expense of natural neuromuscular function, especially balance.

In 1980, when I was about to prepare a new pair of Lange race boots for Steve Podborski, I asked myself whether it was possible to obtain a secure connection of the foot with the ski without compromising natural neuromuscular function or, even better, was it possible to enhance natural neuromuscular function?

I took a significant step towards answering this question in 1980 when I designed and fabricated a device I called a Dorthotic. The Dorthotic supports the upper or dorsal aspect of the foot as opposed to supporting the plantar aspect (i.e. the arch). My theory that loading the top of the foot or dorsum with a force perpendicular to the transverse or medial-lateral plantar plane of the foot has positive benefits for motor control and balance has begun to be recognized. The Dorthotic enabled Steve Podborski to compete and win on the World Cup Downhill circuit mere months after reconstructive ACL surgery and to eventually win the World Cup Downhill title, a feat no non-European has repeated. US and international patents for the dorsal device were awarded to me (David MacPhail) in 1983.

The success of the Dorthotic gave me a start towards answering the question of whether a secure connection of the foot with a ski was possible without compromising natural neuromuscular function. But I knew that I needed to learn a lot more. I realized that finding the answers I was seeking and especially unraveling the secret that enables the world’s best skiers to stand and balance on their outside ski, would require a multi-disciplinary approach.

The Missing Factor in Skiing: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach

A significant influence that served as the impetus for the design of the Birdcage research vehicle and the on-snow studies, was the work of Dr. Benno Nigg. In 1981, Dr. Nigg accepted an invitation to move from ETH Zurich, where he was the director of the biomechanics laboratory, to the University of Calgary, where he founded and developed the Human Performance Laboratory (HPL), a multi-disciplinary Research Center that concentrated on the study of the human body and its locomotion.

The publication of the Shoe In Sport in English in 1988 served as a seque to introduce me to Nigg’s research at HPL. Studies done at HPL found that any interference with the function of the human foot, even a thin sock, extracts a price in terms of the adaptive process the human body has to undergo to deal with what is really an externally imposed disability.

The Effect of Footwear on the Neuromusculoskeletal System

There is an excellent discussion in a recent post on the Correct Toes blog (3.) on the impact of a narrow toe box, toe spring and elevated heel of traditional footwear on the human body. Elevating the heel in relation to the forefoot will predictably cause a realigment of the ankle-knee-pelvis joint system with a corresponding adjustment in the tension of the associated muscles with a global effect on the Neuromuscularskeletal System. This has been known for decades. Elevating the heel in relation to the forefoot, will cause the ankle joint to plantarflex (reduce dorsiflexion) in relation to the support surface under the foot in order to maintain COM within the limits of the base of support.

Ramp Angle Rules

Due to the unstructured nature of the indiscriminate envelopment characteristic of the fit of the majority of conventional ski boots, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to determine the effect of constraint of this nature on the Neuromusculoskeletal System. So I’ll focus on the one aspect of the ski boot that has consistent and profound implications on skier human performance, especially motor control and balance; boot board ramp angle or zeppa. Binding ramp angle or delta compounds any effect of zeppa. For the sake of simplicity we’ll assume zero delta.

Contrary to the widely help perception, raising the heel of a skier in a ski boot does not cause CoM to move forward. In fact, it usually has the exact opposite effect. It puts a skier in the back seat with the weight on their heels. Worse, it can disrupt the competence of the biokinetic chain that dynamically stabilizes and protects the joints of the lower limbs. Excessive heel elevation can render a skier static and cause the balance system to resort to using the back of the shaft as a security blanket.

As of this writing, I am unaware of any standard within the ski industry for zeppa. It appears to be all over the map with some boots having as much as 6.5 or more degrees. The default zeppa for the human foot on a hard, flat level surface, is zero.

Through subjective experiments in 1978, I arbitrarily determined that zeppas in excess 3° had a detrimental affect on skier balance. In 1991, zeppas of 2.3° and 2.5° were chosen for the large (US 8-12) and small (US 4-8) Birdcages based on an analysis of the effect of ramp angle on COM and neuromuscular activity. This range appears to work for a majority of recreational skiers. But recent tests with a dynamic ramp angle assessment device that I designed and fabricated is finding the stance of elite skiers optimizes at much lower zeppa angles, with some skiers below 1.5°. Interestingly, when NABOSO insoles are introduced for the assessment, zeppas decrease even further. With minimal training, most skiers are sensitive to dynamic changes in zeppa of 0.1 degrees.

Implications for the future of skiing

A tectonic shift is underway on a number of fronts (see A Revolution) that is challenging the mechanical and static premises that form the underpinnings of the key positions in ski teaching and the design of equipment such as ski boots and the fit process. In my next post I will post recent material by Dr. Emily Splichal, functional podiatrist and inventor the revolutionary NABOSO small proprioceptive stimulating insole.


  1. https://wp.me/p3vZhu-UB
  2. https://talkingfeet.online/2018/01/18/question-3-foot-biomechanics-is-dead-discuss/
  3. https://www.correcttoes.com/foot-help/footwears-impact-musculoskeletal-system/