perfect fit

IN THE BEGINNING: HOW I GOT STARTED IN SKI BOOT MODIFICATIONS

I originally published this post on May 12, 2013. This is a revised and edited version.


Before I started ‘tinkering’ with ski boots in 1973, I didn’t just read everything I could find on the subject of fitting boots, I devoured every bit of information I could find on the subject. The assumption I made at that time was that the experts in the field not only knew what they were talking about, but that they also had the requisite knowledge and understanding of the underlying principles to back up their positions with applied science and/or research. Based on this assumption, I started modifying ski boots by doing all the things the experts recommended such as padding the ankle to ‘support’ and ‘stabilize’ it in the boot shell and cuff and adding cants between the soles of the boots and the skis to make the skis sit flat on the snow. But the big breakthrough for me came when I started making footbeds to support the foot.

Within a year I had gained expertise in my craft to the point that skiers from all over Canada were starting to seek out my services. In  response, I started a company called Anatomic Concepts. Soon, I was spending most of my free time working on ski boots. But while I was helping a lot of skiers ski better, none of what I was learning or doing was helping my own skiing. I was still struggling after switching from low-cut leather boots to the new stiff, all plastic boots.

The (Un)Holy Grail

Despite the inability to solve my own problems, my thinking remained aligned with conventional thinking right up until my experience with Mur and the ‘Holy Grail’ of ski boots; the perfect fit of the boot with the foot and leg of the skier.

In 1977, Roger McCarthy (head of the Whistler Ski Patrol), whose boots I had worked, on introduced me to Nancy Greene Raine in the Roundhouse on top of Whistler Mountain. The timing was perfect. Racers on our National Ski Team were having boot problems. They needed help. It was a classic case of me being in the right place at the right time. Nancy recruited me, flew me to Calgary at her expense and introduced me to the National Team and Dave Murray. She set up a working arrangement with the team, one in which I was completely independent. Nancy also introduced me to Glen Wurtele, head coach of the BC Ski Team. At Wurtele’s request, I began working on the boots of members of the team.

I started working on the boots of NAST (National Alpine Ski Team) racers with Dave Murray; ‘Mur’ as he was affectionately known. My thinking at that time vis-a-vis the need to immobilize the foot and achieve a ‘perfect fit’ of the boot with the foot was aligned with the approach of the  ‘experts’ in the  field. Mur didn’t live far from me. When I was working on his boots, he seemed to spend more time at our home than his. Because of my ready access to Mur, I saw an opportunity to achieve the Holy Grail of skiing with a fit of the boot with the foot so perfect that the foot was for all intents and purposes rendered rigid and immobile and united with the structures of the ski boot.

To achieve this lofty goal I spent the better part of 2 weeks working for hours every night carefully crafting a matrix of heat formable 1 mm thick vinyl around Mur’s foot and leg and the shells of his boots with my inserts inside the liners of the boot. When Mur finally confirmed he was ‘loaded, locked and ready’ he went skiing to test the results. I waited for the inevitable confirmation of success and certain celebration that would follow. But after what seemed like an eternity, instead of the expected good news, Mur called to tell me that he could barely ski with my perfect fit. He had little or no balance or control. The Holy Grail had reduced a world class skier to a struggling beginner. I didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that the industry had to be way off track especially in view of the recent publication of Professor Verne T. Inman’s seminal book, The Joints of the Ankle.

After this experience I knew that there was way more going on than I understood. I started learning about human physiology, in particular, about the mechanics, neuralbiomechanics and physics of skiing. I started asking hard questions that no one in the industry seemed to have answers for. And I started going off in a very different direction from the one the industry was acquiring increasing momentum in. If the perfect fit could impose what amounts to a severe disability on one of the world’s best skiers I could only imagine what such indiscriminate constraint was doing to the average recreational skier. It could not be good. For me it certainly wasn’t.

A major turning point came for me in 1988 when a husband and wife radiology team who had heard about my efforts to try and develop a ski boot based on anatomical principles presented me with a copy of a medical text called The Shoe in Sport published in German in 1987. This seminal work contains an entire chapter dedicated to The Ski Boot. I discuss the issues raised about the design and fabrication of ski boots by international experts in the articles in chapter on The Ski Boot in my most viewed post to date; THE SHOCKING TRUTH ABOUT POWER STRAPS (1.)

The Root of Misinformation

Unfortunately for skiing, the relevance and significance of the knowledge contained in The Shoe in Sport was overshadowed by the publication in 1971 of the book, the Biomechanical Examination of the Foot, Volume 1 by Drs. Merton Root, William Orien, John Weed and Robert Hughes. The book lists what the authors call their “Eight Biophysical Criteria for Normalcy”. These criteria, which have since been challenged and shown to be largely invalid,  were claimed to represent the “ideal physical relationship of the boney segments of the foot and leg for the production of maximum efficiency during static stance or locomotion”.

A key component of the biophysical criteria was that a bisection  of the lower third of the leg be perpendicular to the ground and the subtalar joint rest in neutral. Root described neutral as occuring when the subtalar joint was neither supinated or pronated.

In order to be considered normal, a foot had to meet all eight biophysical criteria. The effect of this criteria, which was arbitrary, was to render the majority of the feet of the world’s population abnormal and candidates for corrective interventions. Although Root never stated, implied or suggested it, his neutral sub-talar theory appears to have been misinterpretated in the ski industry to mean that the foot functions best in static ski stance when its joints are immobilized in neutral (sub talar).

In recent years, Root’s Sub-Talar Neutral Theory has come under increasing challenge with calls to discontinue its use (2.).

Conclusions
Taken as part of a wider body of evidence, the results of this study have profound implications for clinical foot health practice. We believe that the assessment protocol advocated by the Root model is no longer a suitable basis for professional practice. We recommend that clinicians stop using sub-talar neutral position during clinical assessments and stop assessing the non-weight bearing range of ankle dorsiflexion, first ray position and forefoot alignments and movement as a means of defining the associated foot deformities. The results question the relevance of the Root assessments in the prescription of foot orthoses.

The results of the wider body of evidence have the potential to have profound implications for skiing in terms of the application of Root’s Subtalar Neutral Theory as putting the foot in the most functional position for skiing by supporting and immobilizing it in neutral (subtalar).


  1. https://wp.me/p3vZhu-UB
  2. https://jfootankleres.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13047-017-0189-2

TIGHT FEET, LOOSE BOOTS – LOOSE FEET, TIGHT BOOTS

In order to get the best connection of the foot with the ski the boot must fit the foot as closely and as tightly as possible. Race boots need to be narrow in forefoot, significantly narrower than recreational boots, so that the boot will grip the forefoot tightly for ‘optimal steering’ control. We know these things to be true because that’s what the experts preach, or at least that’s the official story. If everyone agrees on an issue then consensus equals truth. In my case, I knew this was true because I couldn’t seem to get a tight fit of my feet with my ski boots. Other skiers must have been having the same problem because in the ’70s improving fit was a common theme of ski magazine articles on boot fitting. And there was an array of ankle pads and other aids available to help tighten the fit.

If one had a loose fit of their foot in their ski boots the answer was simple; improve the fit with pads or foam injected liners that precisely conform to the shape of the foot. Today heat formable liners and even heat formable boot shells, considered by some to be the Holy Grail of skiing, are available as are boots formed to lasts made from 3 D scans of the user’s foot. Perfection draws closer. That all boot fit technology has gravitated towards the perfect fit serves to prove the soundness of the concept………or maybe not. Maybe there is something else going on.

First, let’s be clear. The foot must be constrained in some fashion to achieve an intimate connection with the ski. But what I started to notice is that the feet of elite skiers were different in a fundamental way from those of lesser skiers whose feet were in turn different from the feet of those (of which I was one) who were struggling to ski in rigid plastic ski boots. Specifically, the feet of the elite skiers were compact and seemed tighter than the feet of lesser skiers. What do I mean by tighter? The foot has 28 bones that shift in relation to each other in three-dimensional space. The movement of the bones is constrained by soft tissue, in particular  ligaments that bind the bones together. The movement of the bones of the feet of elite skiers seemed to be more constrained by ligaments than the bones of the feet of lesser skiers. Put another way, the feet of elite skiers appeared to be able to function reasonably well within the constraints of the rigid plastic ski boot.

An excellent animation showing the movement of the bones of the foot called, ‘Ankle & Subtalar Joint Motion Function Explained Biomechanics of the Foot – Pronation & Supination by Dr Glass DPM’ can be viewed at – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0R4zRSE_-40

The problem is that in an industry where the foot is represented by an inanimate one-piece last, the tendency is to view all but the most deformed feet as equal. Clearly this is not the case. Research on foot characteristics has classified the human foot into three categories; 1) tightly bound, 2) moderately bound and, 3) loosely bound. If your feet fall into category 1), tightly bound, and your foot is compact with moderate or less width, the odds are that you will find skiing easy. Category 2 is less certain while category 3), of which, I was one, means that attempts to tighten the fit of the ski boot could, and usually do, actually make the bones of the foot looser because the structures of the boot interfere with the processes that tighten the bones of the foot. This results in a perceived looseness of the foot, which can lead to subsequent attempts to tighten the fit of the boot resulting in a vicious circle.

Recognizing that foot structure can affect the ability to ski adds a layer of complexity, one that marketers would probably rather ignore. The essence of effective marketing is simplicity. “Watch what I do. Listen to what I tell you to do and you will ski like me”. Easy! Except for the fact that for the majority it doesn’t work this way. They may try their best to ski like the best. But the simple fact of the matter is…….they can’t because of their type of foot type. Like the earth is flat story, once people buy into concept they tend to stick with with it even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is flawed. The brain subconsciously filters out any information that disagrees with the official position. So those with loosely bound feet “don’t get no respect”.

But it gets worse. Skiers with tightly bound feet tend to ski with their boots loosely buckled. Cases have been documented of racers winning races who had forgotten to close their boot buckles. Skiers with tightly bound feet usually ski best with loosely buckled ski boots, something those with loosely bound feet would find unthinkable. The resulting Paradox flies in the face of the common sense. So it is conveniently ignored. Skiers with tightly bound feet usually end up being the ski pros by a process of elimination. The best feet rise to the top. Because the best skiers tend to assume that skiing is a simple matter of teaching someone to do what they can easily do, they don’t appreciate, let alone understand, why others can’t seem to get it.

In summary, loosely bound feet require much more three-dimensional space in which to acquire tightness than tightly bound feet. Tightly bound feet function best in minimally tensioned ski boots. But maximal constraint can never make loosely bound feet tight because a tight fitting boot inhibits the physiologic processes that tighten the joints of the foot. Knowing this, I knew that the answer had to be to find a way to constrain the foot in a manner that allowed the tightening processes of all types of feet to engage. If this were possible all feet would become equal. In effect, this would serve to level the playing field or perhaps better stated, make the slope more consistent for everyone.

KNEE INJURIES – PART 1

In LESS REALLY IS MORE I talked about how I gone in a direction opposite from that of the industry after my perfect fit experience with Mur. I was now removing material from ski boots instead of adding material and expanding shells where necessary to make room for the structures of the foot. While this seemed to generally have a positive effect on skier balance and the ability to control skis, especially edging, removing material from the sides of the boot liner  exacerbated the fact that in the majority of cases I was encountering the shell wasn’t loading the instep of the foot. The reason for this turned out to be  that there was a void between the top of the tongue of the liner and the inner surface of the shell over the forefoot. This was allowing the foot to move upward into the void space or unload from contact with the sole plate (aka boot board) in response to changes or perturbations in ground reaction force. I coined the effect Separation Anxiety because of the alarm bells it was setting off in the skier’s balance system.

After I became aware of this effect, I started doing experiments to try and understand how it was affecting a skier’s balance and ability to control their skis. While riding ski lifts with foot rests (the old slow chairlifts) I would let one of my feet drop off the foot rest and try and feel what was happening with my foot and leg inside the boot when the foot unloaded from the boot board. At that time, I wasn’t thinking in terms of trying find a solution for knee injuries. I saw this as an issue that would be addressed by refinements in bindings which at that time were rapidly evolving. Through my experiments I had come to the realization that the unloading and reloading of the sole of the foot with the boot board, such as occurs when a skier is moving over irregular terrain, was setting off a chain-reaction of physiological events that were creating balance issues. Although I didn’t know exactly how, this unload/load cycle  seemed to be placing stress on the knee. But my focus was trying to find a way to reduce the effect on skier balance. In effect, I was trying to achieve a net improvement in skier balance by reducing negative balance artifacts.

The standard solution in those days was to attempt wedge the heel with heel or L-pads inserted in the liner. The objective was to keep the foot from lifting. I tried this approach. But I  found it didn’t work as advertised. The pads invariably caused problems with the Achilles tendon or they prevented the heel from seating in the back of the shell, or both. The latter had the effect of making the liner shorter and the boot hell to put on. I was looking for a better solution. But it wasn’t until 1980, while working on Podborski’s boots, that I came up with a device that eventually led to my being granted US Patent Number 4,534,122.

KNEE INJURIES – PART 2

When I started skiing in 1970, the buzz was all about the new safety bindings. Debates raged in magazines and ski shops over which binding was the best as in the safest. After years of skiing being perceived as dangerous because of the incidence of broken legs, a new era had arrived with the introduction of a generation of sophisticated bindings. This created the perception that it was finally safe to go out play on the ski hills. But as the sound of snapping leg bones faded into the background it was replaced by an even grimmer sound; the popping of knee ligaments, in particular, torn ACLs. Before the introduction of the rigid plastic ski boot, few skiers had ever heard of an ACL. That was about to change.

It was about the time that I started working with National Ski Team members in 1977 that I began to hear of racers suffering knee injuries. Knee injuries seemed to start with a trickle. I can’t even recall hearing of a recreational skier suffering one. Like most skiers, I believed that the new bindings had addressed the injury issue. Even after knee injuries started to increase in frequency I thought it only a matter of time before refinements would be made to ski bindings and that this would be the end of them. As the popping of ligaments got more frequent, panic seemed to set in in the industry. Skiing had entered a period of vigorous growth. The last thing it needed was a good news, bad news story as in, “The good news is that the rigid plastic boot has made skiing easier. Now for the bad news…..”. As best I can recall, it was around 1980 that a team of spanish orthopaedic surgeons published a study linking the introduction of the rigid plastic boot to knee injuries noting that the incidence appeared to be rising in lock-step with sales of the boot. A classic problem-solving strategy is to go back to the time when a problem first emerged and look for anything that changed. In this case, the most significant change was in the boot. Meantime, those with expertise in biomechanics were pointing out that by stiffening the ankle the boot was sending the forces of skiing upward to the relatively weak knee.

In retrospect, it seemed like it should have been obvious that encasing the foot within what amounts to an orthopedic splint would act to transfer force up the leg. It’s ironic, if not erroneous, that the industry, even today, talks about the boot transferring energy to the ski as if this were the end game of skiing. The reality is that unless the ski industry has repealed Newton’s Third Law (which is doubtful), if a skier were to transfer energy to anything through the boot it would be through the stack of equipment between the sole of the boot to the source of Ground (or Snow) Reaction Force at the snow. This being the case, according Newton’s Third Law which states; “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”, the snow will transfer an equal amount of energy through the stack of equipment back up the skier’s leg to the knee. The issues are way more complex than a simple transfer of energy. But I will start with the simple and obvious then build from here.

The question is, “Given the established reputation of skiing as being a dangerous sport prior to the introduction of the rigid plastic ski boot and the fact that skis attached to the foot and leg act as force multipliers, did anyone consider the implications of trying to immobilize the foot and leg within a rigid plastic ski boot?”

A CINDERELLA STORY: THE ‘MYTH’ OF THE PERFECT FIT

Everyone knows that the ‘Holy Grail’, the ultimate fit of a ski boot, is achieved when the shape of the ski boot perfectly matches the shape of the foot and the foot is completely immobilized. The reason given for immobilizing the foot is that this is how the foot functions best in skiing. We know this to be true because it is what everyone has been saying for decades. So it must be true. Or is it? If it were true, then those who promote the idea should be able to explain how immobilizing the foot with a perfect fit of the boot with foot makes the foot function better in skiing. But there’s one small detail – no one can. Immobilizing the joints of the foot (if it were even possible without fusing every joint) would render it dysfunctional. So how would making the foot dysfunctional make it function best for skiing? It wouldn’t. And no one can possibly explain, using sound principles of science and contemporary knowledge of functional anatomy how making the foot and leg dysfunctional would serve any useful purpose.

Here’s the reality. The human system is an amazingly complex, extremely sophisticated organism.  Despite appearances that suggest otherwise, the human lower limbs are one of the most complex anatomical structures known. The human foot and ankle complex is a strong, sophisticated mechanical structure consisting of 208 functional elements and 200,000 nerve endings with 28 bones, 33 joints (20 of which are actively articulated), and more than a hundred muscles, tendons, and ligaments. It is one of the most dynamic organisms in the human system. Yet the footwear industry continues to view foot in the paradigm of an inanimate, solid shape as reflected in static shoe lasts, which even today remain the de facto model of the human foot. The Perfect Fit is elusive because it doesn’t exist except in fairy tales. It’s nothing more than a Cinderella story.

Ski Boot Last