"When you stand with your two feet on the ground, you will always keep your balance."
We know that sports performance in enhanced when the proprioception system reacts quickly to changes in the body pertaining to balance, speed and position. There are three primary locations in the body that have a high density of proprioceptive nerve endings these are the feet, the spine and the neck.
These nerve endings in the feet are of particular interest as they are responsible for a lot of innate reflexive reactions important for balance while moving in an upright orientation. As skiers we lock our feet into hard plastic shell boots that restrict their natural movement. We let our feet freeze until we can't feel them and they become like two blocks of ice on the ends of our legs. We also don't take enough time to stretch, strengthen and massage the tissues that support the health of our feet. The result is often bone spurs, bunions and fallen arches.
All of these injuries dampen the proprioceptive feedback we get from the feet to help us master stance and balance while skiing. The good news is we can do a great deal with the ski boots and insoles to keep the feet healthy and the body above aligned. As skiers we should take seriously the task of keeping our feet healthy. With healthy feet proprioception improves, balance and reaction time improve and thus on snow performance improves.
You stand on them all the time but you probably don't know a lot about them. The feet are a marvel of biological engineering. They are strong enough to withstand tremendous pressure over the course of a long distance run and at the same time possess the flexibility to adapt to a wide variety of terrain.
One third of the bones in the body are located in the feet and ankles. This means there are a lot of joints and a lot of inter joint cartilage that can become damaged with repetitive force trauma. Joint instability from misalignment will result in forces distributing unevenly causing wear and tear to inter joint cartilage which turns into inflammation, restricted range of motion, bone thickening. This is the path to inter joint degeneration and osteoarthritis.
Generally, healthy feet have strong metatarsal arches and straight toes with a full range of motion. Standing and walking with healthy feet feels like not much of anything where as standing and walking on feet that have misalignments will result in foot pain and not uncommonly pain throughout the body. If the base of support is misaligned then the rest of the body will compensate but this could mean other parts of the body are chronically misaligned and further pain and injury is the likely result.
In most cases however there is a lot that can be done for foot misalignment. Wearing properly fitting ski boots that are not too old and worn out is incredibly important and a topic of such depth that I won't even attempt to get into it in this blog series. Instead I will suggest locating a good boot fitter a having custom footbeds made and engaging in daily stretching and strengthening exercises thought the season will go a long way to correcting misalignment issues.
It is very important if you spend a substantial amount of time in ski boots to invest in a well made foot bed. There is a large range of options out there that vary significantly in price and support. A footbed will ensure the neutral alignment of the ankles and feet while standing in the skis. It is ideal to work with a skilled boot fitter who will take some time to analyze your stance and alignment. If you have significant imbalances in the feet then seeking out a podiatrist who is skilled in preparing orthotics for athletes might be appropriate.
A good custom footbed is moulded to your foot so that you feel contact along the entire length of the base of the foot instead of pressure under only the ball and heel of the foot. With this great contact there is more sensory feedback. It is easier to pressure the inner edge of the ski evenly. If arches are falling extra support will help keep the ankle joint optimally aligned while rolling the skis on edge.
There is a surprising variety of materials and techniques used to create custom footbeds. Each method has it's proponents and it's critics. Ultimately it's important that you work with a boot fitter who isn't only going to give you a footbed that they like to create but one that will actually work for your unique foot needs.
The two main scales are hard posted vs soft posted and weighted vs unweighted. The first scale has to do with the stiffness of the material used. A firmer material or hard posted footbed is an older technology that creates a solid arch support but may reduce the mobility of the ankle joint to invert the foot to tip the skis on edge. The softer material is currently more popular and believed by some to be superior in allowing the natural movement of the foot and ankle to roll onto edge but offers less arch support thus is not terribly beneficial for skiers who have pre-existing foot alignment issues like fallen arches.
The second scale weighted vs unweighted refers to how the footbed is moulded. Weighted refers to either standing on the heated material or sitting but with the boot fitter pushing down on your feet while the moulding is taking place. A weighted foot bed will be in the shape of your foot while you are standing upright normally which makes a lot of intuitive sense, however if you have a problem foot the mould will be of the problem not the needed correction. Unweighted involves sitting with legs supported so the mould is of the foot with it's arch at it's highest point.
I have a developing bunion on my left foot that is compromising the strength of my arch. My footbeds from seven years ago were made hard posted and weighted. I immediately noticed a dramatic difference in the fit of my boot and ability to get the skis on edge. However, I do feel that the left footbed has a lower arch support than the right and this makes a subtle but noticeable difference in the amount of effort I need to expend turning to the right.
My most recent foot beds were soft posted weighted where the boot fitter guided me to align my stance so as to keep the arches of my feet engaged. I find that this foot bed allows for a more natural movement of my foot within the boot however as the boot has broken in and packed out I feel like my foot no longer sits in the right place and the arch support of the softer material does not give me nearly the same amount of sensory feedback as the older firmer footbed.
For my next footbed I am taking the middle path with a semi-stiff material and unweighted moulding for really high arch support. I am hoping this will help support my left arch which is falling and a new intuition liner should help with the packing out problem. I will definitely let you know how it goes.
While it may take a little effort and at least a couple trips to your boot fitter to get the right fit it is absolutely worth it. The best strategy for foot injury is prevention because once it starts it's hard to stop. Once you have taken every step possible to prevent foot injury by optimizing the hardware you are ready to focus on the daily maintenance of your feet. Foot therapeutic practices like daily stretches, strengthening and strategies for dealing with bone spurs. More on this topic next week.
Next Week: Essential Therapy for Skier's Feet