by Jack Heggie
Most skiers have had the experience of seeing a good ski racer blasting down an intermediate slope on his way to the race course. While weekend skiers are cautiously wending their way from side to side down the trail, the racer flies almost straight down the hills, as if suspended from an overhead wire, seemingly impervious to the problems that beset ordinary skiers. You can’t mistake a racer on the slopes. His grace, ease, and economy of movement immediately set him apart from the recreational skier.
Although anyone who has been skiing for a while can spot a racer or expert level skier on the slopes, not many realize that it’s easy to spot a really good skier standing still, or just coasting along on a catwalk, if you know what to look for.
At many ski areas, there are catwalks, access trails, and flat spots at the top of the mountain, with only a one or two degree slope, and the maximum speed attainable is just a few miles an hour. Here, the novice can go as fast as the expert . A push of the poles to get going, and then you just stand still and wait to get to the hill.
If you can’t find a place like this, especially if it leads to a more difficult trail, and watch for a while, you may discover a curious thing: many of the expert level skiers can be picked out of the crowd by the posture only, as they coast along.
Good posture is not easy to describe in words, but most people will find that they can easily recognize good and bad skiing stances. A good skier “sits back” on his skis, and his upper body is straight and vertical. This sounds simple enough, but very few skiers do it. Why is this?
In order an answer this question, we need to know about the human body’s response to falling. We all have an innate or unlearned response to falling that is present at birth. An infant’s response to falling consists of contracting all the flexor muscles of the body. Most of the flexors are at the front of the body, with the exception of the thighs. if you lie on the floor and bring your elbows to your ribs and your fists onto your breast, and then draw your knees up towards your chest and your feet towards your buttocks, and finally lower your head to your chest, you will have activated all of your flexor muscles.
When we first begin to ski, we spend a lot of time feeling as if we are going to fall, and in fact we usually do fall a lot. Therefore, the falling reflex is activated again and again, many times a day, until it becomes a habit of motion associated with skiing. Skiers without good body awareness unconsciously integrate this faulty pattern of motion into all their skiing techniques. Furthermore, they usually begin to feel that their bodies are standing erect even when they are not.
Keeping the torso straight and vertical is important for a number of reasons. For one thing, in this position the resistance to turning the body (technically the moment of inertia) is less. For another, the planes perpendicular to the spine at the hips and shoulders are parallel, and this allows the maximum transfer of angular momentum from the hips and shoulders to the skis. Also, the diaphragm and ribs are free to allow for easy breathing. If you continuously run out of breath while skiing, you are probably holding these parts of your body tight without knowing it. (Of course, if you just came up to the mountain yesterday from a desk job at sea level, you may have a different problem, which could be cured by a little jogging)
The problem of correcting this faulty way of skiing then becomes one of increasing body awareness, so that we can learn to feel if we are really in a good skiing posture or not.
Here is one way to do this. The next time you go skiing, find a flat level spot and stand still, skis slightly apart. Remove your poles and place them on the ground. Now begin to slowly twist your body from left to right. Continue, letting your arms be carried from left to right and back by the shoulders. Repeat this many times, and as you move, fix your attention on the bottoms of your feet, and note how they move against the boot. Then move up to your ankles. Can you feel the ankles twisting a little inside the boots? Let your attention wander slowly up your body, through your calves, knees, thighs, hips, chest, neck and head. Try to feel if all the parts are moving easily with respect to each other, or there are stiff areas.
By moving slowly and easily like this we can feel what’s happening in our bodies. When actually skiing, we are usually too concerned with the mechanics of staying upright to be able to continuously scan our bodies in this way.
Continue to twist easily left and right. Try to feel your hips turning with respect to your skis, your shoulders turning a little farther than your hips, and your head turning a little farther than your shoulders. What are your eyes doing? Let your eyes look easily to the left as you twist left, to the right when you twist right. Can you feel any change in your body when you involve your eyes in the motion?
When you have a good feeling for the turning motion, stop and bend forward a little, rounding your back. Bring your head down towards your knees a little. Try the turning movement now. There should be a clearly discernible increase in the effort required to turn. By exaggerating the faulty posture in this way it becomes easy to sense the difference in effort required to turn the body. How does it feel to breathe in this position?
Go back to your habitual stance and twist left and right a few times, then bend forward and twist some more. When you can clearly sense the difference in effort required to turn in the two positions, stand up straight. Continue to twist, and see if you can find a configuration of your body where the effort required to turn is even less than in your normal posture. To do this, try bending your knees a little more, then a little less. Lean forward as far as you can, then back as far as you can; try to arch your back a little, or change the position of your head, and so on. All the while, swing slowly left and right and scan your body as before. Make sure that you don’t hold your breath as you move.
When you have a good feeling for this motion, pick up your poles, and try to do it while moving slowly across the hill. By beginning slowly you can start to integrate your newly found awareness into your skiing. If you immediately head down the hill at full speed, your old habits will take over, and the exercise won’t work for you.
If you cannot clearly sense the difference in effort required to turn your body in various positions, you have found the reason that you cannot ski well – that is, you are unable to sense the difference between good and bad skiing postures.
By moving slowly and paying attention to your body, as you just did, you can increase your awareness or ability to feel how your body moves. This increased awareness will result in a direct increase in skiing ability.