19 April, 2010

No Support In Ski Boots

In the running community, lately, there has been a huge amount of talk of the problems which are caused by peoples running shoes.  The argument, which was spurred in the book "Born To Run" by Christopher McDougall, is that our footwear is creating all those problematic knee injuries and muscle imbalances.  A really important issue to address during the summer and fall cross training season, but what about applying the idea of non supportive footwear to ski mountaineering race boots?  This is a quite the taboo subject when it comes to ski boots, but we'll get back to that in a minute.

In his book, McDougall, found that since the invention of modern day running shoes we are seeing even more injuries than we've ever seen before.  And to add to this, there is no research that proves that the shoes we are running in currently, are even helping us.  The point to take from this is that when we are taking a stride and landing, the pronation control, angulation, cushioning, and corrective design, of the shoe is causing us to land in an unnatural position.  So why not run in a non-supportive, simplistic shoe, such as a running sandle or vibram style sock (even barefoot)?

He goes on to explain that it is in our history to be runners, and that the human body is designed for endurance.  As a matter of fact we are the only animal that is designed for endurance.  This point has been proved by centuries of ultra-running efforts of 50 miles and more, multiple days, and more with absolutely no supportive footwear.  The basic argument is that our anscesors and these various tribes are landing naturally while running, the way their bodies were intended to land, building muscle and sport-specific skill to protect their bodies from injury (for more detail read the book).

Now lets bring this argument to ski mountaineering.  Why should we have footbeds, and orthotics, designed to correct our stance?  With downhill ski racing a supportive and corrective stance is important. Footbeds and orthotics provide that.  It does add additional support and snugness to the boot, allowing the racer to maximize power transfer, edge better, and ski faster.  Combined with a tight/snug fit, this is does limit certain movements in the foot, such as plantar and dorsiflexion, but improves lateral precision and power.  These limitations are incredibly bad for ski mountaineering, which requires the most range of motion from the foot as possible. (Photo Right:  Jay Neil dropping in full downhill control, Chief Pascal, BC)

During a stride, for those of us who are pronated (and which most footbeds, orthotics, and shoes are trying to align/correct), the foot goes through a few stages of motion to pronate.  Pronation is when the arch of the foot flattens, and heel bone angles inward, as the foot first strikes the ground, this creates a shock absorbing effect when the heel hits the ground, and also assists in balance.  This is essentially the suspension or shock absorption for our body.  Now keeping this in mind, by correcting or re-aligning the foot, we are essential not allowing our bodies to do what needs to be done to cushion each step.  As a matter of fact, some studies have shown that people who wear cushioned running shoes actually experience a higher force of impact than those who wear nearly nothing at all.
(Photo Above:  James Minifie on the WC 2010 Relay Course, perfect downhill for knee injuries, ruts, depressions, all at high speeds with tiny little skis on.)
So while ski mountaineering, which is still a very low impact sport, if the foot cannot move properly the way it was designed to move, during training we will be opening our knees and joints up to a higher chance of overuse injury.  Not only injury, but when skiing off cliffs and landing, jumping, or skiing higher impact terrain, our bodies are less able to absorb this impact as efficiently while using corrective or pronation controlling footwear.  Adding to these problems, if our feet are being "corrected" into different angles and positions, we are less able to angle our skis in awkward or steep offcamber skin tracks, make hard rock/mountaineering movements while climbing, and get as much power and efficiency in our glide phase while skinning on the flats.
All of this put together equals minutes over even a short course, and limits range of motion while in the backcountry, exposing yourself by limiting your natural abilities.  Having a flat or natural platform to stand on, eliminates all these problems, as the foot can freely adjust inside the boot, and get the most natural bone/muscular motion it needs (even though the boot is still snug).  (Photo Below Right:  Jeff Van Driel with a full range of motion in his ski boot, climbing on the Misty Icefield.)

This does help us in the field to realize the potential problems.  While training, or even everyday life we can train our bodies to be stronger using this theory as well.  By wearing a slipper, vibram slipper, or going barefoot we can build the muscles in our knees just by walking around normally.  These muscles will translate into running, and you can eventually begin running in this footwear once your body has begun to adapt, which all protects the knee in the long run during hard training in the race season and cross training in the off season.  All you are doing is allowing your body to function the way it should, and not the way a brand of footbeds believes you should.  This allows your body to develop muscle to protect from injury, give you more power/speed, and spending less chance of being forced to take time off from a beaten up body.

Note:  This article is based on various different training and physiological theories.  Many people are having a great deal of success with it, but be careful starting out, its not for everyone, and ease into it.


  1. I think the reason there are more injuries these days is because people are...FAT

  2. SLC is actually right - there are way too many people running out there who should either a) be cycling or b) lose weight BEFORE they start a running program. Also, many out of shape people take a 'fast track' marathon, or even 10K clinic, to lose weight, etc. This is wrong, too. Very few running clinics teach biomechanical 'form'and the emphasis is simply upon plodding along at a slow, impactful pace. I am sure that skimo requires a great skill-set in a wide variety of conditions. Hopefully their boots are more comfortable than most DH ski boots!

  3. Great points guys. Although I wrote this with athletes in mind, they are very valid points. Even athletes need to remember to put the time in, and learn as much as possible, spend time on form, and study/practice as much as possible.

    As for skimo boots, yes they are way more comfortable than a DH boot, but can be problematic if fit wrong. I think the with a few tweaks there can be way more power that comes from each stride, and can build speed.

  4. Do all the elite marathoners and track and field atheletes train in shoes? Why?

  5. Training on pavement with a barefoot/vibram sock-shoe, can be hard on the joints, as most marathoners are running on. Shoes do take some of this hard artificial ground impact away from the joints. I do know that a lot of people who are racing in shoes, do spend some time training without a bit. My knowledge is on the ski side of things, and have taken this information from cross training in the summers, which has been recommended by training consultants and partners. The reason why it helps so much, is that it strengthens muscles in the foot and up the front of the lower leg, all the way up to the knee. These muscles only get worked and trained when barefoot. Although not every elite runner may use this method, and do have a shoe that really works well for them, as well as the experience to not get injured. Running takes skill and experience, and that cannot be forgotten, no shoe or barefoot method will take that over.

    This being said, I think this idea can very useful when applied to ski mountaineering boots. Having the right amount of motion within the foot will allow skiers to really make big speed gains. Skimo racers cross training in the summer, should focus on stabilizing these muscles, as they will benefit in the future from these strength gains. Only testing and time will tell what works and what doesn't.

  6. Interesting idea, Alex but my somewhat knee jerk reaction is that applying the ideas from Born to Run to skiing is very sketchy at best. I thought about this some after reading the book (which I found fascinating) and how the ideas might apply to skiing and cycling, both of which use various types of foot beds. I would argue that certainly skiing downhill and cycling, the foot is fairly static compared to running while being a stable platform for the application of force and the absorption of ground reaction forces. Although I get your point about absorbing bumps and jumps, the cumulative forces are probably minimal compared to running. More fundamentally, ski running, or plodding as it usually is, bares little resemblance to the human running gait in terms of foot mechanics. Also, do we really have an overuse injury problem in skimo that is anything like that seen in runners? I doubt it but that is merely a hunch so take it for what it's worth. So, my feeling is that, while your experiment is an interesting idea my feeling is that we are comparing apples to oranges here and may not see the same benefits discussed by McDougall when applied to skiing (IMHO). Thanks for hanging it out there.

  7. I think it is a new idea, and does require further testing. There really hasn't been much in the way of injury in relation to running in skimo. That being said, I think its the mobility of the foot that the is gained from not using a footbed. Whether it strengthens, prevents injury or not, whatever information we can draw from in such a new sport is important to expanding how we train, the gear, and our performances. Testing over the past few years I can honestly say I can maintain a longer stride while skinning without a footbed, whereas skinning with one does at least "feel" much more limited. Thanks for the comments, I hope we can begin to define the "rules" of what to do with gear more and more.

  8. Matthew Weatherley-WhiteApril 23, 2010 at 6:03 AM

    As an ex DH racer, current ultra runner, former bike racer and nordic racer and retired adventure racer, I'm going with Brian. I totally appreciate Alex's provocative suggestion, however, which bears scrutiny. But cycling requires totally different biomechanics. The foot is not "absorbing" anything. In fact, if the foot is permitted to act as a shock, that simply represents wasted energy. My hunch would be that a similar property applies in Skimo. However, I endorse Alex's perspective that the running shoe industry has sold us a bill of goods for years. I've been running in what amount to racing flats for years, with no adverse affects. Nothing like drilling a 70-mile trail run in flats with no footbed to understand just how amazing the human machine is. Interesting thread, for sure. If there are any sports scientists willing to take this one on, I'm sure we'd all benefit from the research.

  9. Fantastic comments everyone! Great to see everyone's ideas and views on the subject. I have forwarded this link to some Dr's to see if we can get some light shed on the subject. Check back soon!

  10. Don't hold your breath on that one, Alex. Having worked for orthopaedic surgeons for 17 years now I can safely say they are not the most enlightened group when it comes to progressive sport science. Hell, most of them still think squatting is bad for your knees! Additionally, many foot and ankle specialists make serious coin off of custom foot beds. Being mostly greedy creatures, not too many are going to give up that part of their practice too quickly no matter how much sense McDougall makes. It will be interesting what comes back for you.

  11. I'm with ya on this, Alex. I don't get the movement to big stiff corrective boots for touring.

    SLC and others, I'm 240 lbs. and have completed 82 ultramarathons in the past 16 years. Very few injuries, and I run in relatively light neutral shoes. Oh, yeah, and I tour exclusively in Scarpa F3's. My Nordic background may well contribute to my preference for soft non-corrective boots.

  12. Thanks Big Steve, stoked on everyone's comments and views.