As summer turns to autumn and our daydreams begin to conjure up images of snowy mountains and waist-deep powder, Niseko Black’s Head Ski Trainer and Action Sports Conditioning Pro, Bruce, brings another instalment in his series of ski fitness articles – The Role of Your Ankles in Skiing – Woohoo!
In support of his equipment-free, off-season ski fitness program for snow-pro’s and clients to follow at home, his latest offering delves into detail about the bio-mechanical role of our ankles in skiing and how’s best to train them for maximum mobility and strength…and why!
Bruce’s X = Ski-Fit, 15 minute follow-along HIIT video program launch is oh-so-close and in celebration of his launch, his latest article includes a link to a taster session, featuring throughout the program…with a MASSIVE 60% pro’ discount for the full program, we think he must be NUTS!
X = Ski-Fit – The Ankle Joint
Mobility Versus Flexibility
Having read my previous articles (like I know you have!), you’ll be familiar with the concept of mobility versus flexibility, right?
Just in case you aren’t, a very quick reminder:
Mobility refers to the range of motion (ROM) of a particular joint, whereas flexibility refers to how elastic the muscles, tendons and other connective tissues around that joint are and whether or not they restrict the joint’s ROM, or allow it to move freely. Of course, in a skiing sense, in addition to strong muscles, good mobility is extremely important, as it will allow us to move freely – with ‘unblocked’ ability. That being said, if the muscles around our joints are weak and the joints are allowed to move too much,’ injuries can ensue, such as the very common ACL rupture, which is often a result of a hyper-extension of the knee (not necessarily caused by, but definitely encouraged by a condition known as ‘hyper-mobility’).
GOOD (not hyper) mobility therefore is encouraged by good flexibility and if we want to move safely in that ‘unblocked’ sense I like to refer to in my staff training sessions, we need to work on our flexibility as well as our strength…
“We simply cannot gain full mobility of our joints without good flexibility”.
Bio-Mechanics of the Ankle Joint
There are four muscles that are responsible for ankle flexion, or dorsiflexion of the foot – the action of pointing the foot and toes to the sky, whilst standing. The muscles of the posterior of the lower leg and the calf control the opposite action, known as plantar flexion.
The main agonist in dorsiflexion is tibialis anterior, highlighted in the adjacent image. The largest muscle in the lateral (most external part) of the shin, running vertically alongside the tibia.
The three other muscles are: extensor hallucis longus, which also extends the big toe, extensor digitorum longus, which also extends the 4 other toes and fibularis tertius.
The opposite action to dorsiflexion extends the ankle joint. I like to think of plantar flexion as ‘planting the toes’. The muscles at the rear or posterior of the lower leg responsible for this action are mainly the Gastrocnemius (highlighted), Soleus, Fibularis Longus, Flexor Hallucis Longus and Fibularis Brevis.
To Maintain an Athletic Stance at all times, Expert Skiers Extend & FLEX!
During lessons and staff training, I often hear (and use) the term ‘flex’ or ‘flexion’ in order to – amongst other things – have the guys remain balanced, or to use the correct, technical speak; to keep their ‘centre of mass’ in-line with their ‘base of support’.
The thing is, in order to flex AND maintain a strong stance whilst skiing, we also need to resist the forces acting upon us and trying to make us fall over. How do we do this?
With our muscles!
Consider this ‘extreme’ image of me, leading a staff training session, in Niseko last season:
Being ready to resist any forces, coming from minor changes in the beginner terrain, whilst being ‘stacked’, ‘centred’ or perpendicular to the centre of my skis, my stance is a strong, ‘athletic’ one for the beginner terrain that I’m on. However, if a beginner (or advanced skier, for that matter) were to ski steeper, bumpier terrain using this stance and without adapting it to the conditions, they’d very quickly lose their base of support and / or their alignment with it, due to their inability to shift their centre of mass (and base of support) quickly or effectively enough…
So where’s this going, Bruce?
Well, an expert skier has the ability to do just that…and in doing exactly that, they utilise the ski and boot design to their fullest potential, not only balancing in the centre of the ski and boot, but by FLEXING both body and equipment to engage the FULL LENGTH of both skis by shifting their mass with both skill and control…
Limits of Stability
It’s no coincidence that on a modern, neutrally-set pair of skis, the longitudinal centre aligns with the ball of the foot – the point at which we naturally balance – where the anti-friction plate is located in the toe binding. It’s also no coincidence that the narrowest part of the ski coincides with the centre of the heel, which is the point at which our skeletal strength is at it’s maximum…
It’s therefore not a huge leap to understand that, whilst an inexperienced skier might only ‘balance’ in the middle of their boots and bindings and perhaps purposefully move their centre of mass only very slightly, from toe to heel and vice versa – most likely using the stiffness of the equipment to hold them up – an expert, skiing advanced terrain at higher speeds, will flex their joints, boots and skis – by using their muscles and shifting their centre of mass and base of support to stay in balance – whilst aiming to engage the entire length of the skis’ side cuts and edges – much, much more, by constantly making minute corrections in adapting to whatever the terrain throws at them…
How do the experts do THAT?
Not just by flexing (or relaxing) the joints to a greater extent, but most importantly by also tensing the correct muscles at the opportune, split-second-moment in order to stay balanced and to generate the desired performance from their equipment (and bio-mechanics).
Having learned and mastered the ability to gain maximum performance from their equipment by making these sometimes tiny adjustments in joint flexion and muscle tension, whilst adjusting their base of support in relation to their ever-moving centre of mass, an expert skier will have a far greater limit of stability than a beginner…
Imagine standing on your skis, on flat terrain whilst your lovely trainer or instructor is kneeling in front of you, grinning, whilst he or she is pushing and pulling your skis backwards and forwards.
Besides being pretty annoying, this will be forcing you to make small adjustments in your joints and muscles [tension] so as to allow you to stay balanced (within a narrow sway angle) and not crumble and fall. THIS is the importance in skiing of not just our ankles, but ALL of the 3 main joints and their associated muscles, acting in unison. Active flexion and tension delivered to where (and when) it’s needed, using the proprioceptive receptors in our ears, muscles, tendons and joints in gaining maximum performance from our equipment whilst maintaining the maximum achievable sway angle.
So What Does This Mean in A Skiing Sense?
In the Canadian (CSIA) system of ski teaching, there are 5 skiing skills, 4 of which relate to use of all the joints. These are:
i. Stance & Balance – which we’ve been concentrating on in this article so far – the skier makes small adjustments in stance to remain centred, balanced or ‘stacked’
ii. Edging – the engagement of the skis’ edges by ‘rolling’ the knees & angulating the hips, providing grip
iii. Pivoting – rotational movement of the femurs in the hip sockets to steer the feet in the desired direction of travel.
iv. Pressure Control – use of all of the 3 major joints of the lower body to manage forces acting upon the skis and skier
…With the fifth skill being Timing & Coordination, used to blend all the other skills into good skiing.
Using the same images as in my previous articles, consider the two turns below:
Moving from left to right, I’ve gone from fall line (skis pointing straight down the hill) to fall line, on the opposite arc. In order to do this, my ankles have gone from being most extended, with the posterior (calf) muscles most tensed / anterior (shin) muscles most relaxed and my balance almost evenly distributed along the inside line of the outside foot at – or just after – the fall line, to being most flexed, with the anterior (shin) muscles most tensed / posterior (calf) muscles most relaxed, at turn initiation – just after completion of the previous turn – allowing me to balance more on the big toe of what is to become my new outside foot for the next turn and allowing me to establish an early platform – and grip – higher up in the turn, hence alleviating pressure lower in the arc.
The following diagram shows the variation in my balance through my right turn. My ankles have moved in all three planes of movement – Sagittal, Horizontal (or Rotational) and Frontal (see my previous article for a reminder of the planes of movement) – whilst my muscles have been flexible and controlled enough to allow the joints to move at their maximum range of motion.
They’ve both dorsi-flexed in the sagittal plane, whilst the outside (left) lower leg has internally rotated in the horizontal plane, causing the sub-talar joint (posterior to and beneath the malleolus or knuckle) to not only turn the foot clockwise in the horizontal, but also roll it onto it’s inside edge (onto the big toe) in the frontal plane. The inside (right) leg has externally rotated and a similar, yet opposite sub-talar movement has caused the foot to roll onto its outside edge.
So How Can I Use all this to Improve My Skiing?
If you think about those four of the five Canadian skiing skills – stance & balance, edging, pivoting & pressure control – and consider the movement of the ankles in order to maximize each of those skills, it’s clear to see that strong, flexible and mobile ankles are needed to improve upon each, even if it’s by only a tiny margin:
In the Sagittal plane, the ankles simply flex and extend. Besides playing a major role in pressure control, this is the primary movement of the ankles that allows the skier’s centre of mass to move fore / aft and under or over-bending at this point can be responsible for being ‘back seat’ or unequally flexed at the other two main joints, greatly limiting their stance & balance.
It’s important to note here that skiers with Lordosis, or an excessive curvature of the lower spine, often tend to push the butt backwards, in line with the exaggerated axis of their back, before they begin flexing the joints. More often than not, this puts them into the ‘back seat’ and they should therefore concentrate on scooping the pelvis forwards beforehand, in order to stay ‘stacked’ and balanced as they flex at all three joints.
In the Horizontal (rotational) plane, the ankle joints move with the internal rotation of the outside leg and the external rotation of inside leg, allowing the skier to increase or decrease the steering angle of the feet through pivoting.
As touched on earlier, in the Frontal (lateral) plane, due to the mechanics of the ankle joints, the rotation or pivoting motion of the lower legs also roll the feet in and out – eversion & inversion. If you stand up and lean vertically on the ball of one hand, with a straight arm, whilst internally rotating your arm, you’ll notice that your hand wants to roll inwards (eversion), flattening your index finger on the table. The opposite is true in the counter-rotational direction and is similar to the sub-talar joint motion of your ankles; forcing the feet to roll – and crucially – assisting the rotation of the femurs with minimal but very effective extra edging and steering of the skis by using the body’s natural sense of balance and desire to use the entire foot (with the ankle already being flexed), helping to tip the mass forwards and downhill!
In reaction to the terrain and to remain balanced in a strong, athletic stance, an expert skier will employ all these movements of the ankles (combined with the hips and knees) to make small adjustments and corrections and engage as much of the sidecut and edge of the skis as possible (by maximising their sway angle), whilst maintaining ski-snow contact, their speed, rhythm, turn symmetry and hence, remain in control.
When you’re next standing on your skis, try to think about allowing the ankles to flex without effort at the start of each turn – you’ll most likely find that, because you’re facing across a slope, this relaxing of the ankles not only puts you on the fronts of your boots and skis (woohoo!) but, in allowing the inside ankle to fully soften, your body will naturally roll the knees downhill, creating early edge (whoop whoop!) as it tries to establish balance on the whole foot – learn to go with and accept this feeling of letting go, without the urge to shift your balance onto your inside foot; trust physics; in inertia, as well as your body and it’s natural ability to want to stay balanced…How cool is that? Your body does the work of turn initiation for you!!!
All that’s left is to use a little effort at the end of your turns to progressively flex the ankles whilst also rolling the knees uphill, maintaining forward lean, with more pressure on the downhill big toe. This action of ankle flexion and knee rolling ensures that you’ll remain edged on your skis in order to ‘complete your turns’ – and how often have you heard THAT from your instructor or coach?!
Try this cool exercise sequence to lock these important feelings into your proprioceptive (muscle) memory before you next go skiing:
Mobility / Progression 1
Ankle Flexion on Flat Terrain
To warm up, with a narrow stance, in a standing position, simply flex your ankles whilst maintaining balance – experiment with how far you can flex. Repeat 10-20 times.
Now try a few bounces from the ground, using just the flexion and extension of your ankles. See how high you can get but make sure you land softly. Repeat 10-20 times. Once you’ve warmed up on both legs, try the same using just one leg at a time. Repeat 5-10 times on each leg.
Mobility / Progression 2
Ankle Flexion on Inclined Terrain
Using an inclined surface (I’m using a cardio step, lifted at one end with a hard roller), facing downhill in a standing position, simply flex your ankles whilst maintaining balance. Note how in this position, you engage your quads more due to increased knee and hip flexion – experiment with how far you can flex. Repeat 10-20 times. Then turn around and face uphill and flex again for 10-20 reps – notice how much harder it is to flex your ankles and how you use less of your quad strength:
Mobility / Progression 3
Ankle Flexion & Rotation Across Flat & Inclined Terrain
Step back onto the floor and, maintaining a narrow stance, with hands on hips to highlight to yourself when your pelvis starts to rotate, flex and rotate your ankles so your knees move to one side, then the other. Note any differences, when comparing one side to the other, in how far you can move the ankles without moving the pelvis. Repeat 10-20 times to lock this in:
Step back onto the inclined surface and flex and rotate the ankles uphill, then downhill. Notice how much easier it is to flex downhill. This coincides with turn initiation, so get used to this feeling of little to no effort. Try to flex uphill as much as you can downhill to help improve your mobility. Repeat 10-20 times both uphill and downhill before turning through 180 degrees and trying on the other side. Notice a weaker or less mobile side? Note any differences to concentrate on in future sessions. Now try the same thing on first just the uphill leg, then the downhill leg – see how much easier it is on the downhill side (so really concentrate on the uphill foot) because when flexing the downhill ankle forwards, the body naturally wants to balance on the whole foot – little toe as well as big toe! Repeat on each leg, facing both directions for 10-20 reps.
Ankle Strengthening Exercises
Strengthening of the posterior muscles of the ankles is comparatively easy to the anterior, by doing calf raises etc., with or without weights. So, for the purposes of this article, I’m going to concentrate on mobilising and strengthening your anterior muscles…
Using a resistance band passed under the cardio step and looped over the top of the foot, apply tension to the band with your arms and flex the foot upwards towards the ceiling or sky. Hold the flexion for 5-10 seconds and repeat 10-15 times on each side. Try rotating the foot to change position and repeating the holds. Be super-careful that the band doesn’t slip off the toes and whip you from behind! This exercise can be varied for cable machines, Olympic weight plates or by getting a partner to hold your foot whilst you pull against them (whilst sitting flat on the floor, legs outstretched).
Your partner or kids will love this one! Simply walk on your heels for as long as you don’t feel too daft! Pointing your feet and toes towards the ceiling or sky as much as you can – go on, your skiing’s worth it, right?!
A Little More About the Author
Besides, spending a significant part of his winters in Japan, training our team of Ski Instructors, Bruce is a Master Personal Trainer, Exercise Specialist and Motivation & Nutrition Coach. As Owner / Director of X-Life Intelligent Fitness, being IKO qualified, he also spends a large part of his summer teaching and coaching kitesurfing, as well as running Kitesurf HQ, his luxury B&B in Fuerteventura.
X-Life’s smartphone app-based X = Ski-Fit program not only concentrates on a strengthening program for the skier, it attends to the often overlooked areas of mobility and less-frequently overlooked flexibility. Combining a series of 15 minute mobility, strength and flexibility videos, motivational support, not to mention the accountability that having a trainer is all about, more information on the full program can be found here, by emailing Bruce@X-LifeTraining.comor following this link to sign up for your complimentary 14 day trial!
X = Ski-Fit will be launched later in October 2018, with a massive 60% discount for snow-pro’s! If you can’t stand to wait any longer, head over to X-Life’s website, following this link for a sneak preview of, not one, but TWO of the 15 minute video sessions appearing in the first month of the program – ENJOY!