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Effective And Efficient Skiing With Modern Ski Design: Part 1

Tips from HoliMont’s Experts

By Mike Holden, PSIA Level III Alpine Ski Instructor, HoliMont

In dominating world Grand Slalom skiing for the past three years, Ted Ligety developed a ski technique so effective and efficient that the movement pattern he employs can serve as a basic model for both racers and recreational skiers alike to ski a large range of snow conditions and terrain.

The good news is that using skis with the most recent design, employing sophisticated side cut, reversed camber (or rocker), and balanced longitudinal and torsional stiffness, makes it possible for recreational skiers and racers to more effectively emulate Ligety’s skiing technique. However, skiing with his smooth gliding ski-to-ski movement pattern does require a significant change from earlier ski techniques.

For years, recreational skiers used techniques based on employing the skis as a single unit, with a turn initiated by a strong edge-set, followed by rebound unweighting and twisting angulation to land on the new edges in a skidded turn. In contrast, Ligety does not interrupt the flow of momentum and dissipate energy with an abrupt edge-set, but smoothly transfers the pressure from ski to ski using the carving characteristics of the modern ski to turn the body.

Here, in addition to employing a sequential movement pattern, the emphasis is on initiating the turn by moving the body across the skis and extending the outside leg to place it securely on its inside edge, bending the ski to achieve carving well before the fall line.

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It may come as a surprise to some that it takes very little energy to ski; basically, gravity supplies the energy and your job is to manipulate that energy, like a bird soaring on thermals, in the most effective, efficient and enjoyable way to reach the bottom of the hill safely. It is a fact that the energy you would expend to climb to the top of your ski area is exactly equal to the energy dissipated in the snow, air and, most importantly your muscles, by the time you reach the bottom of the run.

Accomplished skiers release themselves under gravity at the top of the hill and glide smoothly from carving ski to carving ski, controlling speed and dissipating the energy in the snow by steering the ski to control the path of the skier and, where required, introducing controlled slippage.  This contrasts with the unweighting, twisting and abrupt checking of earlier techniques, which require more energy from the skier and dissipates more energy in the body.

When I see skiers employing abrupt checking and twisting movements on their way down hill, I think of how ridiculous it would look if a bird stalled-out on every turn while soaring on the thermals.

Of course, skiing is not all about efficient energy management, but adopting a ski technique that can minimize unnecessary impact on the body is a definite plus. Clearly there are skiing situations where abrupt unweighting and twisting movements are appropriate; however it makes sense to select a ski technique with core movement patterns to ski effectively and efficiently for a range of ski conditions using skis with the most recent designs.

What’s So Good about
the New Skis!?

In short, the new skis have the geometry and characteristics of a ski being deflected in a carved turn that is designed into them. When these skis are skillfully placed on edge and pressured at the beginning of the turn, the outside ski will hold securely and will quickly generate the force to balance (“catch”) the upper body as it moves across the ski toward the center of the new turn.

While elite skiers were able to execute this move on skis with the older designs, it required significantly more finesse and higher speeds. In the early 60’s, when the first metal skis were designed by Howard Head, the skis had little or no side-cut. These skis were designed with bottom camber to more evenly distribute the pressure along the ski and provide springiness to assist in rebound unweighting. However, because they had little side-cut, the center of the ski could not be depressed to bend into a shape necessary on hard and icy surfaces to perform a carved turn. Instead, turns had to be initiated with up or down unweighting, followed by a twisting/displacement to set the skis on the opposite edges in a braced skidded turn. This technique is still employed by veteran skiers and is used by competition mogul skiers who must rapidly re-orient the skis from one mogul face to the next.

In designing skis for Stenmark to carve sharper turns on steep icy race courses, Elan constructed race skis with a well-defined sidecut which, when set at a high edge angle, formed a curved footprint in the snow.  Later the company introduced its so-called parabolic skis (SCX) with an even more radical sidecut, a shape which some claimed was “stolen” from snowboarders.  With this ski it was possible to achieve the same carved footprint at lower speeds and with less edge angle.

Suddenly ski instructors and relatively good skiers were able to achieve “the Rosetta stone” of skiing carved turns with single lines in the snow, rather than shaped skidded turns.  This design change was validated when Bode Miller, racing on K2-4 recreational skis with pronounced sidecuts, decisively won the U.S. nationals and proceeded to win in World Cup racing.

The next major change in ski design came with the introduction of reverse camber or “rocker;” only this time it was inspired by “free skiers” who promoted the design for skiing “off-piste” in powder and rough snow conditions.  On these soft surfaces, it is difficult to generate the forces to bend the ski early in the turn, so these skiers experimented with skis pre-bent into a curved ski shape. By placing these “full” rocker skis on edge during turn initiation, they were able to immediately generate a large turning force early in the turn to control the path and speed of the skier. While these skis performed well in deep and “junk snow,” they handled poorly on firm icy surfaces where only the centers of the skis were in contact with the snow.

To address this deficiency, designers produced skis with rocker in the tip and tail sections and a conventional camber shape under foot. The sophisticated blending of geometric and structural characteristics of these new skis has had a major impact on improving the technique and ability of the recreational skier to ski effectively and efficiently on a range of terrain and snow conditions.

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