By Dan Balkin
There are many ski exercises that center on knee awareness. After all, the oldest ski instructor gag line is “Bend zee knees, ten dollars pleez.” The Germanic accent is a throwback to the era when Austrians came to the U.S to establish the first ski schools. Gag lines, however, usually have a kernel of truth. Any accomplished skier has certainly mastered the art of bending or flexing his or her knees while skiing. Hannes Schneider, the spiritual father of all ski instructors, certainly promoted a flexed knee position when he set up the world’s first ski school in St. Anton, Austria and later crossed the pond to spread skiing enlightenment to America.
It has been written many times that our legs must act as “shock absorbers” while we ski. No argument here. Essentially, that means that we flex our legs progressively through to absorb the terrain and the natural forces created while making our skis turn. This is where skiing and physics intersect. My practical knowledge of physics is limited to what happened to a friend of mine. He bought a nice bottle of single malt scotch – which somehow got jostled out of his shopping bag, and because of the forces of physics, it went splat when it collided with his driveway. Some may call that precious bottle’s demise a matter of science (gravity, equal and opposite reaction etc.), but I always viewed it as tragedy.
Anyway, if we watch teenagers – or adults in a state of arrested development – skiing moguls, we will see a lot of flexing and extending of the legs. Physics demands it if you can ski through the moguls while remaining upright. Essentially, mogul skiing is simply the forces we all face in a ski turn – but on steroids. The mogul skier must flex her legs while absorbing the bump; in return, she must then extend or straighten her legs so that she can absorb the next mogul. We do the same thing, especially on steeper groomed slopes, albeit a bit more slowly and progressively.
This is when my inner voice kicks in: “Dan, get to the point.” And the point is that we have been talking about flexing and extending our legs – but there is a correct and incorrect way to do it. For the third time in three articles, I am going to reference a ski tip drawn from Ski Magazine’s January “Instruction Issue.” Hey, but if the well is deep and the water is pure, keep drawing from it. Essentially, the instructor who offered this tip said to keep your ankles flexed – even when you extend your legs. At first blush, that sounds contradictory – but it is not. As a matter of fact, it is essential for advanced skiing.
I have often told my students the same thing, but this instructor used a nifty turn of phrase that never crossed my mind: “Flex and extend with your knees, not your ankles.” What the tip is essentially saying is that you should ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS – yes, ALWAYS have both ankles flexed while you ski. If you lose that ankle flexion you have lost control over your skis. Why? Only when our ankles are flexed are our shins in contact with the front of our ski boots. After all, the venerable Austrians call skiing “skifahren,” which literally means “ski driving.” Once your shins are not in contact with the corners of your ski boots while making a turn, it is the equivalent of letting go of your steering wheel while rounding a bend while driving your car.
So, after you flex your joints to absorb the forces in a turn, we must extend so that our legs can flex again. Do your extension, however, by extending more from your knees – and less from your ankles. If this sounds incongruous – kind of like “Dad’s® Root Beer and Gourmet Dining,” it’s really not. The key is to understand that your ankles will extend a bit as you extend between turns – but don’t allow them to extend so much that you lose shin/cuff contact with your ski boot. Or, phrased another way, no matter what phase of the ski turn you are in, keep some flexion in both ankles.
If you are an aspiring expert: On a gentle slope, keep both skis on the snow, but put almost all your weight on one ski. Think of the unweighted ski as a “pontoon” that helps you maintain your balance. Let’s say we “weighted” our right ski. It is easy to turn to the left because the right ski is the “downhill” ski while turning left – so the sensation is quite familiar. BUT – you will notice that as you turn right on your right ski – the sensation is unfamiliar because you are making the turn on your uphill or inside ski. You will also discover that it is virtually impossible to do so unless you have your right ankle flexed. Try to do ten turns on your right leg and then alternate to ten turns on your left leg to really grasp the sensation. After that, try ten regular ski turns while concentrating on keeping BOTH ankles flexed (not just your downhill ankle). You can, and should, repeat this exercise numerous times to really cement the sensations into your muscle memory. It is one of my favorite exercises that I religiously practice when I start my ski day. Do you know one reason you sometimes see ski racers practicing skiing on one ski (a more advanced version of our exercise)? Because it is impossible to do turns in both directions on one ski unless your ankle(s) are properly flexed. Again – in skiing, keeping both ankles flexed at all times is essential for control over your skis.
If you are an expert: Grab a Dad’s Root Beer and toast yourself. You already know how to keep your ankles flexed. While that might not merit a gourmet meal – it certainly merits a tasty jolt of carbonated and flavored water. Cheers.