, Gloucester, MA

December 28, 2012

Outdoors: Skiing mechanics all begins with the ankles

Dave Sartwell

---- — As we start into the 2013 ski season, it might be best to review a bit about the mechanics of skiing.

As I get older, I become more aware that subtle movement can produce great results, that I don’t need to expend a great deal of energy to create smooth flow. Nothing illustrates this like the movement of the ankles.

Some times in skiing we have the right ideas about the mechanics of skiing, but often we just get them in the wrong sequence. Perhaps the most important joints we use in skiing are our ankles, but many times they are not brought into play until too late in the turning sequence.

Years ago I was skiing out in Salt Lake City with Max Lundberg, who was, at that time, the editor of Professional Skier magazine.

We talked at length about the importance of your ankles. He kept hammering away at me, repeating a simple concept which basically stated is subtle energy exerted and subtle movements made can be immediately transmitted to the ski. Exaggerated movements are only necessary when you have screwed everything else up!

Let me give you an idea of what he meant. Find a stairway in your house and sit on the third step. Go ahead ... we’ll wait. Now place your feet on the first step about shoulder width apart. Slip off your shoes as this lesson works best if you are in your bare feet or socks.

Hold your elbows to your sides and turn your hands toward the ceiling like you were carrying a tray. Sit up straight. Do not rest your elbows on your thighs or knees, but hold them a few inches above in a relaxed pose. If you put your elbows on your knees your shoulders will be too far forward.

Now, roll, not turn, your ankles to the left without moving your knees. You will note that this is almost impossible. There always is a little movement of the knees to the left, but try to keep that movement to a minimum. The weight of your legs is now concentrated on the edges of your feet; the outside edge of your left foot and the inside edge of your right.

Although ski boots are quite stiff, just this little action can really help turn a ski by putting it on edge. The shaped ski has a wide tip, the outside of which digs into the snow when rolled. This gives you the “rail” to cut into the snow and initiate the turn.

Now turn your ankles left as well as tip them left, again without turning your knees. Your knees will want to follow a little. Leaving your feet in place now stand up with your shoulders facing straight down the stairway and your knees flexed. It will be a little awkward, but if you lean forward just a bit, a lot of your weight should naturally be on the inside of your right foot. When skiing this would be your downhill ski.

Notice how by just turning and tipping your ankle with very little movement in your knees and none in your hips or upper torso you are putting a lot of pressure on the downhill ski. All of your body weight is concentrated on the edges of your feet. In many instances this is all you will have to do to carve some beautiful long turns. At a good rate of speed, great skiers hardly every use their upper body to turn the ski. They just turn their ankles and go. This speaks to Max’s point about subtle movement.

You know the story about the duck on the pond. She glides over the surface with his upper body looking all calm while her feet are paddling like the devil underneath. It is the same in skiing. The upper body stays calm as the legs do all of the work.

Now, remember that we had our hands about shoulder width apart. Dig out your poles and find an area with a rug so you don’t mar the hardwood floors. Set your poles shoulder width apart a bit in front of you and lean forward on the handles. With your feet on the carpet turn your feet back and forth.

Notice that at first you will be on your heels to turn your feet, but if you lean a little forward you can turn on the balls of your feet. In skiing this turning will be helped by your forward motion. And as you ski you will be able to tip your ankles as well.

Now, practice this movement while keeping your poles in front of you and your shoulders pointed straight ahead. Again, the point of this exercise is to get you to square your shoulders to the hill. Turn your feet, ankles and now the knees in the direction you want to turn. Don’t hop. You will turn best when your skis are on the snow. If you turn your shoulders toward the edge of the trail you will naturally sit back a little and take the pressure off the rails of the skis.

When you do that you have to make up for it with some other movement of the body. That is usually in the thighs or back. This is why at the end of the first three hours of the first day your upper thighs are often talking to you, saying very bad things.

The upper body should be relaxed and smooth as you rotate underneath. Think of carrying a glass of water in each hand. Let the lower body be the shock absorber so you don’t spill a drop.

So, when you first start out in the morning, take a nice cruising run and get your ankles turning and tipping. You will be rewarded when later in the day you start to work the steep slopes. And hopefully, as evening approaches, you will have a little energy left in those legs to do a little bogeying at the local tavern

Dave Sartwell is an outdoors columnist for the Times. Contact him at