Pulling Back the Free Foot: The Whys and Hows
- Created on Friday, 31 March 2006 17:00
- Written by Harald Harb
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Clearly every skier has different technical and movement needs. In my books and videos I introduce a number of ski movement innovations, all of which are bases for good skiing. I present movements, exercises and techniques that I find largely missing from the technique of skiers, instructors, and racers.
One of these movements – pulling back the free foot – was first presented in articles written for magazines, as early as 1994 in Snow Country magazine, and then in several articles in Skiing magazine. Pulling back the free foot was a movement featured in my first book, Anyone Can Be an Expert Skier 1, published in 1997.
Prior to the Snow Country introduction, skiers and instructors had been totally focused on the outside ski or foot in their skiing and teaching. All focus was, and still is in many cases, on the stance ski. The stance ski was everything. In traditional ski teaching systems (“TTS”), the stance ski was the one to turn, to steer, to edge, while the inside ski played second fiddle, steering along just enough to (hopefully) keep up with the dominant stance ski.
When I introduced PMTS technique, many skiers changed their movement awareness. The focus on the inside ski is still literally shaking up the thinking in TTS; for some skiers and instructors, it is difficult to come to terms with it. The focus on the inside ski is so powerful, effective and efficient that it’s a shame if you haven’t made it your movement focus. I feel bad for the instructors and skiers who don’t use it. Every time I meet a skier or instructor who has discovered PMTS or my books they comment on how the single idea of changing focus to the inside ski has changed their skiing. Let’s review how focusing on the inside ski can immediately change your skiing for the better.
First, the release is far more effective if the old stance ski – the new free ski – is lightened through leg flexion and tipped to its new little-toe edge. Skiers who encounter PMTS technique generally accept this concept.
Now, let’s develop completely why and how pulling back the inside ski, which comes next in the series of movements to maintain balance for the turn, is used.
Pulling back the free foot solves two problems that skiers have encountered for decades: skiing in the “backseat” position, and skiing with an exaggerated and ineffective countered position, known in instructor parlance as the “park and ride”.
I have constantly tried to project the idea that countering movements are not static and not a position, as many skiers and instructors think they are. Countering is not a position or a one-time action; it’s a constantly changing, complementary movement of the upper body to the lower body. If the free foot is forward, or if because it is forward it creates a pelvis that is locked into a countered position, then the concept of counteracting movements and balance are misunderstood.
What are the body movements to hold or pull the free foot back, and what does this create in skiing? At the point of stance ski release, which is initiated by a flexing or bending of the old stance leg, the old stance leg and that side of the body become unweighted. With the old stance ski light, and not engaged, the center of the body – the torso – is free to travel across the skis. As the body travels across the skis, the newly lightened free foot can easily be pulled back, as it bears little or no weight and is not on edge.
Pulling the foot back requires contraction at the hip (pulling the knee and thigh rearward), hamstrings (bending the knee), and shin (pulling the shin toward the top of the foot). These efforts not only pull the free foot back and under the body, but also stabilize the hips over the new stance foot. During the transition or edge change, the hips should be turned opposite to the direction of the new turn (a countering movement). The direction of movement of the free foot is opposite to this countering movement of the hips. It’s important that the free foot is pulled back relative to that hip; it does not pull the inside hip back along with it.
In the Javelin exercise, for example, the tip of the new free ski is crossed over the tip of the stance ski and the free foot is held back, giving a feel for the hip counter. The hip counter develops while the feet foot is prevented from moving forward. Pulling back the free foot has two important influences. First, it enables the center of mass (the upper body) to move forward and diagonally into the new turn. Second, it bends the inside leg, increasing the range of tipping available with the free foot.
What if it’s not used?
Skiers who have difficulty pulling the free foot back usually end up in the back seat (sitting back on the skis) and in a hip locked position through the turn. Skiers who push the new free foot forward are creating a real problem in their skiing. In essence they are blocking the hip from moving forward and across the skis for the new engagement. A skier who pushes the free foot forward in transition usually has to rotate or steer the skis at the top of the arc, causing a skid that will need to be stopped by an abrupt edge set at the end of the turn.
Skier who have difficulty pulling back the free foot usually have limited ankle movement and ankle muscle awareness or development. They also may have other limitations such as lack of hip flexibility. Limitations in movement at the hips are often due to unwanted or inefficient muscle contractions during transition, eliminating muscle relaxation and restricting flexibility of hip movements toward countering. Skiers often tighten up when learning new technique, so relaxation can be the key to letting the hips access their range of movement. A good instructor will develop exercises for a student that has excessive hip muscle contraction. In PMTS we have exercises to introduce hip movement in a very safe and comfortable environment, so apprehension is relieved.
The other reason for limited hip movement is usually due to hip tightness or stiffness. There are many reasons why this exists, such as a lack of stretching, or performing other activities such as running that can stiffen not only the hips but the lower back as well, which also contributes to lack of movement in the countering action in turn transition.
Pulling the free foot back doesn’t require a powerful set of hamstring muscles. It does require awareness of the actions. Even if the pull back effort is weak, just attempting to pull and keep the boot back will have a positive effect on balance and turn transition. A reminder: the whole leg does not need to be pulled back; the ankle is the point of pulling back and only the boot needs to move back. The ankle needs only to be flexed until the toe of the boot is behind the knee. From some angles and positions while watching skiers, it may not even look like the foot is pulled back very far, but it is the intent that counts.
If we are investigating reasons for lack of success in pulling back the free foot, we have to look also at boot configuration. If the boot restricts ankle flexion or if the boot overflexes the ankle, using up the available range of flexion, then pulling the foot back may not be available. Many instructors believe when they see a boot with a great deal of forward lean that lack of movement isn’t an issue as the shin already looks like it is angled forward. This is the very situation where the ankle is locked and has no further range to pull the foot back.
The last but not least reason why pulling the foot back is difficult for many skiers is a lack of dorsiflexion in the ankle. This problem is not easily overcome. It means the ankle can only flex a certain amount (usually insufficient) and then it can flex no more. As with the overly flexed, forward-leaning ski boot, the ankle with limited dorsiflexion has no further range of movement available, therefore it’s tough to pull the foot back.
Whether the limit to ankle flex is a too-stiff boot, too much forward lean, or limited dorsiflexion, the best functionality can be achieved with the correct boot and with correct boot configuration.
I hope this clears up some of the confusion about why pulling back the free foot is part of PMTS technique and why some skiers have difficulty pulling back the free foot. The combination of good PMTS instruction and proper boot fitting can go a long way to help increase foot and ankle functions in almost every situation, so please don’t give up on pulling the foot back. When you achieve it, you’ll have developed an important step in your skiing.