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Post-Modern Ski Racing Technique

by Tommy Kirchhoff

Modern Ski Racing

In Modern Ski Racing Technique, the optimal turn is accomplished with parallel skis carving cleanly (no skidding) with matching radii. The technique for this type of turn centers on weighting and committing to the downhill ski, while the racer tries to match the angle of the uphill ski and leg by “sucking” up the uphill knee.

Over the last 50 years, ski racing has changed again and again. But still, the core principles of ski racing have not changed, and probably won’t. The principles are:

  1. Balance
  2. Posture or Stance
  3. Edging/Carving/Edge Angle Control
  4. Sensitivity
  5. Power Release

Balance is quite difficult to define; in fact, the only way to define balance is to compare it to imbalance. Science tells us that balance can be improved a number of different ways.

Stance would seem to be an obvious concern. Keeping the limbs bent to absorb shock and a lower center of gravity are ubiquitous to athletics. Depending on the specific sport, different body stances are used to gain a mechanical advantage. In Modern Ski Racing, athletes learn “skeletal stacking” to cope with the monstrous forces they will be influenced by. Modern ski racing also emphasizes matched angles of the legs and de-emphasizes leaning (banking can be beneficial, but there is a thin line separating the two).

Control also spans the athletic spectrum. There is physical control of one’s self; possibly physical control of an opponent; and only recently tapped, mental control of one’s self and his or her opponent.

Sensitivity is emphasized in many sports, but few as acutely as alpine ski racing. The delicate implementation of skis requires almost a sixth sense; racers often attempt to boost this capability by erroneously tightening their ski boots.

Power, or strength and its timed release are simply built in training, and corrected through repetition on the racecourse.

The problem with committing to the downhill ski is two fold: the centrifugal force “loads” the ski, reversing its camber; this stored energy can be difficult to control especially considering the variable conditions or "open environment" of ski racing; because the racer is relying on this centrifugal radius for his balance, any fore/aft balance mistake can result in “launching” the racer forcefully in an undesirable direction, which requires recovery. Also, committing to the downhill ski requires a lot of edge angle; even the tiniest bit too much edge angle causes the ski to skid or chatter (both are friction, and slow you down).

A New Way: Waist Steering (Patent Pending)

I began Tai Chi in October 2004 because it seemed as though a great deal of its physical tenets could be amalgamated with skiing and ski racing. Tai Chi Chuan is a 5000-year study of the human form, its capabilities and how it can overcome force with the most efficiency. At its core, Tai Chi is a philosophy about harmony, balance and the nature of change. Tai Chi Chuan (the martial art based on Tai Chi philosophy) emphasizes the same, and manifests these concepts in posture, relaxation, physical balance and dynamic movement.

After intensive study with one of the greatest Tai Chi masters alive, (and a great deal of practice) I now realize the depth and applicability of this art. Tai Chi Chuan is such incredible technology of the human body that most of its principles will supercede athletic form (non-specific); in other words, athletic forms (such as 60 years of ski racing technique) are merely short-term trial and error efforts compared to the postures, movements and breathing techniques of Tai Chi Chuan—which after 5000 years could be largely considered “physical law” rather than “physical theory.”

To introduce these physical concepts, we’ll begin with Rooting Exercise (Tai Chi’s Chuan’s version of human balance). Begin with your feet just slightly wider apart than shoulder width. With your feet flat on the floor, press outward with your feet as if you mean to slide them laterally away from one other; twist your legs slightly outward, mainly at the knee; your feet feel like they want to supinate (roll to the outside), but keep downward pressure on each big toe and the ball of each foot. You should feel like you have increased balance both laterally and sagittally (fore/aft). Nowhere in Tai Chi does one pronate (roll a foot to the inside), twist a knee to the inside, or angulate a knee or ankle to the inside (the ligaments on the inside of the knee are very weak, while the ligaments on the outside are much stronger). In Tai Chi Chuan, pronation is considered "wrong."

Without getting into too much detail on the learning progression of Tai Chi Chuan, suffice it to say that the optimal body posture is specific to a hollow chest (shoulders forward), pelvic tilt (genitals curled up with the tummy tucked) and the head held very straight (the chin is held back, and an unforeseen force pulls upward and lengthens the spine). When viewed from the side, the back appears to be all flat (because the vertebrae are stacked vertically).

Like the skeletal stacking Modern Ski Racing athletes use to bend and carve a ski, Tai Chi Chuan emphasizes “structure” instead of strength. Thus, a very slight athlete can be just as powerful as a muscular athlete if he uses his skeleton and muscle coordination correctly. Even Modern Ski Racing Technique emphasizes skeletal stacking over brute strength.

Kinesologically, the “Serape Effect” is the greatest athletic energy the human body is capable of. In essence, the Serape Effect is the coordinating of the waist/trunk with the extremities to maximize force with a minimum of effort and balance. This allows a baseball pitcher to throw a 90mph fastball, or a tennis player to smash a 100 mph serve. This waist movement is echoed in many athletic forms, but it is typically only trained in its specific sport capacity (form). In Tai Chi Chuan, energy for all movement comes from turning of the waist, and elasticity and resiliency of the waist are paramount for physical action. Although a pitcher's throwing form cannot be easily converted to something useful for swimming or running, Tai Chi’s waist training can be applied to most other sports.

Also emphasized in Tai Chi Chuan is breath control. Most ski racers have no concept of this at all. Waist turning and the Serape Effect are chiefly due to the very strong contractions of muscles like the Iliopsoas and the Sartorius (aided by other muscles of the trunk). The Iliopsoas muscle and the diaphragm both connect to the Thoracic 12 vertebrae, and can coordinate. You read that correctly—the predominant muscle used to bring air into the lungs is connected to the muscle which chiefly creates the awesome power known as the Serape Effect. Tai Chi Chuan is one of the only ways to coordinate these two muscles.

In Tai Chi Chuan, it is very important not to use force directly against force; instead, it is more important to yield to force and redirect it with minimal effort. It is said, “Use four ounces to overcome 1000 pounds.” Think of an arrow flying quickly through the air; the tiniest tap on the side of its shaft will send it careening off in a different direction.

The Tai Chi Chuan practitioner develops “Ting Jing,” or “Listening Energy.” This takes a lot of repetition of the forms, but one develops such a heightened physical sensitivity that it could only be compared the lateral line nerve receptors on a fish. A Tai Chi practitioner becomes far more sensitive to outside forces than even the most highly-trained athletes.

Now observe this photo:

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"Waist Steering Revisited"
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"Photo Analysis"
Master Liang’s weight is on his left leg, and he is turning his waist to the left to demonstrate the movement called “Strike Solar Plexus.” Most movements in Tai Chi Chuan assimilate this: when the weight is on the left leg, the waist turns left and the form opens to the left side (obviously, the opposite would be true if the weight were on the right leg). This type of posture and movement takes the greatest advantage of the natural balance you felt in the rooting exercise. No where in Tai Chi Chuan does a practitioner rotate either leg (especially the knee) to the inside, nor does he weight the extended leg. The legs are always pressuring the outside of the knee and the outside of the foot with constant pressure on the big toe.

In this photo, Master Liang’s right leg is extended, and only has about 30 percent of his weight; we call this the “empty” leg because it can easily step, kick, or pivot. If Master Liang were on alpine skis, he could be making a left turn by weighting the uphill ski; his balance is excellent in this posture, and the right leg can easily match the turn radius of the left leg simply with a turn of the waist (the left leg is more like an outrigger than a balance platform). Weighting of the downhill leg and ski in “Modern Ski Racing” relies on the edge angle and the centrifugal force; as many racers know, sometimes the downhill ski edgelocks and does not reverse-camber.

Weighting the uphill ski through the apex of the turn is much more controllable; however it requires specific movement of the pelvis. This movement is very difficult for racers accustomed to banking, “bonestacking,” or angulating against the downhill ski.

When the uphill ski is weighted through the turn, the body weight can drop almost straight down, providing a low center of gravity and excellent balance. The pelvis must simultaneously rotate the direction of the turn. This reduces the edge angle, but allows for more edge pressure and “steering.” It also enables the downhill ski to mimic the angulation and turn radius of the uphill ski without centrifugal “loading.” (The downhill leg can remain bent, which is better for sensitivity and shock absorption) The downhill leg becomes more like the drawing leg of a geometry compass; it merely follows in accordance with the waist rotation.

On steeps, I find that the uphill ski tracks beautifully across the fall line; then the waist can turn slightly the other direction to roll the ski over. The uphill ski becomes the “outside ski” or downhill ski, and with a small shake of the waist, can PIVOT to slide across the fall line. Slightly holding the waist turn to the outside de-angulates the ski, and allows the uphill ski to advance, creating something like a telemark turn (with one foot advanced, the length of ski edge sliding across the fall line can be roughly 1.25 times the length of one ski). As the outside ski begins to track straight down the fall line and accelerate, the waist can rotate (with breath control) into the turn and the athlete can simultaneously shift weight to the uphill ski to again carve across the fall line and cross under. Any loading of the downhill ski can be comfortably controlled because the athlete is not relying on it for his platform.

You many laugh at this example, but it is realistic to ski racing. The uphill ski can be effectively weighted to create a clean carving turn with parallel skis and matched (yet reduced) edge angles. If you imagine a short radius turn could not be accomplished this way, imagine that Master Liang turns his waist more to the left, and that the right ski tip is directly downhill from the left ski tip; this would put both skis downhill from his mass and center of gravity, making him carve directly across the fall line. Hence, the turn can be as short radius as you need it.