This weekend several of the staff trainers went out together for a little skiing, and of course an opportunity for us to evaluate each other's skiing. Being the start of a new season, we all had things that had become rusty over the summer, and we needed each other to identify those weak spots. One of the trainers recommended that we all try skiing with our ankles as closed (bent) as possible. By keeping the ankle closed, in theory we should have kept our balance all the way forward.
I tried the exercise, as I have many times before. But when we got to the bottom, I had a comment I needed to make. "I didn't feel more forward; if anything, I felt slightly more in the backseat. Why?" I wasn't the only one who felt this counter-intuitive sensation, so we began to look at each other's stance more closely. Why would bending the ankles, which normally brings the body forward, result in a stance that was further back?
The answer, we found, was in our spines. The angle of the spine should match the angle of the shins. This helps keep the center of mass forward and stacks the body in an efficient manner. See the photograph below of an efficient ski racer, and note how the spine (red line) runs approximately parallel to the lower legs (green lines). Clearly skiing is a dynamic sport, and both your spine and legs are constantly moving and never exactly parallel, but they should remain close, as this photograph demonstrates:
Now, let's compare that visual to a less efficient ski racer, where the spine is more upright than the lower leg. Notice how balance is behind the foot, and the quadriceps need to work to keep her upright. Pay particular attention to how she has done a very good job, better than most skiers, of closing her ankles and getting her knees in front of her toes. Despite that excellent ankle flexation, she still manages to be in the back seat:
That was our problem, and we saw it in each other. Strangely enough, none of us saw it in ourselves. Everyone else had an underflexed spine, but we were perfect. Standing on the side of the run, we paired up and examined each other's stance, and gave feedback ("More flex! More flex!") until the spine angle matched the lower leg angle. To a person, we all felt like the correct alignment was overflexed, and we realized that over the summer we had all gotten out of the habit of flexing our spines properly for skiing.
Of course, you cannot flex the spine without flexing the lower leg; doing so will send your hips backwards and throw off your balance as well. Both angles must match to produce an effective and efficient balanced skiing stance. And, as we discovered, this isn't a sensation that can be easily dialed in alone. Show these two photos to a friend, and have them compare the photos to your stance. Which do you more closely resemble? Could you benefit from bending your spine more to match the angle of your lower leg? Give it a try and see what happens.