Jimmy's Ski Tips and Tricks

Your Poles Drive Your Legs

Monday February 5, 2018

I haven't posted in a while, mostly because my day job has had me travelling during the week and I simply haven't had the time. But I had a create idea brewing in my head, ready to put down into electrons and post this week. My son and I have been binge watching "Canada's Worst Driver" on Netflix. It's a great show, where contestants are given driving lessons then need to perform various tasks, and the best one is ejected each week until only the worst driver remains. It's especially good for my sixteen year old son to learn some of these driving lessons! In any case, we watched them do an exercise where they had to approach a barrier, and at the last minute a cutout of a pedestrian would appear on one side or the other of the barrier, and they would have to swerve to the other side. One swerved the wrong direction, hitting the cutout pedestrian. The in-car camera showed the driver's eyes, which never left the pedestrian. The presenter talked about "target fixation", where you stare at a danger, and drive right into it. I thought it'd make a great blog post, because the same thing happens in skiing. Then I remembered that I talked about that in December, so I couldn't do it again already. Oh, well, maybe next year.

Let's talk about poles instead. Next time you're at a ski resort, go ahead and watch what other people are doing with their poles. They use them to push themselves along in the lift line, or rest their upper body while stopped, sure. But when they're actually skiing, what do they do with them? Usually you see people just holding them out, not really doing anything particular with the poles. Why carry poles around all day if all you are going to do is use them to make the lift line a little easier to walk in? The answer, of course, is balance:

Tight rope walkers use a long pole to help balance themselves, and skiers instinctively do the same thing. There's no real skill to teach here, because we all already use our hands to balance ourselves. Putting a pole in the hand makes it more effective, but it remains instinctive. In thirteen years of teaching, I've never seen someone fall over because they didn't move their hands to maintain balance. So that's enough about that.

What about the really good skiers? Ever notice they move their poles much more? It turns out there are a number of different things that you can use poles for to help you ski better. The three most common things that I teach are edge release, rhythm, and blocking pole plants. Today I'm going to talk about the first — edge release.

The only thing that matters in skiing is the relationship between the ski and the snow, but sometimes what you do with your upper body can help you draw the ski into the right position. If you've been reading my blog, you'll note that I've already talked about the need to release the edges at turn initiation in order to turn the skis. To release the edges, we need to angle the lower legs to flatten the skis on the snow, something I suggested we do by extending the uphill leg and moving the hips slightly down the hill. That's great. But what if we want to do it even better? What if, instead of releasing the edges and using our muscles to rotate the skis into a new turn, we were to engage the new inside edges at the start of the turn, and let the shape of the skis turn us?

To do that, we'll need to angle those lower legs even further down the hill, and that's a scary proposition. By moving our bodies that far down hill, we will move out of a static balance, and if we don't generate some centrifugal forces, fall to the inside of the turn. It's a fear that we need to overcome to ski better, however. We need to move our center of gravity down the hill in the direction we want to go in order to be able to keep our bodies aligned and still tip the skis onto their new edges. The poles will help us do that.

Next time you're on a moderately steep slope, at least a blue square, come to a stop with your skis across the slope. In a balanced position, reach out and tap the snow lightly with your pole. Aim for a spot in front of the tips of your skis, and about eighteen inches downhill of them. Don't angle the pole with the wrist, but keep the pole as vertical as you can, moving your hand out over the pole basket. This will, of course, require you to straighten your arm, but also move your shoulders and hips in the direction of the pole touch. What happens? If you're paying attention, you'll know before you try it that the skis will release, and begin moving down the hill, turning to seek the fall line. Try it and see.

So by reaching out with the pole right before you turn, you help bring the rest of the body into proper alignment, and release the edges. The keys are to have the hand go out with the pole, rather than flick with the wrist, and to have the pole touch be in front of your skis and slightly downhill. Give it a try and see how it works.

Pole Use
Chances are, you'll find yourself making much smoother turns using the poles to release the edges. But can we do better? Of course we can! Most people don't reach far enough, and thus don't reap the full benefit of the pole touch. You can force yourself to reach further, and in doing so, discover the true power of the ski pole. To do so, grab your poles not by the handle, but in the middle of the pole. When you reach out, make sure the tip touches the snow. Don't bend down to do this, but reach further out. Can you feel a difference? Practice with a half-pole until the sensation becomes familiar, then switch back to your entire pole. Reach out until you feel that same sensation. It can make a world of difference in your skiing!

For more information about me, check out the About page. All content copyright 2017 James Brokaw.