Good body position starts with good ankle flex.

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Every ski season I hold several clinics, both skating and classic, beginner and intermediate. Regardless of the abilities of the skiers participating I always start at the ground floor of efficient skiing: good body position. And I always ask the rhetorical question: where does good body position start? And the answer is almost always the same: bend your knees.

After years of repeatedly being subjected to this response I've managed to suppress my primal urge to kill. Instead I close my eyes so my students don't see them rolling back in my head, take a deep breath and calmly say, "Good body position starts with flexed ankles."

What happens when we flex our ankles? Our knees drop, our hips drop and if our torso is tipped slightly forward we find ourselves in what is universally known as the athletic position. You're ready for anything. You can drive forward, you can move side to side, you can generate power, you can ski downhill, you can absorb bumps. You're ready to ski down the trail.

Having taken way too many PSIA classes over the last ten years and working with what probably amounts to a few hundred skiers, between the grade school kids and adult clinics, it's become difficult for me to ski without constantly evaluating my own technique. Whenever I sense a lack of efficiency or I stall out on a hill, I always check my body position, meaning I ask myself, "are my ankles flexed?" Nine times out of ten the answer is no or not enough. As soon as I drop into my ankles the problem is solved.

A few weeks ago I got into a discussion/debate with a couple of moms who work with the younger skiers. They were adamant that "flex your ankles" means nothing to the average person and "bend your knees" is more universally understood. Being an older, white male I knew that they were full of crap but I nevertheless tried get them to see the light using logic and reason, which is the natural realm of older, white males. But I was speaking into the void. Finally I turned to a kid standing next to me and said, "Sam, flex your ankles." Sam immediately flexed his ankles, his knees dropped, he tipped forward and he was ready to ski.

Why the focus on the ankles? Why not knees? The first answer I always give is that I can bend my knees without bending my ankles, but I can't bend, or flex, my ankles without bending my knees. If I do I'll fall over. The second part is, we want to think from the skis up, and our ankles are the first major joint in that progression. Flexed ankles equals bent knees equals dropped hips, etc.

Teaching adults to flex their ankles is probably the single biggest challenge I face when instructing. Most kids just get it. Tell a group of kids to pretend they're gorillas and see what happens. Instant athletic position. When you put them on skis they usually have no problem with transferring that drill and dropping into a good stance with their ankles flexed. Adults can often demonstrate a good position before they put their skis on, but once they're locked into their bindings they become rigid, tentative and sometimes, fearful. My task at that point is to put them through various drills while repeating over and over, "flex your ankles, flex your ankles, flex your ankles."

Good body position is the same whether you're skiing classic or skate. And good body position starts with what?

Ankles, dammit!

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Due to the lack of snow the 25k OSCR loop will be shortened to a 22k. We won't be using Roller Coaster or Mountain View trails. The 25k route becomes 22k and the 50k option is now 44k.

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This might work, but why bother?

I really enjoy teaching and coaching cross country skiing. There's the new people I get to meet, the kids I get to hang out with, and the satisfaction of being outside sharing a sport I love. And I can't deny that it's a real ego boost when I light up somebody's day by showing them something as simple as how to wedge turn around a downhill corner that previously had them frozen in terror. Simple techniques that many of us take for granted are like speaking Arabic for beginning skiers and I feel privileged to be their translator.

Most of my beginning students catch on to the basics fairly quickly. However, there is one common denominator that causes some of them to flail in futility no matter how athletic they are, what kind of shape they're in or how patiently and repetitively I break the process down. And that one simple thing is they are not on the right gear. They borrowed their friends equipment because they are the same shoe size. Only problem is they may be able to swap boots, but their friend is 5'10", 175lbs. and they're 5'4", 120lbs. Or they got a good deal on a package at a big box, all purpose sporting goods store. Or their mom bought them stuff they'll "grow into". They thought they could skate on their classic gear or classic on their skate gear. I've heard and seen it all.

These people are doomed to frustration until they get properly fitted gear that is designed specifically for either skate or classic skiing.

Last Saturday is an excellent case in point and served as my inspiration for this post. I was working with a really enjoyable couple from Missoula who had downhill and touring experience but wanted to try skate skiing. I could tell Shannon's skis were too long for her, but hoped to make the best of the situation. That was a wasted hope. Despite her CrossFit training and obvious athleticism, she couldn't overcome the fact that her skis, purchased at a large, local sporting goods store, were way too long for her. The tails of her skis were crossing nonstop, killing her momentum and causing her to fall repeatedly. She was trying to be a good sport about it but her frustration was building and I could see the tension growing in her. What had started as a good time was going south in a big way.

As we approached her emotional breaking point, Shaun Radley skied by pulling two of his (adorable) kids in a plastic sled.

"Hey, Mike!"

"Shaun! Hold up a second. I've got a question. What do you think about her skis? They're 181's."

"Way too long. I'd put her on a 173. I've got some in the car, let me grab them."

We happened to be less than 100' from Shaun's car. In less than five minutes time he had her on skis that fit, the birds began singing. the clouds parted and Shannon was bathed in a pool of divine light. I may have heard heavenly hosts singing on high, but can't confirm that. Immediately, and I mean RIGHT NOW, she was able to make those skis do what they were supposed to do. It was a 180 degree turn. She went from being totally frustrated to actually having fun and feeling like this might be a sport she would enjoy pursuing.

What's so special about Shaun, other than he was incredibly kind to help us out? This: he is a long-time racer who owns a shop that specializes in bikes and cross country ski gear. He is experienced in the sport and trained to fit people with the proper equipment. When he sells someone a new pair of skis he knows what he is talking about.

You can walk into a huge multi-purpose sporting goods store and buy some stuff from a very friendly sales person and, yeah, you might save $50 or even $100. But if it doesn't fit and you consequently are battling to learn basic technique, what have you actually saved? You won't be having fun, you'll think skate skiing sucks, or you'll be convinced the problem is your own spastic tendencies, and those skis and boots will gather dust in your gear closet. You didn't save squat.

If you're thinking of taking up classic or skate skiing, or you want to get your kids started, don't cut corners. There are several good shops in Missoula that will get you headed down the right path and some of them have programs that allow you to trade in your kids' gear as they outgrow it. You don't have to break your piggy bank for the best stuff money can buy. These shops sell entry level packages that will work fine and most importantly, they'll be fitted to your height, weight and ability. If you don't want to take the plunge, then try renting. Most shops will apply the price of the rental to a purchase if you later decide to dive in.

Shaun's shop is called MTCX and you can Google them for more info. Tell 'em Mike sent ya.

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