Skiing with poorly fitting boots is like riding a bike without a seat. You’ll probably get to your destination, but it’s not an enjoyable experience.
In 2003 I built my Colnago Dream Plus road bike. I found Chris King headsets from a velo swap, the frame from an Ebay seller in the UK, Reynolds Ouzo Carbon forks, Campagnolo drive train, and Vittoria Open Corsa CX tires on Mavic rims. The bicycle is a work of ridable art. I still feel joy every time I take it on the road. Of all that went in to it, the most important selections I made were for the saddle, handlebars, and cycling shoes with Surefoot insoles – the points where my body touches the equipment.
Boots – There Are So Many Choices
I have skied in boots from several different makers – Raichle, Salomon, Rossignol, Tecnica, Atomic, Nordica, and Lange – and I gained insight to how my boots affect my body position and my technique. For instance, the boot’s ramp angle could be causing my heel to be too high or my toes to be too high, or the boot cuff could lean too far forward or be too upright.
Body position, ankle flex, and a neutral stance
Here is an exercise you can do at home with your existing boots, or in the boot shop when trying them on, or on the snow with your skis on. It’s one of several exercises I use to assess how the skier and their equipment are working together.
Boots with too much forward lean will put you ahead of the centerline, and boots that are too upright will sit your hips behind centerline. If you already have boots you like that don’t put you in proper alignment, adjustments can possibly be made by the boot fitter using toe or heel lifts, boot sole grinds, or cuff adjustments, but it is best to buy boots that align properly for your body.
Buying the Right Boots
My students and friends often ask how to select which boots to buy and I’m happy to give guidance when it comes to such an important decision. I recommend narrowing your choices to a few different boots, based on a few questions:
What is your height and weight, skill level, fitness level, and type of ski?
What type of terrain do you like to ski and what type of snow do you encounter most?
Different people with the same dimensions may have different requirements of the boot.
The Shell and the Liner
If you are able, find a professional boot fitter (I trust Surefoot) and with their help, try on your different options and follow these steps. You might find this approach unconventional but it will get you the best fit. Try on three sizes: Your usual size, one boot-shell-size smaller and one boot-shell-size larger (e.g., Sizes 25, 24, 26). In each size, check for which one fits your midfoot the best. Choose this size and work from there.
Next, is to take a “shell-fit” measurement by placing your foot in the shell of the boot with the liner removed and check for spacing between your foot and the shell for the length, and ankle placement. This will confirm that the make and model is a good fit for your anatomy. Lastly, check the forefoot width to make certain that it is not too tight or too loose in the toebox. Common widths in men’s boots are 97mm, 100mm, or 102mm. Your boot fitter can then adjust the width and length by punching and grinding the shell. In addition, injectable or heat moldable liners will help fill the inconsistencies between your foot and the shell of the boot. A stock boot liner with a solid midfoot fit may be all you need, however, I have a custom foam liner made to ensure my foot has the best possible fit, my ankle flexes properly, and my achilles and heel feel supported.
Orthotics and Insoles
A good insole or orthotic fills the gaps, gives your foot support, and places your ankle in a neutral position. This allows your leg to stack efficiently so that it is moving in alignment with the boot and ski. Proper alignment at the bottom* will allow the rest of your body to have the most versatility, range of motion, and will reduce fatigue. (*This is one of the meanings behind the name of the book: Skiing: from the Bottom Up.) When your foot is out of alignment, you are forced to make adjustments - in your ankles, knees, hips and spine - which are inefficient and sometimes lead to injury or pain. When your body is properly aligned and stacked and you ask it to move a certain way, it will; you won’t have to be making conscious adjustments to compensate for your misalignment.
Novice and intermediate skiers should have a softer flexing boot. A newer skier makes extraneous movements to stay in balance. If the boot is flexible it allows the energy to be absorbed rather than being fully transmitted to the ski and snow. As the skier becomes more skilled, the movements become more accurate and purposeful. A stiffer boot then transmits these movements along the edge of the ski to the snow more quickly and powerfully. A more flexible boot will absorb the pressure of moguls and off-piste terrain. A stiffer boot will require the skier to absorb the uneven terrain in the ankle, knee, hips, spine, and muscular system.
Boot Flex Numbers
It is important to note that there is no industry norm for boot flex. The current rating goes up to 150 for the stiffest race boots. Each manufacturer has its own standard, meaning a 120 flex in one brand may not be the same stiffness as a 120 flex in another brand, although they would be close. Finding the correct fit is primary, and forward flex is next. A final note, a boot will stiffen as the weather gets colder. The boot that you are flexing in the shop will be stiffer when you ski it on the hill. And a boot in January will be stiffer than the same boot for spring skiing in April.
My Current Boot Quiver
Having multiple boots is not required, but I have quite a collection going. I have three pair of Surefoot custom boots. One for backcountry, another for teaching on very cold days (it has a slightly wider toe box and is softer flexing), and the third pair with a “one-finger” high performance fit for teaching and for my days off. They all have a Lange shell with Surefoot X4 Pro or X5 Pro foam liners, Surefoot insoles, and a Thermic bootheater element under the ball of my foot.
I love the feeling of getting fitted and walking out to the shop with new shiny boots, almost as much as skiing them. Boots are the most important piece of gear I use, and I will invest more in boots than any other item. After you purchase new boots, you may find that they need a brief break in period to allow your feet to get use to the new fit. If you are new to orthotics it may take some time to get a good feel for them as well. The benefit of buying from a good bootfitter is that you can bring the boot back into the shop for on-going adjustments. If the adjustments don’t seem like they are working, it may be your technique. But not to worry, that is what upcoming blog posts and my upcoming book, Skiing: From the Bottom Up, will address.
How did my ski life start? Well, as many great endeavors begin, it was a woman, well actually an 18-year-old woman. Her name was Cindy Russell and she was beautiful. I was 18 too, and with nearly two seasons of self-taught snowboarding experience, I wasn’t ready for what I was about to get myself into. My snowboard instruction consisted of some pictures in Powder Magazine, and a segment in a Warren Miller Movie. The equipment in 1986 was pretty basic. I had Sorel work boots that I strapped in to the Burton Elite 150 snowboard. This was as techie as snowboarding had become in those early days.
It didn’t matter if I was riding alone or with a few of my skiing friends. What I knew was that sliding on water - frozen or liquid - was the best thing in the world. I started surfing when I was 11 and I thought that was the most bitchin’ thing ever. And then I found the freedom and friction-less glide of a seemingly endless wave. I couldn’t get enough, and I still can’t.
On weekends during the winter and spring, I drove my truck up to the Southern California mountains early every Saturday morning. I would “couch surf” in the nights and snowboard for those two days. Then the opportunity came to ask out the most beautiful girl I knew. I worked up the nerve to ask Cindy if she would go up to Big Bear Lake with me. She said, “Yes”!! And I was thrilled.
We left our town of Dana Point at 5 am and arrived laughing and smiling a couple hours later at 7:15. The weather that day was incredible with cool blue skies and 10 inches of fresh powder. My skills were going to be on display and the conditions were great. Cindy and I flirted and took powder laps one after the other until we skied out to the eastern boundary of the small ski area.
The boundary run ended on a cat track that was pancake flat and exposed to the midday sun. The snow had transformed into 10 inches of glue. I had never experienced this snow condition until right then when I flew into it at about 25 mph. My snowboard slowed immediately to zero as my upper body maintained its speed into a downward arc. When I emerged I was without gloves, goggles, my hat, and one Sorel. Cindy skied up to me, kindly retrieving my clothing and thanking me for the snow test in untracked conditions. This was not at all how I envisioned removing my clothing for the first time around Cindy.
As we pushed out of the seemingly never-ending flat run, I tried several ways to gain momentum, all of which ended in frustration and an increasing amount of sweat drenching my shirt under my jacket. When we finally came to a semi-groomed flat section I was exhausted. In capitulation, I made a request of Cindy that took my 18-year-old ego down several notches. I asked, “Cindy, can you pull me?” UGGGGGH, I couldn’t believe what I was saying as I thought to myself, ‘Jon, you were so cool, UNTIL NOW.’ Cindy extended her ski pole and began to skate with me in tow. This is when I decided that I was going to trade in my snowboard for skis.
In the lodge that afternoon, the trade was made. My transformation from snowboarder to skier was initiated. I was now the owner of 185 cm White Fischer RC4 skis and Raichle RE3 rear-entry boots. For the next three years, I would spend my college weekends becoming a Southern California skier.
This is an excerpt from Jon's forthcoming book Skiing: From the Bottom Up. Send your feedback and follow along here for weekly posts with stories and ski lessons from Jon's nearly three decades of experience.
Join Jon for the 2018 Zelement Club JaPOW ski and ride trip to Myoko, Japan. January 28 - February 4.
Private Lessons with Jon are available through Copper Mountain Ski School from mid-November to mid-April. Call +1.970.968.3023 or email email@example.com to book your lesson now. Read more about lessons with Jon on our Colorado page.
“We have a serious Coconut situation going on here!” she said to me as I began writing this book. You see, the book Skiing: From the Bottom Up (working title) is beginning to take shape at sunset while I overlook the Indian Ocean in Bali. I’ve been teaching the sport of skiing since the age of 23 and I planning to teach it for many years into the future. I absolutely love it! I chase the winter season differently. I now split my time between the state of Colorado for the winter, and Bali during the Southern Hemisphere “winter”. This perfect mix allows me to stoke my fire with the contrast of the two distinct environments. The story within this book has been writing itself for decades, but it took the tropical temperatures for the messages to blossom.
The idea for this book came to me during an online workshop for aspiring authors hosted by our friend Carl Massy at The Practice. Halfway through the session, I stopped listening (Sharon was engaged and taking great notes) and within 7 minutes I mind-mapped the outline of the book. As I write, I will share some of the content on the blog each week from now until mid-February and I’d love to hear your comments and feedback. You will join me on daily adventures in the life of a ski instructor – at 8 am Instructor Clinics and 4:30 Instructor Technical Sessions, to the backroom of the boot shop (Are you ready Surefoot crew?), and down memory lane recounting how the sport has evolved since I started teaching in 1992 – learning lessons to improve your skiing along the way.
In February, I will begin shooting and editing videos that will be companions to the blog and eventually the book. You will be applying your new skills on your first run after reading the book and you can take the instructional videos on the mountain with you. Powder, moguls, carving, skidding, speed and line control, breaking through the intermediate and advanced ruts, and developing Intuitive Jedi skiing skills.
I will do my best to make this experience incredible and fun for all those who read and follow and contribute. I have had such wonderful coaches and colleagues along my journey and I have also been blessed with many incredibly kind and generous students over the years who have supported my ski-teaching habit. Soon I will launch a GoFundMe account to raise the money to fund this project. The funds will be used for copywriting, editing, publishing, design, and video production. As a backer, you will have access to advanced copies of the book, first editions, on-mountain meet and greet ski sessions, 2-day Masterclass sessions, and a Signature 1-week Zelement Club vacation. And everyone who supports at any level will be recognized in the book credits.
I am honored to embark on this journey with you. As we go through process, I will post certain sections and other related content on the blog. I am excited to hear your feedback to make this book even better.
It’s time to build this from the Bottom Up.
Love and Gratitude,
Join us for JaPOW: A special week of coaching and teaching skiing in the famous powder of Japan | January 28-February 5, 2018.
Private Lessons with Jon are available through Copper Mountain Ski School from mid-November to mid-April. Call +1.970.968.3023 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to book your lesson. Read more about lessons with Jon on our Colorado page.
When I teach a ski lesson, I always like to incorporate some element of Adventure that will expand the comfort zone of the skier and help them grow. In this exercise of trust it is important to have a syntax in which the skier and I can communicate, and I call this the Zones of Comfort and Fear.
I first shared this with my students in 1992 and since then incorporated lessons from many people and genres, most notably from John Phillips at Aspen Mountain in the mid-90s, and breathing techniques from Hatha Yoga I learned at Yoga Teacher Training in Bali.
Having this common language
1) Allows the skier to identify their own thresholds and notice their progression through the Zones,
2) Allows the skier to feel more comfortable describing to me their mental and emotional states, and
3) Allows me to communicate a gameplan for the lesson and provide clear feedback.
The Zones are unique to each individual.
They are not directly correlated to ski run labels of green, blue, and black – there are many more factors influencing the Zones including skier ability, past experience, crowds, effects of altitude, sleep quality, mental state, terrain (powder, ice, moguls), and time of day (visibility, fatigue).
These Zones are not fixed nor precisely measurable. For example, an intermediate mogul run that is identified as a Yellow Zone activity eventually becomes a Green Zone activity after the skier gets comfortable with it. Also, when a student is standing above a run and looking in, the “fear of the unknown” can be quite strong. Once the skier “takes action”, there will usually be a 0.5 to 1 Zone increase in comfort level.
Zone 1: The Green Zone
The student will feel very comfortable this Zone. Internal and external threats are perceived to be at a minimum.
This is the point to add to the student’s knowledge base. Combine “learned” and “activity” knowledge by explaining and demonstrating new movements then running exercises & drills in this Zone. Remember that “a sailing ship is safe in a harbor, but that is not where sailing ships were meant to be sailed.” Bring your students to the next Zone to work on expanding their Green Zone.
Zone 2: Optimal Performance Zone
The OP Zone. The student will naturally have a heightened level of awareness and mental acuity due to adrenaline and endorphins, and might express joy and happiness and some hoots and hollers.
The Optimal Performance Zone is created when the student experiences the stress/arousal of applying their knowledge and developed skill in a new and slightly more challenging environment.
I enjoy spending time with my student in this Zone. It offers the potential to make the most progress toward their goals and we can ski in terrain which is interesting to them. When we pace the lesson properly we can stay in the OP Zone for an extended period of time and the Green-OP Zone and OP-Yellow Zone thresholds expand as the student’s skills develop.
In this Zone, I coach to “anchor” feelings, emotional states, and performance cues, e.g.,“What are you seeing?” “Which muscles are firing?” “What thoughts do you have?”, etc.
Zone 3: The Yellow Zone
The Thrill Zone. Some of my students refer to this as the “I Might Pee My Pants” Zone (the *other* reason it is called the Yellow Zone).
In their Yellow Zone, the student will experience a heightened state of stimulation perhaps described as shortness of breath, feeling a bit scared or nervous, or show a tendency to speed up speech and movements or to become quiet.
Different responses in this Zone can be generally classified as either fight or flight.
Fighters either will perform well in this Zone, or they might be mentally committed to being there yet show limited proficiency of skills that they were able to perform well in the OP/Green Zones.
Flighters would prefer to finish the lesson segment and go back to their Green Zone.
As an instructor, it is important to notice both types of response as well as how the skier performs in this Zone. Applaud ALL results in this Zone and do not criticize at this moment. Sharing what I observed in their performance is generally well received (E.g., “When we ski in to this terrain I saw there is an up-unweighting/extension movement at the beginning of the turn rather than the absorption/flexion movement we have been developing.”)
A skilled instructor will determine whether to eventually move back to the Green or OP Zone to work on skills or to coach the student to perform in this Zone by encouragement, focus on the activity, and/or anchoring of the experience. This applies to both fighters and flighters.
Both the student and instructor would be best served not to spend an extended length of time in the Thrill Zone all at once. Much like the driver who keeps their car in 2nd gear at high RPM for an extended period time, excessive wear can occur.
Zone 4: The Orange Zone
Some exposure to this Zone is important for the skier to grow. An instructor or coach can help manage the student’s heightened anxiety level, which is inherent within this Zone. The instructor’s presence, words of encouragement, tactical advice, and reminder of goals/incentives can all be beneficial to the learner. In fact, this is an important reason top athletes hire coaches - they help the athlete focus when their world is “spinning”.
A skier can be here for a little time, but extended exposure to this mental state will start to see significant performance deterioration. Think of this as the beginning of the Red Line in a car, or an anaerobic in workout. Make sure to choose terrain where the skier may decompress back to a “safer” Zone quickly, if necessary.
A skilled coach can move the skier between the OP-Yellow-Orange Zones several times throughout a lesson which will expand these Zones outward. A guided tour into this Orange Zone can aid the student in developing a better understanding of movements and tactics, and their relevance on other areas of the mountain. The terrain or situation which was once Orange, can become Yellow, or even Green with a few guided journeys into that environment.
Celebrate the effort and the completion of the task no matter the performance in this Zone. This can be the peak of an Adventure lesson. Most skiers are not training for the Olympics nor a major performance. However, wisely guiding a student in to the Orange Zone can help a skier rapidly expand their vision, ability, and application of skills. This Zone often provides fantastic stories for student to share with friends and family during après-ski!
Zone 5: The Red Zone
The Danger Zone. This is a No-Go Zone.
Performance will decline rapidly as levels of anxiety and discomfort rise. Sometimes lessons go here without the intent of the student or instructor. We call this “Over Terraining”. The student may have an intense flight or freeze reaction. It is important to realize this Red Zone may be encountered on the beginner hill, intermediate, or advanced slopes. The Red Zone is a reflection of the student’s mind-space, not merely a trail designation.
If you do find yourself in a Red Zone experience, go to a Green Zone run or the lodge to decompress as soon as possible. Then you can build back toward the OP Zone.
Even though this article is specifically related to performance skiing, our surfing friends in Bali can immediately apply the terminology when they read it before we paddle out together. I applied this Zones model to my own sports of Motorcycle Racing, Surfing, Track, and Cross-Country growing up and I invite you to adapt it to any sport or activity you are learning or teaching.
About the Co-Author:
Jonathan Lawson, aka Jonnie Law, has taught more than 30,000 hours of lessons to skiers and instructors. In the 22 years since becoming a Level 3 Certified Professional, he has learned from some of the best minds in the ski teaching world and integrated their lessons into his own skiing and teaching. Jon has been recognized as one of the Top 100 Ski Instructors in North America and in 2011 he was a finalist for Colorado Ski Instructor of the Year. He and his partner live in Bali and Colorado running their Adventure Travel & Lifestyle Coaching business called Zelement Club. To book a lesson with Jon visit www.ZelementClub.com.
I bought new ski boots two years in a row. Why did I do this after not getting a new pair for 12 years? Last year I even bought new boots AND "custom" footbeds. I learned it makes a big difference when you go to a shop that specializes in boots and the staff has a lot of knowledge from training and experience.
Just before Christmas last year I visited a well-known Colorado ski shop and I selected a more advanced boot that would catch up to my ability advances from the last 12 years and help me to continue to progress. Taking it out on the mountain felt so great after those worn out boots. Soon I felt my feet swimming in these boots. I'd go to make a turn and my foot would roll in the boot, making it really difficult to set an edge.
After months of micro-adjustments, tweaks, and new insoles, I went to the pros at Surefoot Copper Mountain. My new Lange RX 110 LVs are stiffer (110 vs. 95 flex) but the improvement in response and control comes also from the fact that I have custom molded insoles and liners. It's like these boots are an extension of my legs. My feet don't move around in them at all so when my brain says turn, my skis turn. And they are still incredibly comfortable - the most comfortable ski boots I've been in for walking or skiing, by far.
John and the staff at Surefoot Copper will take the time to ask about what is going on with your current set up, what you are looking to change and improve, and give you options in your price range. The process for me started with a computerized foot scan (which, as a bonus, feels like a gentle acupressure foot massage) followed by the molding of the liners (which also felt pretty therapeutic). The whole process took less than an hour and I had plenty of interesting people to chat with.
I've had my new beauties for a few weeks now and people here on vacation have asked me, "I only ski one or two weeks a year, is it worth it?" I say absolutely! You have limited time to enjoy this activity so comfortable boots that fit perfectly and keep you warm help you get the most out of the investment you make in a ski trip. And they will save you time - no need to go back to the hotel to change your shoes - you will even be comfortable at après ski dancing on the bar!
If you want to get some tips from the pros on your boots and your turns come ski with us in Colorado or Japan this season.
My friend Emily flew in this weekend to get boots and John and the crew made another happy customer. Here are some photos of the process. We'll be rockin' the same boots in Japan 2018 Jan 28-Feb 4. Come join us. www.zelementclub.com/japan
Sharon and Jon live the life of their dreams. Zelement Club is their way of inviting others to join them in this adventure.