Monday, 17 September 2007

The Importance of Play

This summer I have been working on high ropes courses as an instructor, whilst waiting for the winter to come back. There are places on the courses where people with shorter arms or legs need to swing a hanging element (a platform or a trapeze) in order to reach the next one. One thing I have noticed is that many children simply do not know how to swing - they pull on the ropes and flail their legs but never make the rhythmical movements needed to go a little further with each swing. It seems as if they have never learnt to use a simple playground swing.

When children play on swings and climbing frames - or climb trees, do cartwheels or kick a ball about - they learn a variety of movement skills that are invaluable in later life. Such activities give one an intuitive understanding of the mechanics of movement. Without this it takes Newton's equations for motion and gravity to predict the result of a given action. Suddenly a simple swing becomes a complicated problem - as illustrated by the inability of an apparently intelligent child to swing a platform suspended from ropes. If children lose the opportunity for physical play it affects not only their health, but also their kinaesthetic awareness and a part of their problem solving ability.

So, how is this relevant to winter sports? Well it is all too easy when skiing or snowboarding to focus on improving technique, or doing it the right way, to the exclusion of all else. For example, when making a snowplough turn you may try to follow a sequence: apply weight to both skis equally; start to stand up, stretching the legs; look where you want to go; steer the skis towards the fall line; feel for pressure building up under the outside ski; flex down keeping the pressure on the outside ski; continue to steer the skis and finish the turn across the slope (always keeping the shoulders and hips square to the skis, the knees apart and the ski tails pushed out into a wedge shape). This is all well and good, and will lead you to making a good solid snowplough turn, but as you progress you can become robotic and inflexible in your skiing if you only ever do things the 'right' way.

Good skiers are usually playful skiers - they mix up the turns they do, they try new things and most importantly they have fun with their skiing. Training for technique is important of course, but it is also important for your development to try things out and see what happens. For example, have a free run and see how many ways you can make the skis turn. Look for interesting terrain - bumps and jumps. On easy slopes try something different, always challenge yourself. In this way you will develop your skiing intuition as to what will happen when you use a particular movement. Above all though - keep it fun.

Friday, 14 September 2007

How to be healthy...

A certain major breakfast cereal manufacturer has just started an advertising campaign promoting the three steps to a healthier lifestyle. 1. Eat their cereal, 2. Eat more fruit and 3. Drink more water. I'm sure anyone living in the UK knows what I'm talking about and I can't help thinking they've missed out something pretty vital there. If you want to get/stay healthy - DO SOME EXERCISE.

An improved diet might well let you lose weight, and it is certainly a step in the right direction, but if you sit in an office all day and on the sofa all evening you will never really be fit and healthy. Food is often blamed (and rightly) for health problems, but the last few decades have also seen a decline in the amount of exercise that people, and particularly children, take. Walking to school or work, playing outside and manual jobs have all become less common and the result is a society growing outwards.

An active holiday of any kind can be great way to kick start a fitter lifestyle. You can exercise to prepare for the trip, exercise while you are there, e.g. by skiing every day, and when you come home full of energy it is easier to keep up the momentum and keep exercising. Skiing is one example, but there are hundreds of ways to be active - the important thing is to get into the habbit of being active regularly, even if only for twenty minutes or half an hour.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Carving Skis - A New Idea?

As every recreational skier knows, the big advance in ski technology over the last decade has been the introduction of carving skis. It has been said that ski manufacturers have taken ideas from snowboard technology to create these radically new designs. Carving itself is seen as a brand new technique by many skiers, and a lot seem to believe that simply using carving skis means that they are carving.

So what is it that makes a carving ski different from a ski of ten years ago? The image to the left shows a two year old slalom ski alongside a ten year old slalom ski. Side by side it is easy to see that the new ski is shorter with a wide tip and tail, whereas the old ski has sides that are close to parallel. In addition, the top-sheet of an old ski is usually flat whilst a new ski will have contours to concentrate the ski's energy where is is needed (or, speaking in English, to make it stiffer in certain places). Notice that although the older ski has sides that are closer to straight - it is not completely straight sided. Straight skis still had a sidecut, and it is still possible to carve on them. People have been carving since long before I started skiing (22 years ago) and new equipment simply makes it easier to master the technique.

Next time you are in a bar or restaurant in the mountains and there is a pair of ancient wooden skis on the wall, take a closer look at them. At first glance they will look a far cry from modern skis, but look at the sidecut, and the shape of the topsheet. More than likely there will be a pronounced sidecut, and the top will be contoured to increase stiffness where it is needed. The idea of a shaped ski was invented in the nineteenth century by Sondre Norheim, and ski makers refined these designs over subsequent decades. However such innovations were deemed unnecessary when modern materials were introduced to produce laminated wood and metal skis in the fifties. Perhaps there was an element of marketing in this - making the new metal topped skis straighter gave them a more radical in appearance compared to the all wood skis that went before. I suspect the push of radical ski designs onto the market in recent years has at least something to do with competition from snowboard makers. This has made it both easier and more desirable for the ski makers to market ever newer looking ski designs that the skiing public might previously have greeted with suspicion.

Don't get me wrong, there have been big advances in ski design over the last decade and new skis are easier to learn and progress on, easier in difficult conditions, easier off piste, easier to carve on and less physically taxing. However, the principles are not as new as some would have you believe.