Supporting visuals and research by Tom Gellie

May 2024

What is the shape of your legs?

You’re bowlegged, eh?”, Tom exclaimed the first time we met in a coffee shop at Silver Star. Yes – I walk like a cowboy.

Intriguingly, for the first half of my life I had no awareness of the shape of my legs. It was during the pursuit of the CSIA L4 back in 1993 that I was made aware of it - my legs were not straight. It was suggested that my malalignment would hinder my chances of being successful. With the goal of passing, I willingly submitted to have my alignment tested. I discovered that I was 5 degrees out on my left leg and 3 degrees out on my right. Apparently, these were provocative numbers. I was so far out that complete correction was not possible, but we could get close. So began my lifelong pursuit of perfect alignment.

Knee over second toe theory of boot alignment

I quickly became acquainted with the accepted dogma of alignment. To ride a flat ski, my knee needed to track over my second toe when standing in an athletic stance. This would be achieved externally by placing wedges or shims under my bindings to tip my foot inwards. In hindsight, it is interesting that no attention was given to the fit of the boot or how it might be impacting my alignment.

Frustration and nagging pain keeps me wondering if there is more…

I followed the prescription, and I passed my Level 4. I am into my 31st year as an examiner. But to be honest, I have skied with nagging lower back and left knee pain most of my life. I assumed that this was just part of the sport. If you are going to ski for a living you will most likely deal with aches and pains. Additionally, I have always been frustrated to ski the way I truly wanted. While I was a good skier by most standards, I was haunted by the notion that I was not reaching my full potential. I was unable to move inside the turn as proficiently as I desired, I had hip rotation issues on my left footers, and often just felt “blocked”. I was constantly searching for ways to improve my performance and I believed they were technical in nature because I had dealt with the alignment stuff, or so I thought.

Boot canting and custom footbeds

Fast forward 10 years I was finally able to get rid of my cumbersome shims in favor of boot planing. Much more precise than shims and freeing for many reasons.  I also introduced a supportive custom footbed – any serious skier has a custom foot bed, right? Foot beds, whether custom or off the shelf, follow the shape of the arches in your feet. How stiff this material is can have quite an impact on how much your feet feel a ski turn.

Working with Tom has taught me that the arches of our feet do not necessarily need support from a foot bed but rather work best when they can function in a dynamic way. Our feet whether flatter or higher in their shape, have all the support they need through muscles, ligaments and tendons. Tom explained that many foot “problems” could actually be thought of as “lack of body awareness” problems. A custom footbed outsources the balance work the person could learn to do themselves. “If you have poor posture through your hips and spine you can very well change this without external devices. The feet are no different” said Tom. 

However, I was told our feet needed arch support due to the loads experienced in skiing and to help give a better connection to the ski. At the time It made sense to me. It made sense for decades. Within the echo chamber the evidence seemed logical, my mentors championed it, and so did I.

I try the boots undone drill

Now, back to Tom’s initial comment on my gait at the coffee shop. We finished our coffees, booted-up, and went skiing. We discussed many topics and worked through several drills. The day ended skiing with my boots undone in effort to reduce the effect of my “custom” setup. To my amazement, it felt great. There was power and a looseness, I didn’t feel blocked. I knew it was time to embrace a new paradigm. Tom took a video of me skiing with my top boot buckles and power strap undone so I could see what I was feeling. Why did it feel like I could align myself better when my boots were looser? Read on to discover we all seek natural alignment.

A new approach

The new paradigm is simple and straight forward. It is predicated on the idea that we know intrinsically how to move and balance. The body is smart. While we share a similar human form there is an infinite number of combinations of bone length, joint angles, muscle type and flexibility, not to mention imbalances imparted by lifestyle, injuries, and more. We learn how to move within our individual setup. Your neuromuscular system has been perfected since birth so that you can walk, run, jump, climb, lift, and play sports (as well as your practice will allow). In our bare feet we are the truest to our nature. We are all athletic by design.

Watch the boots undone drill tutorial 

*requires a Big Picture Skiing Membership*

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Unimpaired movement for athleticism

The key is to take the boot out of the equation. Make it a part of the body and its movement patterns. It should fit so well that you don’t know it is there. It reacts seamlessly to every input the skier makes. It should not place you in unnatural positions. The boot needs to be an environment that provides for the pain free and unimpaired movement of the bones, nerves, and muscles of your feet and ankles. The new paradigm has 3 key elements to create a functional ski boot; snug but free, cuff alignment, and no foot bed.

3 Key Elements For The Ideal Fit

Click on each to find out more

Snug but Free

The lower shell must precisely accommodate the shape of your foot and ankle. Through a combination of grinding and punching the shell, the boot is sculpted to perfectly follow the contours of the foot and ankle. Special attention is placed on creating space for specific movements to help us edge and balance. Big Picture Skiing has a video titled “Edge Pressure 1,2,3” for more on this. The result is the foot is held snuggly but can still move. Movements of the foot are instantly transmitted to movement of the skis – no delay and no pain.  To gain this type of fit you need to be open to choosing a boot that may feel too tight width wise and work with your fitter to sculpt the shape of your feet into the plastic. 

Perfect cuff alignment

The shin is free to move naturally. The cuff of the ski boot follows the natural shape of your own leg. Once again, there are numerous combinations of how the tibia and fibula are connected to the ankle. In my case, the cuffs needed to be tipped out to their maximum to accommodate the outward bow of my lower leg. It is important to purchase boots that have cuff alignment adjustment.

Basic flatter insole

This can be seen as the most controversial. Custom footbeds are a major add-on service in shops around the ski world. Boot-fitters have been trained to try and control your foot by filling up the space under your arch, sometimes with stiff foam, with best of intentions. Unwittingly, I now believe the actual result stops the foot from going through the very necessary movements of eversion, and inversion so the skier can finely control edge pressure without intervention. If you are going to use a custom footbed make sure it’s very flexible. My first step was removing support bit by bit from my custom insoles until I was basically flat. A great experiment is to try the basic insole that most ski boots come with and see how that feels. If there is too much volume consider adding a volume reducer to create that snug fit without blocking the arches. If you are really serious I highly recommend you watch this 1 hr webinar from Tom on the topic. It will give you confidence and reasoning through the same process I undertook Checkout: “Custom vs Flatter Insoles”.

Checkout the free BPS Boot Fit Guide

Click here to view free boot fit guide

The Result

As this past ski season began and armed with a new pair of plug boots I met with my boot fitter. I discussed my desired setup – no canting, no footbed, and a perfect snug but free environment. He was curious and willing to work with me.

The results. Initially I was a little out of sorts as my body had grown accustomed to standing with rigid feet tipped inwards. New neural pathways needed to be developed. In a matter of hours I began to feel paradoxically, more relaxed and more powerful at the same time. As the season progressed my back and knee pain did not develop as it had for every season for the past 30 years. My rotation went away, excessive knee angulation was replaced with more precise hip angulation. I am skiing the best I have in 30 years, and I am doing it in my body. My equipment is set up to work with my natural alignment and not manipulated into unnatural positions.

Listen to Jason in the video as he explains getting his new boots setup. 

Seeing students achieve results too

The efficacy of these ideas was not limited to my personal experience. I witnessed the effectiveness of these concepts with skiers that we coached this winter. At our Big Picture camps, we do a boot information and review before the first day on snow. We discuss what our skiers are working on, what issues they are experiencing in their skiing, and then review their individualsetup. Often, we discovered that the issue described in their skiing was caused by the setup they were standing on. The most effective change was swapping out their custom footbeds for stock insoles that came in the boots. With the foot free to move naturally they reported improved stability and capacity to put the ski on edge.  We witnessed immediate improvement to alignment and freedom of movement.

The takeaway

My takeaway from this season is twofold. Firstly, despite the best of intentions the accepted dogma I followed for the past 30 years was hindering my potential and causing pain and discomfort. You shouldn’t stand on feet that are set at an angle nor is good practice to stop your feet from going through their natural range of movement. In skiing this is a small range but necessary. Secondly, your body is smart. Our natural alignment is not something to be changed but to be accommodated for.

Work with a reputable boot fitter who approaches their work with an open mind. Make certain that your boots conform perfectly to every bony projection of your lower legs and feet. Snug but free to move. Try skiing without your custom foot beds. See what you notice. If you don’t like it then stick with what is working for you. This is just another option to test out and luckily it is completely reversible. I have been honestly quite surprised by my findings this season. When you stand as your genetics has determined your natural athleticism can be accessed.


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You be the judge. Custom footbed or not is up to you 🫵🏻

The approach Jason took with his ski boot setup is one that is considered different from the status quo. Particularly in regards to using a flatter less supportive insole. Our goal with sharing this information is to just show skiers that there are different options in how you can setup your ski boots. Choose what works for you and make the decision yourself. Skiing with custom footbeds and canting could work great for you, so stick with it.

I just ask you see the other side of the coin too. We are finding there are skiers that respond and feel better in the type of setup Jason has explained. And this is not limited to athletic people with high arches. One BPS student has a clinically diagnosed abnormality he was born with and very flat feet. He was told he must ski with a footbed or else. He finally found a boot fitter that would do enough punching of the shell to stretch the arch zone so his foot could sit flat. He is making his best turns yet at over 60 years of age and in his own words “So far have skied with no pain this year.  A first for me.  I have also learned to feel my feet a lot more.”

There is very little information out there about how choosing a minimal footbed can also work for your skiing. I have also switched from using custom footbeds to now just a flat insole and I prefer it. I used to need sole canting of 3 degrees and 2 degrees in order to feel balanced on my skis. I have been able to take away all sole canting through getting the cuff alignment just right and the shell not pressing into any bony protrusions. I feel a better connection to my skis and I feel strong through my whole body in all types of turns. Once again be curious and test for yourself. Just like Jason did. Happy Skiing.

Tom Gellie

This video is part of the Big Picture Skiing learning platform that includes over 100 lessons and tutorials. Designed for the self driven and curious learner. 

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