The Telemark Stance
Standing Tall or Riding Low - Which Way Should You Go?
turns rather than alpine (parallel) turns not always because they are more functional or efficient, but because they feel good. Telemark skiing is an art - like dancing. Unlike hiking or marching, dancing is beautiful, not utilitarian.
Understood this way, telemark skiing offers more than just a free heel. The old cliche about freeing your mind encompasses one's freedom to select movement options as well. In order to make decisions regarding technique, it's important to understand the mechanical consequences of these various movement options, and then decide which choices best express one's individual conception of telemark skiing.
In this article I will discuss two common movement patterns used by telemark skiers. One is characterized by a relatively tall stance and short lead, while the other features a lower stance and longer lead. While there are numerous variations to each of these basic patterns, analyzing them as opposite ends of a spectrum will allow us to understand the consequences of each more clearly.
The benefits and drawbacks of each pattern can best be analyzed using the three primary skills of skiing - pressure, edging and rotary - as a framework. All skiing maneuvers utilize each of these three component skills in varying p roportions. Balance can be added as a fourth skill, which provides a foundation without which the other skills would be meaningless.
Let's first examine the tall stance and it's consequences in each of the four skill categories...
A tall stance utilizes a high degree of skeletal alignment, which saves energy, but requires accurate movements in the ankles to adjust balance in response to subtle changes of pressure on the soles of the feet and other proprioceptive feedback.
A tall stance allows for pressure to be borne equally by both feet. In a tall stance the ball of the back foot (rather than the big toe) is weighted, enhancing rear foot control. As the height of stance is generally proportional to the length of the lead, the closer fore aft displacement of the feet under the body allows extension movements for unweighting and unedging to be made more easily. Long legs allow generous suspension travel for regulating pressure over irregular terrain and absorbing impacts from landing jumps.
A tall relatively closed stance allows the legs to create angles that are used to retain balance against turning forces and control the arc of the turn. Angulation allows the skis to be tipped on edge progressively, making carving easier - especially on hard snow. The edges can be changed quickly without the need for the center of mass to be moved aggressively into the turn. This is particularly advantageous in short turns. In a tall stance the body has the freedom to align with the skis in a turn, or to remain oriented to the fall line according to situational demands. With hip angulation and fall line orientation, extension/retraction turns --where the skis cross under the body during turn transitions-&SHY; become possible. These are very effective in moguls and deep snow.
While a tall stance allows only weak rotary power in the legs, the shorter lead enables the feet to pivot and change lead quickly. Counter-rotation can also be used to quickly change the orientation of the skis. This can be helpful if a tree appears suddenly in front of you.
Now let's look at the low stance....
A low stance requires more power because the skeleton is folded more than aligned. I’m told that sitting on the back heel can be restful, but that position severely limits pressure control movements, and would seem to make one more vulnerable to knee injury. On the other hand, a low position with a long lead is very stable longitudinally if not laterally. High speeds are more comfortable in a low position where a sudden change in snow condition doesn’t rock your world quite as hard.
In a low stance it's harder, though not impossible, to maintain pressure on both feet, although control over the rear foot is somewhat compromised when the Low stance with a longer lead tip of the big toe, rather than the ball of the foot contacts the ski. A compact position limits the ability to absorb compressions in irregular terrain. Extension movements require more power when started from a low position.
With the feet spread ahead of and behind the body centerline, angulation becomes difficult in a low stance. Edge change is accomplished primarily with inclination. Edging tends to happen suddenly as the whole body is tipped into the new turn. This can be very powerful and stable, but difficult to fine tune. Many skiers use strong unweighting movements in turn initiation to compensate for reduced edging ability.
A low compact stance enables the skier to make powerful rotary movements, which can be very effective in heavy snow and steep terrain. With the body restricted to a square position over the skis (aligned with the skis), body rotation is often used as a turning power. Hip rotation coinciding with the lead change can also be used as a powerful rotary power.
To put all this in a nutshell, tall skiers take advantage of enhanced pressuring and edging ability, while low skiers benefit from strong rotary ability. Tall skiers can also ski with less energy expenditure. Which style you choose depends partly on your age and physique, but more importantly on what you want out of skiing - your artistic conception.
Telemark skiing --unlike rock climbing, for example-- is not about reaching your destination, it's about how you get there. I'll tell you what defines hot skiing for me. One thing is dynamic balance. Skiing is not about being in balance all the time. It's about having it, then losing it, then finding it again.
Low skiers are mostly in static balance with their weight centered over their base of support. Tall skiers move their bodies outside their base of support in the turn initiation. They are always moving toward a balanced position in the future, rarely dwelling there. This is a cool feeling!
Hot skiers also know how to use ski design to shape their turns rather than relying on brute muscular power. Guiding the skis on edge early in the turn causes them to track in an arc. When done at the right moment, releasing the energy stored in the skis causes them to squirt into the next turn.
The essence of dynamic skiing is using the equipment to play give-and-take with gravity, rather than fighting the mountain with your legs. Cranking the skis around with strong rotary movements accomplishes the latter more than the former. Fluidity and elegance are qualities of good dancing as well as good skiing. Lightness, grace, and the appearance of effortlessness are conveyed by a quiet upper body and seamless turn transitions. While it's possible to exhibit these qualities by skiing low, it's more difficult. Only the very best and strongest athletes can demonstrate these qualities in a wide range of conditions.
Just as clothing styles change, so do skiing styles. These days alpine skiing has become passe for many telemark skiers. They are eager to distance themselves as much as possible from their cousins with the locked down heels. It seems to me that many of the low skiers out there are striving for the "classic telemark" look as opposed to the "alpine telemark" which is taller with a closer stance. Perhaps for them the telemark dance should not be judged by the same functional standards as alpine technique. After all the telemark turn came first, they might say. There may come a day in the future --after there is no more electricity to run ski lifts-- when alpine skiing will no longer provide the model for functional downhill technique. The parallel turn will be viewed --as the telemark turn was until recently-– as an anachronism. Until then, follow your muse and express yourself. If your mind is as free as your heels, choose your technique as you see fit --but choose wisely.