The Agony of DeFeet

The Agony of DeFeet

Paula Colman

By Paula Colman \ March 1 2024

Skiing may have its cultural roots in Europe, but ski boots don’t look or feel like any of my cute French or Italian designer shoes. However, drivers don’t win Formula 1 racing around the track with comfortable, four-cylinder minivans either. My point is that after spending years (and dollars) with my pedicured toes in poorly fitted ski boots, I now understand the power and performance of a custom fit and can spare myself the agony of de-feet.

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Just putting them on can be a challenge! With impressive machinations, you have to maneuver your flip-flopped feet into stiff foam liners that are themselves wedged into molded plastic shells that flex solely (and with increasing effort, the better you get) at the ankle and, then, are buckled down once, twice, even three times across your unforgiving instep, forcing your knees to bend and your body to lean forward until your metatarsals spread into the toe box. What’s not to love? 

However, keeping the feet, ankles and toes largely immobile while snapped into ski bindings is how skiers maximize control and speed. These highly engineered tools allow skiers to direct power to the shins and ankles (to increase forward stance for speed), heels (to increase parallel edge angle), and your big and pinky toes (to increase or decrease turning radius). If you’ve ever forgotten to buckle your boots before tipping the skis downhill or rented ones that were two sizes too big, you appreciate the difference. Imagine driving that goldfish-encrusted minivan with the seat pushed too far back cornering it down Little Cottonwood Canyon. You’re fighting, not driving the auto at any speed. Ski boots should fit snugly to provide the closest contact to the skis as possible.

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When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an Adventure is going to happen. —A.A. Milne

With better training, equipment and access, there are few physical barriers to downhill skiing, explained Devon C. Nixon, MD, a board-certified orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon at University of Utah Health. Toddlers and octogenarians from all backgrounds and abilities are on Utah’s slopes, and boots come in all sizes and styles to accommodate them, including single-buckles, BOA dials, and rear-entry designs. Buckled up and around lower extremities, their hard shells and foam liners also protect against injury. As a result, ankle, foot and toe injuries from skiing are not as common as other activities (here’s looking at you, pickle ball). 

Properly fitted boots coupled with physical conditioning can help reduce the top causes of ski-related foot discomfort, Nixon concluded. Stretching, strengthening and balancing exercises that skiers stand, squat and sit should be incorporated in season-long training.

Like any activity, it is important to warm up with some active stretching — such as a heel cord or calf stretch — before putting ski boots on and afterward while warming your toes comfortably by the fire. When sitting in the hot tub, try a simple but satisfying ankle range of motion exercise and then use your toes to pick up the towel. Each of these helps the muscles and tendons of feet and ankles stretch, strengthen and recover after a big mountain adventure and can provide added benefits off the slopes, as well. 

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Nixon also cautioned vacationers to ease into their big mountain holiday. Skiing requires more calories and different muscle groups at higher altitudes than most are accustomed to. Back to the motorsport analogy, don’t redline on the first lap! Take it easy and build up speed and intensity until your body is acclimated. Conversely, listen to your body, and don’t be afraid to call it a day before you run out of fuel, even if it’s lunchtime. While gravity can allow a car to coast downhill, skiing requires physical and mental strength to reach the base.   

Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world. — Marilyn Monroe

Ski boots, much like ice skates and bowling shoes, are available for rent, but if you do any of these activities on a semi-regular basis, i.e., more than two ski vacations (which then makes economic sense, too), you’ll consider purchasing your own and customizing their fit.

Once upon a time, cobblers handmade shoes to fit an individual’s feet. Today, click, click, swoosh, mass-marketed trainers appear at your threshold and come with free returns because…well, they seldom fit out of the box. 

But how should ski boots fit? 

I like boots that are comfortable. Better for fit and touch as well. — Neymar

Runners know how shoes should feel when they slip them on — sole, spring, stop, instep, arch, lace. How will it feel from the starting gun to the finish line ten miles later? There are even more considerations with ski boots, requiring expert bootfitters like Mandy Fitzmayer with Wasatch Custom Fitz located inside Level Nine Sports—Millcreek near the Cottonwood Canyon resorts.

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Measure the foot, find the boot…how hard can it be? “Foot Science Extraordinaire” Fitzmayer explains that most people come in expecting her to tell them what boot to buy only to find her conducting a lengthy intake…about more than your instep.

It involves a candid discussion about health issues, injuries, years skiing, types, locations, expectations now and in the future…and, then, measurements: length, circumference, cuff, arch and instep. Fitting people of all ages, backgrounds and experiences skiing, Fitzmayer knows that every foot is different, even those belonging to the same person, concluding that, “No one boot will give them everything they want.” But her talent is helping clients identify and manage their expectations and, then, more like an F1 mechanic than a cobbler, she molds and adjusts insoles, liners, shells and other parts of boots that help clients get them where they want to go. She can even install boot heaters and other accessories that provide even greater comfort, keeping you on the slopes longer. Properly fitted boots will improve your skiing and ski experience more than any other piece of equipment. 

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The problem with winter sports is that — follow me closely here — they generally take place in winter. ― Dave Barry

Ski boots are more than hunks of plastic that affix your feet to three-foot planks. They are the gearbox of your F1 race car and when well-tuned, well, you get it. They provide protection for your feet and ankles as well as overall performance and enjoyment of the sport, allowing you to, as driver Daniel Ricciardo would say, “…lick the stamp and send it.”

Content sponsored by University of Utah Health
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