Drilling and Screwing
When you have decided what type of riding you wish to do, and have chosen the appropriate clamping device, you have to decide on an appropriate binding position. Binding setup has been lumped into the area of personal preference for too long. Most riders and salespeople simply say, “Try this, see if you like it, and if you don’t, we can always change it.” If your new board doesn’t use an insert mounting system, this could mean that your board will have an entire array of holes drilled into it by the time you find your ideal stance. Moving beyond the whims of the man with the drill, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind when choosing an appropriate position for your bindings.
Stick close now, for this might get confusing, and I don’t want to find you cowering under the workbench stirring steel filings and wax scrapings in little circles on the floor with your index finger.
Wide stances with small stance angles are for spinning and freestyle maneuvers. Narrow stances with high numeric angles are for alpine carving and racing.
When setting up bindings, you should look beyond the stance angle relationship of one foot to the other, and consider how those angles relate to the board you ride and the boots you wear. As your angles become ‘steeper’, you reach a point where your leverage over the board will begin to diminish, as the toe and heel of your boots have moved inboard of the edges of the board. The point at which this happens is determined by two variables; the size of your boot, and the width of the board. As the sales representative for Rossignol described it, you should choose a stance width which is correct for your physical dimensions, and then set your boots at an angle so that the toe and heel are as close to the edges of the board as possible without causing overhang or binding interference. This theory works, in that it accomodates your preferred stance width, and maximizes your leverage.
Unfortunately, if your feet are proportionally small, or the board is wider than most, you could set your toe and heel over the edge of the board and wind up with a stance that faces almost straight across the board. If freestyle is your game, and you are using a soft boot/binding system, then go ahead and fire up the Makita. If you are riding alpine though, you will have to find the compromise which provides leverage, and yet will allow you to stand in a functionally square position on the board without undue stress on your joints.
Theoretically, a stance angle of 45 is a good place to start, as it is the midpoint between 0 and 90, and should provide a reasonable leverage compromise. Another possibility is to find a board that is wider or narrower, and more closely matched to the size of your boot and preferred mode of riding. As you determine your binding placement, take into account past experience, your own riding ability, and your knowledge of the equipment you are using.
When I set up my own boards, I set up my front foot for maximum leverage, minimum overhang, and then set the rear foot at the same angle (or one degree more). Now, if only everybody of a given height and weight had the same foot size! Then life would be easy. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and so there are a few more things to consider about binding angles.
B. Biomechanical Considerations
Assume for the following arguments that plate bindings are being used, as they allow for little rotational flexibility of the ankle joint, an as such, confine the movements of the lower body. The same body alignments apply to soft boot bindings, however, to a lesser extent.
In accord with the triangulated arrangement of the feet and knees, it is a good idea to keep the angles of the feet within a few degrees of parallel to each other. This ensures that the knees can easily be moved together, for better balance and to facilitate edge-pressuring movements.
As the rear foot splays outward from the front foot, several things occur. First of all, it is easier to kick the back end of the board around, since there is a gain in rotational leverage over the board, and a greater separation of foot function. Secondly, as the feet move outwards from parallel, the knees begin to move along different paths, in opposition to each other. This makes it difficult to accurately pressure the edges, and interferes with balancing on uneven terrain. Thirdly, if the knees can somehow be brought together, to improve balance, the hips will swing too far forward, and off to the heelside edge39. This overweights the nose of the board, and allows the shoulders to hang over the toeside edge. Looking back at what makes for a strong position relative to rising turning forces, this hip/shoulder/board relationship does not qualify as being ‘good’.
As the feet move back towards parallel, the knees can be moved more simultaneously, which encourages better carving and greater high speed, rough terrain stability. However, it may become more difficult to fully weight the front foot or rear foot exclusively. This makes spinning and riding backwards somewhat difficult. However, this is not to say that it can’t be done, only that more skill is required to do so. As the knees are brought together with the feet in this configuration, the hips move more over the tail of the board. This effectively places the body’s center of mass in a position of equally efficient deployment to either side. Since the feet are at a steeper angle relative to the short axis of the board, their effect on the board, in terms of fore/aft weighting and side to side weighting begins to overlap, even though there may still be ‘free space’ between the heel of the front foot and the toe of the rear foot.
If the rear foot is turned so that the rider is effectively pigeon-toed, there is a small advantage gained with regard hip position and lateral movement. The inward turn of the foot makes it easier to stand with the hips square to the board. With the hips exceptionally square, more of the rider’s weight is over the board, and not to either side. There may be some application for this position in, for instance, slalom racing, where the neutrality of the hip is more important than moving the body’s center of mass far inside the turn, as in a giant slalom or super-g turn. With the front foot at a slightly shallower angle than the rear, there may be an increase in the amount of leverage exerted on the nose of the board, which would allow for a quicker turn initiation.
The disadvantage of this toed-in position is that once again, the knees are put in a position where they must work somewhat in opposition, rather than together. With the front foot turned more across the board, the front knee is subject to some degree of twist. This may be negligable on consistently smooth snow, but it is a potential area of injury on choppy and inconsistent surface conditions, where the front leg serves as something of a stabilizer. This stabilizing use of the front leg is more noticeable during a longer-radius turn, where the body must be precisely balanced for a greater amount of time. This balancing requires slight adjustments to edge angle and fore/aft pressuring, more so than in a short radius turn, which is more of a quick on/off edge change. Combine this function of the front leg with longitudinal shock absorption, and the initial twisted preload of the joint, and you are asking for too much from too little.
In short, you may suffer from an overuse knee injury. This is conjecture on my part, but not to be discounted in any case. This is especially noteworthy if you ride in stiff ski boots, where the ankle joint is not available to attenuate any potentially damaging shocks to the knee, arising from the riding surface or the dynamics of the turn41. A toed in rear foot also reduces your lateral stability at slow speeds, as you have decreased the width of your balance platform.
C. Stance width and board flex
When setting up widths, make sure that the rear knee does not overlap the front knee, as this may hinder balance, stability, and the ability to shift weight from the front foot to the rear foot while in the middle of a turn.
If your feet are larger than normal, or your board is exceptionally narrow, then your stance angles will need to be steeper to avoid overhang. Leverage isn’t quite as much of a consideration here, since the boot length will easily span the width of the board. However, as the stance angle increases, the heel of the front foot and the toe of the rear foot begin to ‘overlap’,which may begin to interfere with the flex pattern of the board. In this case, it might be advisable to widen the stance slightly. The front and rear foot will then have some separation, to avoid ‘locking’ the flex of the board. To a lesser extent, the rider with short feet could tighten up their stance, since their feet won’t block so much of the board.
A narrow stance pressures the board more at one point, where a wide stance pressures the board in two places. The multi-point pressuring of a wide stance causes the board to have a somewhat ‘square’ flex pattern. If the board doesn’t bend evenly, it won’t ride as smoothly, and the edge contact and grip on hard snow will be diminished.
For a freestyle rider, this isn’t much of a problem, as the board is rarely asked to flex fully. With their feet farther apart, freestyle riders will have a wider base of support, which should assist in balancing and is more of a benefit than even flex characteristics. Remember though, that they are using soft boots and non-supportive bindings. Don’t go too wide though, or you will limit your all around riding ability in favor of easier spinning. As the binding/boot combination becomes more supportive, the rider’s stance width can decrease. A narrower stance will allow the board to bend further. On an alpine board, the stance should be wide enough to provide a good base of support, but narrow enough so that the board can flex unimpaired.
When you are trying to determine your stance width, bear in mind that you will need to move pressure from one foot to the other, and from the cuff of one boot to the other (plate bindings). Few ski boots or snowboard specific boots use the same degree of forward lean, and that this lean angle may or may not be easily adjustable. Additionally, there is a difference between changing the forward lean angle of a boot and changing the angle at which the sole rests on the surface of the board. If your feet are too far apart, you may have difficulty blending your application of pressure from foot to foot. If your feet are too close together, you may have difficulty accurately pressuring one foot more than the other as the need arises. Strangely enough, what feels good indoors on the carpet may not work at all once you start to slide around outdoors.
There is a correlation between the length of a riders legs and the width at which their stance should be set to provide optimum balance and leverage, while allowing the board to flex fully. I have not reached a conclusion as to whether the leg length issue concerns the entire leg or only the length of the tibia. Foot size and boot type is also a consideration. The stiffer the boot, the more precise you should be in setting up the bindings42.
When comparing your stance width and leg length to those of your friends, be aware that a half inch difference in leg length is not equal to a half inch difference in stance width. In reality, the ratio is much smaller, to the extent that the stance width should only be changed slightly for every length difference of the leg. Unfortunately, I am not sure yet what the comparative ratio is. If you have a board with inserts, experiment, going narrow until you reach a point where you cannot comfortably ride in all snow conditions with all turn radii. When you have determined this point, move outwards until you have found the optimum stance width for your own preference in boots and board.
If you do not have any way to adjust the angles of your boot cuffs, andif you don’t want to lift or cant, you may be able to find a neutral position by tightening up your stance width. Again, this narrower stance will also give you a better flex pattern.
D. Binding modifications43
Minimalism should be applied to any binding modifications used to bring your knees closer together or to neutralize your static position. Depending on the stiffness of the shell, and whether or not your boots have adjustable forward lean, either in the form of cuff wedges or upper cuff spoiler wedges, you may need to modify your bindings for optimum performance.
If your boots do not have a forward lean adjustment, you may want to use a heel lift, a toe lift, or both. This, however, is an area of experimentation, because the amount of heel and/or toe lift required is a function of your ski boot design, its stiffness and forward lean angle, and the length of your legs.
a. Heel lift 44 A small heel lift will allow you to bring your knees together easier, and may help to center your weight over the board. If the heel of your rear foot is being forced into the shell of the boot on a toe edge turn, or if you can’t use both feet on a given turn without bodily contortions, you may benefit from a heel lift. Too much heel lift will put too much of your weight on the front of the board, and make it difficult to balance throughout the turn. Too much heel lift may also cause your knees to overlap once you lower your stance and begin to angulate.
b. Toe lift
If you decide to go with a toe lift, use only enough so that you aren’t fighting the cuff of your boot on a heelside turn. Too much toe lift will leave your front leg too straight, which means that any lateral flexion of the leg is done with the knee joint, (which isn’t supposed to move that way) rather than the hip joint (which can move that way). Besides putting more stress on a fragile joint than necessary, a straighter front leg will make toeside turns harder to initiate at slower speeds, as the lower leg won’t be able to move as independently from the upper body and balancing will be more difficult. The less lift needed, the better.
(Biomechanically stupid things to do with your bindings.)
Inward canting of the bindings is a common ‘fix’ for a stance that has been drilled too wide, or a rear foot that is splayed too far outward from parallel.
If possible, avoid canting. If your stance is set up correctly, you should be able to do everything the cants do for you by flexing your joints and ‘rotating’ your body (counter-clockwise if regular, clockwise if goofy). Canting assumes that one position on the board is universally effective, which simply isn’t true. Another problem with canting is that the wedges put your lower legs in a position of reduced rotational leverage, and also reduce the possibility of selectively affecting the board by moving the knees farther apart or closer together. Both front and rear foot canting can also have a deleterious effect on your heelside turn.
a. Rear foot cant.
Canting the rear foot inwards makes it easier to bring the knees together, which, at first, makes it easier to balance. Unfortunately, bringing the rear knee towards the front knee in this way tends to push the hip towards the front of the board. On a heelside turn, this places too much weight on the front of the board, which makes the board chatter as it tries to turn quicker than the snow will allow. With the hip too far forward (and rotated), it will be difficult to begin a toeside turn through a lateral movement of the body. The tendency then, is to begin the toeside turn with a movement of the shoulders, since the hips are too far forward and to the inside of the heelside turn.
b. Front foot cant.
The inboard movement of the knee acts as a preload once you put the board on edge. As you try to move your body to the inside of the turn, your board is effectively one step ahead of you; the increased edge angle puts your body further to the outside of the turn, weakening your position right from the start. Additionally, if the binding is canted rather than the cuff of the boot, your foot won’t sit flat on the board. If your boot is stiff, and the board starts to chatter on the heelside edge, the ankle of your front foot will have a tendency to roll over to the inside to absorb some of the vibration. This is not comfortable, since your ankles aren’t designed to roll in that direction. If you are convinced that canting is the only way to go, then you should start by canting the cuff of the boot, so that your feet can be flat on the board, and so that your ankle is not forced to roll the wrong way.
c. Another disadvantage of canting is the effect on the flex of the board. When you ride a board with canted bindings, the board feels dead and lifeless. If you have never ridden a board without cants, you probably wouldn’t notice the difference. If you have become accustomed to riding a board with cants, you may find it difficult at first to ride without them, as the board will be much more lively, and that may stand as a challenge to your ability to balance yourself. I suspect that a board with canted bindings does not flex as fully due to the proximity of the knees, and therefore does not return as much energy from the turn as it is capable of doing.
E. Examples of board/binding set up
1. Me I am somewhere near five feet nine inches tall. I ride in a size eight Lange ski boot, which is the stiffest available. On the board the board I am currently riding (Burton Stat 5), anything under fifteen and 3/4 is too narrow, while 17 is definitely pushing it. My toe and heel are lifted, the toe less than the heel. The angles, dictated by boot length, are somewhere around 49 in front, and 51 in the back. I notice that if I turn the rear foot forward more so than the front, the feeling is that of a narrower stance. I’ll assume that this is because the forward lean angle of the boot is now moving my rear knee closer to the front knee.
2. The Joshua tree
A friend of mine, way over six feet tall, rides on both freestyle and alpine equipment, switching back and forth frequently. He uses a conventional overlap ski boot on his race board, which is on the wide side. His angles are somewhere around 50-55 parallel, with no lifts or cants. The width of his stance is slightly more than seventeen inches. On his freestyle board, his bindings are set around 19 degrees in front, 11 in back. He moved his width around for awhile, and determined that 22 inches was good for all around riding, while 24 was almost useless, unless he wanted to spin constantly.
3. A player to be named later
As another example on the far end of the equipment spectrum, assume that you are riding a race board with a really stiff pair of ski boots. The board will be quick, and stable at speed, while the ski boots will give you a handle on the power and provide the connection between your movements and the reaction of the board. The board will be fairly narrow, so your stance angle will be somewhere in the range of 45 to 55 degrees. Your feet are average in size, somewhere between a size 7 and 9, so you don’t have any problems with overhang or boot overlap.
However, because the boots are stiff, you will have difficulty flexing your lower body joints and might have problems standing square to the board without torsionally distorting the board. If you distort the board, then it won’t run straight if you take it off edge. You want to set the bindings up in such a way that you can stand in a strong position without distorting the board or physically exerting yourself. Find the width that allows you to effectively work the board, and then set up any lifts so that you can stand comfortably. The amount of heel and/or toe lift will affect the apparent width of your stance, so make any changes gradually.
The bottom line on binding setup is neutrality. The board should be unaffected by standing in a strong body position. You want leverage, so that you can do with the board what you like. Keep it as simple as possible, since too much complexity leads to broken equipment, which means you are repairing and not riding.
*3/23/2012 comprehensive information here.
(39) Thirdly… This point is largely irrelevant, as the compromises inherent to riding ‘duck’ go far beyond the inability to ride with your knees together, even if that was necessary.
(40) Pigeon-toed. After many years of adjusting my equipment, (my bicycles, snowboards, and telemark skis), I realized why it was that I preferred to ride toed-in on my alpine board. When my left knee flexes slightly, some aberration at the tibial plateau causes my foot to toe in a few degrees. This is how my bones stack up best. Thus, when I was setting up my snowboard years ago, it simply felt better when I stood this way. While standing toed-in on a snowboard may have engendered some other positive effects, I think the dominant byproduct was simply less muscle tension. In general, the need to stand with the feet splayed, rather than parallel, has more to do with the medial collapse of the feet, ineffective foot support, and the desire to feel like the whole foot is in contact with the board while at a fixed stance width.
(41) This is… The ankle joint can articulate just fine in a stiff ski boot, provided the boots and bindings are set up properly for the rider in question. At the time, I did not know anywhere near as much about the skeletal system, boot geometry, and the effects of various binding adjustments. As a result, I was riding mostly out of my knees and hips. It was fun, but tiring.
(42) There is… I finally figured out how to establish a ‘baseline’ for equipment setup. (Covered in another article, however).
(43) Binding modifications. Bindings have improved immensely since this was written. At the time, they were flimsy at it was not advised to modify them much lest they break. I think I was also advising incremental adjustment so as not to overshoot the target.
(44) Heel lift. Properly used, a heel lift, in conjunction with toe lift, will help center you on the board, reduce stress on the rear leg, reduce shin bang, and partly balance the leverage ratio between toe and heel edge, assuming the knee is the ‘free’ end of the lever. Heel lift can also have a detrimental effect on pressure distribution, most noticeable on a heelside turn, so too much of a good thing can be a problem.
(45) Canting. This topic is covered in a separate article. Essentially, if you are riding with the front foot flat (no toe lift), or canted inward, and if your rear foot is canted inwards (with or without heel lift), you may never achieve your potential as a snowboarder. I’m not trying to be arrogant here; it’s simply the truth.