Has your bootfitter ever asked you funny questions about your ski poles? Ever wondered why carbon poles are considered the bees' balls when it comes to ski poles? Well I'll let you in on a little secret here that will change how you think about your skiing.
Using ski poles is all about balance. It allows you to micro-adjust your centre of gravity as you're moving down the hill in order to control balance. In men, the centre of gravity (COG) sits roughly just in front of the second sacral vertebra (that's towards the back of your pelvis), and a woman's COG sits relatively lower to this position. This, theoretically, means a woman should be more stable on her feet. But throw high-heels into the mix for a night out and all that is lost.
Now obviously when we're walking, skiing or moving in any other way the COG is moving too, relative to the positioning of the body. It's a dynamic thing. But if we have ski poles, it allows us to give fine tuning to our COG and balance as we ski. Poles lower our relative COG, making us more stable. If you want a more physics based answer, ski poles help increase our moment of inertia and our control over the net torque we have. There's a good reason why tightrope walkers use them.
Philippe Pettit crosses the Northern pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 1973
Little kids' COG is much higher in the body than adults. Their heads are much bigger in relation to their bodies, so whilst ski poles would really benefit their balance, they tend to just get in their way and over complicate skiing for them. Instead of poles, they counter their higher COG with a much wider BOG (loving the acronyms yet? BOG is base of gait - which just means they have a wider stance for better balance). But it's these big heads that make them so darn cute. Throw a helmet onto that big noggin' and you've got some serious heft up top trying to over balance them. Take a closer look next time you see them skiing and you'll see that if you can get them to lean over and move their head in the right direction, it has a massive influence on their balance and direction of skiing.
Ski poles are fantastic tools for skiing. When used correctly they allow you to make balance adjustments, even when at speed, with a swift flick of the wrist. So why are carbon poles considered to be so fantastic? It's because they're lighter. But doesn't this mean I have less weight for counter balancing when I'm really laying it over down Crackenback, you ask? Well yes, but no. See, you may lose a little counter balance weight by having a lighter pole, but they're only designed for tiny adjustments anyway and they're controlled by your forearm muscles - not your big beefy quads or gluts that are able to sustain more power for longer. In alpine racing, ski poles can take on a whole new role. Particularly slalom skiing where they're used to save your face from getting smashed at each turn by hitting the gate out of the way.
Lindsey Vonn saving her teeth in Val d'Isere
A lighter pole lets you make minor adjustments with small wrist movements. At the start of the day, a heavier aluminum pole works fine because you're all fresh and roaring with excitement for first lifts. Your arms are not yet tired. But later in the day, the strength you need to control the whole pole just with your wrist is diminishing and the weight of the pole means you're now controlling them with your whole arm. Minor balance adjustments are being made with larger and larger arm movements, until your arms are flailing up in the air each turn, and that slick GS turn no longer looks so sleek when you're flapping around. Moving your arms, leads to moving your shoulders, and the lag this creates from turn to turn requires more and more effort to get back into position. So you end up more exhausted and skiing super sloppy by the end of the day. Just from your poles!
But throw a super-light carbon pole into the mix and you have a different barrel of bananas. It's lighter, which allows your smaller forearm muscles to have nice, swift, flicky wrist control of your poles all day long. Give them a try. You'll feel the difference immediately.
There is a downside to carbon poles too. At extremely cold temperatures they become very brittle and can break very easily - Japan and central Canada may not be the place for these babies. Carbon poles do not bend. They shatter. If you are prone to getting your poles caught under chairlifts at mid-station or when getting off at the top, you're better off with a good, old aluminium pole that you can dent and bend back. Or if you're just a goose on skis and often falling on your poles (you'll know you are this person if your current poles are bent into "race poles" by the end of each trip), perhaps stick with aluminium. It starts to get quite expensive making these mistakes a couple of times.
The other thing to look for in poles is how the grip feels to you (with gloves on) - a very personal thing that you just need to try for yourself. Another consideration is the size of basket you have on the bottom. Racing and on-piste skiing only needs small baskets. But if you're going to be doing some back country you want a fat and wide basket that helps you pole along the deeper snow when walking or touring. As for pole length, it's kind of a personal choice too. Mostly they're measured by turning the pole upside when you're standing in the shop. Grab the pole right up under the basket with your arm straight down along your body. Your elbow should be at 90 degrees. If you're doing freestyle skiing, you might like a shorter pole to keep them out of the way - you're not doing many pole plants in a terrain park so length is not a key factor.
While we're harping on about ski poles, here's a pic to make sure you're holding your poles right and not putting your thumb at risk of damage.
QUICK RUN DOWN
Poles help adjust balance by lowering your centre of gravity
Poles should be controlled by your wrists
Carbon poles are lighter causing less fatigue and allowing for better ski technique all day