5 Reasons Your Ski Boots Might Be Hurting Your Feet
Ski expert Abraham F. deep dives into why your ski boots might not be working for you.
Throbbing ankles, aching shins, purple toes, arch pain, and overall foot pain are well known as the chief complaints of skiers worldwide. Snowboarders make jokes about our rock-hard boots and beginners question if this whole sport is even worth such awkward footwear. Well of course we know it is, and those of us who have found a perfect boot at some point in our lives know that the bad rap on ski boots is unfair, but what can you do to actually find a Cinderella fit for yourself? Let’s take a look at a few reasons why your ski boots might not be working for you!
1. Bad Fit
This is an obvious issue, but that doesn’t make it easy to fix. Getting a good fit on a ski boot is a lot harder than getting a good fit for a shoe. There are a lot more points of contact within the boot to consider and the margin for error is much slimmer. So how should a boot feel when you try it on?
Start by examining your toes—this will determine if you have the right size boot on! The toes shouldn’t be able to touch the front of the boot even when you stand up and really try to push all the forward into the boot. A full day of tiny impacts on the front of your toes will leave you in a lot of pain. That said, you want your toes to be as close as they possibly can be without touching so that you can properly transfer energy into your toe binding and the front of your ski.
Next, consider your forefoot, or the ball of the foot. That is generally the widest part of the foot, so if the boot is too narrow that is the first place you will notice it. Similarly, the boot is too wide if you can achieve any side-to-side sliding with that (or any) part of your foot. Different ski boots and different ski boot brands have varying dimensions, so finding the right width for your foot is important.
Then comes the arch of the foot. Does the footbed have good support that contours well with the shape of the arch and bottom of the foot? Remember, as you work in your boots the sole will be one of the most affected areas, so it is generally better to find an arch that feels a tiny bit too high at first because then it will be able to compress into the perfect shape for your foot. If you start with an arch that is just right or a tiny bit too low, it’ll only get worse over time. Not having enough arch underfoot creates a lot of discomfort throughout the day as your arches sag, unsupported and under constant pressure. But don’t go too far, too much arch will cause painful pressure directly underfoot.
The following point of consideration is the heel. Does it slide side to side within the heel pocket of the boot? Does it slide upward too easily and come off the bottom? Is it so narrow that you feel a pinch? Make sure the answer to all of these questions is no before you move forward.
The fit around the malleolus, or ankle bone, is very important. If it is too loose, it will contribute to the heel being able to slide up when leaning forward and it will also allow your entire foot to slide into the front of the boot, causing brutal impacts on the toes. Too tight around the ankle and your circulation will be compromised, creating numbness in your feet, and not to mention even just the act of putting the boots on will be a pain. It’s good to be able to feel an even, plush pressure all around the ankle that is secure but totally pain-free.
Finally, the fit around the shin and calf muscle must be as snug as possible without any pinching and without cutting off any circulation and blood flow. It can be tempting to leave a bit of extra room in the shin if you’ve had pain there in the past, but this allows for extra vibrations and impact. Maintaining a snug fit is always a better choice. If you feel like you have shin pain despite a good fit around the lower leg the problem is likely what we’ll talk about next—flex.
2. Wrong Flex
A common issue that causes pain for skiers is using a boot with the wrong kind of flex. The flex rating on a boot determines how stiff or relaxed the tongues feel when you lean your shins into them. A lower flex rating means the boot will offer a lot of give and a higher rating means stiffer boots, and your shins will be met with a lot of resistance.
It may seem on the surface that a higher flex rating will always be more painful on the shins, but that isn’t quite true. Although a flex rating that is too high will make your shins feel like they are hitting a brick wall every time you bend your knees, a flex rating that is too low will allow your shins to collapse forward, gain momentum, and then eventually hit what feels like a brick wall when the available forward flex finally runs out. A boot with the right amount of flex should gently resist your forward lean, never allowing for too much forward acceleration while bringing your shins to a smooth and comfortable halt.
Kids’ boots will generally have a softer flex, with a rating in the 50 to 70 range. Most women need boots with a flex rating that is within the 70 to 110 range. Most men need boots with a flex rating that is within the 90 to 130 range.
So where should your boots fall within their range? These are the three most important factors in making that determination: skiing style, height, and weight.
- Skiing Style: Beginners and very laid-back skiers should be near the bottom of their appropriate range. Intermediates and laid-back experts should be in the middle of their appropriate range. Ambitious intermediates and experts who ski challenging terrain should be near the top of their appropriate range.
- Height: A taller skier should move up 10 or 20 units in flex because extra height provides extra leverage and makes the boot feel less stiff. Similarly, a shorter skier should move down 10 or 20 units in flex because having less height leverage will make the boot feel stiffer.
- Weight: A heavier skier should move up 10 or 20 units in flex because weight provides extra momentum and makes the boot feel less stiff. Similarly, a lighter skier should move down 10 or 20 units in flex because having less momentum will make the boot feel stiffer.
For more info on getting the perfect fit and flex, check out Aidan Anderson’s “The Expert Guide to Buying Properly-Fitting Ski Boots”
3. Pressure Points
A very common problem for skiers that causes foot pain is pressure points. Lots of skiers have boots that would be absolutely perfect if it weren’t for one little spot that consistently starts to nag them by the end of the day, either from compression, rubbing, etc. If you have a new ski boot, there is likely no reason to be enduring this kind of pain—most modern boots have some degree of moldability and customization (such as custom footbeds), and most of them allow for "blowing out" specific areas that are causing problems and other modifications, which can be done at a ski shop or bootfitter. If you have an older boot with a spot that has been bugging you for years, it’s time to upgrade and get a pair of new boots.
4. Packed-Out Soles
Over time most boot liners become packed out—meaning they get flattened, compressed, and hard with days and days of skiing. It happens so gradually that it’s difficult to notice, but once you get into a new pair of boots it’s abundantly clear what you’ve been missing. If the instep of your feet starts throbbing after a few impacts, you aren’t getting the most out of your soles. If the arches of your feet have started to burn or cramp more and more over the years, the likely culprit is packed-out soles. If your boots are old and your feet usually hurt, it’s probably the soles. If you aren’t ready to find a new pair, then a new custom insole can do the trick!
5. Bad Buckle Habits
A common issue out on the hill is poorly buckled boots. Once you slip your feet into your boot, don’t buckle it right away. Give your foot about five minutes to warm up the inside of the boot so that it is softer and more malleable. Spend that time shifting your feet around slightly so that they can settle into the perfect spot within your boot. When your boots feel warm and your foot is resting comfortably, start buckling from the top down. Once you have buckled the top buckles, lean your shins into the tongue of your boots while sliding your feet to the back of the boot. This will help ensure your heel gets a snug fit that won’t ride up. Once your foot is all the way to the back of your boot continue with the foot and toe buckles. Finish with the power strap. Now, your foot should be totally locked in while allowing just a bit of toe wiggle. There should be zero pain, throbbing, or pinching.
Do one or two warm-up runs and then tighten them slightly. You shouldn’t need to constantly be making adjustments all day, but sometimes a bit of tightening later in the day will help the boot fit if the boot is getting really worked in. Resist the urge to loosen them. Looser boots seem comfortable at first but they lead to more vibration and impacts within the boot and more foot pain in the long run. On the other hand, if you feel the need to always loosen your boots on the lift, you may be skiing them at a tighter setting than you need.
Bonus Tip: Sock Issues
on’t let a sock problem ruin your day! Only your foot and sock should go into your boot, no underlayers and definitely no sweatpants. Make sure you pull your socks nice and tight so they are totally wrinkle-free before going into your boots. A tiny wrinkle can lead to a big pressure point. Although it seems like a good idea to wear super thick socks in order to avoid cold feet, don’t! Thick socks will likely bunch in places and make your boots feel overcrowded and cause irritation. Most ski socks are lightweight and thin, and actually provide more warmth! If shin pain is a common issue for you, socks with a bit of shin padding can help.
Nothing spoils a day on the slopes faster than aching feet, but if you follow these guidelines you’ll be able to get great performance and comfort out of your boots every time you’re out on the hill!
And if you have any questions on finding the right boots for you and your needs, please don't hesitate to reach out to me or one my fellow Ski Experts here on Curated. We're happy to be a source of free advice and recommendations.