No, it isn't pretty—unless you're a podiatrist, or an orthopedist, or maybe a fetishist. Yet if form follows function, there is indeed surpassing beauty in the human foot. Like the hand, it's one of the most complex biomechanical structures in the human body, a marvel of creation in the way its delicate assemblage of ligaments, muscles, tendons and bones (26 of them) work together to articulate fine movements while still being sturdy enough to support your weight, plus whatever you happen to be carrying. "Everyone underestimates the foot," says Ben Wax, manager of Inner Bootworks in Stowe, Vt. "Everything you do goes through it, and it endures so much abuse."
Wax stops short of worshiping the foot, but he does, in a sense, put it up on a pedestal. Every day. He makes footbeds for skiers—and anyone else who wants them.
If not quite a pedestal, a footbed (or insole) can be thought of as a foundation for the foot. And all skiers, regardless of ability, should have a pair if they're concerned with either on-hill improvement or comfort—or both.
Why? If you've ever heard two certified-pedorthist bootfitters arguing over the relative merits of weight-bearing versus non-weight-bearing systems and their resulting effect on the biomech-anical alignment of the ungaited foot and ankle in both static and dynamic phases...you'd think it was a complex matter. Wax calls such debate "getting all tech-weenied-out."
He prefers to keep it simple: "Basically, what a footbed does is stabilize the foot in a good position so it doesn't roll around as much inside the boot. When their feet are sliding around in there, most skiers tend to buckle down harder to get more support. That doesn't work, because the bones can still slide around under the skin, and all you're doing is clamping down on the pedal artery on top of the foot, which cuts off circulation and makes your foot numb and cold. With a footbed, your feet don't fatigue as quickly, since the muscles and tendons have less work to do to maintain balance. Plus, it doesn't impede circulation, because you don't have to buckle down as hard to get support."
Once a footbed stablilizes the foot, a bootfitter can zero in and go to work on any other fit problems a skier is having with the boot shell. Often, problems are solved by the footbed itself, since supporting the arch will shorten and narrow the foot inside the boot. Remaining problem spots are then usually corrected fairly easily. "If you've got a heel spur or a big ankle bone, we can grind the boot exactly where we need to, and the foot won't be changing position when you go skiing," Wax says. The end result is the snug fit you need, without pressure points or "hot spots."
But comfort isn't the only goal. There are also critical performance benefits to having a well-supported foot in a snug-fitting boot. Skiers can make things happen more quickly and with smaller movements of the knee and foot, as energy is transmitted more immediately and efficiently to the boot shell and thence to the ski. Plus, a stabilized foot becomes a sturdier foundation, upon which it's easier to balance.
"You should feel that you're supported, and that your feet are relaxed, and that when you move your knee in or out, the ski is going on edge," Wax says. "Basically, what a footbed does is transfer more of the work to the skeletal system, instead of using muscles and ligaments, so your body movements are transmitted to the ski that much more quickly."
Wax's shop specializes in boots and bootfitting, but any good specialty ski shop offers custom footbeds. The Surefoot chain, also boot-specific, is the industry leader, with shops throughout the Rockies and now in the East and Europe. It uses the Amfit footbed system, in which a digital map of the sole is transferred to a milling machine that cuts the footbed. Other systems include Superfeet, Instaprint, Conformable, Dynamic Foot Positioning, Downunders, Fastech and Footworx. Most involve mollding a heated, foot-shaped blank to the bottom of your foot, either by pressing your foot down onto it or by pressing the blank up against your foot. Some systems are weight-bearing—where an impression is taken while the customer stands on the heated blank atop special pillows; others are semi- or non-weight-bearing, where the customer is seated while the impression is taken, or the blank is pressed upward against the foot using a vacuum bag. Proponents of weight-bearing systems argue that since skiing is a weight-bearing sport, that's how the foot should be supported. But semi- and non-weight-bearing systems make it easier to align a skier's ankle and knee while an impression is made.
With either approach, once an impression is taken, the technician builds a foundation beneath it using foam or cork (a process usually called "posting") so that it will sit flat in the bottom of the boot. Then the completed footbed is trimmed to fit into the customer's boot liner, where it replaces the stock insole.
Many bootfitters now agree that each approach has its benefits—and that the most important component of a good footbed is the technician making it. Wax's advice is to rely on word-of-mouth and reputation to find a good bootfitter. But, he allows, "It's not heart surgery." Anyone with good training can make a footbed that will do the job.
Expect to pay $100 to $175. If that's more than you want to spend, there are less expensive alternatives in the "trim-to-fit" insoles that most shops offer as well. These are generic footbeds that are not custom-molded to the skier's foot, yet still offer more support than the stock insoles. They usually cost about $30, and since they're less rigid than custom insoles, they can be used in street shoes, cleats, hiking boots and sneakers for everyday comfort and support.
Bear in mind that footbeds are transferable, so if you get new boots, you won't have to buy new footbeds. If they stay in the boot, they should last about five years, Wax says. "After that," he admits, "they get pretty rank."