Ski Conditioning by Christina Russell
Every fall, the approaching ski season brings excitement to avid skiers across the country. When most of us think of returning to snow, we recall the sizzle of our quads as they seared with burning pain from the first punishing bump runs of the year. The natural inclination is to head to the gym and push some heavy weights to gain strength. While it is important to prepare the legs for guiding us downhill, neglecting other aspects of the sport’s demands leaves some body regions incapable of matching stronger areas and thus we can be more vulnerable to injury. A strong core or trunk to match those powerful skier’s legs, for instance, is crucial to avoiding low back pain. Well developed agility and balance can add finesse to your skiing and reduce the need to muscle through moves on the hill. A comprehensive program blends leg strength and power with core strength, agility, aerobics, and balance, incorporating a series of progressively harder exercises to challenge your abilities and skills as they progress. Here are several of the basics that can get you started on your quest to grace the slopes with panache.
The squat is the basic ski-specific movement to prepare hips and thighs for the rigors of mountain travel. It can be modified to more closely simulate skiing by changing the rate of moving up and down, adding rotation at the hips, and by adding lateral movements. You can increase the force of your squat, and make the movement more like the natural skiing motion by focusing on the eccentric, or lowering portion of the movement, then exploding from your loaded position into your next one. No matter how you are doing squats, some attention to form will help avoid overuse injuries. Keep knees from advancing in front of your toes to reduce stress to kneecaps and the patellar tendon below it. Stacking your knees in line with your feet (keeping your shins vertical) as seen when facing a mirror will help develop movements that minimize stress to ligaments. The advent of shaped skis has allowed us to eliminate that old-school ‘A-frame shape’ we used to use to engage the edges of those long, straight boards.
To perform a basic squat, start by standing with feet slightly wider than hip width apart. Then reach both hands forward (small hand-weights can be added to increase the challenge), and drop your butt back, as if you were going to almost sit on a cold outhouse seat. Thighs should go no deeper than parallel to the floor. You can adjust the depth as your fitness allows. If you work up to performing these for the length of time it takes to finish a ski run your legs will be well prepared for time on the snow.
Additional leg preparation can be done in the form of a lunge - especially suited for free-heel (telemark)-specific preparation. The lunge is much like the squat, except you step forward or back, dropping the rear knee towards the floor (not behind your hip) The same form considerations for the squat should be applied to the lunge movement, and again, rate, depth, and rotation can be altered to make the exercises more interesting and specific. You can make these more like the skiing movements by gradually increasing pressure on the floor, as though you were trying to make the needle on a bathroom scale go as high as it can, and then exploding into a lunge with the other foot forward. For a more ski-specific pattern, imagine a clock on the floor in front of you. Twelve o’clock is straight ahead, nine is to your left and three o’clock is to your right. Step towards eleven or ten with your right foot, then towards one or two o’clock with your left, while keeping your torso straight ahead. This helps develop the separation between the upper and lower body that characterizes high-level skiing.
Core strength to match the increasing strength of the legs is critical to reducing the opportunities for back problems, especially for bump skiers. When strengthening the core for skiing and back protection, we want to address those muscles that stabilize rather than move the trunk. Sit-ups are good for making six-packs, but not so good at controlling the spine in three dimensions. For stabilization, we want to use patterns where twisting and bending are minimized. Pulling in the belly button is a simplified way to engage the stabilizing muscles. If we then add a de-stabilizing force, such as a stretch band pulled from the side, we will work the muscles that wrap around the waist like a back-protecting brace. To perform this, hold a stretch band at arms length (the further away from your center you hold the band, the more force that is required to pull it). Engage your core stabilizers by drawing the belly button in toward your spine. Keep your shoulders and pelvis moving at the same rate and keep them from twisting as you step to the side. If you pay attention to your waist area, you will feel the muscles engaging more the harder you pull.
Another good core exercise is a plank, which can be done in a variety of positions depending on your ability and current status of your core. When performing any plank, try to position your body in a straight line from shoulders through your hips to your knees. Most importantly, focus on preventing the small of your back from sagging. You will need to control this by pulling up with the abdominals. A low level plank is done from the hands and knees, while higher levels can be done from elbows and toes. Work up to holding planks for 30 seconds three times before progressing. After performing planks it is helpful to decompress the spine with a stretch such as child’s pose, where you start from a position on your hands and knees, then sit back on your heels while lowering your chest towards the floor.
Skiing is ultimately a balance sport, so single leg balance may well be the one best thing you can do to recover from minor imbalances, reduce falls, and the chance for injury. You can stand on the floor, a pillow, a 1/2 foam roller (available at OPTP.com), or a wobble cushion (an inflatable disc). Challenge can be added by closing your eyes, rotating your head left and right, reaching your free leg as far as you can in a star pattern, or reaching your hand from floor to overhead. When reaching overhead you can also reach back with some rotation, as long as you engage your abdominal muscles to protect your low back. Returning to a centered and balanced position will simulate recovering from one of the ACL-risking patterns of falling.
A lateral hop from one foot to the other can be done with either a pause for balance, or with a progressive loading-exploding movement. The former will improve balance, while the latter will simulate the pressure patterns we see with rhythmic upper-level skiing. Start from a squatting position, then shift your weight to one foot and hold the other off the floor. Explode to the side, and absorb the shock of landing by attempting to land as quietly as you can, lowering your hips until your thighs are nearly parallel to the floor, and then exploding up and over to the original side again.
As your strength, balance and control improve, you can add complexities to your movements, and perform the exercises for longer periods. You may find that not only are you hitting the slopes feeling stronger, but also with soaring confidence as the improved balance and core strength will help you take your skiing to a whole new level.
Christina Russell is a certified massage therapist, fitness instructor and personal trainer at Alpine Physical Therapy in Fraser, CO. www.alpinept.com. She has worked for Womens Quest since 1996 teaching mountain biking, cross country skiing, and more recently, bellydancing. A skier since 1970, Christina has taught alpine, telemark and cross country skiing for 20 years. She currently teaches a Winter Sport Conditioning class designed by her husband Jeff who is a physical therapist at Alpine Physical Therapy.