Start the season fit to ski!
With the local mountains open early and a promise of a cold winter, most of us are ready to dust off our skis and boards. But what about the most important tool for a safe and effective run on the slopes: our bodies?
This past Monday I headed up to Whistler for my first ski day of the season. The conditions were fantastic – blue sky, 30-plus cm of new powder, and very few people on the mountain. As a Kinesiologist/Strength Coach and someone who spends much of my free time training, I consider myself quite fit. However, a few runs in, my legs were burning! It was hard work carving through that powder. I could only imagine if I hadn’t been training hard all year…
Both skiing and snowboarding place incredible physical strain on the body, so it’s important to make sure your body is prepared. Throughout the ‘non-skiing’ months of the year, our muscles experience a detraining effect. Detraining is the loss of adaptation to a specific exercise . By the time the season hits, our brain and muscles know what they should be doing, but from a physiological standpoint, they don’t work as effectively.
The effects of detraining can be avoided. Through proper offseason training, fitness maintenance, and an on-mountain warm up, you can prepare yourself for a successful ski or snowboard season, lower your risk of injury, and prevent muscle soreness during and after your time on the slopes.
An Unpredictable Environment
Snowy mountains present an unpredictable environment with variable conditions. Bumpy runs, poor lighting, or unseen ice can create hazards. To be a strong skier or snowboarder, your body must be able to react quickly to these changing stimuli. Qualities such as strength, mobility, balance, and overall confidence in your movements are crucial. These can be addressed through offseason training.
Not only is the natural physical environment unpredictable, but these types of snow sports also attract an unpredictable and diverse crowd of people. At any given day on the mountain, it’s normal to see people of all ages, fitness levels, and skiing or riding experience exploring the slopes. Families, children, adults, and seniors all share the mountain. Whether your goal is performance, recreation, or a social outlet, it’s important to maintain an adequate level of fitness and work capacity to remain safe in these variable conditions.
When your body cannot respond to the changing conditions adequately, injuries occur. Skiers tend to sustain more lower body injuries, 30-40% accounted for by the knees, while snowboarders are more vulnerable to upper limb injuries, with most being to the wrist, hand and thumb . Many of these injuries are preventable with proper preparation, as they usually occur due to falls or loss of control. Building muscular strength and endurance, learning how to fall correctly, and warming up the body can all reduce your risk of injury on the mountain.
Injuries are most commonly suffered on the first day of the season, on the first run of the morning, or on the last run of the day. Factors that contribute to this are lack of muscle preparedness and general fatigue.
The most common snow-sport injuries :
- Knee sprains and tears: Ski and snowboard boots are designed to keep the ankle joint practically immobile. This means mobility has to come from somewhere, namely the knees and the hips. The knee becomes vulnerable to injury with changes in speed and direction, depending on the body’s position. Sprains to the ACL and MCL are most common. An MCL tear can happen when your skis are in the snowplow position (ski tips pointing each other) and you take a fall. These injuries are more common amongst beginner skiers. An ACL tear can happen when landing jumps, skiing moguls or during twisting falls. * To decrease your risk of knee injury, strengthen the glutes, quads and hamstrings before the ski season and end your ski day before your legs are too fatigued. See the next section for more details.
- Head and spinal injuries
- Shoulder dislocations or fractures
- Wrist, hand, and thumb injuries
- Lower extremity fracture
The best type of injury prevention is proactive training. The type of off-season work you do is crucial to your success as a recreational or competitive skier or snowboarder. Though many people remain active running, cycling, or doing basic strength work during the ‘non-skiing’ months, these might not be the most effective forms of exercise to prepare your body for the mountain.
The ultimate goal of off-season training is to reduce your risk of injury. This includes the need to increase joint mobility and muscular strength, prepare your body to generate and absorb force, and increase your body’s capacity for work and resistance to fatigue.
Below I will describe the critical elements that must be included in a good off-season training program for alpine skiing. There is ample crossover with snowboarding and nordic skiing, but that will not be the focus.
This type of training is beneficial throughout the entire year, but you can gain benefits even if you start in the few weeks leading up to your first ski day!
Joint and muscle stiffness lead to reduced force generation and increased risk of injury. Like the immobility that’s created by a tight ski boot at the ankle, a rigid knee, hip, thoracic spine, or neck means the movement required for the sport must come from somewhere less desirable in the functional chain. We want all the joints to be working like a well-oiled machine.
- For thoracic mobility: Reach and Roll
- For hip, groin, and adductor mobility: Frog Stretch
- For glute mobility: Pigeon Stretch
The large muscle groups that must be strong for skiing are the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. A common mistake people make is focusing solely on the quads, namely through squats and stairs. We must balance our anterior (front) and posterior (back) chains by targeting the glutes and hamstrings as well. The glutes are especially important for knee injury prevention.
- For glutes (and hamstrings): bridges, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, miniband work
- For quads: squats (single leg or double leg), lunges
Skiing is a single-leg sport and requires careful control through unstable conditions. We can train balance in a stable, static state on two legs and progress to single leg variations or unstable surfaces.
- Double leg (eyes open or closed): tandem stance (static), athletic stance on half roller or balance board (unstable)
- Single leg (eyes open or closed): on solid ground (static) or foam/balance board (unstable)
Plyometrics and Power
Plyometric training allows a muscle to reach (or absorb) maximal force in the shortest amount of time (ie. hopping, jumping, bounding). This type of power and force control are key for reacting to changing terrain. Most are quad, glute and hamstring dominant exercises. Plyometric training is difficult and exists on a spectrum of progressions:
- Beginner (ex. double leg jump squat)
- Intermediate (ex. diagonal skater jumps)
- Advanced (ex. single leg lateral hurdle jumps) 
For a more personalized program and to accommodate your specific needs and imbalances, check in with your fitness professional. Try to supplement your standard strength or cardio workout with these ski-specific exercises, especially those that target the glutes to protect your knees!
The warm-up is your final chance to prepare your body for your big day of skiing. Take a few moments at the car, or just off the gondola, to get your muscles warm and your heart rate up to reduce the risk of injury. Too often we hear of people injuring themselves on the first run of the day, due to an absent or inefficient warm up, or on the last run of the day due to muscular fatigue! Most of the time we drive to the mountain, spending the hour or more leading up to skiing in a seated position. A simple 3-5 minute routine to get you moving and your muscles activated will improve your skiing for that day and your muscle recovery for the following days.
We’ve outlined an easy warm-up that can even be done in those rigid ski boots:
Cross crawling (marching opposite taps): tap hand to knee 10-15 times
Hip rotations (standing, use poles for balance): draw big circles with hips, 5x per side per direction
Half Kneeling stretch: 30-60sec per side
Thoracic rotation (poles across shoulders in athletic stance): 5x per direction, standing or half kneeling
Bodyweight squats or lunges: 5-10 times per side
Single Leg RDL (Romanian Deadlift): 5-10 times per side
Do what’s manageable, and teach your kids while they’re young! We want to form good habits in those around us to prevent injury and improve longevity in the sport.
Here at it’s time! Fitness Results we’ve put on a ‘Ski Fit’ group class to cover the basics of off-season training, Tuesday evenings at 6:00pm. This class is for those of all levels looking to prime their bodies for an injury-free ski season. Give us a call for more information!
Written by Briana Kelly with input from Jessica Pastro.
Briana and Jessica are Kinesiologists and Strength Coaches at it’s time! Fitness Results in North Vancouver.
Click here to listen to Briana discuss this topic with Jon McComb on the “Fitness Segment,” which airs live every Thursday at 9:05 am CKNW 980am radio.
 Baechle, T. & Earle, R. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (3rd Ed.), 2008.
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