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Now that fall is here, it’s time to start thinking seriously about ski conditioning. Pardon the annoying reminder, but you probably already know you need to get in some ski-specific workouts and exercises to make the most of that ski pass that cost you hundreds of dollars.
For expert advice to make your skiing safer and more fun this winter, we went to the CU Center for Sports Medicine and Performance in Boulder, where physical therapist Chelsea Holt showed us what to do and how to do it. And because many people either don’t have access to a gym, or don’t feel comfortable working out in one yet because of COVID-19, we asked her to focus on things you can do without one.
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First, cardiovascular workouts such as running and cycling are obvious, although you may do those year-round anyway. Incorporate hikes that involve climbs and descents — Mount Falcon or North Table Mountain, for example — because they build strength in the quads, glutes and hamstrings.
“I think you have to have that speed endurance that running can give you,” Holt said, “and then that strength and power that hiking will give you.”
But to be in optimal condition for skiing, you need more than aerobic endurance workouts. A strong core and exercises that improve balance and proprioception — the body’s ability to sense the position of its parts in space and motion, and to make instantaneous corrections to prevent injury — can keep you safe on the slopes.
If you’ve ever sensed a sprained ankle about to happen while running but felt your lower leg muscles fire to prevent it without you even thinking about it, that’s proprioception. Proprioception can be improved through practice, Holt said, and those reactions are especially important in skiing because of the variable conditions you will encounter on the slopes.
“Skiing is a dynamic sport. There’s a lot coming at you and a lot of variables, especially as crowded as our ski resorts can sometimes get. You have things coming at you. You have to train your body to be able to respond to all of that and keep yourself safe and stable.”
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Proprioception is improved by exercises called plyometrics. Holt recalls the adage “Practice makes perfect” but amends it: When it comes to proprioception, “Perfect practice makes perfect.”
“Everyone has some balance, but some people have way better balance because they practice it,” Hold said. “Plyometrics are important to get reaction times faster. It’s important to learn how to absorb shock in the correct way. If you practice absorbing it, when you’re out there skiing, your mind’s not going to be like, ‘Where should my knee be?’ Your knee needs to be programmed into that pattern.”
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That includes doing dynamic exercises that involve hops, squats and other movements, and practice them with proper technique, such as preventing knees from falling inward through the movement. And because many ski injuries occur at the end of the day when skiers are tired, Holt recommends doing plyometric exercises after you go for a run.
“You need to be fatigued enough to where it’s more challenging, but you also have to be able to control it.” Holt said
Here, then, are some exercises that can help you ski better and more safely.
With your back against a wall, bend your knees, slide your back down the wall into what looks like a seated position, and hold that position. You don’t only want to feel a burn only in your quads, Holt said; you want your glutes to work, too. Make sure your knees are over your ankles. For extra credit, you can lift one heel, then the other, or you can lift one leg, then the other. Make sure your hips stay level. Do it three times for 20 seconds at first, building up to five times of 1-minute duration.
Single leg sit to stand
Standing with one leg extended off the ground in front of you, lower yourself as if you’re sitting down, tapping a chair with your behind, then stand back up. The important thing is that the knee in the leg supporting you stays stable, not falling inward. “Don’t actually sit; just slowly control yourself down with one leg, tapping the chair, and remaining erect,” Holt said. “If you can engage your glute and use it to counter the temptation to let your knee fall inward, you will reduce your risk of knee injury.” Start with three sets of five to eight reps, working up to three sets of 15.
Single leg bridge
You can do this with your feet on the floor, or make it harder with your feet on a foam roller. Lying on your back, knees bent with your feet on the floor or the roller and your shoulders on the floor, lift your trunk off the floor using glutes and hamstrings. You can keep your arms down for more stability or raise them to make the exercise more difficult. While holding that position, straighten one leg for 5 seconds, then the other. Make sure you don’t let your hip drop or arch your back. Try to do two sets of 12 reps on both sides.
Bridge with hamstring curl
If you have a stability ball or foam roller, lay on your back with your feet on the ball or roller, lift your trunk off the floor, then roll the ball or roller back and forward with your heels. Start with two sets of eight.
Standing fire hydrant
If you have access to resistance bands, wrap one around your legs just above your knees and tuck your core while standing. Lift one leg, bend the knee 90 degrees and rotate that knee out and back while making sure the knee of the other leg stays in proper position, knee over foot, not falling inward. “You don’t want to lean, you don’t want that knee to fall in, and you don’t want that hip to drop,” Holt said. “For more of a challenge, move the band around your ankles.” Start with two sets of 12, working up to three sets of 15.
Plank with rotation
Planks, which are commonly performed from a prone (face-down) position, require holding the body up in a flat position using the elbows and the knees or feet. They are great core exercises, but Holt likes to add a rotation. “If you just hold a plank, that gets your core really strong staying still, but we need to be really strong with movement,” Holt said. To add the rotation, support yourself with one arm, rotate the other arm underneath your torso while rotating your body, then rotate in the other direction to a side plank with that arm straight up in the air. Start with no weight in the moving arm, adding light weights for an extra challenge. Begin with two sets of five and work up to two sets of 10 when you get stronger.
Stir the pot
With your elbows on a stability ball, execute a plank from your toes, then move the ball in a circle. This one primarily works your upper body, but it also forces you to use your hips to stabilize your lower body. Start with two sets of five circles in each direction, working toward three sets of 10.
From a standing position, drop into a squat, then extend your legs to jump a few inches off the ground, swinging your arms back and forward. When you land, make sure your knees are bent and that they are over your feet. “Make sure to absorb the shock of landing with your hips and knees by sinking back into a squat,” Holt said. “Another reason we see injuries in skiing is that people don’t absorb shock by bending; they land with stiff knees. You want to make sure you’re bending at the waist as you’re loading before jumping, as well as when you’re landing.” Perform three sets of 20.
Lateral single-leg hops
Hop side to side from one leg to the other, arms in front of you and elbows bent for balance, making sure you land with the knee over the foot, not falling inward. Perform two sets of 12 on each leg.
Single-leg forward hops
Start in a standing position on one leg with hip and knee slightly bent and hop forward. Just like the double leg squat, bend both your hip and knee to absorb shock correctly. “You don’t want to overload the anterior (front of the) knee, so when you do these, you really want to load that hip as well,” Holt said. “You really need to practice it correctly. Knee in line with hip, not in or out, and you don’t want your knee going past your toes. The quad is going to be working, but you want your hip to help you absorb that shock.” Start with one set of 10 on each leg.
Lateral step down
Use a small box that will support your weight or a stair step in your house. Place one foot on the box or step. Loading that hip and bending at the knee, lower your body and tap the floor with your other foot off the box or step. “On this one you really want to make sure your pelvis is level,” Holt said. “Control is more important than power. Power is good — it’s going to make you a good skier — but control is going to make you a safe skier.” Start with one set of 10 on each leg. To make it more of a challenge, increase the height of the box or step.
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