Keeping an eye on the snow reports over the past few weeks, I know some of us will be wishing for some snow to arrive very soon, so fingers crossed for that! In the mean time, with those ski holidays planned or perhaps in the pipeline, it is time to start looking to our bodies' and what we are about to put them through.
The ski season does seem to suddenly appear out of nowhere and after one of the heaviest eating and drinking seasons we have, so it may be a good idea to get working on those leg muscles sooner rather than later. With that in mind, I have written this article with some tips and exercises to try and get us all up to speed for the mountains!
Growing up in Scotland with weekends spent in the Cairngorms, heli-skiing in Canada and Ski Repping in Italy have taught me the importance of ski safety and proper conditioning. In this article, we'll look at the muscles used and common injuries that can occur during skiing, as well as a few conditioning exercises to help get you ready, how sports massage can help with skiing and snowboarding and some general safety tips for the slopes.
I openly admit that I am woefully lacking in experience at boarding, having attempted and failed miserably (which my coccyx will attest to), and so this article tends to relate more to skiers, however the muscles and exercises can be beneficial to all winter sports enthusiasts.
In both sports, obviously the legs are the main power house of the activities, and so we need to work on the strength of the lower extremities.
Benefits of sports massage for skiers (& boarders!)
Sports massage is obviously not just used for sports people but it can be very beneficial for people who are partaking in sports that we rarely enjoy, and for which our bodies may not be quite prepared for the challenge.
The main benefits of sports massage that all types of sports people, exercisers & even the more sedentary of us will really appreciate:
- Ease the general aches and pains
- Help relax the tight and over-used muscles
- Be able to recognise problem areas before they potentially develop into an injury
- Improve the body’s circulation – aids in clearing out the metabolites from exercise
- Promotes recovery post events
- Help to treat previous injuries by breaking down the scar tissue
- Treatments can help to enhance our body awareness and so reduce chance of future injury
Sports massage is ideal for application before your skiing trip to help prepare your body, as well as during and after your trip, to deal with any of the developing and resulting aches and pains.
In a pre-trip session, we will check all the prime movers for tension and for any apparent imbalance of use in specific muscles. Posture and movement assessments in your session often reveal functional patterns of over or under-use in common muscles and will allow us to give you an idea of where to focus your training or stretches.
When you return, you’re probably going to be a bit sore using muscles in a way they’re not used to. Post-trip sports massage can help to flush out the muscles, and some research has indicated that massage reduces post-exercise soreness and inflammation as well as improving speed of recovery in muscles.
Common injuries & prime movers
Skiing & boarding requires strength and agility in your lower body. By strengthening your legs and knees before the ski season begins, you will build stamina on the course and reduce your risk of knee injury.
Injury wise there is a basic split between injuries seen in skiers versus boarders; skiers predominantly with lower limb injuries, whereas boarders bias upper body (i.e. clavicle and wrists).
Knee injuries are the most common sustained during a ski holiday. Damage to the medial collateral ligament (MCL) is the most common single ski injury of all. This occurs when the lower leg twists outwards relative to the thigh and the MCL takes the strain. Injury to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is a far more serious situation and can lead to the end of a skier's career if not diagnosed and treated properly.
When conditioning, we want to strengthen the muscles that support the knees and develop core and glutes to reduce the pressure placed on the knees. In addition to strengthening the prime movers, we also need to think about working on synergist muscles, the smaller muscles that support the prime movers.
Researchers from the US Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) used kinesiological evaluations and movement EMG experiments to determine which muscles are used most (i.e. the ‘prime movers’ in skiing), and found them to be, not surprisingly:
- Glutes (specifically the gluteus medius and gluteus maximus)
- Quadriceps (front of thigh)
- Hamstrings (back of thigh)
- Peroneus longus (side of lower leg – for ankle balancing/leg support)
While not specifically mentioned in the USSA’s report, having a strong core is also essential in skiing to allow the lower legs to work effectively as well as support the whole body in movement.
Specifically: Gluteus Medius & Gluteus Maximus
As with most movement in the body, the power comes from our Glutes (which is why we as therapist spend a lot of time trying to get people to notice and use their Glutes instead of hamstrings). The Glutes are used to extend the hip & thigh backwards in order to push off forward, as when first setting off skiing (i.e the ‘ice skating’ push we do at the top of a run). The Gluteus Medius is responsible for preventing the knee from falling inwards when in the knees bent (squatted) position we all adopt when skiing.
These muscles can become very tight and overworked if they are not prepared for the work involved, and this can then lead to lower back pain.
AKA: Rectus Femoris, Vastus Lateralis, Vastus Medialis & Vastus Intermedius
These are under a lot of stress when holding the squatted stance. The type of contraction involved in this movement (eccentric – getting longer whilst contracting) takes a lot more effort as it is working against gravity, e.g. the same movement involved in walking down stairs).
Holding this position for long periods of time can in turn lead to the patellar tendon (where these muscles attach onto the tibia (Shin)) to become overworked with the possibility of tendonitis occurring.
AKA: Bicep Femoris, Semitendinosus & Semimembranosus
The Hamstrings work synergistically with the Glutes in the above movements i.e work together with the Glutes extending the hip (the ‘Ice Skating’ push movement) and the Hamstrings are involved in flexing the knee (i.e. the squatted stance). If the Glutes are not firing properly, then the hamstrings become overworked and this can lead to the muscles becoming tight and potentially an overuse injury.
Some of the lesser known muscles involved in skiing include the Peroneus Longus muscle which run down the outer aspect of the calf. It works to evert and plantarflex the foot (turn the foot out and point it down). It is used particularly when changing direction during skiing.
Conditioning exercises **
Here are a few easy exercises that will help with your ski conditioning. You can start with three times a week, doing a few sets of each exercise. While there are suggested reps, think of them as targets and only do as many as you can with good form.
If you are new to these exercises, we recommend having a session with a professional trainer to ensure you’re getting your technique right, as poor technique can be just as if not as bad as not doing the exercises at all.
* It is advised to try and get started on your ski specific exercise programme at least 3 weeks prior to hitting the slopes. (Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine & Athletic Trauma – NISMAT).
Squats & One Legged Squats
These exercises work to strengthen the knees and prepare them for the positions held during skiing.
Squats target the Quadriceps and Glutes. Quadriceps work holding your legs in the squat and work both going down into and coming up out of the squat. Glutes control the speed of the downward movement into the squat and help you stand up out of it. One-legged squats help work the smaller muscles in the leg and Gluteus Medius in balancing.
As the above video outlines, it's key to keep an eye on your alignment, ensuring your knees don’t go past your toes (the more over the ankle the better) and remain in-line with your second toe, feet forward, with your back as upright as possible. The further back your knees, the more you’re working the often under-used Gluteus Maximus. Once your form is good, you can add dumbbells to increase the work. Try 10 of each, two or three times.
Single Leg Squats are a more advanced option which whilst working the muscles of the leg, also add an element of balance to the exercise.
Lunges & Reverse Lunges
Lunges strengthen your Glutes, Quads and Hamstrings, along with some balancing muscles in the legs. As with most movements in the legs, the power should come from our Glutes, used to extend the hip back to push off forward.
Make sure your knee stays centred over your foot, which will help work the Gluteus Medius as well. With normal lunges, start standing and put one leg forward, kneeling into lunge position. In reverse lunges, step back and let your back knee touch the ground, bending your front knee keeping it over your ankle / not past your toes as shown below.
Whether you do reverse or normal lunges, try 10 of each, two or three times.
Wall Sit - an old favourite
This is an Isometric (i.e. non-moving) strengthening exercise. This exercise works the Quadriceps as they have to resist gravity and the force of your body weight for your thighs to stay at a 90degree angle – as you do when holding the squat position down the slope.
Make sure to hold your core in whilst performing this also to help your lower back. You should aim to hold this for at least 30seconds, increasing the time in increments as you improve.
Plank & Side-Plank
Strong abdominal & lower back muscles will help support you and keep you strong and upright on the skis. Plank and side plank work superficial and deep core muscles in isometric contraction, helping to build their endurance and stamina to hold our bodies upright.
Try holding the plank for 10 seconds, keeping your body in a straight line, working up to 30, then 60 seconds. To make this easier, drop both knees in full plank or bend your bottom leg in side plank until you can work up to the full postures.
For more ski-specific exercises, check out this Paper from the US Ski & Snowboarding Association.
General advice for everyone on the slopes
- Follow the F.I.S (Federation International de Ski) Code on Piste safety
- Warm up and down properly – before hitting the slopes add in some dynamic movements. This can be some brisk walking, high knees and leg circles. These movements prepare the muscles for the day of action ahead. Also spend a few minutes gently stretching your Hamstrings, Quadriceps, hips and calves at the end of the day. Hold each stretch gently for 30 seconds – it shouldn’t be painful
- Recognise when you need a rest – most injuries occur after lunchtime when tiredness sets in
- Do use the professional instructors that are available in the resorts – injuries are common in beginners and bad habits are easier to resolve the earlier they’re caught. The instructors are also available for the more accomplished skiers if there is a new technique or route that you want to try – but obviously don’t go anywhere that you do not feel entirely comfortable
- Choose the right level of equipment when kitting yourself out – don’t over-rate your ability and/or your vital statistics, as this can lead to unforeseen accidents
- Try and avoid being persuaded to attempt slopes or speeds beyond the level of your ability
- Wear adequate clothing, preferably in layers
- Don’t forget good quality sunglasses, goggles and sunscreen
- Wear a helmet. Although in the past seen as unfashionable, now it is stranger to be seen without one on the slopes – and not to mention the protection they do offer against head injuries (albeit they do not make you invincible)
- Pay attention to the ski guides and never cross a closed run – they tend to be closed for a reason! (not to mention your insurance will not cover you if the unfortunate were to happen). Off Piste is the same – ski/board at your own risk.
All in all skiing is a fantastic sport and holiday which although effort intensive, is so worth it! Now I am off to start prepping for my snow holiday. Have a brilliant season, enjoy and be safe!
**Any exercise, if done incorrectly, can be detrimental. Check with a doctor before embarking on any new exercise programme.
In preparing these conditioning exercises, I consulted with personal trainer Ian Henry, registered personal trainer. His 5 steps to fitness are: 1. Assess your fitness level 2. Design a program unique to you 3. Choosing equipment 4. Get started 5. Monitor your progress.
Don't forget that Bristol Massage Therapy have our own 'in-house' PT in the form of Mike Anderson. If you have any questions or want some specific advice, do give him a shout.
References & further reading
Muscles involoved in Alpine Skiing by Troy Flanagan, Direcor of Sports Science, USSA.
Sports Injuries. Ski-physio.com. British Chartered Physiotherapy Clinic.
Alpine Ski Injuries. Ski-injury.com. Dr Mike Langram.