Keeping an eye on the snow reports in recent weeks I know a few of us will be breathing a sigh of relief that finally the Alps have had some snow! Growing up in Scotland with weekends spent at the Cairngorms, heli-skiing in Canada and working in Italy as a ski rep has taught me the importance of ski safety and proper conditioning.
In this article, we’ll look at the muscles used and common injuries during skiing, a few conditioning exercises to get you ready, how sports massage can help with skiing and some general safety tips for the slopes.
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:1
- 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.
Knee injuries are the most common sustained during a ski holiday. Damage to the medial collateral ligament (MCL) is 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.
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 we give you 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.
Squats & One-Legged Squats
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.
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 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.
Lunges strengthen 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 (as shown).
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.
Whether you do reverse or normal lunges, try 10 of each, two or three times.
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, you can check out this paper from the US Ski & Snowboarding Association.
Pre-trip Sports Massage
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.
Post-trip Sports Massage
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.
- Follow the F.I.S (Federation International De Ski) code on Piste safety (click to view).
- 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, thigh muscles, 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!
**Any exercise, if done incorrectly, can be detrimental. Check with a doctor before embarking on any new exercise programme.
In preparing our conditioning exercises, we 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. If you’d like to have a session to review your technique on these exercises, Ian is available to train at Fitness First and is available to travel within the M25. You can contact him on 07538 202 740 or by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
References & Further Reading
1 Muscles Involved in Alpine Skiing By Troy Flanagan, Director of Sport Science, USSA https://ussa.org/sites/default/files/documents/athletics/alpine/2011-12/documents/TrainingMuscles.pdf
Sports Injuries. Ski-physio.com. British Chartered Physiotherapy Clinic. https://www.ski-physio.com/SportsInjuries/
Alpine Ski Injuries. Ski-injury.com. Dr Mike Langram. https://www.ski-injury.com/specific-sports/alpine