How to be a Telemark hero: fitness for Telemark skiing.

Telemark skiing is a particularly physically demanding sport, especially on the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteal muscles. If you’ve never heard of it, here’s a video clip of me in action or a brief introduction courtesy of the Telegraph. Not surprisingly, an internet search pulls up various recommendations of barbell squats and lunges as ways of recreating the appropriate muscle action and overload for gym training. However, there is a danger that conventional squats tend to favour the quadriceps and are thus prone to produce muscular imbalance.  Also, if your knees are not tracking straight to begin with (i.e. they tend to move outwards or inwards as they bend), any squat or lunge type exercise you do is going to reinforce your existing posture and could hasten your progress towards chronic or acute injury. One way to check this on yourself is to do a series of single leg squats each side in front of a mirror and watch what happens to your knee.

So, if you’re a Telemark skier who wants to improve, or someone who’d like to give it a go, here are a few thoughts on useful preparation.

1. Have your static and dynamic posture assessed by a suitably qualified person, preferably one who has experience of Telemark skiing. Everyone tends to favour one side of their body over the other and this can produce some pretty dramatic postural variations. To ski well, you need to be able to reproduce the same movement pattern evenly with both sides of your body and if you have a fundamental postural issue, no amount of lessons will correct it and training will tend to reinforce it; you may also be leaving yourself open to injury.

2. Aim for balance between your quadriceps and iliopsoas (knee extension and hip flexion) and your hamstrings and gluteals (knee flexion and hip extension). People tend to naturally over-use their hip flexors and quadriceps, which are also prone to shorten because we spend so much time sitting down. This encourages a level of muscle tension which causes their antagonists, the hamstrings and gluteals, to relax and in some cases become ineffective. Other muscles then have to take on a greater workload, which can cause issues such as knee or lower back pain.

3. Build strength and endurance for eccentric contraction (when the muscle is contracting yet lengthening rather than shortening). A lot of the time your muscles are in eccentric contraction as they act to control a movement: for example your quadriceps as you flex your knee and react against gravity pulling you downhill. Eccentric contraction is far more demanding, particularly when the muscle is pushed to the extremes of its length/tension relationship, and preparing your muscles for that unexpected slip off the edge of a mogul or going over a particularly steep drop could save you from damage. Plyometrics (essentially jumping, skipping, hopping type activities which can be intensified by including depth jumps off benches etc) are good for this, and if you’re doing weights, bear in mind that lowering the weight steadily and under control is doing as much good as picking it up in the first place.

4. Make sure your muscles are able to move with fluidity and efficiency. The quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteals are muscle groups consisting of a series of separate muscles, each of which exerts a subtly different directional force on the joints. They have a tendency to become literally ‘stuck’ together by fascial tissue meaning they lose their individual movement properties and work as a single unit instead. Good separation between the medial and lateral hamstrings for example, is particularly helpful for skiers as they control rotation in the flexed knee (think of your edging). A good sports and remedial masseur will release adhesions, and rehabilitate scar tissue that will hamper efficient muscular contraction. They may also be able to identify problems that could lead to injury if unresolved.

5. Work on building a strong core with good spinal and hip stability. The forces generated by powerful leg and arm movements need the firm support of your abdominal core and the deep postural muscles of your vertebral and hip joints. Telemarking involves a good deal of twisting and side bending, so the deep, short transversospinalis muscles and the multifidus must be effective at creating and moderating this. Your piriformis and other external hip rotators are stabilising your sacro-iliac (SI) joint on your inside ski side as you increase pressure on your outside ski and accelerate it when turning. If they’re not doing this effectively and evenly on both sides, you are set up for SI joint pain. Targeting some of these small postural muscles with some relatively innocuous looking exercises can make a big difference to your overall movement efficiency. Working with a gym ball also helps increase the percentage muscle fibre recruitment over the same exercise performed on a fixed surface because you have to control your balance at the same time.



6. Include multi-planar exercises in your training. Many of the exercises recommended for Telemarkers are single plane, such as squats and lunges. In reality though you ski over natural and varied terrain with your body constantly adjusting its balance and applying forces in all directions in order to accommodate bumps, dips, slope camber, changes in snow depth and condition etc. Here’s a nice variation on the lunge to add to your repertoire.

7. Take up yoga. You don’t have to get into the happy-clappy, meditative stuff to get a great deal of benefit from yoga. It’s great for balance, strength, flexibility and overall movement control. It will also help improve your awareness of any differences in strength and range of movement between one side of your body and the other. I recommend Sage Rowntree’s book ‘Yoga for Runners’ as the poses are just as appropriate for Telemark as they are for runners. I also like her phrase: “Comfort with the discomfort of intensity” – something to bear in mind next time you’re keeping the turns flowing when your thighs are burning!

Your bottom – not just for sitting on!

One thing that’s struck me over the past few months, is how many people suffer from chronic pain caused by neglecting their gluteals and external hip rotator muscles. This can be as diverse as lower back pain, particularly around the sacro-iliac joint at the base of the spine, anterior (front of) knee pain and sciatic pain.

The gluteus medius is a very important muscle, which until recently has been relatively misunderstood. Thought of typically as an external hip rotator and adductor, used to lift your leg sideways and rotate it outwards, it’s now known to have a key role in stabilising the hip joint during walking, running and hopping etc. In other words, whenever you need to balance on one leg whether you’re standing still or on the move. Because we spend so much time sitting on it, it’s rather inclined to get lazy and may even switch off altogether, forcing postural changes and pushing the work onto muscles such as the tensor fascia latae and the ilio-tibial band.

Even if you’re a regular runner and gym goer it’s possible that you have good gluteal strength in a squat or leg press, yet the same muscles may still not stabilise your hip effectively in a different position, such as with your hip extended. Effectiveness has more to do with multi-directional stability and, because your muscles never function in isolation, when that stability is lacking it can result in mechanical changes and, ultimately, pain elsewhere.

The piriformis is another demon waiting to cause discomfort. Often becoming very tight, but not necessarily strong, it can pressurise the sciatic nerve causing the same symptoms as sciatica, which we associate more commonly with nerve compression at the lumbar vertebrae. The position of the sciatic nerve relative to the piriformis varies between individuals: in some people it runs above the muscle, in others below and in some the nerve may actually pass through the belly of the muscle, so it’s easy to understand how muscular tightness can restrict it. Along with the gluteus maximus, biceps femoris and multifidus, the piriformis also contributes to the stability of the sacro-iliac joint by tensioning the sacrotuberous ligament. Remedial massage techniques can be used to reach this deep muscle and release tension. Combined with regular stretching and strengthening exercises this can improve it’s functionality, which in turn may relieve pain in the lower back, along the top of the iliac crest and around the sacro-iliac joint.

At the end of the ski season this year when I intensified my running, I began to feel pain in the front of my knees when coming down stairs. A winter of pretty intensive Telemark skiing had built up my quads and hip flexors to the point where they were dominating my hamstrings and gluteals,so I needed to redress the balance by strengthening these weaker muscles and stretching my quads, which had definitely shortened. A few weeks later, no knee pain! I’ve also been working on my running technique to use my gluteals and hamstrings more, lifting my heel higher and flexing my knees more. This reduces the length of the lever as you bring your leg forward making it easier on your quads and hip flexors.

My point is, with chronic injuries the pain is rarely in the same place as the problem. Unfortunately, our instinct is often to address the pain at the point where it occurs, ignoring the fact that our bodies are complex and interconnected systems where nothing acts in isolation. You might not have a pain in the butt, but it could be the source of a problem elsewhere!

Some useful resources:
Unbeatable Buttocks for injury free performance. Read my review at Peak Performance
Gluteals and Core workout with Tamsin Lewis
Gluteal inhibition or weakness by Kinetic Revolution

Recover properly, don’t save your injuries for later.

Last week I was in Manchester where I have a group of extremely active clients in their 60s and 70s. Amongst them are golfers, skiers, walkers and swimmers; all have been extremely good athletes in the past, participating competitively to a high level. They are fit, but after a lifetime of sporting endeavour they’ve naturally picked up a few injuries along the way and it’s later in life that these really come back to bite.

When we’re in our teens, twenties or even thirties it can seem reasonably easy to recover from injuries such as sprains, strains and impacts. Sometimes we may not even notice much of a problem, so most of the time we just take a bit of a rest, maybe do the exercises prescribed by a physio and when the pain has gone we get back on with our activity. It may be some years before we start paying the price for this and the problem then is that often, as discovered by my older clients, the medical profession isn’t really interested, because they regard musculo-skeletal aches and pains as a standard feature of ageing.

For example, one culprit I see frequently is scar tissue. Following an injury the body lays down a repair quickly but randomly – a bit like a DIY bodge! Muscle fibres need to run in parallel in order to work effectively and they need assistance beyond remedial exercises to regain their proper structure and function. Deep transverse friction is a massage technique which breaks down random scar tissue and adhesions, enabling massage combined with stretching and strength work to realign fibres and restore full functionality. It’s painful, but effective and will save you from potentially bigger problems later. Scar tissue is prone to re-injury and repeated micro-tears mean it just keeps on accumulating over time without you even noticing – until one day something else starts to hurt. Often, it is something else because your body has adapted to the weakness by transferring the load elsewhere, creating postural changes and muscular imbalance.

If you’re an enthusiastic and talented amateur, the risks of carrying the legacies of your sporting mishaps forwards as your body ages are considerable. Whilst many of the resulting problems – restricted mobility, muscular weakness and pain – remain treatable, you’d be naive to expect state healthcare to come to your aid. Instead, you may well be hearing the phrase “What do you expect at your age”. So make sure your rehabilitation is complete, no matter what your age when the injury occurs, and don’t accept ageing as an excuse to put up with pain. Just bear in mind that when you reach your seventies and can’t exercise because of injury past or present, your feelings of frustration will be just the same as when you were younger.