My partner will be heading off to Austria in about a month to start training as an Alpine ski instructor and asked me to help him out with an exercise programme. A good time then to write something that he can share with his fellow students, which is as relevant to anyone thinking of hitting the slopes for a holiday as it is for folk for whom the mountains are about to be their office. Skiing presents enormous challenges to our muscles, neurological system and cardiovascular system, so it’s not surprising that many people’s experiences of it are blighted by aching limbs, painful knees, exhaustion and injury, to say nothing of the frustration of having one’s ability to learn constrained by fitness. So why do we imagine that we can go from sitting a desk five days a week to engaging in such physically demanding exercise at high altitude for several hours a day without suffering?
Just like any other sport, because nothing else mimics the specific movements involved in skiing, you will only truly get fit for skiing by skiing. This is clearly impractical when you don’t have a snowy mountainside to hand; it’s also a recipe for developing functional adaptations that are in themselves likely to cause chronic pain (more on this later). However, by isolating some of the key demands of the sport, we can devise a fitness programme that both prepares the body appropriately as well as guarding against the development of imbalances in individuals who are skiing on a regular basis.
Knee alignment and stability.
The integrity of your knee joint is protected by the muscles of your thigh, the quadriceps, hamstrings and adductors, which must be in balance. It’s counter-productive to focus on developing your quadriceps whilst neglecting your hamstrings. Skiing naturally builds the quads and hip flexors (the psoas and iliacus muscles); the flexed body position adopted lends itself to over-emphasising these muscles and encourages them to shorten. In turn this inhibits contraction in the hamstrings and hip extensors, which can result in the lower back muscles being overloaded. Regular skiers (including instructors) should beware of this tendency, as it can lead to chronic knee pain and/or back problems by the end of a season. The hamstrings are partly responsible for stabilising the sacro-iliac joint between the pelvis and spine; essential to upright posture and one of the body’s three main centres of balance, instability in this joint is a frequent cause of back and hip pain. Hip stability is crucial to the stability of the knee joint, so a good ski bum is really one with strong gluteals, especially the gluteus medius and smaller external hip rotators, rather than a person who wears a beanie hat indoors!
Improving the strength of your abdominals as well as your gluteals helps to enhance the stability of your body core and reduces the load on your spine. Your body’s ability to generate stiffness here is the key to effective and efficient transfer of muscular force to your legs and arms. Good core strength will improve the efficiency of your leg drive and improve your postural control (in other words you will fall over less). An efficient core musculature will also allow your diaphragm to focus more on its breathing responsibilities rather than having to contribute so much to bracing your core, with the result that you will find breathing easier and be able to maintain a better body position for longer periods on variable terrain – especially useful for off-piste work.
Proprioception and balance.
Proprioception is a neurological function designed to enable your body to monitor where its moving parts are relative to the rest of it at any point in time. It plays a major part in the control of movement, balance and, as a direct consequence, in the prevention of injury. It helps to stop us falling over and protects us from joint degeneration. We get it from simply being active and doing things that involve balancing in particular. Children tend to have good proprioception because they’re always climbing on things, jumping, balancing on one leg and so on, but we tend to lose it as we become more sedentary. The good news is anything that involves exercising on an unstable surface, which is good for your core, will also improve your proprioception, so two birds with one stone!
Whilst Alpine (downhill) skiing is not especially demanding of the cardiovascular system, being active at relatively high altitude will soon make you breathe harder, even just walking up the steps to the bar. You don’t need to be able to run a marathon, but being able to run for the bus without the need for resuscitation will make huge difference to your enjoyment, not least because instead of working hard just to get oxygen into your lungs, the muscles which help you inhale will have the spare capacity to keep your core stable.
Even if you prefer to stick to the green and blue runs, you’ll find a bit of advance effort makes all the difference to your enjoyment and, most importantly, helps protect you from injury. If you’re an instructor, the same rules apply, only the focus is on maintaining balance in order to optimise the range that your body can perform over and prevent the development of chronic pain syndromes.
Below are a couple of exercise programmes that will help you to improve your postural stability (including your knee), core strength and proprioception. All you need is a mat (or the carpet), a gym ball and half an hour every other day to see a real difference. Throw in a bit of jogging, swimming or cycling two or three times a week and you’ll improve your skiing and consequently enjoy it a whole lot more. Your knees will also thank you for it afterwards.