Stomp the slopes and reduce injury risk with these preseason-training principles
Story and photos by Pete Gauvin
If you are one of those avid winter athletes who tend to slide off the back end of the fitness wagon each fall and then regret it, I can relate.
No matter how many pledges I make to carry my summer fitness gains to the ski season ahead, my best intentions are often derailed: Shrinking daylight, chilly weather, wavering motivation, deadlines, overly indulgent brew-pub visits, Sunday papers, holiday parties, weak coffee … My rap sheet of excuses is longer than my skis. Clinically speaking, I refer to it as Seasonal Affective Lethargy (SAL).
Are we alone? I don’t think so. Fall, for many an outdoor athlete, has got to be the toughest time of the year – mentally, logistically, pragmatically – to stick to a fitness program. It seems we’ve all got increased obligations, whether it’s work or school or fantasy football leagues.
The price of this seasonal drift? Each winter, after my first days of lunging and plunging on my tele skis, I am hobbled. A hundred-year flood of lactic acid saturates the pulverized tissue of my thighs and glutes. The first month of the season is spent recovering, trying to ski myself into shape, while sidestepping the serious injuries I’m courting because of my lack of due diligence.
“Lots of people say they’ll ski themselves into shape and that’s why we see a lot of early season torn ACLs (anterior cruciate ligaments),” says Truckee-based Physical Therapist Darcy Norman, confirming my worst fears.
As clinic director at the Tahoe Center for Health & Sports Performance and chief PT for the North American Ski Training Center (NASTC), whose home office sits conveniently above his clinic in Truckee (some might say disturbingly close), Norman witnesses it every season.
“(Early season) conditions are often poor and you’re not on top of your game,” says Norman, who grew up ski racing in Canada and raced collegiately at Washington State University before going to PT school. “But injury prevention is a very hard business to sell because so many of us assume we’re never going to get injured, especially when we’re young and resilient.”
I’m not sure I qualify for either of those any more. And while I’ve skirted serious injury over 20 years of skiing, nagging ailments and crackling knees inform me that it’s time to stop rolling the dice with my cavalier approach.
So I went to Norman to find out how best to prepare for the season ahead. In addition to training numerous alpine and cross-country skiers, he works with the T-Mobile cycling team, NFL football players, and world-class triathletes. He promptly debunked some commonly held notions and enlightened me with some training wisdom that came as news flashes to the deep recesses of my gray matter. Like you, I thought I knew it all!
1. What’s Your Limitation?
“When it comes to skiing, we have to determine what’s holding people back,” says Norman. “Is it lack of skill, their equipment, fitness or their ability to move correctly?”
Some time ago, Chris Fellows, the director of NASTC, came to him, completely miffed as to why some of his students were coming back year after year but not getting any better. Through some basic movement analysis, Norman discovered they were biomechanically limited. “We found out they couldn’t even squat correctly,” he says. They could not keep the upper and lower leg bones stacked and in alignment, due to poor muscle balance in the hips and knees. This “movement impairment dysfunction” would have to be addressed with strength and flexibility exercises before significant improvements could be made in their skiing.
“I want to make people good athletes first and then they can learn the skills of their sport,” Norman says. “Sometimes you’ll have a good, say, runner, but they’re a terrible athlete because they’re very inefficient in their movements, and that’s a big reason why they’re prone to injuries. They’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Norman’s first step with any athlete is performing what he calls a “functional movement screening.” It includes seven tests that look at a person’s overall stability and mobility – i.e. both joint and muscle movement. The first three tests help determine a person’s balance, the stability or instability of their foundation, in three key movements: an overhead squat (for symmetrical-stance balance), an inline lunge in a telemark or striding position (for asymmetrical balance), and a hurdle step (for single-leg balance). Four supplementary tests follow to determine shoulder mobility, hamstring and hip flexor strength and flexibility, linear stability and rotary stability.
“Once that’s done it gives us an idea of whether this person needs more motion training or do they need more stability training. From there, we test their VO-2 (oxygen capacity) to see what their (heart rate) threshold is and see what kind of cardiovascular shape they’re in. Then we can give them their appropriate heart range to train in. Between knowing what the person’s cardio-vascular shape is like and knowing what their mobility and stability is like, we have a pretty good predictor of what that person’s injury rate will be.”
“If you move well and you are in great shape, that’s optimal. If you move well but are not in good shape, then you might start out real well but once you run out of gas, you start having a hard time and start compensating, which can lead to injury.”
2. Think Prehab, Not Rehab!
Like our national health care system, we are prone to thinking about treating the backend of physical liabilities rather than preventing them in the first place. So Norman emphasizes prehabilitation, not rehabilitation. That means actively working to address deficiencies. “Typically the things we need to do the most are the things we practice the least because we’re not good at them,” he says.
Flexibility is a common bugaboo frequently ignored, as is explosive power training among people who emphasize base training (see next tip) – long, steady efforts generally designed to improve cardiovascular fitness. But it can also mean addressing specific muscular imbalances, such as knee dominance or hip dominance. Among skiers, hips are frequently an area overlooked. Norman suggests a variety of exercises utilizing mini-bands (flat elastic bands that are a couple inches a wide and provide varying degrees of tension), his favorite training tool.
3. Don’t Let Base Training Turn Into a Rut
The importance of base training to improve your cardio fitness should not be overlooked. But Norman says there’s such a focus on base training these days that many people stop there and don’t train their bodies to move fast, to react reflexively with bursts of speed and power. “They lose that pop,” as Norman puts it.
“If power is involved, and it’s involved in every sport, then you need to train it … Part of the problem is once people get out of organized sports there’s less focus on power training.”
Indeed, as people age, they tend to spend more time going long and slow – an ability that’s not going to diminish much with age – and less on stop-and-go exercise that involve more explosive muscle movements, which naturally fade with the years but can be substantially preserved and enhanced by power and agility training. In the case of resort skiing and snowboarding, which are more akin to running a bunch of intervals than a marathon, the benefits of power and agility training can make for dramatic improvements.
Road cycling and running, for instance, are great activities for building endurance, but due to their repetitive straight-ahead nature, poor for building the reflexes and agility necessary in downhill skiing and snowboarding. Norman suggests mixing in mountain biking and trail running to improve balance, stability, and reflexes if you’re training for the slopes.
4. Weight Training for the Real World
“Another big problem I see is weight training,” Norman says. “In the U.S. it was popularized by bodybuilding, which focuses on single-joint movement. Out in the real world we use multiple-joint movements.”
Norman favors resistance training and plyometric exercises that recruit multiple joints and muscle groups, such as lunges and squats, to better simulate the forces and motions encountered on the hill.
For athletes trying to develop more strength and power, he suggests increasing the number of sets and decreasing the number of reps. “Once you establish power you want to work on elasticity – the ability to repeat that movement and maintain consistency of performance” without a dramatic dropoff. Ideally, he says, you should be able to perform your last set at 90 percent of your initial effort.
5. Focus on Core Stability, Not Just Strength
No matter where you turn in the fitness world it seems everyone harps about the importance of core strength. That’s fine, Norman says, but the emphasis on core strength has created some misconceptions.
“There’s core strength and there’s core stability and they’re two totally separate things. Core strength is your ability to move through a motion, such as a crunch or a sit-up. A core stability exercise is when you’re spine is not moving and you’re stabilizing around a force. That’s what we need in skiing, or any sport really. You can have really high core strength but very poor core stability. Everyone thinks we need to do all these crunches, side crunches and sit-ups. But the real question is can you keep this stable and pull something across your body without it pulling you back.”
Core stability is not necessarily a byproduct of strength, but they do compliment each other, he says. Stability is more “global and neurologic-driven,” while strength is more of an isolated muscular contraction. “You do need some of one to have some of the other, but you can be very stable and not very strong,” he says.
For skiers, particularly telemark skiers, Norman recommends performing lots of cross-body movements on resistance machines to improve core and rotary stability. “Without good rotary-stability it’s like shooting a canon from a canoe,” he says. “You want to turn that canoe into a concrete platform.”
Armed with these training principles, I hope to tailor my fitness for a rewarding, injury-free season from the first turn to the last. … If I can just keep SAL from setting in.