Many people devoted to seasonal sports fail to do preseason conditioning. Outside of structured programs, such as yoga or CrossFit classes or team sports like soccer or football, you’re on your own to get and stay in shape. Skiers and snowboarders are especially prone to eschew conditioning, with their simple “Go Fast, Shit Pants” aspirations. Sure, there are the disciplined athletes who start doing wall-sits in July, but there are also a ton of athletes (you know who you are) who opt for the liver workout until opening day. That conditioned riders are more prepped and may be less prone to injury isn’t surprising, but the efficacy of specific training and proper form—even when walking—may be something you’ve never even heard about.
Linda Scholl, DPT and long-time devoted skier, has taught the Ski Fitness class at the University of Utah for 14 years and says the kind of training you do greatly affects on-hill results. “A very effective way to gain strength fast is eccentric training—it’s your ability to absorb force,” says Scholl. “Eccentrics breaks down the muscles so they build back up.” She says that’s why you’re more sore descending a mountain than climbing it, or why lifting a box or weight overhead is easier than lowering it. In this kind of training, she says, impact is key.
In Scholl’s class, which continues through the winter, she focuses on eccentrics, e.g., stair work and jumping, as well as core exercises. “A strong core will make the legs respond faster and stronger.” And snow riders of any level want that.
Pro skier Julian Carr can attest to the power of Scholl’s class: “After a shattered femur, two ACLs, LCL, PCL, and a torn calf muscle, I’ve been injury-free for the four years I’ve taken it.” Carr says it lets you start the season at the point you’d otherwise be midseason.
Scholl says it’s also imperative to work out your butt, hips, hamstrings, and arms. Basically everything, because they’re all connected. That knee pain? It could be a result of worn cartilage from improper knee tracking and alignment, a consequence of weak hips and butt, an inflexible IT band, and overall bad form.
What’s bad form? Ask Mandy Mehler, PDT, OCS at Canyon Sports Therapy in Holladay, where they cater to athletes up to the Olympic level. Mehler says, in addition to poor conditioning, bad everyday mechanics can indeed make you more prone to injury.
“See that guy? He’s in the backseat,” says Mehler. She’s not on the hill, watching a snowboarder or skier; she’s in a restaurant, pointing out people who are standing or walking. That’s right: you can be a beater just standing there.
Similar to a writer who sees sad apostrophes stuck where they don’t belong (e.g., TV’s, 1990’s) and thinks, If only people knew the rules, Mehler sees it all the time: people slouching and people with pushed-out guts or knees bent over their toes. But who knew there were general guidelines for walking?
“You should be engaged in the pelvic core with your hips and never have your knees driving over your toes,” says Mehler. Phew, Walking 101 sounds easy enough (in theory, but perhaps difficult in practice after how many years doing it all wrong?). After you master walking, the next step in on-hill prep is not so difficult in practice but more complex in explanation. Here, form and technique lead to functional conditioning that will pre-fire muscles during downhill action.
“The quads fire and pull the tibia forward, which is already tugging on the ACL, so condition your glutes to pre-fire,” Mehler says. “You have to do this functionally, or it won’t help.” This functional conditioning involves specific exercises, such as step-downs, squats, and lunges, to engage these large muscles in the body.
Canyon Sports Therapy also conducts knee tests of on-hill staff for local resorts; they’re mandatory to lessen the likelihood of injury (employees may improve certain results with exercise) or protect those with limiting issues from further damage. Many of those tested fail at the Step Test, where from atop a small step you lower and tap your heel to the floor. This indicates a weakness in the gluteal muscle and poor coordination of the hip, knee, and ankle when decelerating your body. Again, it’s the oft-neglected butt muscle. To aid the overwhelmingly weak-assed, Canyon Sports Therapy provided these exercises developed by Christopher Powers, PT, PhD, FACSM, FAPTA, out of USC and owner of Movement Performance Institute:
During testing, Mehler frequently observes these breaks in form: pelvic drop in all things single-leg, knee driving over toe, and trunk lean-back. Regarding trunk lean-back (or “being in the backseat”), Mehler says, “This is when bad things happen. Feel where your weight is—it should be on the balls of your feet, the ready position.” If you’re not balanced, you’re not ready.
Strengthening the pelvic core or glutes may sound tough, especially when presented with foreign-looking moves like the Clam Shells, but Canyon Sports Therapy says that, with practice, engaging these muscles will become automatic and a natural part of life.
If you can’t take a sport-specific conditioning class like Scholl’s, both Scholl and Mehler recommend cross-training for the preseason. Scholl says boot camp is a good choice, as is downhill trail running or hiking for the fun, ski-like, line-choice aspect. She also advises that you take a day off from aggro, ego-driven activity for restorative yoga or a long walk. Mehler—a snowboarder who likes park and freeride, a road cyclist and mountain biker who likes cross-country and downhill, and a triathlete—suggests swimming, biking, running, plyometrics, and strength training. She says, regarding cartilage issues especially, that “motion is the lotion.”
When you and your sculpted butt muscles finally get on the hill, both women warn against pushing yourself to fatigue when there’s such a premium on technique. “Listen to your body—don’t do it if it doesn’t feel right,” says Scholl. She says that introspection can prevent you from pushing it on that one last run, when injuries are most likely to occur. Mehler agrees: “Poor mechanics get 800 times worse when your muscles are fatigued.” She adds sensibly, “There will be more snow.”