It was the easiest first day of any of my 21 ski seasons in Jackson, Wyoming: two hours on intermediate-level groomed runs at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Still wearing a cast after surgery seven weeks earlier to repaired a shattered wrist, I enjoyed taking it easy. Except the next morning revealed that I hadn’t taken it easy enough: I awoke unable to stand up straight and feeling like an ice pick was embedded in a long-ago herniated disc. I tried massage, acupuncture and physical therapy before resorting to an MRI and a course of steroids. It was almost five weeks before I was able to ski again, and I did so gingerly for the rest of the season.
It wasn’t until after my wrist was healed and I was able to return to my usual physical activities that I realized my mistake: Because of my broken wrist, I had started ski season without doing any of my usual strength training.
“You can’t just expect to come off the couch, or even from yoga, spin classes or running, and ski,” says Crystal Wright, a former U.S. Ski Team member, the winner of the 2012 Freeskiing World Tour and a Jackson, Wyo.-based personal trainer. “Or at least you can’t and really enjoy yourself. At best you’ll be sore and at worst you’ll hurt yourself. Strength training will make your ski vacation more enjoyable.”
If you’ve got a ski vacation planned, here are eight suggestions regarding training and equipment to make your time on the slopes safer and more enjoyable.
1. Pay special attention to your core and glutes.
“Core strength is involved in every part of skiing,” says Sue Kramer, the author of “Be Fit to Ski: The Complete Guide to Alpine Skiing Fitness” and a Professional Ski Instructors of America examiner. Kramer recommends exercises such as planks and bridges before advancing into movements with a rotational component.
“Skiing subjects your core to a lot of rotational forces, so that’s what you want to strengthen,” she says. Rotational core exercises include moves as simple as holding a ski pole with both hands above your head, then twisting at the hip while keeping your feet in place. And then there’s what Kramer calls the “snow angel.”
“Instead of making an angel in the snow, do it on the floor, with your legs and arms just a couple of inches off the ground,” she says. “It sounds easy until you try it.
When it comes to legs, don’t focus only on your quads. Kramer says a quick change of direction on skis will get them to fire, and “without any hamstring strength to counter them, the knee can be pulled out of alignment.” Thirty-two percent of all ski injuries are to the knee, according to the most recent report from the National Ski Areas Association’s 10-Year Interval Injury Study conducted during the 2010-11 season.
Other leg muscles to work on are the gluteus maximus and the gluteus medius. You know the former as your butt. The latter, on the outside of the hip, is often overlooked, although it’s one of the most important for skiers, says Wright. “It both turns the knee outward and holds it in place,” she says. Clamshells — lying on one’s side with legs bent, and raising and lowering the top leg — are the simplest and easiest way to strengthen the gluteus medius. To work your hamstrings, butt and quads, try side and lateral lunges and split and sumo squats.
2. Get your heart rate up for short bursts of time.
“Skiing is an interval sport,” says Bill Fabrocini, who has trained U.S. Ski Team athletes and developed two online ski-fitness video programs. “You make turns for one to three minutes, and then you recover.” Fabrocini’s clients often walk uphill on a treadmill raise to between 3 and 10 degrees for about two minutes; the goal is to work up to about eight two-minute intervals with about two minutes of rest in between. He says how you elevate your heart rate isn’t important as long as you get it up.
3. Work up to impact exercises.
Jumping helps develop your agility, which helps you prepare for the dynamic nature of skiing. But “if you’re not used to impact and you start jumping, you can hurt yourself,” says Fabrocini. When you feel you have a base level of strength and are ready for impact, Fabrocini suggests starting with two-legged jumps (side to side and front to back) and working up to one-legged jumps.
4. Improve your balance with single-leg exercises.
“Good balance helps protect your knees,” Kramer says. “A simple yoga tree pose” — with one sole placed high inside the opposite leg — “is a great place to start.” Once you’re comfortable with that, progress to standing on one foot for a minute (maybe even on a Bosu ball), then to one-legged squats and hops. “If you can convince yourself through these exercises that it’s OK when the ground moves, you’ll have a better-quality ski day and possibly prevent injuries,” Kramer says.
5. Take a lesson, even if you’re a good skier.
“If you’re a beginner, a lesson allows you to benefit from a professional showing and telling you,” says Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs at the National Ski Areas Association, a trade association that represents more than 300 alpine resorts. “Good skiers can think of it as a refresher and also get tips about the mountain from a professional.”
6. Take care of your gear, and get rid of your old-school long skis.
Thirty years ago, the most common ski injury was a mid-shaft fracture of the tibia, but now, because of advances in boots and bindings, it’s very uncommon, according to Jasper Shealy, professor emeritus of industrial and systems engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology who has researched ski injuries for more than 40 years. If this injury happens now, he says, “it’s because of poorly adjusted or maintained equipment.” Have your bindings professionally set, and be honest about your skiing level. While Shealy, and all skiers, are still waiting for a binding shown to reduce the number of knee injuries, he says, “We have seen a fairly significant decline in knee injuries due to shorter skis.” (The jury is still out on KneeBindings, which are designed to pivot, thus protecting skiers’ ACLs. Skiers seem to love or hate them.)
7. Wear a helmet.
Helmets have not reduced the incidence of ski-related fatalities. “You’re going to need more than a helmet if you run into a solid object like a tree,” Shealy says. But they are extremely effective at preventing head injuries. One of Shealy’s studies concluded that, as helmet usage increased between 1995 and 2015, potentially serious head injuries decreased from 4.2 percent of all ski injuries (1995) to 3 percent (2015) of all injuries.
8. Consider spandex support.
Opedix Dual-Tec 2.0 tights have a scary price tag ($225) but a small-sample-size study at the University of Denver’s Human Dynamics Laboratory (HDL) showed they reduce peak torque on a skier’s knees by 16 percent. Mike Decker, the director of the university’s Q Lab and a senior research scientist at HDL during the Opedix study, says the tights were designed to give wearers “knee confidence.” Developed by scientists at the Steadman Philippon Research Institute in Vail, Colorado, Opedix encourages joint alignment with bands of stiff fabric that wrap around the hips and knees.
They’re compression tights on steroids; before trying on a pair I was warned that popping seams is normal. Darrell Latham, 61, who takes three or four ski trips to Utah annually from his home in Oklahoma, ditched his knee brace after discovering Opedix five years ago. “Wearing Opedix feels like cheating,” he says. “I can ski longer when I wear them than when I don’t.” My experience is similar: Now I’d no sooner ski in rental boots than I would ski without Opedix.
If you injure your knee despite your efforts, “don’t be afraid to ask your doctor questions,” says Park City, Utah, orthopedic surgeon Vern Cooley, who estimates he operates on about 1,000 knees a year, including those of Tiger Woods and Olympic gold medal skier Ted Ligety. Cooley suggests five questions to pose to your prospective surgeon:
What does she specialize in? Is it medically advisable to have your injury fixed there and then, or could it be fixed at home? How much will you have to follow up? (Cooley recommends following up with the doctor who does your surgery.) How many (insert your injury here) does the surgeon care for a year? And, finally, how long has the surgeon been in practice?
“Don’t worry about offending a surgeon by asking these,” Cooley says. “This is your body and you only get one.”