Are you ready for ski season?

After a shortened ski season last year, hopefully we can get back to a full season this year.  While some things on the slopes will most definitely be different this year, some things must remain the same if you want to have a great season.   I’m talking about your preseason ski conditioning.  This article originally published a couple years ago is a good reminder our ski conditioning program needs to go beyond strengthening.  Focusing on fine tuning your balance and coordination by providing some modifications to common exercises can go a long way in your preparation for the upcoming season.

Better your Balance

Balance training is a popular tool used to train elite skiers and athletes alike.  However, understanding how our body maintains balance can provide valuable insight into how we can best improve it.  Essentially, balance involves a cooperative effort from three ‘systems’: proprioception, vision, and the vestibular system.  Most of us understand vision and the use of this information to understand where we are in space and to coordinate movement. The vestibular system resides primarily in the inner ear and works almost as a level (like the ones used in construction) providing information to the brain regarding where our head and trunk are in relation to our surroundings.  Simply put, proprioception is the communication between our muscles and our brain, ultimately helping to determine location of the body and/or limbs. While all of these systems are important, we are going to focus primarily on proprioception. Researchers have proven that proprioceptive training can reduce the risk of injury in athletes. In the world of physical therapy, we’ve known for some time that this communication network becomes impaired (and can often remain impaired) following injury.  We actually lose receptors at the site of injury and communication between the injured area and the brain is slowed. As a result, we begin to rely more heavily on visual information to orient ourselves and that injured part of the body during movement. If you’ve ever injured yourself and gone to a physical therapist or spent time with a personal trainer, they’ve probably had you use a mirror to help you ‘keep your knee straight’ or maintain proper posture throughout a movement. This can be useful early on in rehab to retrain proprioception; however, newer research states prolonged use of these tactics can further contribute to greater reliance on vision.  The problem is, in most sports, especially in skiing and snowboarding, we cannot always rely on visual feedback as we have to track our path and other obstacles while on the mountain (we can’t look at our knees to see if we’re maintaining proper position). Without training proprioception, our response times to inevitable, quick changes on the slopes may be slower or less accurate, potentially putting us at higher risk for injury. Researchers actually believe this over-reliance may be one factor explaining a high re-injury rate following ACL tear and reconstructive surgery. So, in rehabilitation of injury, or in injury prevention, it’s vital to wean ourselves away from this visual dominance.

So how do we train proprioception?  Simply put, obscure your vision during exercise.  Two easy ways to incorporate this into your training program are with head turns and by simply closing your eyes during balance and single leg strength training.  By reducing reliance on visual input, we train the proprioceptive system to coordinate quicker and more accurate responses to maintain balance. Take a look at the video below for exercises to train this.   

Train in your Boots

Single leg balance training with head turns and eyes closed can train proprioception, but things will inevitably be different when we are in our ski gear.  Single leg training (barefoot), will challenge ankle and foot proprioception greatly and you will see this as your ankle wobbles and struggles to maintain balance.  This is still very useful training, however, ski boots greatly restrict movement at the ankle, which will change how our proprioceptive system functions on the slopes.  With less movement and input from the ankle joint, the brain will rely more heavily on information from the knees and hips to coordinate movement and maintain balance. As discussed in the video below, we can improve this by simply training in our ski or snowboard boots to more specifically challenge the body under these conditions.  In addition, such training will also vary the load on muscles and joints throughout the legs (due to less ankle movement) which can better strengthen muscles and ligaments to withstand the forces encountered on the mountain.

In summary, building lower body strength, power, and endurance are key components to any preseason ski training program to both improve performance and reduce risk of injury on the slopes.  Through efficient balance training, specifically by reducing reliance on vision, we set ourselves up to respond faster and more accurately to the ever-changing conditions on the mountain. Lastly, don’t be afraid to train in your ski or snowboard boots.  In addition to making a fashion statement, doing so will change how the brain receives and interprets information regarding balance and movement while stressing muscles and ligaments more similarly to what you’ll face while skiing or snowboarding. If you incorporate these concepts into your training, you’ll set yourself up for your best ski season yet.  Stay safe, have fun, and we’ll see you on the slopes!

Dr. Eric Leeseberg is a physical therapist at Colorado In Motion

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