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Work Up a Sweat Before Hitting the Slopes

By Karen Uhlenhuth - Wilkes-Barre Times Leader

If you're thinking about alpine skiing this winter, think Jell-O.

Not eating it, necessarily, but exercising until your muscles quiver like it. To adequately get your body ready for the rigors of zigzagging down the slopes, it's necessary to work out until "you feel like you have Jell-O legs," said Robert Hunter, a clinical professor at the University of Colorado Medical School.

"That means you've fatigued the muscle and taken it past the comfortable envelope."

Downhill skiing results in plenty of broken bones and torn ligaments under even the best of circumstances. Robert Johnson estimates the toll at 250,000 annually, or 2.5 such injuries per 1,000 skier days. Johnson is a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Vermont in Burlington who has researched the frequency and nature of alpine skiing accidents.

Most often afflicted are those who buckle on ski boots without having prepared their bodies.

Even the most dedicated gym rats probably need to take some steps geared specifically toward the unique wear and tear that results from zigging and zagging down mountainsides at high speed.

"If you're in great shape as a biker, if you then go skiing, you're gonna get hurt, because you use your muscles differently," Johnson said. "If you condition by hiking up mountains, and you can do it with great ease, the second you ski or run downhill you'll ache. The act of going down is quite different from going up."

Sliding down a slick mountainside at 30 miles per hour is a little crazy on its face. But several other factors enhance the innately injurious nature of the sport.

"A lot of people discount the vigorous nature of downhill skiing," said William O. Roberts, a family physician in White Bear Lake, Minn., and a vice president with the American College of Sports Medicine.

Many people tend to keep skiing after they're worn out, he said, and skiing while fatigued means slower reactions and less muscle strength to keep a minor slip from morphing into a bone-shattering mishap.

In addition, Roberts said, the introduction a few years back of shorter, parabolic-shaped skis — narrower at the bindings, wider at the tips — can lull skiers into overestimating their abilities.

With parabolic skis, "a lot of people advance very rapidly," he said. "It's very easy to overski your ability."

Changes in the design of boots and bindings also have changed the nature of ski injuries. For many years ankles and tibia bones, those that run the length of the calf, took the brunt of the damage.

Those injuries have been dramatically reduced at the same time that injuries to the knee — and particularly the anterior cruciate ligament — have grown exponentially. The anterior cruciate ligament connects the shin and thigh bones.

In the last 15 years those injuries have increased by about 200 percent, Hunter said.

"That's epidemic," he said.

That said, here's a rundown on the types of exercises you should be doing a few weeks before you head for the mountains:

Cardiovascular fitness is central to all-around fitness — and even more critical for downhill skiing.

"What people sometimes forget is ... skiing is something you do at 6,000 feet," Hunter said. "You have to get your heart and lungs in shape so you don't pant when you get here."

Endurance is a prerequisite for emerging unscathed from a full day on the slopes.

"It's been shown that more injuries occur when you are fatigued," said Janice Loudon, a physical therapist at KU Med.

She recommends an overall cardiovascular conditioning exercise three to five times weekly, for 30 minutes each session. Particularly useful for skiers because they stress the lower body, she said, are the stationary bicycle, the stair-climbing machine, the treadmill and the elliptical trainer.

Building and strengthening the major muscle groups is another critical piece of pre-ski conditioning. The legs, of course, need the most attention. And in particular, Loudon said, the quadriceps, the muscles of the front of the thigh, need to be strengthened, because they keep the knees from slip-sliding around.

Loudon suggests weightlifting that stresses the quads, or "wall sits," in which you put your back against a wall, then lower yourself as if to sit on a chair, stop midway, hold 30 seconds, then raise yourself back up.

The key to doing them without hurting your knees, she said, is to keep your knees behind your feet.

She also suggests doing calf raises. Weight machines help with this task, but they aren't a prerequisite. All it really takes is a stair step. Stand with your heels hanging over the edge of the step. Raise your feet until you're standing on your toes. Remain there for a few seconds. Then lower yourself until your heel is even with the step, or perhaps a bit below. Hold it for a few seconds. Then repeat.

You also can beef up your calves as you walk. Simply end each step by raising yourself up onto your toes and staying there for a few seconds.

Something a bit more "dynamic" like a lateral jump would also be helpful, Loudon said. Draw or focus on a line on the floor. Stand on the right side of the line with your feet parallel to the line. Then jump sideways over to the left side of the line. Then jump back over to the right. Repeat for 30 seconds, progressing by five seconds each session, up to a minute or two.

The constant turning involved in downhill skiing requires a lot of lateral motions at your knees. Lateral jumps get those muscles used to loading and unloading, Loudon said.

Hunter recommends doing strengthening exercises, such as those outlined above, no more than two or three times a week — especially if you're older.

Done correctly, strengthening exercises do "a little microscopic damage" to the muscles, which the body then heals. The process makes you stronger.

"But you need some recovery time," Hunter said. "The best approach is to take a day on, a day off. If you do it every day, over time the muscles begin breaking themselves down."

Hunter also suggests stretching — every day, if you're to make any progress. A yoga routine works. Alternatively, stretch the quadriceps, the hamstring muscles in the back of the thighs, calves and back.

The right approach to stretching is slow and methodical. Hunter said many people make the mistake of bouncing as they stretch, something that can hurt rather than help.

And hurt, after all, is what we're trying to prevent here.

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