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
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
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
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
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
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
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