Ski conditioning: Training for Performance and Injury Prevention

I’ve spent some time recently looking at the causes of injuries in skiing and how to prevent them.

This comes from my time coaching and playing rugby.  Rugby has a very different mentality when it comes to training and conditioning from skiing.  The primary difference is the general acceptance in rugby (at a professional and amateur level) that conditioning and cross-training in preparation for rugby can both improve our performance and cut our susceptibility to injury.  This is at odds with the approach taken to skiing.   Not just by holiday-skiers, but ski professionals including instructors and free skiers.

In rugby it is accepted that fitness and nutrition will prepare you well for rugby and its rigours; that proper body alignment, conditioning and doing exercises which replicate the demands of rugby and strengthen areas of weakness, will improve performance and reduce injury.  In skiing, the standard approach is that the only training that is worthwhile is that done on the mountain, and that a healthy diet is one of chocolate, fondue, vin chaud andjagerbombs!

Strengthening weak-points in our body and priming the muscles to remember the unique dynamic movements of skiing will improve our performance because the body is ready to make those movements and the supporting muscles we don’t use enough in our daily lives are ready for the challenges posed by skiing.  With our body in better positions we are less likely to fall over and injure ourselves.  Also, in better ski posture, we are not putting the knees (in particular) in positions that strain our ligaments leading to pain, gradual damage and eventually severe injury.

With the supporting muscles stronger, fitter and better prepared they will not tire as quickly: one of the major causes of injury is through fatigue and moving into a weaker, more injury-prone position.  Improving our proprioception and the dynamic reactions of our muscles means we will react more quickly to unexpected changes in surface, snow quality, pitch, snow sharks or out of control snow-users cutting us up.  This means we’ll ski better, react better and more effectively, strain our bodies less, fall over less and get injured less.

Whilst I admit that training on the mountain is essential to proper development of form and technique, I do believe that a small amount of training the body to prepare for the demands of skiing will reap huge rewards, as will looking after your body by what you put in it.

The problem I came across is that, unlike rugby, there is very little knowledge out there about what is actually the best way to prepare for skiing.  Most regimes proscribe the Wall Squat:

The Static Wall Squat

The Static Wall Squat

But this exercise is actually BAD for skiing.  It encourages you to statically hold yourself in a position that most of us will recognise as the dreaded “back seat” in skiing: a position you certainly DON’T want to be in.  In this position you are prone to the knee/foot divergence and falling in of the downhill knee which causes nearly all ACL tears in skiing.  The ankle is not flexed, the knees are over-flexed and the bum is far back, so the Centre of Mass is behind the Base of Support.  This leads to bad technique, an inability to initiate the turn and further stress on the knee.  By doing this exercise, you are imprinting the muscles with the memory of this position and encouraging the muscles to hold tension, rather than being dynamic and able to react quickly to the rapidly changing forces of skiing.

Instead, we want exercises that replicate the positions we WANT to be in for good skiing and exercises which promote the dynamic way we move in skiing.

I’ve spent some time working with osteopaths, physiotherapists, big mountain skiers, personal trainers and sports scientists to figure out the unique demands of skiing and how best to prepare the body for this through alignment, strength, power, co-ordination and proprioception.  I’ve been doing these exercises for the last few weeks whilst re-habbing from a knee injury.  I’m back in Verbier this weekend, so we’ll see how well this theory plays itself out, but my knee is already feeling strong again, and I know my balance, proprioception and power have improved significantly in the last two weeks.  Let’s see if that actually makes me a better skier!

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About Ash Bhardwaj

A storyteller, travel writer, journalist and film-maker. I am a regular contributor to Huffington Post, The Telegraph and the Sunday Times Travel Magazine. I spent much of 2013 working on Walking The Nile, Levison Wood's attempt to walk the world's longest river. I founded Digital Dandy, a video storytelling company, in 2012 to produce content for brands and businesses.
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