Health Blog

Getting Ready for Ski Season?

It is fall once again and I can almost smell snow. As a physical therapist and a skier I love to geek out on movement, anatomy, injuries, and training principles. Fall time is just the right recipe of those loves to help me get ready for the upcoming season. Whether looking for putting in 5 days this season or planning your next week-long hut trip, here are the building blocks to get us all ready for this coming season. These building blocks help prevent injury and maximize our performance to continue to stay on the hill on those special incredible snow days when you want to ride from the time the slopes open to close.

The building blocks may surprise you. This year’s best ski might make you look good but the foundations to good skiing include more than just equipment. How we move and our ability to create movement will drive our success further and is a necessary step prior to even our strength and conditioning practices and allows for improvement in our technique. Here are the four building blocks for you to consider for your upcoming season. Build upon each of these and you are looking at a great season!

Equipment: Great skiing comes from the Boot!
The goal of a good boot fit is to allow for foot comfort, good boot cuff contact with the shin, and the right amount of ankle flex to allow a skier to be able to control the ski well.

The starting point of a good boot fit starts with alignment of the lower leg. The basic terms stance or alignment refer to the position of the body that allows the bones and muscles to be stacked over one’s base of support; the knee aligned over the ankle and the hip over the knee. The process of a personalized boot fit does a number of things for the skier. It can help to control lateral alignment of the lower leg and fore/aft alignment for optimal mechanics at the lower leg and maximize ankle motion. Further boot fitting can help those to reach a comfortable fit in a boot – a few examples include creating extra toe room or creating a better ability to lock the heel into place. Custom boot inserts can also greatly improve boot fit and comfort.

Alignment fixes the bones and starts the skier from a good platform. Knock-kneed skiers provide a typical example for lateral alignment changes. In this example a boot fitter would need to make an adjustment towards the medial or inside portion of the boot/binding to build up the surface enough that the knee will align over the ankle.

Functional Movement: How we move, how much do we move, and how controlled is that motion!
A boot alignment will improve a person’s static alignment while skiing, but will not address dynamic alignment or dynamic movement. Sliding well requires that we continue to make small adjustments in our stance, position, and movement to continue to maintain our balance over those forever forward slipping boards. This brings us to our second and most important building block to ski performance.

Anne ski pic

Anne and her husband on the slopes.

Let’s continue to use our example of our knock-kneed skier. Proper boot alignment will well stack the lower extremity but our ability to control the lower extremity during movement is maintained by the muscles that rotate the hip. The hip can create a knock-kneed position if either too stiff or too weak. The hip is the steering wheel for the entire lower extremity. Weakness in the hip will cause the knee to collapse inward, creating a knock-knee position regardless of foot position.

This concept is no different than when applied to runners in my practice. Providing an orthotic to neutralize a runner’s foot position may improve how the foot hits the ground, but ultimately will not improve how they run. Like a runner’s orthotic, a boot alignment will provide a great static platform for alignment, but will not change how the muscle functions around a skier’s stance or the habitual movement learned.

Determining which specific movements an individual lacks is key to better ski performance and injury prevention. Our ability to ski efficiently comes from our ability to:

  1. Create effective balance and stance thru flexing activities from the ankles, knees, hips, and spine.
  2. Create effective edging movement, which require movements at the ankle to tip a ski and engage and release the edges.
  3. Create effective rotary movements primarily from the hip to redirect the skis in a turn and creating a counter rotation of the trunk.
  4. Create effective pressure control along the length of the ski by controlling the motion at all joints to allow for smooth and even flow over changing terrain.

Skiing is a whole body movement and requires that all joints are able to provide adequate movement and stability. If one’s hip is stiff and does not allow for full rotation, then the completion of a turn is inadequate or requires extra movement from the trunk creating inefficient movement and greater risk for injury. As another example, the ability to create motion thru the trunk, especially the spine in and out of a flexed position and rotation of the trunk in the opposite direction that our hip is traveling in a turn is paramount to speed control and preparation for the next upcoming turn. If lacking the ability to rotate through the thoracic spine and rib cage, then speed control is ineffective and balance and stance will be impaired likely at the end phase of a turn.

Physical Therapists at MTI Physical Therapy are body mechanic wizards and can help to decode movement impairments that would impede the ability to effectively slide.

A functional assessment of the body’s movements as a unit can be utilized to address movement impairments as a starting point to help those prepare and focus their strength and conditioning goals. “Without the integrity of the functional movement block, the blocks for fitness, techniques, and tactics will soon break down due to fatigue or injury.” (Chris Fellows, Total Skiing, NASTC, Lake Tahoe).

Strength & Conditioning: Power for Slaying Cascade Concrete and Endurance to Limit Fatigue!
As in all high-level sports, our over all conditioning level always improves performance, reduces risk of injury and increases fun! This leads us to our third building block. Injury research from data collected by the national ski patrol association demonstrates that injury rates correlate with fatigue, with the most likely time of injury occurring just before lunch and just before the end of the day. An exercise routine, which includes a mix of cardiovascular fitness, lower extremity strength training and plyometric strengthening, will help to prepare for ski season. September, October, and November can be utilized in preparation for the upcoming season. Seek out a local boot camp class, or ski conditioning class for those looking for group camaraderie. You can also use an online resource, such as www.peakfitnessnw.com, which provides a download-able 12 week ski-specific athletic conditioning workout to be performed at home written by Jenn Lockwood, a physical trainer and top ski instructor at Mt. Hood Meadows.

Technique: Get a Lesson!
The last building block to great skiing is the development of technique. This building block also comes from injury research statistics. NSP (National ski patrol) data demonstrated that injury rates decline with improved skill level. Most individuals start out with a beginning lesson to get started but don’t seek out lessons beyond. Skiing is a highly technical sport and we are lucky enough here in the NW to have great resources for intermediate and advanced lessons from some of the best ski instructors in the country. Seek out a lesson from a Level II or Level III PSIA trained professional from the ski school at your local mountain. This individual will be able to help tweak your technique to assist with that last building block to success this season!

Here’s to a great season! Think snow!

Anne HealzerAnne Healzer, PT, DPT, FAAOMPT
Physical Therapist
MTI Physical Therapy – Fremont

Anne is a physical therapist and the manager at our Fremont clinic and provides functional assessments, boot fitting references and exercise progressions to skiers. She is able to help assess the needs of skiers thru her assessment skills and her background as a ski instructor. Anne is a Level III PSIA trained instructor at Mission Ridge in Wenatchee, WA. Anne also has expertise in boot fitting assessments and has developed relationships with regional shops to help address these needs with her clientele.
For more info regarding Anne’s expertise and more content on this topic, check out her recent article “When to Align it and When to Muscle it” in the PSIA – NW Fall newsletter at www.psia-nw.org.