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1st Feb


How to Train for the Ski Season at Any Age

Now that we are in the middle of winter, it is appropriate to talk about training for winter sports such as alpine, or downhill skiing, even here in Southern California. This year there is already an above average snow pack in the Sierras, and even in Big Bear.

It is true that skiing is physically demanding, and beyond what is possible for many as we age, in particular if we did not take up this sport earlier in life and have kept it up. However, for others, even for those who have fairly advanced arthritis in the spine, or hips and knees, it remains a favored activity put on our schedules every year. If modified, it is also allowed for people after hip and knee replacement surgery.

The key to enabling us to do this, is plenty of physical preparation, through appropriate training for at least 3-4 months, if not year long. The training should be based on the nature of the sport, and be sports specific, and also take into account any physical limitations or conditions that we may have.

Whereas ski magazines show ski exercises such as plyometrics with jumping from boxes and aggressive lunges, these exercises are excellent for the younger and fit population, if not done more than twice a week. For the rest of us, this would be a sure way to end our “skiing careers”, as joint cartilages and tendons would protest, and wear down quicker.

However, we do need dynamic training, i.e. with motion, and not the well known isometric “wall squat”, where you lean against the wall and hold a squat until the thighs burn. This is not sports specific and not how the muscles work when we ski. Much better, if the joints can tolerate it without pain or swelling, do one legged, or easier- weight on both legs, squats with small movements up and down and side to side like in skiing, with the upper body slightly bent forward and kept still, and arms up and out a bit, to simulate pole action. Twenty to 30 repetitions would typically create some fatigue and muscle burn. If too easy, bend deeper or hold the movements longer, or hold onto weights.

It is also very important to engage and train the large buttock muscles, the gluteals, and the core muscles- both the back muscles and the deep abdominals. The best way to get both the gluteals and back muscles working in a ski specific way, is to combine some degree of of squatting with a forward tilt of the trunk. In such a position, we can either tip the trunk forward and back up to a straight position, in repetitions, with or without holding onto a weight, or we can hold the forward leaning position and work our triceps and latissimus (needed during pushing skiing action) by extending our arm or elbow backwards while holding onto a weight. Fifteen to 20 repetitions to fatigue, is a good dosage for most.

Skiing, like most activities in life, also requires rotational movements, and coordination and strength of core muscles. A good ski specific way to do this, is to use a pulley or cable machine, facing it with the pulley set at hip or stomach height and a strap around our shoulder, and in a squatted position turn the slightly forward tilted trunk, without turning the hips. Many of you may recognize this exercise from your back rehabilitation program. And yes, the back needs to be strong for skiing. If you then raise the pulley to your shoulder height and face away from the pulley while holding onto a handle, you can engage the deep abdominal muscles as you again turn the trunk.

A bit more advanced for those who can coordinate it, an excellent ski exercise with the pulley or cable, would be to combine the motion in a diagonal fashion from a squat to a stand up position, or vice versa, while pulling a lighter weight and rotating the hips and trunk. Think squatting while bending and twisting to pick up a rock and throwing it over the fence as you stand up and the body turns (as in a normal throwing motion), or using a sledge hammer or ax (which probably many of us have never done). If you have never attempted this, don’t try it without proper coaching.

Traditional core exercises such as modified sit-ups (with rotation), planks and push-ups are still OK and helpful, for additional conditioning. So are lunges, as long as your body can tolerate it, but go easy and progress carefully. More specific is side to side lunges, while rotating and bending the trunk as we do when turning the upper body towards the fall line on steeper slopes. Again, learning proper technique is a key to effective and safe training.

Younger and accomplished skiers usually incorporate more intense strengthening, such as squats with barbells, and other heavy weight training, as well as mentioned plyometric exercise. However, for us aging mortals, this is not a smart approach, if we want to keep on skiing for years. Personally, I also add almost daily stationary bicycle training with minimal resistance, for 15-20 minutes, to lubricate arthritic knee and hip joints. This is a very important part of the regimen, to feed nutrients and lubricants to our joint cartilage, and preserve the joints for the future. However, if we also do high impact exercises, such as jumping, plyometrics, or even running in older age, we will wear down the joints quicker, regardless of other training.

So, to be able to keep up skiing until older age and enjoy the beautiful outdoors this way, the key is to build sufficient strength and endurance of the main muscles that we use, with good coordination in a ski specific fashion, without causing pain or joint swelling, and preferably adding joint lubrication exercise (for us older folks). We need to do resistance work 2-3 times per week, and joint protection exercise more often, preferably daily.

I have not mentioned cardiorespiratory training, but that should be a part of everyone’s program as well, at least twice a week. Examples of ski specific cardio exercises are Skier’s Edge, Nordictrack skier, elliptical machine and cycling. Hiking and surfing are also a great training forms. Much has been written about high intensity interval training, for no more than 10-15 minutes 2-3 times a week producing excellent cardiovascular fitness, often superior to 45-60 minutes of low to moderate intensity exercise. This is true, but it can also put too much load on aging joints and tendons if not done right, so it should only be incorporated by those who can tolerate it, and always wisely. People with cardiovascular disease should not do high intensity interval training without medical clearance, and supervision.

Well, that was quite a lot of information, and although somewhat vague, I hope it can give some of you ideas, and motivate you to hit the slopes, or at least enjoy the outdoors and a healthy life. The goals of the program are to prevent injuries, ski better, promote good health and enhance quality and enjoyment of life.

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