It's Fun Until Somebody Loosens a Joint

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside Magazine, November 1994

It's Fun Until Somebody Loosens a Joint

When it comes to alpine skiing, your hinges are only as good as the muscles around them
By Dana Sullivan

Maybe it's a good thing that most of us don't ski like Olympians. Nearly every member of the U.S. Ski Team has blown out a knee at least once during his or her career, and nearly half have had a sprained ankle. On the other hand, most of us don't train like Olympians--anything like them--and that can create problems, too. Whereas a ski racer might get hurt only at a clip that exceeds the legal speed limit, a statistically significant number of us will be injured at much saner velocities. In fact, relative to the amount of time we're on our boards, we stand better odds of going down than the racers do.

What are we all risking every time we point our tips downhill? "Most skiing injuries have one thing in common," says Michael Chapman, head of orthopedic surgery at the University of California, Davis, and a former U.S. Ski Team physician. "They're joint injuries."

Now as any salty downhill competitor--or probably any neophyte snowplower--can tell you, joints are where two bones and a lot of cartilage meet. That means there isn't much fortifying that can be done. "There's really nothing you can do to strengthen those areas," says Chapman. "So try regularly stretching to maintain your full range of motion, and build strong muscles to stabilize the joints." The first pointer is easy to understand: You want the surrounding tissue to be as elastic as possible to allow your limbs maximum freedom. The second piece of advice also seems logical, although science hasn't yet proved it: Muscles control the joints they're attached to, and, the theory goes, stronger muscles exert even better control, reducing the chance that your bones will temporarily derail.

If that's not convincing enough to get you into the gym, here's a laboratory-verified reason: Beefed-up muscles do a better job of cushioning the impact that skiing, or any other sport, delivers to your body. "They act like bungee cords to damp the shock," says Jeremy Stern, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts. "And if your muscles don't do the damping, then the bones and joints will."

Stern, an avid skier himself, says you need about ten weeks to prepare your muscles for the season. He says the best exercises are the ones that the U.S. Ski Team uses--ones that make you use your body the way you will when you ski.

Involve All the Right Muscles
For the first six weeks, concentrate on closed kinetic-chain exercises. "The whole 'kinetic chain' concept is based on the idea that our body parts aren't meant to operate independently," explains Stern. "You need to develop a group of muscles that are linked together." As for the "closed" part, that means that the exercises are done with the feet or the hands anchored to terra firma.

A case in point is the squat--a model closed kinetic-chain exercise. "It mostly works your quadriceps, but you must also use your calves, hamstrings, shins, hip flexors, and glutes to complete the exercise," says Stern. "Leg extensions may make your quads really strong, but when do you use just your quads?"

Closed kinetic-chain exercises also stress the joints less than many open kinetic-chain exercises, continues Stern, because all the pressure doesn't center on one area. Do your work on a leg extension machine and you're loading one joint: With all the weight set near your feet and ankles, lifting puts unnecessary strain on your knees. Similar problems can be had with leg curls, abdominal machines, and biceps strengtheners. Instead, a closed kinetic-chain strength-training regimen for skiing should include squats, good mornings, a calf-strengthening exercise, and push-ups (see "The Dry-Land Program of Champions,"). Those will work the muscles around your ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, and back.

Improve with Leaps and Bounds
Where closed kinetic-chain exercises provide you with basic strength, plyometrics give you explosive power and newfound agility. "Plyometrics provide the finishing touches on a skier's preparation," says Melinda Roalstad, assistant director of sports science for the U.S. Ski Team. "What you sacrifice in weights, you more than make up for in intensity."

Basically jumping and bounding exercises that train your muscles to coordinate and contract rapidly, plyometrics give you the strength and reflexes you need to make fast turns and absorb the shocks of skiing on less than even terrain. The exercises don't require any fancy machines, but they do look a little odd. It's like you're skiing without snow, and that's exactly the point. Since plyometrics demand so much up-and-down movement, you'll be prepared for the constant knees-to-chest, knees-to-chest motion that exhausts many a recreational skier.

Which brings us back to the idea of skiing like an Olympian. Most of us still never will, in large part because we're not interested in earmarking 11 months of each year for training and competing. But take a champion's approach for even a fraction of that time and you'll go a long way toward achieving every racer's first goal: Getting to the bottom of the hill in one piece.

Dana Sullivan is a skier and a snowboarder. She frequently contributes to Bodywork.

See also:

The Dry-Land Program of Champions

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