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Stay nimble with our foolproof, made-to-order regimen

Feb 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

FORGET BALANCE and agility—I was 27 and I wanted to get huge. Maybe not Schwarzenegger huge, but at least Springsteen huge. Three times a week I'd stretch, head outside for a late-winter run, and then swing by the Y to hit the bench press, the military press, and the leg sled—the machines, in my mind, that make you look good. Sit-ups? Who needed 'em, let alone a bunch of drills with a medicine ball. Sometime thereafter, of course, this one-dimensional regimen took its toll, when a pickup basketball game elicited an ominous ping in my mid-lower back. "It's a strain," the doctor said, as I stood bent like a man who'd spent five straight hours watching NBA games in a recliner. "Strain" is an awfully mild word for six weeks of shooting pain. The kind of pain that left me begging the night-shift ER resident for a refill of Elvis pills.

Now, ten years later, my bad back returns from time to time—as does the wobbly ankle, first turned on an accountant's foot during another hoops game, and the bum knee that went out when I tried to up my running mileage fourfold in four weeks. Nontraumatic sports injuries are embarrassing enough, but somehow I managed to hit the dilettante's trifecta: the two most common injuries—ankle sprain and low back strain—and the most common overuse complaint, kneecap pain. Smirk at your own peril: If you're not training for injury prevention, it's only a matter of time before your vulnerable joints and weak muscles betray you. Moreover, once injured, you'll start paying compound interest on that hurt: Not only is the chance of recurrence high, but the body starts subconsciously compensating for the sore areas, putting new regions at risk.
The old myth was that a good stretch and proper warm-up were all you needed to stay off the sidelines, but today, the smart money for injury prevention is on improving your core strength and balance. "You can stretch to optimize your range of motion around a joint," says Ed Laskowski, codirector of the Mayo Clinic's Sports Medicine Center, "but when it comes to injury prevention, you stand to do more by addressing areas of previous injury—your 'weak links'—and optimizing strength and stability in sport-specific movement patterns."

David Musnick, a Boulder, Colorado, physician who specializes in sports medicine, has translated that theory into practice. Musnick is author of the multifaceted handbook Conditioning for Outdoor Fitness. Helmets and caution, he says, are obviously the first line of defense when it comes to climbing, skiing, and mountain biking, but the best armor against less head-banging injuries on snow, rock, ice, or trail are strength and balance drills that incorporate midsection-based, multiple-joint movements.

"Research shows that injuries tend to occur not because you were inflexible," says Musnick, "but because you didn't have the strength or the balance to do what you were trying to do. To get that, you have to do workouts that build your core and your extremities in motion patterns similar to how you will be using them outdoors. You just can't get that by sitting at a machine and building your muscles one at a time."

Using Musnick as our guide, we've selected eight strength drills that address the movement patterns—what physiologists call engrams—you use to stay upright on the slopes, in your kayak, and on the trail. These exercises mimic the unstable environments and awkward motions you'll encounter outside the gym, and strengthen the tight and weak muscles that get ignored lifting weights. Add these to your thrice-weekly strength routine, or, if you're pressed for time, consider replacing your standard lifts altogether. "People might do these and that's all," says Musnick. "You could also do your whole aerobic workout first, and then finish with these eight exercises." Instead of a rack of disks, you will be working primarily with your own weight, on one or both feet. Will you look a bit odd? Yes. But pretty soon the only real oddball will be that guy at the weight-room curling bench with the sore back, twisted ankle, and show-pony biceps.

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