Today the New York Times reported that Swiss ski phenom Lara Gut will miss the Olympics due to a hip injury sustained in a crash in October. Whenever I hear news like that, I feel a sharp pang of sympathy. In the past few years I have been plagued with injuries, and each is parts maddening, frustrating and identity-crushing. It must only be magnified dozens of times for a pro.
Of course, I am not a professional athlete, and my injuries tend to be related to overuse and inflammation rather than trauma. But that means that they are probably more preventable, which also means I need to get my head out of my ass and figure out how to prevent them.
So during these humble struggles with a lower back misalignment, calf tear, hip bursitis, and knee tendinitis, I have collected a few glimmers of preventative wisdom that I hope will keep me doing the sports I most love: nordic and backcountry skiing, running, hiking, and biking. Here's a little of what I've gleaned, and at the moment I am blissfully injury-free. If any of you mysterious and silent blog readers want to chime in with your brilliant advice, I'm all ears.
1. Hip Openers
Holy tight hips, man! I learned from a fascial-release therapist in Durango that there's a big, fat mess of ligaments, muscles, bones, and tendons that connect throughout your hips, pelvis, and lower back. If one part gets tight, it can pull on other parts and cause a domino effect of pain.
This is why the secret to your lower back pain might be stretching out those hamstrings. I also learned that it's not that hard to keep that mess of stuff going on in the pelvis area in fine working order. I regularly do a bunch of hip-opening yoga poses, like happy baby (lie on back, bend knees, grab feet from outside, pull down) and pigeon (one knee bent with foot under groin, the other stretched behind, bring head to floor). And I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but getting your glutes massaged every now and then does wonders. Yes, I mean butt rubs.
2. Strength Training, Especially the Backside
I'd rather eat dog poop than lift weights at the gym regularly, so I made a compromise with myself. Twice a week, I go to these ass-kicking pilates classes that are so hard, fast, and varied they go by really quickly. It means I'm sore like 30% of the time, but I'm getting a lot stronger and so far no more injuries! (Fingers crossed.)
Also, I recently chatted up a guy named Ernie Rimer, an athletic trainer who conditions the U.S. women's ski team. He said one thing people often forget is strengthening the backside muscles. "Most of the things we do in normal daily life promote quad dominants," he said. To support your joints, you have to balance out the muscles on both sides. Sounds simple, right? And still most of us have overblown quads and wimpy hamstrings. Rimer suggests Romanian deadlifts. A good beginner hamstring strengthener I found is to lie on your back, then bend your knees and stick your feet on top of a balance ball. With your hands behind your head, use your legs to roll the balance ball to your butt and then back out again. It's harder than it sounds.
3. Brain Training
I can be a real dumbass when it comes to taking care of my body. Because I always want to run that extra mile or ski that extra lap, I often ignore the warning signs of a lurking injury. With the help of some concerted effort and regular yoga, I've become better at tuning in to my body AND paying attention to what it's telling me. I've come to realize that, weirdly, my body is pretty communicative when it comes to its needs. That sometimes means I feel like a pansy, but so far giving my body what it craves, whether its doing an extra couple of hill sprints or canning the last ski lap, seems to pay off in sustained strength, stamina, and resilience.