Stretching. We all know we should do it, but the call of the couch, hot tub, or bar can be overpowering after a long day on the slopes. “Ideally, everyone could get home and get after it immediately,” says Nicole Haas, a physical therapist based in Boulder, Colorado. “But après always seems to get in the way.”
Haas, an athlete herself, understands this challenge. “My M.O. is to create triage versions of mobility exercises so people can do them on the fly,” she says. “I have programs that are, like, here is the stretch you should really be doing, and here’s the standing-at-the-bar or before-you-get-in-your-car version.” We reached out to Haas to get the lowdown on the best stretches for skiers, boots on or off. For the dawn patrollers out there, many of these can be done at a standing desk as well, so you can loosen up while you check your email.
“It’s really important for people to undo the tightness they build up during activity, so they have the mobility to use proper movement patterns and avoid injury,” says Haas. Beyond helping relieve tension and improving your range of motion, a good stretch can improve blood flow, which helps speed up recovery and ease soreness.
These moves target the main muscles you use while skiing—the quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, hip adductors and rotators, and back—but they’re not limited to alpine skiers. Many winter sports, like cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and ice climbing, involve the same muscle groups, says Haas, so these are worth doing no matter how you play in the snow.
Do these moves at least once daily to stay loose and again after you ski hard. Foam-roll first. For the static stretches, hold each for 30 seconds. For the dynamic stretches, start easy and gradually increase the tension. Continue repetitions of short holds (a few seconds) until you feel the muscles release—this could take anywhere from 5 to 25 reps.
With any type of mobility work, the key is to ease into it. “When you’re finding tension or a stretch, if you’re pushing so hard into it that it hurts, it’s going to set off the fight-or-flight response in the brain,” says Haas, “and then your muscles are going to tighten up around that discomfort and pain in an effort to protect that area.” If you cannot breathe, or if you feel pain, back off.
What it does: Myofascial release, also known as rolling out, flushes tension in muscles and connective tissue to improve mobility and reduce inflammation created during exercise, which can also lead to a faster recovery.
Ideal version: At home or the hotel, take off your ski boots, and strip down to your base layers. Use a massage ball or a lacrosse ball to hit the soles of your feet, then use a myofascial-release tool, such as a massage stick or foam roller, to roll out your legs. Start with your calves, then work your way up the kinetic chain, making sure to target the hamstrings, glutes, quads, and hip flexors. Avoid rolling over bony protrusions. Start gentle, and as the tension eases, gradually increase the pressure. This should feel good, not painful. Spend a couple of minutes on each leg. If one area is overly tight, focus more time, but not force, on that particular section.
Après version: Use a ski pole (over ski pants, for glide) to roll out your legs, as described above. Try to avoid stabbing people.
If you’re pressed on time, at the very least, roll out to flush tension from your legs before jumping back in the car or hitting the bar, says Haas, then do the stretches once you get home.
What it does: Targets the quads and hip flexors with a static stretch.
Ideal version: Stand directly in front of a couch, facing away from it. Plant one foot on the floor and the opposite knee in the crease between the bottom and back cushions, with your shin vertical and against the back of the couch. Keep your hips square and level and your back straight. Engage your glutes, press your hips forward, and stand tall (without arching your back) to ease into the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds to one minute, then repeat on the other side.
While many do this stretch against a wall or from the floor, Haas prefers the elevated version. If people have tight hip flexors or low hip mobility (a common complaint among skiers and weekend warriors who are otherwise deskbound), they will compensate during the wall or standing variations by arching their low backs. “Which means they’re not targeting the right muscles anyway, and they’re also putting more force on a potentially sore back,” she says. The elevated position allows a split stance and is friendlier to those with stiff hips.
Après version: Do the stretch as described above, using a picnic table or bench. (Just move the margaritas out of the way first.) Use a glove to pad the bench. Stand with your back to the bench, then lift your knee and position it on the glove, with the top of your boot on the table or the back of the bench. Keep your hips square and level and your back straight. Ease into the stretch by engaging your glutes and pressing your hips forward, all with an upright, neutral spine. Hold for 30 seconds to one minute, then repeat on the other side.
Dynamic Skier’s Stretch
What it does: Targets the hamstrings and hip flexors through a dynamic stretch.
Ideal version: This one you can do at home, in the lodge, or on the snow. Start in a lunge position, with your right foot forward and your hands on the ground on each side of that foot. Keep your hips square and level and your back straight. Engage your glutes, and push through the front of your hips to stretch your left hip flexors. Pause for a few seconds. Then extend your right knee and lift your butt to stretch your right hamstring. Keep your chin and chest high. Hold for a few seconds, then sink back into the lunge to target the hip flexors again. Continue shifting back and forth until you feel the muscles release (this could take up to 25 repetitions). Switch sides and repeat.
You can do the stretch with your back knee in the air or on the ground. The latter method is easier for balance and requires less hip mobility, but it places more pressure on the knee. Choose the variation that best suits your body.
Après version: You can also do this stretch while standing at a bar, table, or even a truck bed. Place your hands on the edge of the elevated surface, and enter a split stance, with your right foot forward. Keep a bend in your left knee, and straighten the right knee. Then shift your hips backward and up to stretch your right hamstring. (If your calves are overly tight, slightly bend your front knee to better target the hamstrings.) Next, push your hips forward, and squeeze your glutes to stretch the left hip flexors. (Again, if your calves are tight, lift your back heel to better target the hip flexors.) Keep your back straight and your torso upright. You might need to lean on your elbows to get deeper into the stretch. Continue shifting back and forth between the two stretches until you feel the muscles release. Switch sides and repeat.
What it does: Targets the calf muscles and increases ankle mobility.
Ideal version: With your boots off, place the ball of your foot on the edge of a step, and lower your heel to gently sink into a calf stretch. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other leg.
Après version: Even with ski boots on, you can stretch your calves. Either drop your heel off the edge of a step, as described above, or find a railing, curb, or any object that allows you to elevate your toes. You could even kick a trough in the snow.
Sleeping Snow Snake (Posterior Hip Stretch)
What it does: Targets the glutes and hip rotators on the back side of the hip—important yet often overlooked muscles used to turn your skis and find balance on the snow.
Ideal version: Get into a tabletop position on the floor or snow. Slide one knee forward, and pivot your foot to the inside so that the outside of your shin is flat on the ground. Slide the other leg backward, and straighten its knee to lower your hips. Bring the heel of your front foot into the opposite hip. Keep your hips square and level and your back straight. Then continue to press your hips forward and lower your torso (without rounding your spine) to gently sink deeper into the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Après version: Stand in front of a table, and lift your leg onto the tabletop. Keep the outside of your shin flat on the surface, and pull your heel into your opposite hip so your knee is bent as far as possible. Then, without rounding your lower back, hinge forward at the hips and reach forward with your hands to ease into the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
You can do a more discreet (and gentler) variation while seated: sit upright on a bench or a chair. Cross your left ankle over your right knee, and pull the left heel in toward your right hip. Interlace your fingers in front of your right knee, and gently pull toward your chest. Keep your chest high and your back flat, and hinge forward at the hips to increase the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Ninety Ninety Seated Spinal Twist
What it does: Improves mobility in the hips and trunk, stretches the lower back, and opens the chest through a dynamic stretch.
Ideal version: Sit on the floor or snow, with your right leg bent in front of you and the left leg bent to the outside. Your lower legs should both be flat on the ground, and both knees should be bent to 90 degrees and pointing the same direction (this places one hip in internal rotation, one in external rotation, and pins them in place to isolate the spinal twist). Plant your right hand to the side, and ground down through that hand to establish length in your spine. Hold your chest high, and raise your left hand into the air to open your chest, then reach down and through your planted arm to twist your torso and stretch your back. Pause for a few seconds, then reverse the movement. Continue until you feel the muscles release, then repeat on the other side.
If you don’t have the hip mobility to get into the position above, or if you experience any knee pain, try a supine spinal twist instead. Lie on your right side, with your legs stacked and your hips and knees both bent to 90 degrees. Use your right arm to hold your knees down and prevent your hips from moving. Then raise your left arm straight into the air, and slowly lower it out to the left side to gently rotate your upper spine. Breathe deep, and let gravity pull you deeper into the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
What it does: Targets the hip adductors (muscles along the inner thigh).
Ideal version: Stand tall with your feet apart and toes pointed forward. Keep one leg straight, then bend the opposite knee as you shift your weight to that side. Hinge forward slightly at the hips to better target the adductor magnus, a large hip-adductor muscle. Gradually, sink lower to ease into the stretch. You should feel this on the inner thigh of the straight leg. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.