The exhilaration of soaring down a mountainside over a blanket of sparkling white snow, surrounded by pristine evergreens and an endless blue sky inspires millions of people to ski every year. It’s no small reward for countless hours spent in the car, in lift lines, and on bristling cold lift rides to the top of the mountain.
In the Colorado Rockies, where I live, I have cross-trained skiers with Pilates from October to March for the past seven years. My sessions often start with snow reports, gear reviews, and tales of anticipated heli trips and back-country hut adventures. I’ve worked with all kinds of skiers, from strictly downhill resort skiers to purist tele-skiers (who make use of a style of cross country ski that leaves the heel free). Whether they prefer groomers, moguls, or powder, they all want to be in top form for skiing. Many of my skiing clients can only make time for Pilates workouts midweek because of their weekend skiing excursions. They might range in age, fitness level or ski preference, but they train with me religiously every winter for the same reasons: to get strong, stay injury free, and enjoy winter fun in the mountains. A client with a goal is a motivated client, and skiers are both. Pilates is an excellent way to keep skiers fit and coming back to your studio season after season.
Pilates and Fall Line Fitness
If you made a snow ball and let it roll down the side of a mountain, the path it rolls down is called the fall line. To ski the fall line with finesse and control requires flowing motion, rhythm, and precision. This agility on the slopes is what I call “Fall Line Fitness.” A strong core, muscle balance, and flexibility are essential elements of Fall Line Fitness. You do not have to be a ski instructor to make a direct impact on your client’s ski fitness. However, you do have to be an alignment specialist skilled at teaching high quality movement.
When I work with a skiing client, whether in a group setting or one-on-one, I never lose site of the fact that I am working with an athlete, with someone who wants a workout. Relating exercises back to skiing and keeping the intensity of the workout up are great ways to hold skiers’ interest. I also work to improve my skiers’ stamina and endurance along with their core strength, muscle balance, and flexibility. After all, Pilates can help increase a skier’s longevity for years to come. Below I’ve included three of my favorite apparatus exercises to help boost your client’s Fall Line Fitness. A complete ski conditioning Pilates mat routine is also available in my book, Pilates for the Outdoor Athlete.
Organizing Movement From the Center Out
Pilates helps a skier to organize his or her movement from the center out. The result is a stronger and more adaptable skier with improved body awareness and proprioception. By practicing Pilates, our client develops a strong core, improved balance, and agility. With the additional core strength, the skier can improve his or her edging and transfer a powerful line of energy into the skis. A strong core, coupled with improved alignment, will also reduce impact on a skier’s back, hips, and knees. As a result, our skier becomes energy efficient and reduces wear and tear on his or her joints. Once this has happened the possibilities for your client to become an infinitely stronger and skilled skier are endless.
Stacking Your Bones for Skiing
In all sports, good movement begins with optimal alignment. In skiing, good alignment helps a skier apply pressure through his feet to turn while maintaining a quiet torso, thereby improving balance, agility, and breathing. A stance that is too low, leaned back, or bent at the waist will thwart a skier’s efforts to ski well. Instead of gliding down the slope with control and ease, the skier works hard to avoid being taken for a ride by his or her skis. Not only is energy wasted in an overly low or leaned back stance, a poor stance places unnecessary wear and tear the back, hips and knees.
Good skiing alignment begins with what skiers refer to as a tall stance over the arch and ball of the foot. Make sure the torso is upright while the ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders are stacked over the center of your boards. Then slightly flex the knees, and make sure there’s even weight from right to left. The angle of the femur bone should be parallel with the slope of the ski run. The shoulders should be soft thereby allowing the jaw and neck to be at ease, and the arms should be bent with elbows wider than shoulders, and with the hands inside of the elbows.
Skiing in the Back Seat
A skier’s ability to flow with gravity along the fall line of a slope is influenced by his confidence, skill, and fitness. Skiing, like other saggital/forward plane movements such as walking and running, requires leading from the heart, not the hips. Fear and or lack of confidence can force a skier into a posture commonly referred to as “sitting in the back seat.” In this posture, the hips are well behind the heels and the pelvis tucked under. Instead of aligning his femur bones to the gradient of the slope, the skier looks as though he were reclining on a chair. Controlling one’s skis, absorbing vibration and maintaining agility in changing terrain is challenged in this stance. Sitting the backseat inhibits breathing, shortens the abdominals, and adds additional stress to the spine, hips and knees. Using Pilates we can help our clients to develop the core strength, flexibility, and alignment to maintain a tall, correctly aligned stance.
Chair Exercise: Stepping Up and Down
Up and down is a great way to develop lower body strength, core stability and balance. Using the magic circle helps with alignment and adds stability and support for the upper body. Typically one high and one low spring are used. For heavier clients, I use more resistance. Place the ball of the right foot parallel on the pedal and press it to the floor. Make sure that the heel is lifted and stand evenly across the ball of the foot with good ankle and knee alignment. With the left foot, step onto the Chair. The foot should be centered and parallel on the mat surface. As you step up and down, the left knee should still over the foot and not rock forward over the toes. The foot should be weighted evenly from inside to out and front to back with the heel anchored. Watch for bending at the waist. Instead, the torso should rise on a slight diagonal that is in line with the back leg while moving up and down. Challenge yourself to keep as much weight as possible over the back foot and leg. Staying over the pedal may require more spring resistance for support, but will result in engagement of the hamstrings and gluteal muscles.
Skiing and the Feet
Many ski challenges start at the foot. Feet influence a skier’s alignment and his or her ability to execute powerful movement. Edging and applying pressure to carve a turn and stay in control starts with the feet. Anyone familiar with Foot Corrector work knows that proper alignment influences how we use our feet, and that the way we use our feet affects the way we use our legs and hips. Each foot has 26 bones, the same number as the bones of our spine. Our feet and spines are both designed to absorb shock. While skiing, a skier’s feet absorb up to three times his body weight. For a skier who weighs 150 pounds, that’s 450 pounds of force being absorbed through the feet, knees, hips and back, run after run.
If our skier moves as though his skis were an extension of his feet, he garners unmatched control, grace and efficiency. Limited dorsiflexion at the ankle can cause the skier to press his shins forward into his boots and sacrifice control and form. We can help our client to use his feet more effectively by working on fundamental Pilates exercises such as Foot Corrector and Reformer foot work. “Heels” on the footbar is a great way to start. Get your skiers to feel their shins working, while their Achilles and calves lengthen. Other exercises that are helpful include the standing arm springs. With the feet parallel and together, have your skier pretend he’s wearing ski boots and lean in a plank position While out there, have him do exercises such as open-close or punching. You’ll be improving his dorsiflexion and a whole lot more.
Cadillac Exercise: Leaping
Your skiers will feel like they’ve just come off the 70 meter jump when they lean forward in their imaginary ski boots while partnering with the arm springs. Leaping is a dynamic movement that is useful for training skiers to develop a spring-like balance and agility to absorb the vibrations that accompany skiing over ice or crud. Adjust the arm springs so that they are at least shoulder height or higher. With arms close to your sides and feet parallel, bend down in a squatted position with the heels off the floor. Begin by straightening your legs, and simultaneously sliding your arms up by your ears and straight up. You should be leaning on a diagonal and end in a plank-like position. Then, circle the arms around to your sides as you bend your knees and begin again. Avoid arching the low back or shrugging arms up by ears. Draw the legs together and use the hips and core for stability and support.
Simulating Counter-Rotation and Pole Planting
Achieving Fall Line Fitness requires cross training of the body and the mind. To better understand the demands that skiing places on a skier’s body, consider the following exercise. Walk down a set of stairs. With your legs and hips, twist side to side. Position your arms as if you have poles. Add a little twist of your torso to the opposite direction of your knees and feet for counter-rotation.
In skiing, counter-rotation increases edge control for turning and creates a spring like momentum at the beginning of the next turn. Counter-rotation also helps a skier to face the fall line at the end of every turn. As you do this exercise, notice the muscles of your trunk working to stabilize and absorb shock as you descend. The hip extensors and flexors engage to execute and land each jump. Simultaneously, the deep six rotators work to stabilize the pelvis and to minimize lateral or side swaying movement of the hips as you descend in a forward plane
In addition, a skier uses his poles to pivot and to create a rhythm. Pole planting relies on the strength of the forearm flexors, triceps, and deltoids. Using a Magic Circle while doing Jump Board or Short Box exercises is a great way to target not only these muscles, and also train skiers in an arm position similar to skiing. Adding hand weights while doing exercises such as Skating or Side Splits on the Reformer strengthens the arms while increasing the overall intensity of the workout.
Reformer Excercise: Jumping Board, Moguls with Magic Circle
Your skiers will love this exercise as you invite them to put on their imaginary ski goggles and hit the bumps. By using the jump board and magic circle you can help skiers improve their stance, contact points, and organize movements from their center. Jump in a C-curl position, feet parallel on the jump board. With each jump, alternate rotating the knees and feet and landing on the board at two o’clock to ten o’clock each time. This is a great way to improve counter-rotation, strength and flexibility. The magic circle is positioned in front of the chest with elbows soft and wide. With each landing, the client rotates the torso and circle opposite of the legs.
Bringing the Body Back to Balance
Pilates is excellent cross-training for skiers to regain muscle balance and avoid sport specific injuries. Bringing the body back into balance requires stretching the muscles that are dominant in skiing and strengthening the less dominant muscles. Many Pilates exercises do both simultaneously.
Muscles to Stretch: Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Iliotibal Band, Calves, Quadratus Lumborum, Hip Abductors, Hip Flexors, Pectorals, Upper Trapezius, Latissmus Dorsi.
Muscles to Strengthen: Medial Quadriceps, Tibialis Anterior, Abdominals, Hip Adductors, Hip Abductors, Hip Extensors, Rhomboids, Mid-Trapezius, Lower Trapezius.
Overuse Injuries From Skiing
Many skiers hang up their skis and poles and end their ski careers early as a result of an overuse injury. Overuse injuries are sport specific and often result from muscle imbalances caused by the demands of repetitive movement. Over training, poor alignment and stance, and failure to cross train often leads to overuse injuries. For a skier, overly developed quadriceps muscles, underdeveloped hamstrings, and inner and outer thighs can place stress the soft tissues around the knees. Likewise, a poor stance can create injury to a skier’s hips and back. Exacerbating the problem are structural misalignments such as leg-length discrepancy, legs that bow or knock-knees. Common overuse injuries include: Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Injury, Chondromalacia, Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) Injury, Meniscus Injuries, Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (Runner’s Knee), Patella Tendonitis (Jumper’s Knee), Shin Splints, Iliotibal Band Syndrome and Sciatica.