Hitting the Slopes

Thu. February 27, 2014 12:00 AM
by Michael Elder

Well, the 2014 Winter Olympics have come to a close. All across the land, people were glued to their television screens to tune in to their favorite event. Whether it was figure skating, speed skating, or bob sledding I always marvel at the amount of skill that goes into each of these competitions. Perhaps what I marvel at the most is Cross Country Skiing. If you've ever done it, you'll understand what all the hype is about. Breathing that fresh country air, feeling that rush of exhilaration as you glide past trees and leaving others eating your dust, and that wonderful feeling of accomplishment once you reach the bottom and look up to the top of the slope you just came from. If there was ever a popular winter sport, this is it!

I am always reminded of a trip I took to Traverse City, Michigan, where I spent some quality time with my partner and his family. While we were there, we figured it was a great time to go skiing. Well, I had never skied before, so I wasn't really sure what I was in for. After spending about six hours out on the slopes, I think my skiing abilities could be summed up in two words: I suck! Being a reasonably fit person, I figured I wouldn't have any problems. Boy was I wrong! I was even used as the demonstration in class as to how to get back up after you've fallen down. Being the first person in class to fall was not a good omen, and things were about to get worse. Once I did get on the slopes, I had a lot of trouble controlling my speed and would often fall on purpose just so I wouldn't collide with the person I was heading straight for. I think I probably fell at least a hundred times. Eventually, I did get better. I was at least able to make it down the slope once without falling, and for that I was very proud. As to whether or not I will do it again, that remains to be seen.

So why am I sharing this story with you? Well, the following day, I was extremely sore, mostly in my quads and shins, but also in my forearms which tells me I was trying to use my poles too much to control my speed. I always thought of skiing as a great cardiovascular activity, but I realized it is also very good for building strength and endurance as well. As you're skiing down hill, you have to shift your weight forward in your ski boots so that your shin muscles and quadriceps isometrically contract to keep you from falling over. Well, obviously this didn't even work that well for me. But as I started to get a little better, I really noticed a strong burn in my quads and shins by the time I reached the bottom of the slope. The core is also constantly engaged to help balance and to prevent falling. So, not only is skiing a great cardiovascular activity, it is also great for building lower body strength and endurance as well as core strength. But beginners beware; I would strongly recommend taking some precautionary measures before heading out to the slopes for the first time. And for advanced athletes as well, there are some definite exercise techniques that will enhance performance and prevent injury:

1. Develop general strength. Although skiing is generally thought of as an exercise that utilizes the lower body, it is very important to have a certain amount of strength for the entire body. Skiing requires an incredible amount of balance and agility. The only way to achieve this is by incorporating strength training exercises for the upper body as well as the lower body. Therefore, the body will be able to move more solidly and gracefully as a whole unit while you are on the slopes. To strength train the entire body, it is important to perform exercises that provide resistance through the six basic movement patterns: squat, push, pull, bend, lunge, and twist. Examples of each are as follows:

Squat-: A free weight squat with either dumbbells or a barbell.

Push: A flat bench press or seated bench press machine.

Pull: Pull- ups, seated row.

Bend: Crunches or ball crunches

Lunge: Dumbbell lunges or Smith Machine lunges.

Twist: Cable trunk rotations.

The posterior side of the body needs special attention because it is not obviously used while skiing. Therefore, care should be taken to train the hamstrings, calves, and most importantly, the lower back.

2. Strengthen the core. OK, this obviously goes hand in hand with my first point, but I also think it is important to talk specifically about the core itself. Having strength and mobility in the core is essential in order to move dynamically and powerfully while on the slopes. Strengthening the core also helps to improve posture and teaches us to move from our "center". If this is done correctly, then force will be derived form our core which will allow the limbs to stay stress free. One great way to strengthen the core is to take Pilates classes. This form of exercise differentiates itself by focusing on the more subtle muscle fibers that wrap around our trunk, encompassing the abdominal and lower back muscles. Another great tool for strengthening the core is to use a Stability Ball, also called a Swiss ball. The Swiss ball challenges one's balance and therefore targets the deepest of the abdominal muscles, the Transverse Abdominus. This muscle is responsible for drawing the abdominal wall inward, and therefore can help to achieve the flat tummy look we all love so much. Strength training exercises for the entire body can be performed on the Swiss ball. This should be done by more advanced athletes who have already achieved general strength for the entire body. The ball allows them to have a core workout for the entire full body session because their balance is constantly being challenged.

3. Cross Training. Aerobic cross training can be a wonderful tool for preparing for the slopes. Cross training simply means to vary your exercise on a daily or weekly basis. For example, performing 15 minutes of aerobic activity on the treadmill, followed by 15 minutes on the stationary bike, followed by 15 minutes on the stair mill would be an example of aerobic cross training. Without incorporating cross training, the nervous system starts to slow down. It is also a very good idea to mimic the movement of skiing through other forms of aerobic exercise. This can be done by playing sports such as soccer, squash, volleyball, or even chasing your dog in the sand. Running or biking outdoors on a varied terrain is also great for skiing preparation.

4. Stretching. I have talked before about the importance of stretching and I'm going to stress it again now. It is very important to discover which areas of the body are tight and then work on increasing the range of motion in that particular area. Remember, the body moves as a whole when skiing, and just as you want the entire body to be strong, you should also want the entire body to be flexible. The best way to stretch is to hold a stretch for 30 seconds taking deep breaths and gradually pushing yourself further into the stretch. You should never push yourself to the point of sharp pain and you should never bounce while you stretch. Taking a Yoga class is also a great way to monitor and increase flexibility.

5. Prepare yourself mentally. Skiing requires a great deal of physical agility, but it also requires mental focus as well. This is obviously one of the areas where I faltered. If you think about being explosive and agile, then chances are you will be explosive and agile, at least if you are an advanced skier. But even if you're a beginner like I was, having a positive mental focus can make a huge difference. I went in thinking I was going to be bad. And guess what, I was pretty bad! Try meditating on it. Think positive thoughts, and your chances of success will be much better.

The last point I want to make is just to take it easy, especially if you're a beginner. Don't pretend that you're in the Winter Olympics. Take your time. Take a class. If you fall, you fall. Just get right back up again and keep trying. That's all you can do. That's all I did and I'm still alive to talk about it. Like I said, I did get much better before I left the slopes that day. Who knows, maybe there's hope. But I'll tell you this much- It's definitely something everybody needs to try at least once!

Thanks for reading. Be healthy!

Michael Elder has been working as a fitness professional in Chicago for the last fifteen years. He comes from a background in gymnastics and is certified as a personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise (ACE). He can be contacted directly through his website,