Strength Training For Skiers

6a00e554f403b68834010536672fcb970c 800wi Downhill Ski Training:  A Question of Balance (in more ways than one)

Mike Watson, BHK, CSCS

Recently we’ve been blessed to have a fantastic group of local downhill ski racers join us at the Park location for some dryland training.  I’ve been lucky enough to work with a handful or the Sault’s elite in the past five years.  Some of these skiers have competed in the provincial and U.S. intercollegiate systems.

When training for a sport such as skiing, we often have to wade through the gimmicks and archaic training methods and find what will work best in the least amount of time.  We also have to pick training methods that will give our athletes the best chances to avoid common injuries associated with the sport and the training practices that sometimes come with it.

The nature of the beast: What is skiing?

Pure and simple, skiing is about power.  The average race will last no more than a minute and a half.  The movements that happen during that time are fast, powerful and heavily loaded challenges to the hip, knee and ankle joints.  Each turn sees the skier forcefully loading these joints eccentrically to avoid collapse or crash; and equally as powerfully, concentrically loaded to power out of each turn.  There is NOTHING slow and controlled about skiing.

So, if there is nothing slow and controlled about our sport, then why would we ever have our athletes train this way?   3 or 4 sets of 10-12 reps are not going to help us recruit muscle at the rate needed to absorb the gravitational forces generated by a steep pitch.  We need to teach these athletes to train fast and explosively!

6a00e554f403b688340105365f22ad970b 500wi The most common complaint from the kids in our dryland group (ages 10-16) is knee pain.   Most of these kids already have the beginnings of patellar tendonitis or patellar femoral syndrome.  Three big reasons:  age, nature of the sport, and misinformed training habits.

Most of these kids are growing like crazy. Their muscles and connective tissues are struggling to catch up to growing bones.  Boys tend to get super tight posterior chains (low back, glutes, hamstrings) while the girls, due to feminine pelvic structure, are blessed with posterior chain issues and illiotibial band issues at the same time!  The nature of the sport sees them ina constant state of squatting and resisting squatting.  The outcome is a lot of very quad-dominant athletes with sore knees.

All too often, we hear of coaches and trainers interpreting knee issues and quadriceps fatigue during skiing as a sign of weak quads, leading to……you guessed it!  More quad training, and weird…..more pain!  I recently heard of a trainer telling a skier with obvious patellar issues to stay low all the way through repetitive sets of lunges to “focus on the quads.”  While personal trainers aren’t always the best at diagnosing a joint issue, it’s fair to say that the patellar strain injuries caused by repetitive strain from skiing can generally be cleared up by strengthening the hamstrings, stretching the quadriceps, and correcting the motor pattern in around 3-4 weeks. 

A general rule:  if there is pain or discomfort at a joint, chances are that the joint itself is not the issue.  Most likely there is an imbalance either above or below the joint.  In the case of the knee, we’re usually looking above to the balance between the posterior chain and quads.    During running and skiing, our quads play a major role, but mostly as a decelerator or shock absorber.  Hip extension in skiing and most other sports is where we get our power and increased performance, not from more powerful knee extension.  If quads fatigue early, it is likely that they do so because of lack of support from other muscles around the hip and knees.

6a00e554f403b688340105365f23be970b 500wi Try this as a great example:  Squat.  Get your hips back over your heels as if you’re sitting back onto a low bench or in a skiing tuck.   Now extend your legs using just your quads as if you were on a leg extension machine at your gym.  You can’t?  No surprise.

Now try to get out of that squat by squeezing your glutes and driving your hips forward.  Notice any difference in your performance?

Simply put, if we develop the posterior chain, everything else falls into place athletically.  A well developed low back leads to better posture, which means the abdominals are engaged and suddenly our ability to control our bodies becomes a lot more proficient.  That leads me to a pet peeve:  balance training.

One of the biggest trends in gyms and with athletes is balance training: doing things on unstable surfaces such as physio balls or Bosu balls to “engage the core.”  Much of the recent research shows that unless you’re an elderly woman, or under the age of 12, you not only look funny, but you’re wasting your time.

In adults, balance skills can be regained but not taught.  If you don’t already have adequate balance skills by the time you’re 12 years old, you are not going to dramatically improve.  You’re wasting your time (and money).   However, if you’ve lost these skills over time, as in the case of the elderly, then balance training can help you relearn some of these skills and help prevent falls.

Some experts go so far as to say that the majority of our balance skills come before the age of 4.  They cite elite skiers as having some of the best balance and spatial awareness skills you’ll see, because they often are on the slopes at a very young age.   They go on to suggest that the best way to develop balance skills needed for skiing is to have strong and balanced low back, rectus abdominus and oblique muscles and to ski as much as possible.  Turns out that standing and squatting on a physio ball with 10 lbs weights doesn’t improve your performance; it just makes you better at your party trick.

Want to improve in a hurry?  Stick to mastering the basics of human function: squatting, jumping, and picking stuff up.  Strengthen your hips to save your knees, and most importantly, seek qualified guidance to avoid problems down the road.