As Bode Miller says in the Lindsey Vonn HBO documentary, “The Final Season”: “If you want to know what it’s like falling while downhill skiing, drive your car at 70 mph and just get out.”
If you’ve spent any amount of time on the slopes, I don’t have to tell you that your knees take a beating in the sport of skiing. If the falls don’t get you, the sharp cutting, combined with long periods of squatting and leaning forward, will. Indeed, falls aren’t the only danger to your knees, and even when things appear to be going well as your whisk your way down fresh white powder on a brisk winter day, your knees wish you knew more about how keep them happy. As a sports rehab doc, I’ve seen some pretty grumpy skiing knees, and these are the top-3 complaints they would have (if they could talk).
1. Work on your athletic stance.
An athletic stance is simply a way of putting your body in a position, and tensioning your muscles, in such a way that you are prepared to react to anything that might come your way with enough quickness and reaction time that you could dodge a fastball pitch, with enough stiffness and strength that someone could run into you by accident and you’d remain on your feet, and with enough finesse and coordination that you could connect with Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett for a first down.
Start here: Stand up, put your feet shoulder width apart, bend you knees partly, grip the ground with the sole of your foot (go light on the toes), and put your hands out as if you’re hugging one of those large inflatable therapy balls. You should be breathing, and you should have enough tension in your core that a 6 year old could punch you in the gut as hard as they can, and you wouldn’t flinch. You should feel a connection between your feet and glutes here, too. (See 3)
2. Be more proactive preparing for ski season.
We often judge our preparedness for activities retrospectively. Meaning, we do an activity, and then judge how we feel after the fact, to make a determination on whether or not we were prepared for that activity. This is an OK test if you are judging the fitness of your muscular fitness, because your muscles communicate soreness very quickly (24-48 hours) after an activity, but what about your tendons, ligaments and joint cartilage? These structures require repetitive stress to produce pain, and due to their slow healing ability, it often takes you out of commission during the healing period.
Start here: Start preparing for ski season three months in advance at minimum and if you’re a serious skier, but you only touch fresh powder every winter, then you might think about starting preparation 4-6 months in advance. Nothing prepares you for skiing like skiing, but hitting the gym to work on your strength and endurance of your core, hips and feet is where you’ll want to start. In addition, you’ll need to engage in plyometric training once you’re ready to simulate the quick change of direction you’ll experience carving up the mountain.
3. Your gluteus maximus (and core) isn’t helping even less than you think.
In Seattle (and most metro cities around the country), there’s no shortage of brand-name exercise techniques/classes/programs that put their own spin on how you’re supposed to engage your core. And the internet has no shortage of articles and videos with ‘glute exercises’ that are supposed to help you become a better skier, look good at the beach, or quiet your “tight hip flexors.” Some of these are good; most of them are not. What your knees want you to know is that your gluteus maximus is the gluteus muscle that is secretly sleeping on the job, and that your core is behaving more like a light switch than a volume dial.
Start here: For the sake of time (and newspaper space), here I will cover the gluteus maximus. Sit down on a chair and put your feet out in front of you in a relaxed fashion with your heels resting on the floor. Now lift your heels off the ground a few inches, keep them there, and then squeeze your butt cheeks together like you are trying to grab a wine cork with them. You should not feel your heels digging into the ground, and with any luck you should feel your entire body lift up a couple of inches (depending on how big your gluteus maximus is, results may vary). This feeling is what you need in that athletic stance (See 1), as well as anytime you are squatting, lunging or lifting. This can be extremely challenging to translate this simple exercise to a practical movement such as an athletic stance and often you need feedback from a well-trained professional. Even then, many are unsuccessful in activating, coordinating and training the gluteus maximus effectively, and unfortunately many athletes and professionals are fooled by the body, thinking the gluteus maximus is active when in fact it is not. This awareness drill can help you in your musculus glutaeus maximus-finding process.
Skiing can be a wonderful and restorative sport to enjoy, especially for us in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. It’s also an excellent way to strengthen your legs and core that we often miss while we sit inside and wait for the rain to ease. If done right, it’s also a fantastic way to strengthen your feet and work on your balance while having fun doing it.
Unless you’re a professional, your goal should be to ski today like you want to be able to ski tomorrow. In other words, play the game so you can keep playing, not to win some arbitrary self-imposed goal that may leave you in an irreversible and possibly sport-ending condition. If you really crave the challenge and can’t avert your ambitions, at least do so with a solid backing and well-developed training program, so you can feel confident that you’ve done everything you can to keep your body happy and healthy.