If Brock Monger, our co-founder and lead physical therapist here at Apex Physical Therapy in Madras, were to equate the way a typical winter sports enthusiast prepares for the season with how one prepares for a career, it would go something like this:
College is like strength and cardio training. Just as everyone knows earning a degree is likely to better prepare you for life as a working professional, better strength and cardiovascular endurance is just as essential in improving performance, safety and enjoyment on the slopes. These conventions are nearly universally accepted.
But in either case, is this preparation enough for success in the real world – on the slopes, the Nordic trails or in the wilderness on snowshoes? The answer’s no. According to Brock, good balance and flexibility is just as essential. Unfortunately, he adds, way too many winter sports enthusiasts feel these fundamental elements of fitness can be mastered with what amounts to on-the-job training, or “skiing into shape.”
Not so, Brock says.
“Regardless if you’re downhill skiing, snowshoeing or cross country skiing, you don’t try to get your balance or flexibility the day of your activity,” he said. “The goal is to have the balance and flexibility there when you need it, and that comes from training and exercise prior to winter sports season.”
Brock says that of the two – balance and flexibility – balance is likely the most overlooked element of health, fitness and performance.
“I see lots of strong people with poor balance,” he said. “The reason for this is because in a lot of cases, they’re training using standard resistance and cardiovascular equipment, much of which doesn’t train or challenge your body’s awareness in space hence, your balance – at all.”
In contrast, good balance is most essential during winter sports activities, from downhill and cross country skiing to skating and snowshoeing. Not only do these activities take place on slippery surfaces, but obstacles such deep snow and heavy, awkward equipment can challenge even the strongest of core muscle groups.
“Winter sports present the ultimate challenge to balance,” Brock said. “You’re moving your body, with equipment, on snowy or icy surfaces – you have so many factors working against you. Yet these challenges are some reasons why winter sports are so much fun.”
So what’s the best way to improve balance and strengthen your core heading into winter sports season? Brock offers three tips:
- Take a Fitness Class: Yoga, Pilates and step classes strive to challenge your balance and create a stronger group of core muscles, complementing your regular strength and cardiovascular fitness regimen.
- Train on Uneven Terrain: Challenge yourself during your normal outdoor recreational activities – hiking, cycling, jogging, etc. – by moving your workout to uneven ground. Instead on jogging on paved paths, try out some dirt trails. Take your hikes on rockier terrain. Trade your road bike for a mountain bike. Your core will get a better workout, leading to improved balance. This is great!
- Look to the Flamingo: Why do flamingo’s stand on one leg? We’re not sure, either, but they certainly have great balance. Try out some simple yet effective exercises while standing on just one leg. Single-leg balance ideas include: balancing while in the kitchen doing dishes or watching TV; playing catch by bouncing a weighted ball off a wall; placing six to eight cups on the ground in a semi-circle and pick them up one at time; leaning forward, back, and sideways; and practicing standing in your winter boots, during which you check your alignment. It may feel silly at first, but you’ll notice a marked improvement in your balance. When these are easy, incorporate more instability or challenges such as placing a folded towel, foam pad, or BOSU balance ball under your foot, closing your eyes (with hands hovering over a countertop), and turning your head slowly side to side.
According to Brock, studies have shown that partaking in a stretching regimen moments before physical activities, such as winter sports, doesn’t necessarily improve performance or help in injury prevention.
“It’s best to be warmed up by walking, doing a warm-up run or moving multiple joints and muscle groups that will be used in the activity” he said. “If you’re properly warmed up, you don’t need to stretch. You must have the flexibility available, however.”
And therein lies the key – ensuring you regularly maintain flexibility throughout your musculoskeletal system so that when you go skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing, your body is ready for nearly everything the winter terrain throws its way.
“With the large muscle groups used in winter sports, good flexibility allows your body to move and adapt within the environment,” Brock said. “When you don’t have good flexibility, you’re more susceptible to injury and less able to adapt to the terrain and what it’s asking your body to do.”
On the injury front, the lack of flexibility in one area of the body can make another area of your body more susceptible to injury, especially when your activity of choice is a high-impact winter sport like skiing, snowshoeing or snowboarding.
“When one segment of the lower extremity is tight, it can place an unnecessary burden on another part of the body,” Brock said. “For example, tight hamstrings can correlate to back pain and impact how the trunk of your body moves and balances over your legs in challenging situations. This can lead to discomfort, pain and even injury.”
To improve flexibility, it’s best to adopt a daily stretching regimen – about 10 to 15 minutes of warm-muscle stretching perhaps in the morning or just before bed. One stretching Brock recommends to improve lower-body flexibility is a simple hamstring stretch.
“Lying on your back and holding your thigh up at 90 degrees to the body with the knee bent, slowly extend your leg in the air as to straighten it,” he said. “Hold for at least 30 seconds before moving on to the other leg.”
Along with being certified physical therapists, Brock is a certified athletic trainer and he and his wife, Karin Monger are both certified strength and conditioning specialists. Brock even served as a volunteer athletic trainer during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
With such a bevy of real-world experience in athletic training, especially as it pertains to winter sports, Brock, Karin and the Apex team can devise for you a personalized training program that will ensure you hit the slopes and trails this season with the right balance of strength, cardio conditioning, flexibility and core balance. Call us at 541-475-1218 to get started or even email us with questions you might have: [email protected]