To stretch or not to stretch… that is the question. We all know that feeling of tightness in muscles that have been overworked… that readiness to go ‘ping’ if we just so much as sneeze or move the wrong way. We KNOW that tight, tense muscles feel vulnerable. Inflexibility also plays a role in creating problems in neighboring body regions. Skiers, for example, over the course of training and skiing day in and out, develop strength in leg muscles, especially those attaching the legs to the trunk, or more specifically, the pelvis. With that strength can come an increased degree of stiffness. If the core above the pelvis does not have the strength or relative stiffness to match the legs below, the core (the back) is at risk for injury due to uncontrolled motion.
Picture the mogul skier, descending onto one bump after another, absorbing shock with each impact. If the legs are strong and flexible, they will act like pistoning shock absorbers and reduce the amount of impact placed upon the low back, or lumbar spine. Stiff legs (weak or fatigued legs tend to get stiff) absorb shock poorly, so the back becomes the shock absorber, flexing with every impact. That force, combined with a flexing spine, is a surefire recipe for a back injury, especially one involving the intervertebral discs.
That disastrous picture can be avoided by keeping the legs both strong and flexible, and by strengthening the back muscles themselves. We’ve been so conditioned to think of core strengthening as making sure our abdominals are strong that we often forget to address the back muscles specifically. Crunches and sit-ups only help us flex the spine (bend forward) more, so they won’t help keep the back from flexing excessively.
To properly stretch leg muscles without adversely affecting the back, controlling excessive back motion is important. Below are four on-snow stretches that will help maintain flexibility in leg muscles that can get stiff from skiing, especially when they are brought to the point of fatigue. For all stretches, be sure you are on a flat spot so you won’t start skiing in the middle of your stretch, and keep your core from being pulled in the direction of your stretch.
A quad (front of your thigh) stretch can be performed by securing your balance with your poles, then raising one leg up behind you and planting the ski tip in the snow. Bring your torso to an upright position while preventing the low back from over-arching by engaging your abdominals as if tucking your tailbone between your legs.
A hamstring stretch can be performed by raising your ski up in front of you and planting the tail of your ski in the snow. In this position, you will need to engage your back muscles, sticking your tailbone out to accentuate the pull on the back of the leg. No pain should be felt during any stretching — only a gentle pull that should encourage you to relax the muscle, rather than fight the stretch.
The adductors, or inner thigh muscles, are stretched by assuming a wide stance, then moving the torso to the side over one ski, bending the leg that you are moving toward and keeping the pelvis level, thus preventing the trunk from bending sideways. This one is especially important for avoiding groin strains in the event that you were to catch a tip.
Outer Thigh Stretch
Stretching the outer thigh, with its notorious iliotibial band (ITB), requires a little more finesse. With poles securely planted, kick one ski up in front of you as you did for the hamstring stretch, but instead of planting the tail bring the ski across in front of you and over the leg you are standing on. Now reposition the poles over toward that side for support and slide your hips toward your poles, bringing your trunk to an upright position. This hip position will be similar to a high level racer angulating at the hips in the middle of a turn. Performing this stretch can help you achieve that high angle edging technique while keeping your torso upright and poised.
These poses can be held for 5-10 seconds and repeated until the sense of muscle tension has diminished.
To sum it up, keep your legs flexible in all four directions, keep your core stable and strong, and you’ll ski with a smile on your face!
Photos by Jeff Russell
CHRISTINA RUSSELL is one of many inspirational staff at Women’s Quest and is a certified massage therapist AND fitness instructor. Christina has been working with Women’s Quest since 1996 teaching mountain biking, cross country skiing and belly dancing at retreats in Colorado and Vermont. A skier since 1970, Christina has taught telemark and cross country skiing for 30 years and teaches a Winter Sport Conditioning class.
Please check the Chi Event Calendar for upcoming Women’s Quest retreats, or visit WomensQuest.com »