A Balanced Approach

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Fitness 105

It took a nasty spill for

two-time Olympic U.S. downhiller Caroline Lalive to become a true disciple of balance training. She caught an edge only 30 feet from the finish line of a World Cup event in Austria in March 2003-and then found herself under the knife to repair the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments of her right knee. After surgery, 25-year-old Lalive followed her trainer's advice and practiced simple, low-impact balance exercises to help get her back on skis. She started by sitting on a couch and rolling a skateboard with her foot, slowly progressing to drills like single-leg squats and jumping from rock to rock in a creek bed by her house.

When she returned to the slopes in October 2003, she was shocked by how comfortable she felt. "I had a better ability to hold my position than I did before my injury," she says. "It really showed me that skiing is just as much about balance as it is about strength and ability. When you don't have balance on the slopes, you're working against yourself and you're more vulnerable." Lalive discovered what many coaches and physical therapists also realize: You can improve balance through specific drills and exercises.

Andrea White, director of the Human Performance Research Lab at the University of Utah, says most people don't even think about incorporating balance into their training routine, which is a mistake. "Just as you can improve balance (through practice), if you don't use it, you lose it," she says. And if you can't maintain your body's equilibrium, it's impossible to keep proper skiing form.

Put simply, your sense of balance is what allows you to move on your feet without falling. It's the result of coordinated messages sent to your brain from your inner ears, eyes and muscles. Your inner ears detect the movements of your head and the pull of gravity, telling you which way is down. Your eyes provide information about the contours of the terrain (like if there's a chute or a patch of ice ahead). And your muscles alert your brain to your body's movements (like when you slide out on that patch of ice). In turn, your brain sends commands to your muscles and joints to help them respond to the hazards you're facing. "Improving balance means improving how your body reacts to situations where your balance is challenged," White says. For that reason, balance training doesn't necessarily involve weights or sweat-soaking exercise. Instead, it's about staying upright no matter how topsy-turvy everything around you becomes. These simple balance exercises will help you maintain your best form on the hill. As for the après-ski parties, you're on your own.