There's good stretching and bad stretching. Here's how to warm up right.
Imagine if a new study proved that flossing was actually bad for your gums. Or that sunscreen damaged your skin. Well, no such luck—but recent research reveals that pre-ski stretching, something we've long thought was smart, may do more harm than good. In fact, skiers who stretch regularly may be more prone to injury than those who don't. That said, you shouldn't avoid stretching altogether. The key is knowing how, when and what to stretch. Here, experts debunk the myths and deliver the facts. Plus, a flexibility plan that will indeed boost performanceand reduce the chance of injury.
How to StretchIt's been drilled into our heads since we first clicked into a pair of skis: To avoid injury, you'd better stretch. "Flexibility means having range of motion, says Thomas Kurz, author of Stretching Scientifically. "Not having enough range of motion for one's task means one can't perform it well. Case in point: If you can't achieve the hip angles you need to make a good turn, your skiing will suffer.
However, many experts agree that athletes may not need to be as flexible as they once thought. "You don't need an Olympic gymnast's range of motion to be good on the slopes, says Jay Blahnik, one of the nation's top-ranked fitness trainers, a skier for 20-plus years and author of Full-Body Flexibility. "We're starting to see that there might be a lot of injuries associated with people who stretch too much, too hard.
Trouble arises, Blahnik says, when athletes lack the strength needed to support their flexibility. In other words, the muscles around a joint aren't strong enough to achieve a desired range of motion, so athletes use an outside force—such as a hand, a partner or body weight to force a stretch. To determine your strength-to-flexibility ratio, try this: Lie on your back with your legs straight. Raise your right leg in the air as far as you can (see photo, opposite). That is your active, or unassisted, range of motion (see "The Flexicon, right). Now use your hands to pull your leg as far as you can toward your chest. That is your passive range of motion. Your goal for all stretches should be to minimize the difference between your passive and active ranges of motion.
To get there, make sure you do unassisted stretches, such as the Dynamic Arch and Lying Leg Lift described on page 98. You can use assisted stretching to increase your range of motion, but pull or push your muscles only slightly farther than you can stretch without help.
When to StretchIf you hate stretching before you ski, you're in luck. Perhaps the most radical finding is that pre-activity passive stretching might actually lower your performance and increase your chance of injury. That's because it can temporarily squelch nerve signals, slowing reaction times and reducing how much strength you can generate. Most experts now agree that passive stretching should be done either at the end of a workout or at a separate time entirely, such as when you get up each morning. But go easy if you plan to ski the next day.
"Stretching can make you sore, Blahnik says. "It works a lot like strength training: When you pull those muscles and hold them in place, that in itself causes its own small injury, in the form of microtears in the muscle fibers. Over time, your body adapts and gets more flexible. In some cases, it's aggressive post-exercise stretching, even more than the skiing, that makes people sore, Blahnik argues.
Studies show that your best defense against injury is a sport-specific warm-up. Done correctly, Kurz says, a warm-up boosts reaction time and coordination, fires up the muscles and gets your heart and lungs working efficiently. Consequently, the best warm-up is a lower-intensity version of your activity. For skiing, Blahnik recommends using your first three runs to warm up, making each one progressively more challenging. Break your first run into 10 chunks, skiing at an easy pace and stopping 10 times along the way. Ski slightly faster on the second run, stopping five times. Then stop three times on the third run. "Your body will get warm through practice—the neuromuscular system fires up; you're reacting a bit more quickly, Blahnik says.
If you still want to add some exercises before you ski, try a few deep squats, side bends, trunk rotations and arm swings, all in a controlled manner and within a comfortable range of motion.
What to Stretch
When you use a muscle, it contracts. The more you use it, the tighter it becomes. To maintain the right balance of flexibility throughout your body, stretch the muscles you use most.Your stretches should counteract the motions you make on the slopes. That means lengthening the spine, extending the legs, expanding the chest and stretching the quads and hip flexors.
On non-ski days, Blahnik recommends doing stretches that offset your daily activities. For example, if you sit in front of a computer all day, your hip flexors tighten up and your shoulders round forward, so you'll want to choose stretches that lengthen those muscles (try the Static Kneeling Runner's Lunge, described below). This, combined with smart après-ski stretches, will help you maintain the range of motion you need to feel good and ski strong all season long.