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Flex Your Muscle

Prevent injury and take your carving to the next level by focusing on the little muscles.

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You know ski season is just around the corner when the gym everyone’s been avoiding all summer suddenly becomes a favorite hang-out. It’s easy to spot the skiers training for the slopes among the crowd: They’re the ones doing lunges, squats, wall sits, and stair runs until they’re blue in the face. Exercises that strengthen core skiing muscles like the quads, hamstrings, and glutes should be on every skier’s gym agenda, not only to increase performance on the hill, but to help bulletproof the body against common ski injuries like knee ligament sprains and tears. But there are other core skiing muscles that often go overlooked in the gym: the muscles and tendons of the lower leg and ankle.

Despite being locked into a rigid ski boot, our ankles and feet are constantly moving when we ski: We flex our ankles to initiate turns and absorb varied terrain; our shin muscles (tibialis anterior, or AT) and calf complex (gastroc and soleus) work to keep us balanced and help control fore/aft pressure on the ski. As a result of this constant firing and flexing, these smaller stabilizer muscles can become over abused when skiing, which can lead to calf cramping, sore Achilles tendons, and inflammation of the muscles along the shin.

“It may seem odd to worry about ankle and foot injuries when your foot is crammed into a ski boot, but Achilles sprains and shin splints are a reality of our sport,” says John “JC” Cole, human performance director at the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail. “A great way to prevent these injuries is by strengthening the muscles in your lower leg and ankle.”

So, if you want to arc turns like Mikaela Shiffrin, bash bumps like Jonny Moseley, and avoid injury, add exercises that focus on the little muscles of the legs to your gym routine. Here are some of Cole’s favorite moves that target both mobility and strength. They’re not hard, and they won’t make you sweat, but remember: The devil’s in the details.

 Wall Test

Black-and-white photo of someone from the hip down with their knees against a wall
Start here, and see how far those toes can get from the wall.Photo courtesy of Keri Bescetta
  • Targets: Ankle mobility

Step 1: Stand facing a wall, close enough to bend knees to touch them to the wall while keeping feet flat (about 2 inches).

Step 2: Move feet 2 inches farther back and bend knees to the wall. If you can touch knees to the wall while keeping feet flat, move back another 2 inches. Continue until you reach a point where you can no longer touch knees to the wall while keeping feet flat. This is your end range. At this point, bend knees to wall 10-12 times to work on increasing ankle range of motion. Over time, your end range will increase.

AT Raises

AT Raises Resistance Band Exercise
Photo credit: Tory Powers
  • Strengthens: Tibialis anterior (front of shin)

Step 1: Connect a light resistance band to a stable point (like a kettlebell or bench) and loop the other end around your forefoot; take a seated position on a bench with resistance band stretched so there’s no slack. Sit with spine straightened, chest upright.

Step 2: Engage quad and pull toes back towards your shin. Hold for 3 seconds, then release. Perform 10-12 slow reps. Then repeat with other leg. Over time, add resistance by switching to a stronger resistance band.

Calf Raises

Calves Raise gif
Credit: Tory Powers
  • Strengthens: Gastroc and soleus (calf complex)

Step 1: Place balls of feet on a block or 2×4 with heels resting on floor.

Step 2: Keeping spine straight and chest forward, engage glutes and quads to raise yourself straight up while balancing on the ball of the foot on the block. Hold for 3 seconds, then slowly lower back to floor. Perform 10-12 reps. Don’t rush through the downward movement. Add resistance as needed by holding free weights or kettle bells in each hand.

Want more injury prevention tips and ski-specific strength and mobility exercises? SKI and AIM AdventureU teamed up with JC Cole, certified strength and conditioning coach at the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, to design the online course, Ski Injury Prevention. Get access to the comprehensive eight-week training plan that focuses on increasing joint mobility, strengthening core skiing muscles, and building endurance so you can ski bell-to-bell and injury-free all season long. Get more info and register here.