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Fit Bits: Priming the Body for Skiing

Quick tips for improving joint and muscle health to maximize performance on the hill.

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Getting Warm

Think a few quick stretches before you click into your skis qualifies as a warm-up? Not quite. Skiers should warm up not only before they ski, but also before they stretch, says Dr. Jeffrey Halbrecht, a San Francisco-based orthopedic surgeon and nine-year medical director for the former Women’s World Pro Ski Tour.

“Get the blood flowing first, and then do some stretching,” Halbrecht says. “The majority of ski injuries we see are early-morning injuries in people who are still stiff and not yet warmed up.” A warm-up increases blood flow to the muscles so they can contract and relax quickly, improving elasticity and coordination. It also prepares muscles for stretching, and a combination of the two helps prevent strains, sprains and pulled muscles.

A warm-up should raise the core body temperature 2 to 4 degrees, which can be accomplished with three to five minutes of light aerobic activity, Halbrecht says. Skiers staying slopeside can hop on the hotel treadmill or climb stairs inside, while skiers coming off a long car ride can walk or jog in the resort parking lot. Halbrecht suggests extending the warm-up into the ski day with slow and gentle freeskiing for the first few runs and more stretches in the liftline, using poles for support. 

Foot Prep

Before buckling your ski boots, help prevent muscle cramps by stretching your feet. Experts also recommend stretching the lower back, hips and calves before and after skiing. Following is a suggested stretch, as well as other tips for keeping your feet healthy and pain-free:

  • Sit with both legs extended out in front of you. Place a towel around the ball of your right foot. Using both hands, gently pull the towel toward you. For a deeper stretch, lean forward and allow your foot to come off the floor when pulled. Hold for 10 seconds, and repeat on the left side. This stretches your entire calf, including your Achilles’ tendon.
  • To strengthen your foot muscles, sit in a chair with a towel on the floor in front of you. Keeping your heel on the floor, scrunch the towel with your toes and then release. Do two sets of 15 scrunches with each foot.
  • Take your shoes off. Going barefoot is good for your feet because your naked step stresses all the muscles evenly. If you can’t go barefoot, wear sandals or flip-flops. 

Knee Health

Fact: Your knees dislike skiing, especially if you’ve suffered an injury that has jarred or loosened the joint. While modern medicine has allowed an increasing number of skiers to rebound from traumatic knee injuries, the normal rigors of skiing can take their toll over time.

Dr. Michael Catalano, director of the Center for Fitness Medicine in Boulder, Colo., explains: “Continued heavy athletic pressure to a destabilized joint can cause cartilage breakdown, and ultimately lead to chronic joint pain, stiffness and inflammation.”

The answer? Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. These nutritional supplements assist cartilage, the cushioning that allows joints to glide smoothly in repairing itself. Three members of the men’s U.S. Ski Team began using glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate in late 1997, the year they hit the market. Today well over half of the team takes the supplements regularly. Ron Kipp, exercise physiologist and director of athlete preparation for the team, recommends them not only for injuries, but also to ease tendonitis pain and prevent cartilage breakdown.

Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are sold over-the-counter in capsule or tablet form. One pill combining the two is recommended for maximum efficiency (the Ski Team takes Cosamin DS by Nutramax). The suggested dose is two to three pills daily, adding up to 1,500 mg of glucosamine and 1,200 mg of chondroitin sulfate. 

Beware: They come at a price, $30-$90 per bottle, depending on strength and size. As with other supplements, possible long-term effects are still unknown. Consult with your physician before taking them. 

Sore Spot

When it comes to ski-induced muscle soreness, preventive medicine is often the best medicine. Certified nutritional consultant Donna Pessin of Boulder, Colo., suggests taking antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, E and bioflavonoids, which help rid the body of soreness-inducing free radicals. They’re available in supplement form at most health food stores, but many nutritionists recommend getting them the old-fashioned way: from fresh fruits and vegetables. Oranges, strawberries and dark green leafy veggies, for example, are all loaded with antioxidants.