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Your low back kills you after skiing, but is it actually your low back, or your hips? The low back muscles and muscles of the hip complex are interconnected, so it can be hard to pinpoint where that pain or tightness you feel after skiing is actually coming from. Which is problematic when you’re trying to prevent and treat the pain.
When I returned to snow after my most recent ACL reconstruction, I started experiencing a deep ache that spread from my low back up the side of my spine. I assumed I had neglected my back muscles during my knee rehab routine, and those weak muscles were to blame. Come to find out through physical therapy, what I thought was low back pain actually stemmed from excessively tight hip flexor muscles.
The major hip flexor muscles do connect to the lumbar spine as well as the quad, which is why we often feel pain caused by tight hips in our low back.
“Skiing is a very quad dominant sport and requires a lot of eccentric quad strength,” explains Torey Anderson, head physical therapist for the U.S. women’s alpine team. “When muscles start to fatigue and lactic acid builds up at the bottom of a long run, or at the end of a big day, the fatigue can present as central tightness near the hip joint.”
Here, Anderson outlines four main reasons skiers may experience hip pain after skiing, and how to avoid making your hip muscles do all the work on the hill.
You’re skiing in the backseat.
“Ski technique is a huge factor in complaints of tight hips,” Anderson explains. “Sitting in the backseat and leaning back on your tails is an energetically inefficient technique and will quickly lead to fatigue throughout your quads and hip flexors.”
Make sure you flex your ankles and knees to pressure the front of your ski boot rather than lean against the back cuff of your boot. This not only takes the strain off your quads and hip flexors, but also allows you to better control your skis and turns. “Pressuring the front of the ski allows you to more effectively use your glutes and hamstring to powerfully extend through a turn,” says Anderson.
“Anterior chain dominance, or when a person is more dominant in their hip flexors and quadriceps over their glutes and hamstrings, can potentially alter the glide of your hip ball and socket and can sometimes lead to symptoms that feel like hip impingement,” Anderson says.
When getting in shape for skiing, make sure you’re training your posterior chain—hamstrings, glutes, and back—to make sure your quads and hip muscles aren’t overworking to compensate for weak backside muscles.
“If the glutes aren’t able to fire effectively, muscles surrounding the hip complex like the hip flexors, quads, TFL, and even extensors in the low back will take on a greater tension and contribute to feelings of hip tightness,” she adds.
You’re used to being sedentary.
“The illopsoas can also be a main culprit in sensations of high tightness,” explains Anderson. “The psoas, one of the main hip flexors, attaches high on the lumbar spine. Psoas length issues can contribute to an increased inward curve of the lumbar spine and an anterior pelvic tilt.”
This position, says Anderson, can prevent your glutes and abdominal muscles from firing effectively, which can then put more stress on the quads and the structures in the low back.
“Individuals who are sedentary through most of the day or who already stand with an anterior pelvic tilt are often prone to complaints of ‘tightness’ through their hip flexors,” Anderson says. “Sometimes this is because the hip flexors are short and contracted, but other times it’s because the hip flexors are lengthened and weak.”
Whatever the case, says Anderson, the key to preventing hip issues caused by the psoas is maintaining deep core stability. Pro tip: Stretch the hip flexors and release the psoas before performing core exercises. This will ensure your psoas is primed before working out and help core muscles fire effectively.
You’re not in ski shape (and that’s OK).
Lastly, Anderson emphasizes that Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is a real thing, and it’s not unusual to feel tight in your hips and low back after the first ski days of the season or after a particularly long and exhausting day on the hill.
“If your tissues aren’t used to the strain and load of skiing and you go out for a big few days after not doing much, then it’s completely normal to feel sore,” she says. Especially if you’re forced to sit in a car immediately after you get off the slopes.
“Stiffness when prolonged sitting follows a lot of activity is also perfectly normal. If you get stuck in I-70 traffic after a powder day, it’s okay to feel stiff through your legs, hips, and low back when you first get out of the car. You likely haven’t done any real damage, you just need to focus on recovery, and then hit the gym and slopes a little harder once your soreness goes away.”
Torey Anderson, DPT, is the U.S. Ski Team’s head physical therapist for the women’s alpine team. A lifelong skier born and bred in Colorado, Anderson now calls Park City, Utah home.