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Back in Shape


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To prevent opening-day aches and pains, you need to build a strong back.

“You sit in an office for months, and then you go ski all freakin’ day,” says Lewis Maharam, a sports-medicine doctor and author of A Healthy Back.“Your muscles just aren’t ready that first day out.” It’s tempting to charge hard, even though the only thing you’re probably prepped for is lounging on the chairlift. No wonder so many skiers creak out of bed the next morning with a stiff and sore back.

“The repetitive twisting, bumping, carving, and landing movements of skiing are ballistic, and they place a lot of sudden stress on your back,” explains Scott Higgins, a physiologist with the U.S. Ski Team. “Your back isn’t used to moving in all those different directions.” Not only that, but you’re sometimes screaming at high speeds, hitting unexpected chunks, and straining to stay in control. “You have to be ready for that unanticipated moment of truth,” says Higgins.

Even a full summer of cross-training might not protect you from back pain. When you run or cycle, your spine remains erect and your movements are steady and predictable. In skiing, your body is in a forward-flexing position, which places higher stress on the spine. Combine that with the side-to-side, up and down movements of skiing, and common workouts just won’t cut it. “With all that unexpected force, skiing really moves into the category of a contact sport,” says Sigurd Berven, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of California in San Francisco. He estimates that the shock-absorbing disks in the back have to cushion eight to 10 times more load during skiing than while standing still. To help handle the load, back muscles work much harder than usual.

So, how do you get your spine primed? Higgins’ advice is simple: “You need to prepare for it.” First, broaden your idea of core strength beyond a daily score of sit-ups. You need to do lumbar-stabilization exercises, which isolate key sets of back muscles. Second, you need to stretch the back. “Think of yourself as a car,” says Maharam. “If you have stiff shocks, you feel every bump. If you’re in a Mercedes, you’re riding on a cloud.” Following are three key moves to get your back in shape.

The Cat-Cow is a great stretch for the back. Get down on all fours and arch your back like a spooked cat, holding for a count of 10. Then make like a cow and sag your back for another 10 count (do three sets). For Back Extensions, get down on your hands and knees again and tighten your trunk muscles to keep your back from sagging or arching. Extend your right arm and left leg straight out so that they are aligned with your spine. Hold for five to 10 seconds. Repeat with the opposite arm and leg (build to three sets of 15). A third key move is designed to strengthen the muscles surrounding your scapula, which you need for all that poling around. Stand with your back against a wall, with palms facing up and arms bent to 90 degrees. Then, keeping your arms bent, slowly bring them above your head until your fingers touch. To complete the move, return your arms to the start position. Be sure to make the movement slow and controlled, and contract the upper back muscles as you go (two sets of five).

If, despite your best efforts, your back is still stiff after a hard day on the slopes, try these tactics.

1. Ice, Ice Baby: Take a package of frozen peas and apply to the sore spot for 15-20 minutes, three times a day.

2. Pop a Pill: Tried-and-true, ibuprofen will decrease your pain and inflammation.

3. Self-Massage: Tape two tennis balls together so they look like a figure eight. Line them up on either side of your spine and press your back to a wall. Roll up and down to work out the knots.