When it comes to professional skiing, getting to the top of the game is tough, but getting back on top after a setback is even more difficult. Just ask big-mountain ski siblings Angel and John Collinson.
Angel has worked her way into the ski-film rotation as one of the best big-mountain skiers on the planet, characterized by her harrowing line choices and powerful agility. But one year after scoring the coveted closing segment in Teton Gravity Research’s 2015 film Paradise Waits, she tumbled down a steep Alaskan face and tore her ACL. John suffered a similar fate late last winter while filming with Matchstick Productions. After hitting a compression while skiing backwards, the younger Collinson snapped his ACL clean, ending his season and putting his next one in jeopardy.
Angel admits it took a solid season and a half before she felt like her old self again. For John, it’s been a slow, ongoing process. But injury is also the nature of the beast for skiers, and both siblings consider rehab an opportunity to learn about their bodies and come back to the snow stronger than ever. While they were quick to point out that recovery is different for everyone, they did offer a few choice pieces of advice.
Food Is Fuel
Eating right is essential to fast, sustainable injury recovery, but quantity is just as important as quality. Food—and plenty of it—is as critical to healing as it is to maximum physical output, so don’t shy away from calories. John admits he suffered from low energy during training sessions until a nutritionist suggested he double what he was eating every day.
A recent report from Northwestern University explained that recovering athletes consistently stymie their healing by underfueling. Since their exercise has dropped off, they think their nutritional needs have, too. But after trauma or a surgery, research has found that the body actually needs additional calories—roughly 20 percent more, though this varies depending on the injury and the individual—to heal itself efficiently. Just be sure to focus on getting those calories from nutrient-dense foods: protein and leucine, an essential amino acid, are critical for muscle repair, and calcium is necessary for bone recovery.
Give Your Stabilizers Some Love
Though John usually prefers to get his heart rate up by tackling an exposed ridge or a long approach, he’s been hitting the gym religiously while he’s in recovery mode. “My biggest takeaway from the gym is that I’ve learned how conditioning can really help your sport,” says John. “Now I’m seeing strengthening as a form of recovery and an injury-prevention tool.”
Instead of focusing on raw strength and power, John learned to pay attention to the muscles that help us recover or hold on to a landing or protect the joints that so often cause problems on the ski hill. Known as stabilizers, these muscles provide balance and strength around primary muscles like our quads, hamstrings, and core. Essentially, stabilizers help our major muscles groups do their jobs more efficiently while maintaining good biomechanics to prevent future injuries on the slopes. John likes to use a stability ball to target these muscles with exercises including leg curls and side crunches with his feet propped against the wall.
Take a Step Back
Unlike her brother, Angel finds that her best recovery and wellness technique is taking a step away from training altogether to focus on other interests. When she was sidelined, she put her energy into watercolor painting, sketching, and singing in an effort to fill her newfound downtime without feeling antsy. “I’m not a crazy artist, but I just needed to flex that creative muscle,” says Angel.
Though art and music were her chosen distractions, she says that anything that promotes personal growth while the body is in recovery mode will pay big mental dividends when you’re back standing on top of your line.
Find a Recovery Mentor or Partner
Injury can quickly turn into a lonely stretch for athletes—suddenly we aren’t able to go on that bike ride or hike with friends, and the invites stop coming in. The Collinsons both counted on friends and family who had experienced injuries or were currently sidelined to provide positive reinforcement and motivation during their recovery. Angel and fellow big-mountain skier Michelle Parker were injured at the same time, and Angel credits her talks with Parker for the quick return to snow. John, in turn, had Angel. “I’d call her in the middle of the night and she’d tell me to stop freaking out,” John says.
Make Friends with Foam Rolling
One of John’s most reliable tools during his recovery has been the foam roller: he carves out 20 minutes a day to knead sore or tight muscles to prepare for the next workout.
Mike Clark, CEO of the National Academy of Sports Medicine, says that foam rolling is as essential to training without injury as disengaging your parking brake before you start driving. It relaxes problematic muscles in preparation for static stretching and dynamic activity.
After his injury, John’s muscles were fighting to keep up, and long training sessions were taking their toll. Rolling eventually became part of his routine, one he says he’ll stick with even in good health.