If you want to get through winter injury-free, prevention is the name of the game. Strength and mobility are critical when it comes to absorbing the varied and unpredictable impact of skiing and snowboarding. “When looking at prevention, we first look at which injuries are most common in our respective sports,” says Nick Langelotti, a physical therapist and trainer for the U.S. Snowboard team. “For snowboarding, those are wrist, shoulder, collarbone, and ankle injuries, as well as concussions. For skiers, it’s concussions, knee ligaments, lower-leg contusions, and tibia fractures.” The best ski and snowboard athletes in the world start training long before they hit the snow, but Langelotti and U.S. Ski Team trainer Mandie Majerus say it’s never too late to implement an exercise program to keep your body happy and healthy throughout ski season. Langelotti and Majerus have put together their top five exercises to help prevent injuries this winter.
Modified Wall Sits
What It Does: Staying nimble while maintaining control through your hips is key to navigating the mountain, especially when you’re locked into ski boots and bindings. Langelotti recommends this exercise—what he calls the “hip hinge wall kiss”—to build hip strength without losing mobility.
How to Do It: Stand about a foot from the wall with your feet facing forward or slightly turned out. Hinge at the hips, maintaining a neutral spine, until your backside meets the wall, then stand back up. Engage your core, particularly your lower abs, glutes, and upper thighs throughout the whole motion. If that isn’t offering enough of a burn, slightly increase your distance from the wall. Langelotti suggests one to two sets of 20 repetitions.
What It Does: Busted knees are a skier’s kryptonite, so protect your joints by strengthening the muscles around them. The single-leg deadlift, better known as the SLDL, is a great tool for building strength in the hamstring—the key muscle working together with the ACL on the ski hill. “Good motor control with single-leg activities [like the SLDL] transfers directly to better control on skis,” Majerus says.
How to Do It: Just like in the modified wall sit, the SLDL initiates from the hips. Keeping your weight on one leg, bend at your hips, allowing your torso to drop toward the ground. Your upper body and non-weight-bearing leg should move as a single unit. To up the ante, you can rotate your torso away from the standing leg (a movement known as an airplane twist). Maintain a neutral spine and stay in control throughout. If you are feeling a bit shaky, take a rest and start again. Perform one to two sets with ten to 15 repetitions per cycle.
What It Does: Another single-leg burner, the single-leg squat is an exercise you’ll be thankful for when variable conditions and uneven terrain hit. Working the hamstring, lower glute, and quadriceps, this exercise targets the muscles that provide power in and out of turns and helps you maintain and recover balance.
How to Do It: Sit on a bench at about knee height, then, in a slow and controlled motion, get up on one leg, holding the other leg out straight in front of you. Majerus recommends doing this exercise in front of a mirror to make sure you keep proper form: knee over ankle (both laterally and vertically), hips level, and torso upright. He adds that the most common mistake with a single-leg squat is letting your knee cave inward, so put a small object like a dumbbell or yoga block outside your foot. This serves as a visual aid, helping you track your movement correctly while keeping that knee aligned. Do two sets of 20 reps on each leg.
What It Does: This exercise focuses on bearing weight through your arms to gain strength, stability, and motor control around your wrists, elbows, and shoulders. Strengthening these areas helps fortify your core, shoulders, and arms against a potential fall.
How to Do It: Start slow, performing a high plank for 20 to 30 seconds. Once you are able to perform a high plank for two minutes straight, progress to shoulder taps: Lift one of your arms off the ground and tap the opposite shoulder. Alternate and repeat. Try to keep the rest of your body very still, and don’t rotate through your trunk or hips. Langelotti says a goal of two minutes straight is a great benchmark for skiers and snowboarders heading into the winter season (and beyond).
What It Does: Dropping cliffs and stomping landings are some of the best parts of skiing and snowboarding, but improper landing technique can ruin a day and maybe even derail a season. These modified jump squats are best performed as quietly as possible. “We say ‘quietly’ because, if performed correctly, the control of your movement will result in good force absorption and less impact,” Langelotti says.
How to Do It: Find a step or bench roughly 12 to 18 inches off the ground. Step off the bench and, as close to silently as possible, land in a squat, making sure to control the landing and finish in a full squat position. Repeat this movement ten times over two sets.
Learn to Fall
What It Does: Most injuries are the result of a fall gone wrong, so learn to take a tumble properly. “Having taught snowboarding for five-plus years to beginners and experts, the first thing I always discussed was how to fall,” Langelotti says. Note that you’ll have to practice this technique on the slopes.
How to Do It: Langelotti explains that, if you’re on a snowboard, you don’t want your hands and wrists to take the brunt of a fall. Instead, bring your arms in and let the larger parts of your body—your torso and butt—take the blow, and then roll out of the fall. On skis, the common instinct is to stand tall and rigid in an effort to stabilize on a downhill ski when you feel out of control. Langelotti says this makes skiers vulnerable to single-leg rotations—a very common mechanism for ACL injury. “Don’t fight the fall,” he says. “Let your ego go and let momentum take you down. Your knees will be thankful.”