Early Season 2005
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Warming up? Stretching? A good idea?...

How many times, early in the morning, at your favorite resort, have you seen a skier, or maybe even a ski school class, get off the lift ahead of you, slide a hundred feet down the run and stop, off to the side, and then begin an energetic stretching routine, like Olympic athletes warming up before a big competition? Often skiers use their skis as big levers in certain stretches which makes their stretching routines look even more incongruous, even more visible, there on the side of the slope. Does it work? Is this the right way to set yourself up for a great day of skiing? Should you be doing this too?

The answer, of course, is a resounding yes-and-no. Here's the story:

It’s true that relaxed, stretched-out muscles will perform better for you — not just for skiers, but in almost any sport. And that's why some kind of stretching is often included in the warm-up, getting-ready-to-play period of so many sports. But the key word here is probably “warm-up.” Because cold muscles simply don’t stretch well, in fact cold (and hence stiff feeling) muscles can actually be injured by strong stretching which can unnecessarily tear lots of tiny muscle fibers. Winter mornings are nothing if not cold, and when you get off that lift after the first ride of the day, chances are that you (and your muscles) will be a lot colder than when you got on the lift in the first place. So don’t just skate over to the side of the trail and start stretching!

Instead, give your self at least a run (or on a big mountain, at least a big part of that first run) to warm up and loosen up those stiff cold muscles. In a special kind of way:

Your goal is lots of smooth, gentle but steady, movement, especially in your legs: flexing, extending and generally doing something with them. If you are already a skilled skier, just shoving off down an easy blue slope probably isn’t going to provide any movement at all. You may just find yourself standing there, enjoying the view, while your skis do the skiing for you.

For this reason, on my first-thing-in-the-morning warm-up run, I do a lot of stepping from ski to ski, like walking in slow-motion. Not always skating (although smooth, long, rhythmic skating steps are ideal) because the terrain isn’t always conducive to skating. But simply stepping. Stepping up the hill when I find myself in a fast steep traverse. or stepping around corners, in a step-step, step-step rhythm rather than simply riding beautiful parallel turns. Without tackling any really steep or hard slopes, the idea is to see if you can keep moving continuously on your skis, rather than just standing there letting the scenery unroll past you.

Of course, this continuous, rhythmic flexing and extending of your legs is going to increase blood flow and warm all your leg muscles: quads, hamstrings, and a myriad of other helper muscles. After five minutes of “skiing” like this, yes, it’s time to find a quiet spot on the side of the trail, well out of the way of downhill traffic, and spend a few more minutes stretching. Something like this:

Start by sliding your skis back and forth in place (I mean one forward and one back, then reverse) fairly quickly, at first just a six inches or so, then progressively more and more, and also slower and slower, until you are finally really stretching sliding them as far forward and back as you comfortably can. Try some lateral leg stretches: spreading your skis laterally and deeply flexing first one leg, then the other, till the other, outstretched leg feels a stretch. All the while, in this and other ski stretches, using your poles in the snow for steadiness and support. To stretch the back of your legs and calves, you can swing one ski up in front of you, stand it vertically on its tail, and then gently lean your torso forward till you feel the stretch. Be sure to repeat everything on both sides. Finally to stretchy your quads, those big muscles that can get (and stay) really tight, try this: swing the tip of one ski around behind you (support yourself on your poles and lean forward as you swing your foot and ski around in a circular motion behind you). With the tip of that ski now behind you in the snow and the tail of that same ski rising behind your back to touch your shoulder, you can then lean back into the tail of that ski until you feel a stretch.

But be gentle, don’t overdo any of this. Stretching is not a macho contest. Stretched muscles simply work better, contracting more efficiently when they need to contract. A few moments of stretching really does set you up for a fine day on the slopes, provided you take the trouble to warm-up first. Think of that special “walking warm-up” run as a kind of pre-stretching. It works great. Try it, and see if you feel a difference. I think you will.

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