Train the Summer, Shred the Winter.
Off-season ski training often focuses – and rightly so – on maintaining strength and cardiovascular fitness, along with flexibility. But in a sport that requires the full-body commitment that skiing does, there’s another key element that can’t be overlooked: Balance.
Balance is what allows us to put all our strength and cardiovascular fitness into coordinated action. Without it, we’re an accident waiting to happen on the slopes (and elsewhere, like the dance floor, but that’s another story).
Bruce Cohn, a Massachusetts-based personal trainer, knows that reality better than most.
“When my clients perform ‘balance training,’ I remind them we are constantly in and out of balance all the time, especially in a sport like skiing,” Cohn says. “We start with single leg exercises that challenge stability, balance and strength, and progress to dynamic hopping and bounding on the floor and eventually to unstable surfaces.”
For reference, Cohn says “hopping” is done on the same leg, while “bounding” is from one leg to the other.
“These exercises force people into positions that move their body mass outside of their center of gravity and demand that they dynamically use their leg and core muscles to regain balance and re-center their body mass,” he says.
Over the span of a 40-year career, Cohn has worked with skiers of every ability level and many different ages.
“When I was the strength and conditioning coach at the Middlesex School (a Massachusetts prep school), I was responsible to train the ski racing team twice a week while they were in-season,” he says. “Two days prior to their race, we would do plyometric and dynamic balance training workouts.
“On the day after their race, we would do strength, mobility and static stability work,” says Cohn. “These teens were able to handle that type of in-season training because of the pliability of their neuromuscular systems and their lower incidence of overuse injuries.”
Unfortunately, things change as we age. According to Cohn, we begin losing muscular strength in our late 20s, and the process accelerates as we enter our 50s and 60s. While some age-related muscle loss is inevitable, older individuals who remain physically active lose less strength and function compared to their sedentary counterparts. Strength training with a focus on improving balance not only helps increase muscle mass, he says, but it also helps keep the connection between nerves and muscle more efficient.
In short, it’s never too soon to start training to improve balance.
“We need more time to develop or re-gain the requisite muscular strength and stability to progress from static to dynamic balance exercises,” says Cohn. “We also need more time to address faulty movement patterns and recover from the stress of these exercises along with past injuries.
“Ladder drills, hopping and bounding require time to both process motor learning demands – the brain-muscle connection – and for the musculoskeletal system to recover,” he says. “This is especially true for plyometric exercises. I’ve been impressed by the gains my older clients, those who have passed the 50-yard line of life, have made, but we have used careful progressions which require time to master.”
Cohn also monitors the amount of foot touches during these exercises, as they can be “highly concussive.” As with many things in life, moderation is important.
Another reality of skiing is injuries. And, again, the risk of getting hurt increases as we age, and our bodies become less pliable. But unlike death and taxes, injuries aren’t unavoidable. Working on your balance will not only help to keep those aches and pains (and worse) at bay, but can also help you return to the slopes safely following an injury.
“One of the consequences of knee and hip injuries is balance deficits, often leading to loss of mobility at the ankle,” said Cohn. “While the ski boot does not allow for much ankle movement, this may make skiers more prone to knee injuries in some cases. Dry land training helps address this mobility loss starting with static balance exercises on unstable surfaces like pads, boards and the BOSU ball.
“A loss of mobility at the ankle will often lead to the body seeking mobility from the next joint up the kinetic chain, such as the knee,” he says. “But the knee is designed for stability – preventing unwanted movement – and too much mobility in the knee usually leads to a knee injury. Exercises that increase balance demand promote injury recovery and reduction.”
One of Cohn’s favorite “success stories” is an expert skier who was trying to return to skiing after a double knee replacement.
“In that case, we had to work on regaining the mobility to flex the knees to a 90-degree angle while standing,” says Cohn. “We began with counter-weighted squat isometric holds to help him regain what I considered a lost movement pattern.
“He progressed to dynamic work and nine months after his surgery he was back skiing,” he says. “While he had an extremely positive response to training, the nature of his injury recovery was such that mobility work needed to precede stability and balance work.”
Although many balance exercises are relatively straightforward (see below), Cohn still recommends getting professional advice before launching into a balance regimen. Just like cardiovascular and strength training, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things.
“I think it is critical to do this pre-season balance training with a qualified fitness instructor or coach,” he says. “He or she should have the equipment and space that most people don’t have at home. Most importantly, a good coach has a plan with exercise progressions and regressions as needed and watches you perform each movement with constructive feedback.
“This can be done in a small group to help defray the cost of training, but I would never have a group of more than four participants to one coach,” says Cohn. “I’ve had good success with skiers using the agility ladder for ski specific drills and as a way of improving neuromuscular patterning prior to performing more advanced dynamic balance and strength exercises.
“I’ve also found working in small groups can lead to friendly competition and a greater sense of fun during a workout. And best of all, I have had participants report back to me on the positive comments about their skiing that they have received on the slopes after participating in this kind of program.”
While Cohn advocates working with a qualified trainer, there are some basic exercises you can do at home to improve your balance.
– Whenever you balance, you want to be in an “athletic stance,” says Cohn, with your stomach drawn in, chest aligned over thighs, and neck and shoulders in neutral, relaxed positions. Stand on one foot for 10 seconds. Repeat on the other foot. Now try the same thing with your eyes closed and you will understand how much we rely on our senses to maintain balance. Add a foam pad under your foot for a higher “degree of difficulty.”
– Five hops in place (jumping off and landing on the same foot) with a 5-second “stick” in between repetitions. A good stick involves landing in a one-quarter depth squat position with weight being transferred back through the derriere and into the heels. (“This is a prime example of why I think people should practice these movements first with qualified outside coaching,” says Cohn.)
– Five repetitions with a 5-second hold of each bound (“bounding” from one foot to the other). People should become proficient performing these exercises on a solid surface before ramping up the difficulty factor by landing on an unstable surface, like a foam pad.
– Add front and side planking for core stabilization. A good front plank is performed with hands directly under the raised shoulders while resting on the forearms and preventing the hips from sagging to the ground. (“I encourage my clients to tighten all of their muscles while performing a plank and think of drawing their elbows towards their hips,” says Cohn.) A good side plank is performed with the elbow under the raised shoulders resting on the forearm forming a 90-degree angle from the shoulder down to the elbow and wrist. The top leg should rest on the floor in front of the bottom leg and not on top of it to avoid shearing force through the spine. Think of yourself as holding your side planks as though you’re between two large panes of glass. Progress from 15-30 seconds before raising the non-supported arm in the air and/or raising the top leg off the ground. Remember to not break the panes of glass.
– Once good form can be held for 30 seconds, Cohn recommends enhancing the exercise by performing it on an unstable surface like a stability ball or BOSU trainer (a stability ball with a flat bottom).
– Similarly, participants can perform squats or overhead presses while standing on one leg. In addition to improving balance, core stability, and strength, these exercises are joint-friendly in that they allow you to work with lighter weights and still increase the intensity of the workload. Again, adding a foam pad or BOSU trainer adds to the challenge. Focus on technique.
See more details on balance regimens at brucecohnfitness.com.