Improve Flexibility and Overall Fitness.
Skiing is a dynamic sport. So a fitness routine designed to prepare you for ski season typically focuses on strength and endurance. But other components, including flexibility and effective breathing, are just as important, and become even more crucial as you age.
To improve flexibility, while improving overall fitness, there are few better methods than the ancient art of yoga. We reached out to Kim Johnson, founder of The Athlete’s Yoga near Boston, and Courtney Smith, owner of Thug Yoga® in Aspen, Colorado, for advice on how this time-honored discipline can help us improve our experience while carving turns at our favorite resort.
“Skiing is a high-energy sport, and most skiers are adrenaline junkies,” said Johnson. “That continual surge of adrenaline zaps us of energy. A comprehensive yoga program addresses the ‘whole’ body with slow, mindful movement that builds strength, flexibility, core power, balance, and body awareness.
“Plus, breath-work and meditation help reduce stress, calm the nervous system, and keep you focused,” she said. “Breathing techniques will help give you the energy you need to sustain a full day of skiing.”
If you’re a beginner, consider scheduling a few sessions with a recommended yoga instructor first (much like taking skiing lessons).
“Working with a qualified yoga instructor is essential when starting a yoga practice,” said Smith. “Your teacher can show you specific modifications for your injuries or body issues so that you can create a practice that works for you.
“A teacher can also give you detailed instructions and corrections in alignment that you might not feel on your own or even see in a mirror,” she said.
Because it’s low-impact, yoga is an ideal complement to a more dynamic pre-season ski fitness program, said Smith.
Adapt to Altitude and Cold
“Altitude, cold weather, as well as the complete change of movement involved with skiing, are all going to be a shock to the body,” she said. “With adequate preparation, we can ease the shock, thus preventing injury and increasing the stamina, strength and flexibility required for a good day on the slopes. The preparation also gives the body time to create the proper awareness and muscle memory required for a new activity.
“The cold weather definitely plays a role” in how our bodies adapt to ski season, said Smith. “Our metabolism slows in the winter, and we sometimes feel sluggish or tired and start to pack on the pounds. By establishing a regular exercise routine, including yoga, prior to the winter months, you can increase your lean muscle mass which increases metabolism and can prevent that lethargic feeling of the dark winter months.”
So how, exactly, does yoga accomplish those goals. Johnson and Smith highlight the following benefits:
Fluid movement. Slow, consistent stretches and conscious movement increase your body’s range of motion, helping to prevent undue stress on knee and ankle joints. The result is improved muscle reaction to obstacles on the trails. These movements also aid in recovery, improving flexibility which helps prevent injuries.
Breathing. Since we often ski at higher altitudes, improved oxygen intake is essential. Breathing properly provides oxygen levels needed to perform at maximum capacity. Another benefit of yoga’s breathing practices is the mental and physical relaxation of the body in a stressed environment. Stress reduction can also improve sleep, which in turn allows muscles to recover and be ready for another day on the hill.
Focus. Yoga emphasizes mental focus and awareness of breathing, as well as precise alignment within the body. Skiing also requires a great deal of mental focus, and proper alignment of the body is key when maneuvering through turns and around obstacles. Whether competing, exploring the backcountry, or just enjoying the groomed corduroy, mental focus is essential to assessing a situation and reacting quickly and properly.
Meditation. The practice of engaging in mental exercise (concentration on your breathing, or repetition of a mantra) to reach a heightened level of awareness has multiple benefits, said Smith. While that sounds very “Zen,” it’s actually a matter of finding a quiet space that allows you to excel.
“A meditation practice will increase your level of mental focus,” said Smith. “Our lives today are consumed by chatter, whether it’s social media, TV, fast-paced work life, or social obligations. By learning to quiet the mind through meditation, we increase mental focus and clarity.
“These attributes will provide a quick assessment of situations and obstacles encountered while skiing as well as helping us be present enough to properly execute the body movements necessary for efficient skiing,” she said. “If your mind is consistently wandering to the girl you met last night at the bar, or all the work you should be doing instead of skiing, then you’re not likely to notice the giant Aspen tree you’re about to hit. A clear and present mind allows the body to move with purpose and ease, while being aware of and able to avoid obstacles.”
Balance and Conditioning
Balance. Skiing, and often ski conditioning, typically targets strength in the lower body. Many yoga poses strengthen the upper body, so adding these poses to a ski-conditioning program will bring balance to the entire body, said Smith.
“When the body is in balance, there is less chance of injury or wear and tear of the joints during skiing,” she said. “Where there’s muscle imbalance, often the joints take on added pressure and stress to compensate.
“Yoga also focuses on a balance between strength, flexibility and body awareness which aids in injury prevention,” said Smith. “If the quads are strong from constantly being in a skiing stance, then likely the opposing hamstrings as well as inner thighs are tight and not able to compensate when a skier loses balance.”
Had that skier committed to improving flexibility as well as strength, said Smith, then his (or her) muscles would be able to handle this sudden change through the combination of strength, flexibility, and muscle memory acquired while practicing those positions.
“Yard sale prevented,” she said, laughing.
Plus, when we find ourselves on the far side of 30, we realize our bodies are naturally less pliable, and we don’t process oxygen as effectively. Yoga can’t prevent aging, but it can delay its more insidious affects.
“As we age, our oxygen intake naturally decreases,” said Smith. “This can cause stress on the body in a high altitude activity such as skiing. Breath practice of yoga will increase the amount of oxygen in our blood as well as lung power and keep us schussing with ease long into our twilight years.”
Best of all, most yoga studios are designed to have their own feel (or vibe) and energy, and most offer a variety of classes. Which means you should be able to find a class that’s the right fit for you (like my “Stiff Guys Yoga” class back home in Massachusetts).
“Yoga is non-competitive and non-judgmental, where individuality is emphasized and yogis are encouraged to go at their own pace,” said Johnson. “Find a warm, welcoming environment. Make it your own practice, but enjoy the collective energy and breath of fellow yogis. You’ll come away feeling strong, open, centered, relaxed, and ready to take on a day on the slopes.”