Skiing this winter? After you get off the slopes -- and before you head to the bar -- consider yoga, or an ice pack.
It was not your clichéd beautiful day in Vail, Colo., a spot known for enjoying more sunshine than most any other resort. It was overcast and unnaturally cold, with temperatures registering 11 below zero. Instead of mounds of fluffy white powder, the landscape was covered with hard-packed snow that felt like ice.
Suzanne Oliver, 46, an avid and expert skier since 1990 and a lightweight woman, was trying out new boots and they felt stiff in the extreme cold.
“They were too much for my small body,” she says. “I couldn’t flex them at all, so when I went down, I was immediately alarmed.”
She caught the edge of her ski and went tumbling down the mountain. Despite the mind-numbing cold, she was still thinking clearly.
“This was not my first rodeo with a torn ACL,” she says, referring to the anterior cruciate ligament in the knee. “I felt the pop and the tear. I felt my knee dislocate. And after the excruciating pain, there was nothing. No pain at all. That was when I knew I had completely blown out my knee. Again.”
According to the trade group Snow Sports Industries of America, an average of 8 million people ski in any year, 7 million snowboard and 3 million enjoy cross-country skiing. The vast majority are not professional athletes, but people like Oliver, who are out for an enjoyable winter day.
Injuries like Oliver’s are all too common in skiing today. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic surgeons, an average of 200,000 people injure their ACL every year in sports such as soccer, basketball and skiing. But there is good news. Despite her injury, Oliver was able to regain a full range of motion in her knee in just two months after surgery. How did she do it? She credits yoga.
Après Ski Is Not a ‘Green’ Run
While a torn ligament will ruin a skier’s year, there are other headaches and more common frustrations that can kill the buzz of your après ski experience, such as not being able to walk from pain in the legs or back. Every weekend warrior or once-a-year skier knows the feeling. It’s like an 800-lb gorilla jumped on your shoulders and refused to get off.
“I have grown up skiing and skiing the moguls,” says Susie Masterson, a former competitor on the World Pro-Am Mogul Tour in Colorado and a professional ski instructor. “A typical day would be to ski 10 to 15 bump runs. Walking away, your thighs would be screaming. It was just miserable.”
And that was when she was younger! Aging can bring about positive changes in wisdom and spirit, but not so much in the muscles. Now that Masterson is 49, you would expect that muscle soreness after skiing to be worse. But instead, she says her body feels better.
“I can still ski as hard as I once did, but now I’m not in any pain afterward,” she says. “I attribute that to yoga. I can go hammer bumps all day long and my back doesn’t hurt at all because I have a stronger core and more awareness of my alignment.”
The Secret is not a Secret
The secret to enjoying a ski vacation and being strong for the slopes is not a secret at all: Take care of your body before and after your hit the slopes.
There are ski conditioning classes and personal trainers who can help build strong leg muscles, but it's tough to maintain a routine all year long and there aren't any gym exercises that can simulate actual skiing. The effort needed from a skier's muscles -- such as engaging the quads for extended periods of time -- is unlike any other sport. And it can be brutal to desk jockeys.
While Masterson and Oliver were both exercising and working hard to build more strength, they didn’t experience a shift until they started a regular yoga practice.
“I am paying attention now,” Masterson says. “I know how to hold my body in alignment and play with my center of gravity. I use my core consciously and my back doesn’t hurt.” This change came from a four-times-a-week yoga practice.
Practicing yoga for skiing is for balancing out the typically tighter quads with the looser hamstrings, releasing painful feet and ankles and stretching out sore muscles to make for a better day on the slopes tomorrow. Yoga before skiing can fire up the gluteus muscles, release a tight iliotibial (IT), band, stretch the quadriceps and release calves. You can wake up your core and feel balanced and centered in your stance.
Oliver, who was able to return to the slopes after her ACL tear the following season, believes her recovery was due to her time on the mat.
“My yoga practice does not vary for athletics or skiing, says Oliver, “I keep it the same all year round.”
Oliver, who is also a certified yoga teacher in Avon, Colo., says, “Yoga is a full body, mind and spirit experience. And so is skiing. You don’t just ski with your lower body. You use everything. You use the entire body to maintain a balanced position, you use the breath to be calm, and you use the spirit at times to get you down the mountain. Yoga works all of that.”
It’s good, until it’s not.
“It’s the third day that hits them,” says Jenn Metz, 54, a veteran ski instructor for Vail Resorts. Metz has been instructing skiing for 38 years and she knows how to coach her clients to have a great vacation, but still, they often wake up sore. “They have overall fatigue, tired legs, quads and sometimes calves.”
Metz also has a year-round business in fitness and nutrition and says the preparation before skiing is vital. “Once someone is here, there’s not a lot we can do. We can try to help them use our instruction more effectively, for example, if the quads are tired we can try to get them to ski in a more balanced or centered posture.”
For Après ski, Metz recommends the “Triple Whammy.” “You need hot water, preferably with Epsom salts,” she says. “Hydration is king, and if they can tolerate it, an anti-inflammatory.”
A soak in a hot tub is a good choice, but there are other approaches to recover from strenuous activity, such as ice baths.
“Certainly most people say a hot tub is relaxing, but for breaking the inflammatory cycle, ice is the best thing,” says Andrew Parker, a leading orthopedic surgeon in Denver, who is often the choice of athletes from the Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets. “From the standpoint of achiness, you would want to put an ice pack on the area. It is the best remedy for pain, combined with stretching.”
Metz knows an ice bath might be the best thing after a long day on the slopes, but it can be tough to convince a skier.
“For me to tell a skier to take an ice bath, that’s not going to fly,” she says. “A hot bath will also provide circulation and flush out the muscles. Also, I recommend self-massage with a hard ball, or padded wand or a foam roller.”
Former freestyle competitive skier Joshua Hensley learned to bring little hard balls and padded implements for après ski.
“I thought I could ski on natural talent, but I was unprepared and unconditioned,” says Hensley, 41. “I couldn’t compete at the level I should have.”
To fix his problem, Hensley, along with two friends who also competed, created the Rad Roller, a family of products meant to reduce inflammation, stretch muscles and generate myofascial release. The myofascial connective tissue is a like a thin sheath that surrounds muscle and is difficult to stretch, however gentle pressure into it will eliminate pain and restore motion. The Rad line includes hard balls and rolling pins you press along the injured tissue after skiing.
“It allows you to pinpoint the myofascial build up and knots in your muscles,” Hensley says. “It’s a ‘hurts so good’ kind of ache, and afterward, it’s like night and day.”
With rolling, icing and yoga becoming the new normal for ski preparation and recovery, amateurs and professionals alike can enjoy snow sports comfortably well into mid-life, and beyond.
“Even though I’m older, I ski stronger,” Masterson says. “And I walk away strong. That has made all the difference.”
Michelle Marchildon is The Yogi Muse. She’s an award-winning journalist, the author of two books, and an E-500 RYT yoga teacher in Denver, Colorado.