Friday, December 10, 2004

Get fit, then get skiing

It's never too late to get in shape

For the Mountain Express

Winter in Sun Valley is a time of rejoicing as skiers dust off and tune up the latest high-tech skis and purchase a pass to carve up 3,400 vertical feet of Bald Mountain over the holiday season.

That initial rush of pleasure, which always accompanies a first run schussing the perfectly groomed slopes of Baldy, can quickly turned to depression during a liter ride to a waiting ambulance because a skier has not taken time to shape up.

Skiing Baldy's 2,054 acres is a demanding undertaking, subjecting the body to repeated stresses and involving strenuous exertion at high altitudes. The fitter the skier, the better and longer he or she is able to challenge the mountain's 65 different runs with the flexibility that inherently lowers the risk of injury.

It's not only snow and grooming conditions that tear at those ligaments. Many of the latest high-tech ski designs require extra leg strength to hold that perfect carve as abs, hamstrings and the lower back strain to hold a half-crouch position for run after run through back- and knee-jarring moguls.

"It takes strength to hold the new high-tech skis," says Kevin Mora, a certified personal trainer and owner of High Altitude Fitness in Ketchum. "People skiing above their level with this new equipment can injure themselves."

Strength alone is not enough. It must be accompanied by flexibility and aerobic fitness for the best shot at enjoying an injury-free holiday ski season. This conditioning should start before hitting the slopes, but it's not too late.

If fitness has been on the back burner lately, make it a priority now. It's still early for perfect ski conditions, so make the time for a conditioning program. Find a partner to encourage a regular schedule of workouts, join an exercise group or consider a professional personal trainer, who will quickly assess weaknesses and develop a program that targets those areas.

"Being in good shape will improve on-hill performance and make your skiing and other sports activities safer and more enjoyable," Carl Petersen, professional trainer and author of "Fit to Ski" writes. "Add some variety by changing the agility exercises you do at the beginning, changing the cardio (aerobic) component from cycle to stair-climb or elliptical trainer or by changing the general body exercises."

Flexibility counters the twisting and strain on muscles and ligaments inherent to a hard run through powder or, especially, wet snow. Aerobic or cardio fitness is essential for all physical exertion at Ketchum/Sun Valley's 6,200-foot altitude.

"The altitude affects even those who live here," says Mora, a 12-year resident of Ketchum, who with his wife Holly leads a very physically active lifestyle typical of many full-time residents of this resort.

"We live it," Mora says of the resort lifestyle here, climbing, riding, lifting and skiing, yet still he and Holly, also a personal trainer, work hard at staying in shape to avoid injuries.

"At 25 years old, it's, 'go as hard as you can'; at 35 ... " Mora stops as the realities and wisdom that come with getting older sink in. "I've suffered injuries myself," he says of his attitude in younger days.

Injuries do not always heal to 100 percent of pre-injury condition or seemingly heal only to come back to haunt one in later years. An anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear in the knee joint is one of these injuries and very common in skiers.

Tally up $800-plus for anesthesiologist, about $3,000 for outpatient hospital visit, $4,000-plus for the doctor to repair an ACL, pain killers, braces, physical therapy, and other odds and ends for a $15,000 price tag. Compare that with $55 per month for use of a multitude of gym equipment that, used properly, can build a fitness level that helps avoid such injuries.

Good fitness may lessen the severity of injuries suffered in one of those few unavoidable wrecks when no amount of human flexibility can accommodate that landing position. The more flexible a skier's muscles and ligaments, the less likely things are to snap when stressed.

The number one protection against an ACL injury, according to "Your Guide to Sports Medicine" newsletter author Elizabeth Quinn, is conditioning and strengthening exercises of the quadriceps and hamstring before ski season starts.

Mora, who began weight training 18 years ago as an athlete and moved to competitive power lifting before focusing on training others six years ago, agrees and recommends targeting the abs, lower back and hamstrings as part of any ski conditioning program. The program should include many different aspects including lateral, jumping and stop-and-go exercises.

The rule of thirds applies here. A one-hour routine should consist of 20 minutes of cardio exercises, 20 minutes on abs and stretching and 20 minutes of weights for strength, says Mora, or spend one workout session on each for a thrice a week program.

"Keep the routine fresh to avoid boredom-- and quitting," suggests Mora. "Use different speeds and inclines to add diversity and to stay mentally fresh."

Don't expect to find a tried and true routine to pick up and follow to success on the slopes. No cookie-cutter exercise programs exist.

"Everyone is different," says Mora, who assesses clients' previous experience, injuries and goals before starting any program. "There is no one sheet of paper that fits all."

Once the season is in full swing and skiing becomes a daily activity, lighten the workouts, using spinning and yoga to keep muscles long and limber and counter the hunched position common to mogul and powder skiing.

"Also, ski easier at the end of the day, when the body is typically fatigued," writes Quinn in her newsletter, "avoiding difficult trails, big air, lots of moguls and skiing on ice" when the body is tired.

In addition, use gear that fits properly and is tuned up. Check binding release tension to be sure it is not too tight. And keep stretching.

Don't waste that investment in a $1,600-plus season pass, only to tack on $15,000 more for doctors because, "there just wasn't time," to get fit. Proper fitness helps ensure a ski season to remember, not one to forget, on the slopes of Sun Valley's famous Bald Mountain.

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