Strong Legs Are Key To Any Sport

hamstring-muscleThey can be your best friend or your worst enemy. The four main muscle groups in your lower body — the glutes, the quads, the hamstrings and the muscles of the lower legs — can make or break your winter season.

You can turn fate in your favor by training those muscles to counter the risk of injuries from snow sports. Strength and endurance should be your mantra, and early fall is the time to begin.

“Ideally, you already have a base built from summer outdoor sports as you head into fall,” says endurance athlete Ray Browning, co-author of the book Serious Training for Endurance Athletes. If you aren’t already somewhat fit, too much sudden strength training itself can cause an injury that sabotages your season.

Your lower body needs to be strong to respond to the inconsistent properties of snow. An ever-changing snow surface — sometimes viscous, sometimes hardpacked — can throw your body off balance. By understanding the purpose of each lower-body muscle group, Browning says, an athlete can target specific goals and more effectively prepare for the split-second variations that occur in all snow sports.

“The glutes are extremely important, as they extend the thigh in sports movements,” he says. “As you take a step, the quads and hip flexors are crucial for extending the knee, pulling the knee to the chest and stepping out. The hamstring muscle group is a large part of an athlete’s propulsion, and the lower leg is key for stability and balance.”

Snowboarders and skiers have similar needs when it comes to general muscle development of the lower body. Training for both sports requires explosive power movement, known as pliometrics, and aerobic interval training. We talked to some of the country’s top coaches to see what they have their athletes doing to prepare for the winter season.

SNOWBOARDING

U.S. Snowboard conditioning coach Heath Van Aken says he constantly pounds into his athletes the importance of proper strength training for snowboarding.

“Snowboarding is a complex sport,” he says. “We see a lot of injuries in the shoulders, lower backs and ankles that keep athletes off the snow for the whole season. We get a lot of back alignment problems because boarders stand in a twisted position for the whole season.”

Despite the need to build strength, Van Aken cautions against getting too sport-specific in the weight room. Imitating a snowboard stance in a squat, for example, is a way to hurt yourself, he says. Instead, work the calves on a calf-raise machine and practice a lot of ankle-rotation work. Although the muscle strength gleaned from squats, lunges and leg-presses is valuable for boarders, Van Aken advises using low weights so your knees aren’t left vulnerable from overuse. Van Aken especially recommends squats and lunges because they require a snowboarder to use balance while building strength.

U.S. Snowboard team members begin training with light weights and high reps, which causes muscle growth without building bulk. Three to five weeks into the program, the snowboarders focus on strength building by increasing weight while decreasing the number of repetitions. Then a few weeks prior to the season, it’s back to sports specific toning with light weights and high numbers of repetitions.

Three to six weeks before the start of the season, Van Aken has his athletes add pliometrics to their routine — for example, jumping in place or bounding. “This incorporates a full range of motion, which is more like snowboarding because muscles are contracted and extended,” Van Aken says.

DOWNHILL SKIING

Ron Kipp, director of athlete preparation for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association in Park City, Utah, says that for skiing, he focuses on the tibialis anterior, the muscle located on the top of the foot and the front of the ankle, responsible for pulling the top of the foot toward the knee, keeping the skier leaning forward. “That’s the muscle that keeps a skier in the front seat,” he says.

Kipp has skiers perform specific strength moves like heel walks, in which the athletes walk on their heels for a sustained period of time. Another option, he says, involves using a rowing machine. An athlete attaches the machine cable, intended for the hand, to her foot and pulls the loaded foot toward her body. Kipp suggests working this muscle beginning in the fall and throughout the winter.

As ski season approaches, skiers should add interval work to their routines to train muscles to become efficient in handling anaerobic workloads, Kipp says. Incorporating intervals twice a week into preseason program enables an athlete to longer and recover faster at the end of a

“We usually do running and biking intervals, 30 seconds on and a minute off,” he says. “Those sports are leg focused. They aren’t as specialized as we’d like them be, but it’s the best of both worlds because you get some aerobic work in too.”

The key to curtailing ski-related lower-body injuries, says Kipp, is proper training of the hamstring muscle group. “We see lot of ACL injuries in skiing, where the translates forward relative to the femur,” he says. “Training the hamstring can pull the tibia back to the posterior.”

A standard leg-curl machine and “butt-ups,” which involve lying in front of a chair, placing one leg, knee bent on the chair and raising your body, provide two good exercises for strengthening the hamstrings. You know that your form is correct, Kipp says, if you feel the exercise working the back of your thighs.

NORDIC SKIING

Nordic skiers combine dryland training with gym work to prepare the all-important leg muscles for the groomed track.

“Coming into the ski season, I would suggest trying to make the muscles fit instead of trying to build them up,” says U.S. Nordic ski coach Gordon Lange. “Do multiple reps in the weight room, like three sets of 20 per exercise. Keep in mind that you’re working those muscles to be strong in an endurance setting.”

Torbjorn Karlsen, two-time recipient of the U.S. Nordic Coach of the Year award, recommends hill bounding exercises, which can be done in tandem with running in rolling terrain, to mold muscles into endurance form. His athletes do short bounding bursts uphill to train muscles for the explosive strength needed on a Nordic course.

Skate bounding, in which an athlete ascends sideways up a hill (the side of the body should be facing uphill), is a great way to focus on the outer thigh muscles needed for skate skiing. So is an exercise called the “low walk,” in which an athlete moves forward in a speedskater’s form, with the torso parallel to the ground and the knees deeply bent.

Side bounding, in which an athlete continually jumps over a stationary object from one side to the other, develops a skater’s kick muscles. Another good exercise is to jump straight up, with or without a weighted vest. This exercise helps a skier’s kick by developing balance between the front and rear of the thigh.


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