A Physical Therapist's Guide to Preparing for a Safe Ski Season

A Physical Therapist's Guide to Preparing for a Safe Ski Season

Abby Stanislaw

By Abby Stanislaw \ February 15 2024

The realm of sports medicine has long been embroiled in debates over injury prevention, sparking discussions on the efficacy of various routines. As a seasoned physical therapist specializing in elite athletes, including members of the US Ski Team and professional mountain bikers, I advocate for the significance of four fundamental principles in physical preparation for injury prevention.

Be Strong.
Be Balanced.
Be Flexible.
Be Specific.


Be Strong

The most important thing that any athlete can do to prepare for the dynamic environments that the mountains provide is to be strong. The most common injuries that skiers experience are knee and head injuries. That being said, having a strong lower body, trunk and neck all contribute to overall stability.

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Lower body strength might seem like a give-in for skiers. We have all felt that early season quad burn or back strap burn and know where our summer training could have focused more. But it comes down to so much more than just quads for lower body strength. The hamstrings and glutes (aka posterior chain) play a vital role in lower body stability, specifically protecting our precious Anterior Cruciate Ligaments (ACL's) from harm. A little anatomy lesson here, the ACL's primary action is to keep the tibia (shin bone) from sliding forward off of the femur. There are several muscles of the posterior chain which help stabilize this movement and prevent it from going into excess those include the Hamstrings, the Calves, and to a much smaller extent the popliteus and plantaris muscles. It is vital that all of these muscles can fire quickly in order to help stabilize your knee in the most vulnerable of situations.

Though the importance of strong leg muscles cannot be overstated, it is also key that the trunk muscles (including glutes, back and core) are strong and stable too. These muscles play a vital role in trunk stability and keeping your body upright during the ski turn. The leg and neck muscles must have a stable base to work off of in order to fire correctly and with power.

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Be Balanced

Once you have a strong base of support, you need to focus on having enough balance to work through variable conditions. Your body comes equipped with three main balance systems; proprioception, vestibular, and vision. Each of these systems plays a role in helping you maintain upright balance in moving (dynamic) and non-moving (static) positions. When preparing for the ski season, challenge each of these balance systems individually. You can do this by 1) closing your eyes to reduce reliance on the visual system, 2) standing on a squishy or unstable surface to reduce proprioceptive input, and 3) moving your head side to side/up and down to challenge your vestibular system.

It is important to incorporate these into dynamic movements to specifically address the specific loads that skiing places on the body by performing these challenging balance movements while jumping, pivoting, and/or performing strengthening exercises.

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Be Flexible

Having appropriate joint mobility and flexibility to move comfortably within your full range of motion is key to recovering from a fall or potential fall. Joint mobility goes beyond flexibility, this concept is the ability to be able to move in/out of deep ranges of motion with strength and precision. Some exercises I recommend to practice in order to address mobility are deep squats, full-depth lunges and Turkish get-ups.

Be Specific

Performing exercises that are sport-specific are going to be incredibly powerful tools to help you feel prepared for ski season. Sport-specific training goes beyond physical exercises that prepare you for skiing, these include cognitive and visual challenges that mimic the demands of skiing.

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Imagine skiing quickly through aspen trees the first time of the season, it always feels a little bit shady as the trees quickly pass you by. You can practice this skill by utilizing virtual reality glasses or practicing visual changes while performing your typical ski fitness routine. You can also incorporate some of these neurocognitive challenges into your routine by counting backwards from 100 by 7's while performing your jumping or balance training. Challenging your brain and visual system the same way that you do while planning your line while skiing or avoiding other skiers is going to help you feel more prepared as you hit the slopes.

Skiing is a great lifetime sport that can be shared with friends and family for years to come. Give yourself the best chance at having an injury-free ski season by incorporating these basic principles into your ski preparation routine. As always, don't overlook the importance of skiing within your skill level, checking your bindings, boots, and helmet for safety features at least once per year, and following the skiers code of conduct.
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