Pilates for Skiers

It’s that brilliant, sparkling white time of year: ski season! Living in Colorado, many of our clients (and instructors) love to hit the slopes as often as possible to take advantage of our beautiful natural landscape. Here’s why we recommend Pilates for skiers — for cross-training, injury prevention, and recovery.

When in proper ski posture, your knees are bent in a half-squat and your spine is pitched slightly forward. Think about sitting down and getting up from a chair without using your hands: the range of motion you go through when going from sitting to standing will be the basic movement you’ll do when skiing. (If you’re a yogi, think of chair pose. Your weight will be shifted forward into your toes, but the basic position is very similar.)

The most common injuries we see from skiers are ailments to the tissues surrounding the knees, specifically tears of the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), MCL (medial collateral ligament), and meniscus.

Image courtesy of  WebMD , The Pilates Collective: Pilates for skiers, Pilates workout for skiing

Image courtesy of WebMD, The Pilates Collective: Pilates for skiers, Pilates workout for skiing

Skiing requires twisting from the waist, but many times that rotation is mistakenly transferred to the knees. Especially once larger muscles are fatigued, the knee joint takes on excessive pressure that could result in a tear of these ligaments. To prevent this, we recommend doing exercises that strengthen the obliques, back extensors, and of course, the legs in our Pilates workout for skiing.

1) Keep the twist out of your knees   

Part of the benefit of Pilates is not just in strengthening the muscles, but in strengthening muscle memory. By repeating patterns of movement, our muscles “remember” how and when to engage. For skiers, it’s important to engage the obliques regularly so they gain endurance and keep rotation out of the knees. There are several great ab exercises you can do at home and in the studio to strengthen these muscles, but when teaching Pilates for skiers, we often recommend criss-cross.

How to do Criss-Cross:

Lay on your back with your fingers interlaced behind your head and your legs in a tabletop position. On an exhale, nod your chin into your chest and go into an upper body curl. Take an inhale.

The traditional breathing for this exercise is to inhale in two sharp pulses and exhale in two sharp pulses. (If this feels distracting or difficult, breathe however works best for you. Just be sure to keep breathing!) On your exhale, twist towards your left side, bending your left knee in towards your chest and reaching your right leg out in front of you. On your second exhale pulse, twist to the right. Repeat on an inhale. Do 10 sets, with a full breath (exhale-right, exhale-left, inhale-right inhale-left) being a single set.

Instead of thinking of bringing your elbow and opposite knee towards one another, think of bringing your lowest rib towards your opposite hip bone. This will encourage a deeper twist and deeper engagement of your abdominals.

2) Engage your abs to save your back

Back injuries are also common among skiers. Skiing requires you to lean forward against the front of your boots, which engages your back extensors (the muscles that run on either side of your spine). This engagement is healthy, but if those muscles haven’t been working much, you risk overworking or even pulling them. Using Pilates as cross-training for skiing, you can train your abdominals to engage whenever your back muscles fire, ensuring that your back muscles are supported and that you’re at a lower risk of injury.  

To engage your abdominals and back simultaneously, we recommend doing forearm planks.

How to do a Forearm Plank

Start in a table position on your knees and palms. Lower your forearms to the mat, bringing your hands together and separating your elbows as much as feels comfortable. Engage your abdominals, then extend your legs out behind you one at a time.

Hold this for 30 seconds and breathe. As you hold your plank, think about pulling your pubic bone forward and your navel in towards your spine. This will help you engage your abdominals and prevent overworking your lower back.

If you feel your back muscles start to cramp or work intensely, lower your knees and press into a child’s pose. Try again, this time for just 10 or 5 seconds. We’re aiming for progress, not perfection!

3) Protect your knees on your skis

Of course, the muscles doing the majority of the work in skiing are in your lower half, so we couldn’t create a Pilates workout for skiing without engaging the legs. Your quadriceps, hips, glutes, and outer and inner legs are all working hard as you swish through the powder.

After your first time on the mountain each season, you’ll likely feel most of your soreness in your quads, the large muscles on top of your thighs. Skiing requires you to keep your knees bent, which engages the quads, so this is perfectly normal. When teaching Pilates for skiers, we work to balance engagement of the quads with engagement of the hamstrings, the muscles on the backs of your thighs. Lunges are great for engaging all the muscles in the leg and practicing tracking your knees properly over your toes.

How to do Lunges

Start standing tall with your hands on your hips and your feet hip-width apart. Feel strong through the centerline of your body: your inner thighs, abdominals, and back.

Inhale and reach your right leg back behind you and plant your right toes down. As you do so, bend your left knee to a 90 degree angle. Make sure your knee goes right over your toes, not in towards your big toe or out towards your pinky. As you exhale, bring your right leg back to meet your left. Repeat with your left leg.

Do 10 sets, focusing on your breathing, knee alignment, and keeping your abdominals engaged. When in your lunge, think about your hamstrings hugging your thigh bones.

4) Keep your skis in line with your adductors

The muscles in your inner thighs, called adductors, help you keep your skis underneath you rather than splaying apart. By engaging these, you can take some of the pressure off of your MCL and avoid knee injury.

Doing side-lying leg exercises engages your adductors as well as your outer hips and legs, which you need to maintain control and keep your skis underneath you. Plus, this exercise engages your obliques as well. A win all around!

How to do a Side-Lying Legs Series

Lie on your left side with your left arm underneath your head. Extend both legs long, reaching through your toes. Press your right palm into the mat, so that your right shoulder is away from your ear, then pull the left side of your waist away from the floor. This should pull your right hip bone towards your feet. Aim to keep this space under your waist (which many teachers call a “mouse house”) throughout the entire exercise.

1) First, lift your right leg up to hip height, then bring it down to touch the left leg. Just tap the leg, don’t rest it. Do 10 sets.

2) Keep your right leg lifted at hip height and bring your left leg up to meet it. Bring the leg up and down without resting it on the floor. Do 10 sets. Take a break when you need it.

3) Keep your inner thighs glued together and lift both legs up to hip height. Lower down to tap and do 10 sets.

Repeat all three on the other side.

Bonus: To work your inner thighs and lower abs even more, lay on your back with your legs extended up towards the ceiling. Stack your hands underneath your sacrum to give your lower back some support.

Externally rotate your legs, keep them straight, and cross one in front of the other. Then switch. Switch as quickly as you can without bending your knees or letting your hips wobble.

On your inhale, switch your legs as quickly as you can while lowering them down towards the floor. On your exhale, keep switching and bring them back up to 90 degree. Try for 5, only going as low as you can without feeling your lower back working.

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Once you’ve come off the mountain, take a class in the studio and ask us how you can best prepare your body for your next ski trip. Click here to see our current schedule or contact us at 720-459-8913 or clara@pilatescollectivedenver.com to book a private session. Happy ski season!

Ali Weeks