The basement of my college athletics complex housed a training room with all sorts of rehab equipment. Physio balls, elastic bands, cable machines and balance boards lay strewn across the carpeted floor. I would usually walk by and scoff internally at the athletes repeatedly stretching their ankles with the elastic bands or laying across a physio ball rotating their arms and flexing their shoulders under the watchful eye of the athletic training staff.
Those athletes were injured, or rehabbing, or spending countless hours trying to correct some minor pain or imbalance. Those athletes are weak! I would think to myself, heading toward the ice bath after an interval workout. Why don’t they do some real training? You know, lift some weights or go rollerski for a few hours, things that made those elastic-band exercises look like an interpretive dance at a nursing home.
It turns out college-age me was just plain lucky to avoid injury and sports rehab. College-age me was also judgmental and stubborn. As someone who now coaches junior skiers, I rely on those bands and cables weekly. They’ve become integral components of our club’s strength routine, and I now admit that I’m a devotee of the bands and cables, too. As someone who is a newly-minted master skier, I try to spend as much time as I can working on the same preventative exercises as the juniors on our team.
The logic just makes too much sense, whether or not you read athletic magazine articles or peer-reviewed sports medicine journals. Most skiers know that the ability to balance on one foot is important. But what muscles are you using to steady that balance? Most skiers have felt that stinging lower back pain after the first day of classic skiing on snow. But what are you doing with your body position and posture that leads to that pain?
It turns out the hip joints are often the source of the problems. Sagging shoulders, twisting torsos and aggravated ankles can, in some cases, be traced right to the hip joints. Our ski culture is often dead set on getting our “hips up!” when, in reality, we might want to be more focused on getting our “hips activated!”
So what can you or I do about it? Simple: many of those same exercises that I previously decried actually have amazing benefits for stability, coordination and strength within the tiny muscle groups we often overlook. Exercises involving bands or physio balls can be done at any age, though a reasonable time to start would be coinciding with a younger athlete’s introduction to more competitive sports around middle school. Good habits and routine work in this area can really help prevent trips to the athletic training room in the future. Sharon Henry, PT, PhD, ATC, Professor Emerita of Physical Therapy, University of Vermont, was kind enough to recommend and teach me the following excercises.
Note: Bands are inexpensive and often come in sets of three (light, medium and heavy resistance). Always start lighter than you think you may need, and work up by increasing resistance after four to six weeks with a given band.
Band Monster Walks
This is possibly the most well-known exercise for hip and glute strength. With a band around your ankles, shins or knees (the lower the band, the more resistance), walk in a complete lateral motion 5-8 steps to one side, then the same number of steps back to the starting point. Repeat 3-5 sets.
Key movement notes:
Keep your hips totally level, avoiding the urge to rock one side higher than the other with each step.
Bend at the knee and engage in a slight squat the whole time, isolating and engaging the glutes.
Band Clock Faces
Great for putting stress on the hips in a variety of directions, which mimics the multi-directional demands of a ski race or training session on all sorts of gradients and curves. With a band around your ankles, engage in a slight squat while reaching out with one foot to tap imaginary numbers of a clock with your heel. Steadily bring the foot back underneath you after every hour mark. Repeat 3x on each side.
Key movement notes:
Keep your hands on your hips to ensure they remain level. During this exercise it is easy to drop either the hip corresponding to the reaching foot or to the stationary foot.
Tap the ground with your heels, not your toes. Leading with the toes can cause stretching to reach the target and take the muscular emphasis off the hips and glutes.
A pushup that may seem easier than the traditional method you know and love. But this is an exercise that will challenge your hips, lower abdominals and glutes. On a raised bench or bar (36” to 48”) get your body into a pushup position. Then add a slight bend to the knees and elbows, while keeping a straight line from your neck down your spine and legs. Slowly raise and lower your opposite arm and leg, while maintaining stability through the neck, spine and lower body. Alternate sides, repeating 6-10x over a total of 3-5 sets.
Key movement notes:
Don’t move to fast, and move with purpose. A mirror to the side, or a friend to watch and give feedback, is a great way to make sure you are maintaining correct body position.
Keep your elbows close to your side, rather than out. Think of a “tricep pushup” and not the more common “military pushup.”
Adam Terko is the head coach of Vermont’s Mansfield Nordic Club and has been skiing competitively (and writing about it) since before Fischer skis had holes in their tips. He’s also the technical editor of Cross Country Skier and writes the how-to column “Back Shop” in each issue.
Subscribe now to the print magazine to read Terko’s latest column and more at crosscountryskier.com/subscribe.