As the height of ski season draws near, ski and fitness magazines and websites will no doubt present a deluge of best skiing workouts. Some will offer excellent advice. Others will leave out two important elements: Balance and Proprioception.

Balance, Proprioception and How They Relate

Everyone occasionally falls on the slopes, but if your frequent wipe-outs are famous for triggering enormous yard sales, you are either:

  1. Skiing beyond your abilities
  2. Having equipment issues
  3. Having balance and proprioception problems

Proprioception describes your body´s awareness of its position in space. Constantly looking down at the snow as you ski might indicate impaired proprioception.  If you can´t sense the changing terrain patterns beneath your feet, you are probably an esteemed member of the frequent falling club.

Geek Talk for Skiers

Graceful, fluid and efficient skiing depends on how quickly you react to the unexpected stimuli that the constantly changing environment presents. These may include rocks, ice, lift towers or other skiers. Under these circumstances, your reaction time determines the outcome.

The term “movement time” describes the period between the end of the reaction time and the movement chosen in response to it. Studies in motor learning show that enhancing coordination and correcting muscular imbalances reduces movement time. Anticipation of the stimulus influences both your reaction and movement time.

As your proprioceptive skills are improved, you are able to sense the subtle commencement of changes in the environment before they actually happen. Unfortunately, a predictable weight training machine such as the leg extension does very little to train your proprioceptive skills.

The agility and spontaneity required for snow sports must involve training the entire kinetic chain, which is comprised of the muscular, skeletal and nervous systems. These components work together to produce human movement.

Nowadays, sport-conditioning coaches have a mantra: “Train the chain!” This means that the best sport fitness programs will be based on movement patterns that mimic the muscle sequencing used in the sport itself. While we often focus on the individual actions of the muscles themselves, the nervous system is actually in control of our movements. No one describes this as well as the physiologist, Irwin Korr:

“The spinal cord is the keyboard on which the brain plays when it calls for activity. But each ‘key’ in the console sounds not an individual ‘tone’ such as contraction of a particular group of muscle fibers, but a whole ‘symphony’ of motion.

In other words, built into the cord is a large repertoire of patterns of activity, each involving complex, harmonious, delicately balanced orchestration of the contractions and relaxations of many muscles.

Ski Fitness for the Brain

The brain thinks in terms of whole motions, not individual muscles. It calls, selectively, for the pre-programmed patterns in the spinal cord and brain stem, modifying them in countless ways and combining them in an infinite variety in still more complex patterns. Each activity is subject to further modulation, refinement, and adjustment by the feedback continually streaming in from the participating muscles, tendons, and joints.

This implies that the more your fitness activities resemble alpine skiing, the greater the transfer of training to your sport. Neither the leg extension machine or the yoga tree pose bear even the slightest resemblance to skiing.  In contrast, activities such as inline skating, slide board training and squats and lunges on balance devices do. You need not abandon your other training forms, but ski fitness requires you to perform at least some of your exercises in a balance and proprioceptive challenging environment.

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