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Skiing: Get fit now

Exercise in fall can make for a healthy season for skiers

Those skiers waiting for the first flakes to fall before they start with the deep-knee bends and rapid-fire sit-ups are, roughly, six to eight weeks late.

The signal to start workouts for the first trip to the ski slopes should be when the leaves begin to change colors, not when the first snow falls.

Too often, however, opening day comes long before the first morning jog or sit-up, which can cut short ski days, take away from the sport and increase the chances of injury.

"Those people who are out of shape after a summer of little or no activity have less energy, tire more quickly and are more prone to injury," said Brent Cook, owner of the Sports Mall.

"It is therefore important for people to do what they can to get themselves ready, and that usually means putting themselves on a regular workout schedule, either at home or in a club setting."

There are two areas skiers need to be concerned with — cardiovascular and strength training, said Scott Browning, a fitness trainer at the Sports Mall.

"If they haven't already started on a fitness program, then I would recommend they start soon," he added.

Cardiovascular training can take many forms, such as running, cycling (either on a regular bicycle or stationary cycle indoors), hiking or walking.

"People should plan on doing some type of cardio training no fewer than two times a week," Browning said. "Beginners should start with 30 minutes of light cardio work, then eventually get up to between 30 minutes and a hour of moderate-intensity cardio work.

"It doesn't need to be the same activity, but it should be something they enjoy, an activity of their choosing."

Cardiovascular activities will help to build up an individual's wind and endurance.

"Skiing is, after all, a high-altitude sport," he pointed out. "The more fit you are, the better you're able to transport and use oxygen. It's not always easy for the body to adjust to high altitude.

"Being in better physical condition also allows for faster recovery, not only while skiing but also after the ski day is over. Good cardiovascular conditioning helps people do better in a particular sport, and it helps them enjoy it more. And that goes for all sports."

He added that it typically takes between eight and nine weeks

of cardiovascular training before benefits really begin to show.

"Obviously, the sooner people start on some type of fitness program the better," he said.

The second part of a fitness program involves strength training. Here again he recommends people dedicate at least two days a week to strength training, "but no more than four, and not consecutive days. You're looking at 24 hours and preferably 48 hours for the body to recover, to allow the muscles to repair themselves after a workout," Browning pointed out.

Those muscles most used in skiing are those in the lower body, mainly the ankles, legs and hips. This does not mean other muscle groups should be ignored. The abdominal muscles, for example, are important in stabilizing and protecting the spine.

Stronger muscles not only allow a skier to ski better, but also lower the risk of injury, especially in the ankles, knees, hip and shoulder.

"I like to use the analogy of driving a car on a bumpy road. If the shocks (absorbers) are old and the springs are worn out, the car will bottom out. It's the same with the legs. If the muscles are weak, then they can't absorb the bumps very well, and skiing becomes harder on the body," he said.

It is recommended that those first starting out seek help from a professional trainer. Some exercises done improperly can actually damage the body. And, not only do strength exercises need to be done properly, but also in the right sequence, that is, working the larger muscles first and then moving to smaller muscles.

"Before starting any training session, particularly strength training, an individual needs to go through the proper warm-up. The analogy I like to use is to compare muscles with plastic. If plastic is cold, it will crack and break. If it's warm, it's softer and more flexible," Browning explained.

The warm-up should take between 10 to 15 minutes of a light-intensity workout.

Then the strength training can begin.

Some of the recommended exercises, which can be done either at home or in a club setting, can be:

Walking lunge. This is simply a walking action that involves lowering the body to the point where the front leg is bent at about a 90-degree angle and the toe of the rear leg remains stationary and the leg extended. On the next step the trailing leg is brought forward, the body is lowered and what is now the trailing leg remains extended. The individual can carry weights in each hand to increase the intensity of the workout.

Physioball. This is a large rubber ball that is placed against a wall. The exercise requires the individual to do sets of squats, lowering the posterior to the ball, then rising to a standing position and then lowering again. The legs should not be bent past a 90-degree angle. It can also be used for other exercises such as crunches. Here again, holding weights will intensify the workout.

Standard wall sit. This is a great exercise to build endurance. The individual assumes a sitting position with his or her back against the wall and legs bent at a 90-degree angle. This position should be held as long as possible.

Standard pushup. This is a good exercise to help strengthen the upper body.

For those with access to a club or recreation center, there is a range of fitness equipment that can be used for ski training. This would include:

Free-motion squats. This exercise is different from those using the rubber ball in that the machine places weight on the shoulders.

"The machine-assisted squats are better, because they don't require the balance needed for unassisted squats. Most people don't have the stability to do squats correctly. And, if they're not done correctly, they can do damage, which is another good reason to get help from a professional," Browning said.

Leg press. This exercise is done from a sitting position. The legs are extended while pushing on a weight system, and then released back to a 45-degree angle. Not only does this exercise help stabilize the spine, but it also engages most all of the muscle groups used in skiing.

Demon. This is a small rubber dome that has the shape of a half of a basketball. There are a number of exercises that can be done with the demon, but its primary purpose is to help stabilize the muscles in the lower body. It is especially good because the uneven surface allows the ankles to become involved in the exercise.

Standard ab crunch. This is basically a modified sit-up. With the legs raised in the air, lift and roll the shoulders, drawing on the abdominal muscles, and then slowly lower the shoulders back on the ground. The individual should do as many crunches or curls as possible.

Plank. This is another exercise for the abdominal muscles. The position is similar to a regular pushup, but instead of having the weight on the hand, the elbows rest on the ground with the body extended and the toes firmly on the ground in a triangular position. This position should be held as long as possible.

Standard sit-up. This, too, is a good exercise for the stomach muscles. The individual can lie flat on the floor and then lift the shoulders into a sitting position.

Recreation centers and clubs also offer fitness classes specifically designed to prepare people for physical activities.

"Taking a class is, for many people, a better way to go," said Cook. "For one thing, the classes are structured by professionals. And, because the individual signs up for the class and knows the instructor is expecting him or her to be there, people are less likely to put off exercising.

"Also, in a class setting, it's easier to measure results. People can see they're getting stronger and have more endurance. And, of course, it's always beneficial to have someone, a professional trainer, show people how to properly do the various exercises."

Whether at home or in a gym, a little exercising now can make for a more enjoyable, and safer, ski season.