Image: Warm Winter Hurting New Mexico Ski Resorts
If you're planning to get your money's worth out of that lift ticket, pre-season conditioning can help you make it down all those runs -- and do so safely.
By MSNBC contributor
msnbc.com
updated 12/15/2003 4:05:22 PM ET 2003-12-15T21:05:22

What can you do now to get in shape for ski season? And, is it true that you should feel a little sore after weight training? Smart Fitness answers your queries. Have an exercise question? Send it to smartfitness@msnbc.com. We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Question:  What can I do now to help ensure I am in top form for ski season and stay injury-free on the slopes?

Answer: There may not be any snow yet but that doesn’t mean it’s not time to start thinking about ski season. If you’re planning to hit the slopes this winter, experts recommend hitting the gym now.

“At least four weeks ahead of ski season is the time to turn your attention to getting in shape for it,” says Dr. Jack Harvey, a sports medicine specialist at the Orthopaedic Center of the Rockies in Loveland, Colo. “Start in early October because you might get an early snow.”

Of course, it’s all the better if you’re already a regular exerciser.

Just remember that if you’re planning to get your money’s worth out of that lift ticket by staying out all day, you need to be in good shape so you have enough endurance and strength to safely make it down all the runs.

Regular aerobic exercise helps in other ways, too. “It conditions the body to accept increasing stress and to adjust to the higher altitudes much better,” says Dr. Henry Goitz, chief of sports medicine at the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Harvey recommends getting your heart rate up for half an hour three to four times a week. Stair climbing machines and biking can be particularly beneficial, he says, because they also help to build strong legs, which are important for the sport. Because skiing and snowboarding involve a squatted position, weak thighs can lead to early fatigue and accidents.

Weight training is key. “Good generalized leg strengthening is what I’d emphasize,” Harvey says. Some recommended exercises: leg presses, leg extensions, leg curls, lunges, squats and leg abduction and adduction.

Harvey also advises another exercise to build both strength and agility. Put a shoe box on the floor and stand beside it. Next, with both feet together, hop over it and then back, from side to side, for as long as you can in good form. The action mimics what you’ll be doing on the slopes and can help condition your body for the real thing, he says.

Flexibility is another area to focus on in the pre-season. Keep the hamstrings and quads properly stretched, advises Harvey. It’s also a good idea to stretch them once you get off the long, cold lift ride up the mountain, he says.

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Experts say keeping the legs strong and flexible can help prevent knee injuries, such as tears to the anterior cruciate or medial collateral ligaments, the most common result of mishaps on the slopes.

And if you do find yourself about to wipe out, there is a “good way” to fall, according to Harvey.

“If you have any control over it, keep your legs together,” he says, to help prevent twisting of the knees that can tear ligaments.

While knee injuries are the most common on the slopes, head injuries are the most dangerous. That’s why experts recommend helmets to protect the head in the event of a collision with a tree or another skier.

“I applaud ski instructors who are trying to set an example on the slopes by wearing helmets,” says Goitz. “In the past, it wasn’t a cool thing.”

When you’re on the mountain, experts advise following these safety tips:

Ski with a partner, so the two of you can look out for each other.

Stay on marked trails.

Always be on the lookout for rocks, trees and ice patches in your path and other skiers who may be headed your way.

Rest when you’re tired to avoid injuries.

Ski within your abilities. “Once you’re out of control, you run the risk of hurting yourself as well as someone else,” says Goitz.

No pain, no gain?
Question:  If I don’t get a little sore from strength training, am I doing something wrong?

Answer: Muscle soreness is not an indicator of a “good” workout, says Steve Zawrotny, a spokesperson for the National Strength and Conditioning Association and a personal trainer in Pauls Valley, Okla.

Whether you get sore after your workout depends largely on whether you’ve just started a weight-training regimen, he says. If you’re working muscles that haven’t been worked much before, it’s reasonable to expect some discomfort — minor aches — afterward.

“It’s perfectly normal early on,” he says.

But beyond the first few weeks or so, that soreness should diminish considerably as your muscles adjust to the new activity, according to Zawrotny.

However, anytime you switch routines — adding more weight or repetitions, for instance — you also may experience some soreness afterward because you are working your muscles in new and challenging ways.

Any pain should dissipate within 24 to 48 hours, he says. In the meantime, don’t train those muscles but rather let them rest and recover.

To help minimize soreness after a workout, he recommends a “good warm-down” such as 10 to 15 minutes of cardiovascular exercise like biking or jogging plus some stretching.

And if post-workout pain persists longer than two days or is so great it interferes with typical activities, you may have a more serious injury that warrants medical attention.

So if going for the after-burn isn’t the right way to gauge your weight workout, what is?

Zawrotny advises monitoring your progress over time to see if you’re meeting your goals. Is your regimen still challenging or has it become a breeze? Are you continuing to make gains in your strength or tone? If you’re no longer getting the desired results, he says, consider ratcheting things up by adding new exercises, more weights or reps, or shorter rest periods between sets.

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