Spine & Sport: Stretch, strengthen, ski

Physiotherapist Demian Carson offers a few tips to keep cross-country skiers safe and out of pain on the trails this winter

It’s that time of year again. New years’ resolutions haunt us. Many hit the gym tackling new fitness goals. But how about make a day of the week for “fun fitness?” How can you resist Sovereign Lake with all this fantastic snow this year? It is time to go cross-country skiing! Whether you are a seasoned pro or just taking up the sport, it is a fun and enjoyable way to stay active throughout the winter.

Cross-country skiing is one of the best full body aerobic exercises there is, and cross-country skiers are some of the fittest humans on the planet. Not only is cross-country skiing a fabulous workout, it is also one of the safest aerobic workouts, even safer than swimming or running. Even though it is safe, cross-country skiers are still at risk for injuries, aches and pains. Low back pain is more common among cross-country skiers than most other aerobic sports, and more common with classic skiing than with skate skiing.

There are many reasons for low back pain, but the most common reasons for pain with cross-country skiing are poor technique and muscle imbalances. The most common muscle imbalance to cause low back pain is tight, inflexible, hip flexor (front of the hip) muscles and weak hip extensor (back of the hip) muscles, combined with tight low back muscles and weak inner core (stomach) muscles. This combination of tightness and weakness limits the amount of hip movement available to the body and the required movement is then achieved through arching of the back, creating stress on the low back, and possible pain. This movement pattern is magnified when performing an activity that requires more hip movement such as cross-country skiing, and specifically classic skiing.

The good news is that treating these muscle imbalances is relatively easy and typically consists of a stretching program that targets the tight muscles, and a strength program that targets the weak muscles. When choosing a stretching program, include stretches that target the front of the hip and the low back. It is important to ensure that a stretch never hurts; it should just be a gentle pulling sensation. For strengthening, include exercises that target the glute, or butt muscles, as well as exercises that target the inner stomach muscles. Always start any fitness program, or new activity, at an easy intensity and slowly progress.

A physiotherapist can work with you to assess your strengths and weaknesses and develop an individualized treatment plan that will help to ensure you have a great ski season.

Demian Carson is a registered physiotherapist at Spine and Sports South End, and a former member and coach for the Canadian Nordic Combined Ski Team.