To get in shape for the season, all you have to do is build up your leg muscles with running, biking and hiking. Add some weight lifting for the arms or “Nordic walking” with poles and you’ll be ready for ski season. Right? Wrong! If you don’t focus on building core strength, you’re wasting your time.
Where is your “core”? According to the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA), your core is “the torso area, which is roughly equivalent to the center of mass.”
In the Union Leader article by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, “Shape up for ski season” (Oct. 28. 2018), she interviews Jason Guilbert, Waterville Valley alpine racing coach. His definition is “core is basically from the chest to the knees and includes the back, which helps prevent injury as well.”
The Mayo Clinic defines core muscles as including your “abdominal muscles, back muscles and the muscles around the pelvis.”
Why is core strength so important? Having strong core muscles helps us maintain balance, good posture, position and stability.
Guilbert notes, “A strong core helps keep us in an athletic place of posture and preparedness.” With that, comes more stability and balance, leading to less likelihood of injury.
Steve Hindman, author of “Cross-Country Skiing, Building Skills for Fun and Fitness,” states, “No matter what you’re doing, your center of gravity, or core, has to be balanced against your base of support. Strong and active core muscles limit how far you can be pushed out of balance and they can snap you back into balance as you ski.”
In the fall 2018 issue of the magazine, “32 Degrees,” I found an article, “Core stability is key for good posture,” written by Emily Lovett, a member of the PSIA Cross-Country Team and instructor at Steamboat’s Lake Catamount Touring Center. She maintains that for efficient cross-country skiing, skiers need to have good posture in all-terrain. That requires that they have strong core stability, where the “muscles of the torso help maintain good posture and balance, especially during movement.”
Lovett outlines four ways core stability helps Nordic skiers. It helps them: 1) transfer weight from ski to ski by aligning shoulders, hips, knee and foot for optimum posture and maximum momentum; 2) balance to create optimum glide on an active (moving) ski; 3) generate power from ski and pole push by creating firm foundation for legs and arms to push from and uses full-body mass for propulsion; and 4) stay healthy by aiding functional movement that feels good and helps prevent injury.
When core muscles are strong, the skier has a better posture that leads to more balance, stability, power and injury-free skiing. In the long run or ski, it’s worth it building up those core muscles. But how?
Exercises to build core muscles
I’m not a physical therapist or an athletic trainer, so I suggest you consult professionals for suggestions. There are many online sources for core exercises, as well as local therapists, yoga instructors and trainers who can help us all figure out how to have a strong core going into ski season.
First, locate and activate your core muscles: Working with physical therapists over the years to overcome muscular/skeletal injuries, I’ve noticed their focus almost always starts with locating and activating “core” muscles. Tips like” keep your belly button pulled in” when doing a plank, or “making sure to keep your abdominals tight and hips level” during a bird dog focus on activating and using core muscles to help strengthen and balance the body.
In the “Back to Basics Yoga” class I’m taking with Anjali Rose at North Conway Community Center, we work on learning foundational yoga postures and alignment, pranayama (breathing practices), meditation, deep relaxation and basic yoga techniques. One of the first areas Anjali focuses on is finding that “sacred triangle” where the core strength comes from by pulling the belly button in toward the back and activating those muscles to give the body stability and balance.
Douglas Garfield in his book, “The New Steady Ski for Nordic Athletes,” starts his training program by discussing “Quiet Balance and Stabilization.” He insists skiers understand these concepts fully before they start the exercises. He defines “primary stabilization” as being the “muscles that flex, extend, rotate and always support the central pillar of your body, your axial skeleton (the spine, neck, ribs and head), perform the vital task of primary or core stabilization.
He urges Nordic skiers to “commit this to memory: A poorly stabilized trunk inhibits arm-and-leg power: a well-stabilized trunk liberates it.”
Garfield has specific suggestions about how to “recruit and use your TrA (transversus abdominus). It is an important stabilization muscle that can be activated for additional core support. His exercises are similar to the PT and yoga ones I’ve been taught of pulling your navel in so the abdomen flattens while feeling the tension in the muscle with your fingertips, indicating you’re contracting your TrA.
On the Mayo Clinic’s website (tinyurl.com/y4jmw8jd), there are exercises with simple explanations and pictures. Key suggestions are to “breathe freely and deeply during each core-strength exercise. Focus on tightening your transversus abdominus, the deepest abdominal muscle and the one you feel contracting when you cough.”
Once you have found and activated core muscles, you’re ready for strengthening them with specific exercises. Many sources mention planks (with or without modifications), side planks, bridges, airplanes and superman exercises. Others might suggest abdominal crunches (my least favorite!), single or double leg abdominal presses and bird dogs.
In PT, yoga and exercise sessions or in online explanations and videos, you’ll learn what all these are and get more suggestions. The most important thing, however, is to learn how to do each correctly, so you maximize your gain and minimize your pain. I recommend first consulting with a trained exercise specialist first before you try them on your own. Once you know you’re doing them correctly, you can work on them at home.
For those of you looking for specific training for the cross-country season, check out the Great Glen Trails Nordic Warm-ups on Tuesdays, Dec. 3, 10 and 17, from 10-11:30 a.m. Former Olympic skier Sue Wemyss will help you “wake up your muscles for the upcoming Nordic season” with the following activities: skiing without poles, games on skis, balance drills, specific strength, slaloming and figure eights, single technique concentrations, ski video viewing and stretching. The cost is for three weeks — $60; single session — $25 (includes trail pass for the day). The year I started my ski training with this class was my best cross-country season.
Take it to the core and get yourself in shape for Nordic tracks to come. Pray for snow.
Pre-season passes discount — Jackson Ski Touring Foundation from now until Nov. 30.
Nov. 9 — Eastern Slope Ski Club’s 49th annual Ski Swap, 9 a.m.-1 p.m., North Conway Community Center. It’s a great place to sell or buy ski gear for the whole family. It benefits the ESSC’s ski program for valley students.
Saturday, Nov. 9, 9 a.m.-1 p.m., Jackson Ski Touring’s Annual Ski Swap, JSTF Lodge, Jackson. Buy or sell used cross-country equipment — skis, poles, boots, snowshoes and cross-country clothing. Come early and find a bargain.
Saturday, Nov. 9, 9 a.m.-1 p.m., Jackson Ski Touring’s first annual yard sale. Purchase space for $25, and sell your used non-ski items and make a profit. Come shop early to buy.
Friday, Nov. 22, Great Glen Trails skiers’ open house, 4-8 p.m. Check out new gear and clothing, get your winter ski pass, demo fat bikes from 3-6 p.m., enjoy free pizza, beer and door prizes.
Sally McMurdo is a cross-country ski instructor at Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. For almost four decades, she has explored New England's groomed and ungroomed trails on all kinds of skis.