Train For Balance That Is Specific To Skiing

Are you planning on getting into the gym this season?  If not, why not?  In case it is because you need to have a plan or program to work on, here is a general outline of what makes sense to me for us slightly older guys and gals to work on to maintain and/or improve our ability to transfer our balance from turn to turn and thus, to ski efficiently and with ease on all terrain and in all snow conditions.

Anytime is an excellent time to work on perhaps the number one aspect of being on the road to skiing like an expert, and that is “balance.”  Effectively, it is not transferring your weight or even the pressure control that is “the key” to skiing effortlessly in all terrain; it is actually the ability to transfer your balance from turn to turn that makes all, the difference in the world.  Certainly strength and good cardiovascular capacity are important components as well but good balance trumps them both.

Unfortunately, as we age chronologically, not necessarily in our minds of course, our balance is one of the first things to go; even though we hardly realize it.  Fortunately, you maintain and improve your balance just like anything else, and that is by using and specifically training for it.  Therefore your spring program could be geared in favor of exercise and drills that promote and challenge your sense of balance.

So what should you do?  Should you erect a high wire in the backyard and walk it once or twice a day?  That would certainly work, if it turns your crank but most people will look to "balance specific training" in their local gym as a more practical method of achieving results.  Remember to always discuss any new exercise program with your Doctor before getting into it.  If you routinely go to the gym, you might want to use the following template of drills to supplement and compliment your training regime.  If this is your first time training for balance, start by doing the program once a week and work up from there.

How long and how often should your program be?  I recommend a minimum of one training period of 1 – 11/2 hours, once a week for a period of 6 to 8 weeks, say April 15th to June 15th for example. There are three main components of balance training: balance specific drills, balance with weight training and balance and cardio training, preferably blended together.  The time ratio should be roughly 3:1:1 so if your balance specific drills and exercises take 60 minutes, you should do about 20 minutes of cardio and 20 minutes on the weights.  Its spring time, you’ve been skiing all winter so your cardio should be pretty good and a light workout with the weights will give you a bit of exposure to strength maintenance and you should direct your weight training mostly to the upper body and core.

If you are in the habit of going to the gym twice a week or every other day, then, you should try to maintain that frequency for the 6 to 8 week period and just modify the workout to accommodate the 1:3:1.  I didn’t mention stretching but, it should be a part of your warm up and warm down as well.

Drills and Exercises:

Ankles: [balancing at the feet and counterbalancing with the torso/upper body]

Required props:  Teeter board, ski poles

Build yourself a teeter board or two.  You can find the directions on Harald Harb’s Web Site. The teeter board is a simple prop that quickly allows you to develop and practice tipping your skis to their edges and counterbalancing the tipping by moving your body mass in the opposite direction.

I built two boards, one with a ½ inch dowel and the other with a 11/4 inch sized dowel; the materials for both, just happened to be lying around my work shop.  I have found that the little doweled one feels very much like the tipping sensation related to “roller blade turns” on the road or on gentle terrain while the bigger doweled board assimilates the tipping associated with moderate and even steep terrain where you get into higher edge angles.  As coordinated [parallel] tipping is absolutely essential to expert skiing, you should practice and perfect this on both sides on one foot and on two feet as well to assimilate tipping from a platform as you need to do in powder and crud.

Ideally, this needs to be practiced in your bare feet and, with your ski boots on.  Once you try it, you’ll know what I mean.  In fact, there are a number of the following exercises that you should try to practice in your ski boots, if possible.  Using your ski poles to steady yourself, do 2-3 sets of about 6 reps and then switch sides and repeat.

Benefit: Precise tipping of both skis on to their new edges which leads to confident and powerful edge engagement at the beginning of your turns.

Ankle and leg muscles co-contracting

Props: 6’ long Stretch cord, ski poles

For this exercise, you will need the length of stretch cord secured at one end on an immovable and then loop the other end around your ankle.  This is a free foot exercise but pay attention to how you balance on the standing foot.  Position yourself so that you can pull back on the free foot attached to the stretch cord.  Pay attention to how the muscles in the standing foot and leg co-contract together as you move the free foot and leg.  Do 2-3 sets of about 6 reps and then switch sides. 

Now turn 45 degrees to the immovable and position yourself so that you can pull the free foot back and toward the standing foot and be able to adjust your balance on it as you move the free foot.

Third, turn 90 degrees to the immovable and simply pull the free foot in toward your standing foot.  Stand so that you are able to just bring the free foot in to touch your other leg and do 2-3 sets of 6 or so reps.  Now, do the drills with your ski boots on as well.

Benefit: 

Pulling the free leg back is the critical movement that allows you to re-center yourself at will, especially in the bumps, powder or crud and basically helps you to shorten the radius of any turn on the groomers. 

Pulling the free leg back from the 45 degree angle to the immovable assimilates the effort required as you tip into the turn [and pull the foot back.] 

Pulling the free leg in toward your standing foot from the 90 degree angle to the immovable assimilates the effort required to balance and tip the free foot as you make the turn.

Towel Drag

Props:  An old towel, 3-5 lb weight, ski boots

This drill is similar to the exercise described above where you pull the free leg in toward your standing leg.  This should be done on a wooden floor in your bare feet and repeated with your ski boots on.  Place the weight on one end of the towel and then place your standing foot on the other end of the towel.  Position your free foot out to the side 6 to 12 inches or so and, pull the towel toward your standing foot by engaging the arch and the little toe [edge] to pull the towel in. Pay attention to the co-contracting efforts of the muscles in your standing foot with/to the muscles in the standing leg and core.  This is the muscle effort that you need to activate to balance effectively on your standing ski [edge.]  Do this drill for 2 or 3 sets of 6 reps as well.

Benefit: 

Improves your balance on the standing ski edge [under the standing foot] leading to consistent, powerful edge grip there as you make free foot movements toward the little toe edge; which in turn, you do to increase the edge angle in your turns. 

If you pay attention to how your hip flexes as you do this exercise, you can increase your range of motion at the hip with it and increase your ability to play with your balance as you move your feet.

As you un-tip [release] the edges at the end of the turns, this exercise leads to the effort required to create a solid “platform” which in turn, allows you to “float” through the cross over, especially effective in powder and crud conditions.

Tipping both skis/boots equally [Hinging]

Perhaps the single most important exercise to practice, is to practice tipping both feet at the same time and, to the same degree.  Tipping both skis to the same degree keeps the skis parallel. 

Props:  A Carpeted Ramp or, a slight slope in your backyard and a piece of old carpet, ski poles.

You can build a carpeted ramp by taking a 4 x 4 sheet of ¾ inch plywood, carpeting it and place a length of 2 x 4 or 4 x 4 under one end to give it slope.  Alternately, find an appropriate slope in your yard, place the carpet down on it and, away you go.

With your ski boots on, stand across the tipping board to assimilate standing in a traverse position on a slope and tip from a low angle through to a high angle.  Pay attention to how you need to tip the torso in the opposite direction in order to maintain your balance. Imagine you are creating a “C” shape with your body from your foot, through to your hip and up to your shoulders.  Repeat until you have this “hinging movement” smoothly executed from a low edge angle to the highest edge angles that you can attain.  Change sides and repeat.  Pay attention to how you are accomplishing the tipping/untipping and that you are tipping equally with both feet.  Watch your knees as the guide; they should remain at the same distance apart as your feet and both boots should be edged equally.

Benefit

Enhanced ability to increase and decrease edge angles in the grooves left by your skis in the snow.  As you ski, you should leave two grooves in the snow as you track through the turn [arc].  Imagine a piano door on its hinges.  As it opens and closes, there is no slip on the hinges.  Now imagine your ski edges as the fixed hinge in the grooves and, you tilt them in and out while the edges stay right in the grooves.  If you can imagine the groove to be on ice instead of snow, you can envision how finite and precise the groove can be and equally, how precise you can make this hinging movement.  Even on ice, there is a groove; but, you need to be more delicate and precise in your movements to maintain a grip.
 

Full Release to the new edges

With your ski boots on, and using your ski poles if you’d like, again, stand across the carpeted ramp to assimilate standing in a traverse position on a slope and tip from the uphill edges, through the flat and over on to the new downhill edges. This is the "acid test" for being ready to do all mountain skiing and challenging terrain.  Perfect this and you have one of the most important skills needed to ski off piste with ease and confidence.

While practicing this exercise on the carpet, you will not slip but you should become aware of the point that you would start to slip if you were on snow.  This is when you need to be balanced and, without hesitation, make the switch to the new downhill edges.  Otherwise, you will likely twist off balance and be tempted to turn your foot.

As you prepare to tip to the new edges, and, as should be done in real life situations, tip the downhill edge more aggressively toward the little toe edge as this is the more difficult bio mechanical part of the movement simply because of how our muscles attach to our legs.  Now, concentrate on keeping the legs bent and relaxed and shift your balance toward the uphill foot before you tilt the torso to complete the release to your new edges.  Harald Harb calls this position the  "High C" as the "C" is now on the uphill side of the slope!  Repeat until you have this smoothly ingrained into your muscle memory bank.  Expect it to be easier to move to the big toe edge on the uphill foot versus making the move to the little toe edge on the downhill foot.  Switch to the other side and repeat, repeat, repeat.

Benefit

This becomes a core movement and the basis for releasing and engaging the skis in every turn and, in powder snow, for setting the skis in unison so that they both have the same edge angles and therefore, remain parallel.  You'll really like this feeling!

The Javelin

Props: Ski Boots, stationary object to hold on to or a partner to help you balance

Stand on one foot in your ski boot and lift the other boot up and cross it over in front of you.  At the same time, your friend holds your arm to help you to balance or, hold on to a stationary object.  Move the leg back down and place the foot back beside the other.  Pick it up again and pay attention to the twisting movement at the hip joint, until you have it down smoothly and you can keep your balance without assistance.  Now, repeat the same movement but after you have the hip turned and are balanced on your standing foot, co-contract the muscles in your standing foot and leg so that you can move onto the edge of your boot and hinge in and out, down and back up again, smoothly and with control.  Change to the other foot and do the same drill using the other leg. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Benefit

This is perhaps the single best exercise to understand how the femur turns in the hip girdle creating the magic upper and lower body separation.  However, the primary purpose is to solidify your fore/aft balance.  When you add the co-contraction effort in the foot, ankle and leg that allows you to tip the ski on to the edge and counter balance hip and torso, you are in a position to now “lay a trench down” in the groove made by your downhill ski. You're confidence in crud and spring slush will soar.

The Von Grunigan Two Step

A Backgrounder:

Michael Von Grunigan, a renowned Swiss GS specialist did this drill so much, it is recognized these days as his own drill but variations of this exercise have been around for many years and practiced in ski schools around the world.  At first, it might look like inside ski turns but at closer inspection you might say that the turn shape describes an "S" and you need to observe at least two linked "S's" in order to get the whole picture and understand that it is much more than just inside ski turns. 

Picture the turning arc of the left ski as the first/top part of the "S.".  As you near the end of that arc, and the middle of the first "S," the skier prepares to do a weighted release from the left ski edge by continuing to flex and flatten the edge of the [left] downhill ski.  He/she then continues the release and tips the foot to the little toe edge of the ski and starts the new turn on the little toe edge.  The skier needs to make sure to counterbalance the torso at this moment, so that the body/torso moves over the feet  in preparation for the new change in direction.  As the skier tips on to the little toe edge, the right ski is completely unweighted.  At or slightly past the fall line, the skier places the right ski on the snow on its edge and continues the turn and makes the second/bottom part of the first "S."  He/she then repeats the sequence and makes the second "S" and so so on to link a series of these turns together.  At this point, the legs and feet feel like they are literally dancing.

Props: ski boots, ski poles, carpet

Using your ski poles, balance on your left foot and raise the other foot up enough to make sure there is no weight on it.  Tip over to your big toe edge on the left foot. Now, on the same foot, tip back to the flat and then over to your little toe edge.  Move your hip/torso across/over to to the inside, to counterbalance.  Place your free foot on the ground parallel to your other boot and on exactly the same edge angle as you have established on the little toe side.  Transfer the weight on to the right foot.  Pick up the left foot enough to make sure there is no weight on it. 

Tip over to the big toe edge on the right foot.  Now, tip back to the flat of the boot and over to the little toe edge on the right foot.  Move the hip/torso over to the inside to counterbalance.  Place the left foot on the ground parallel to the right one and on exactly the same edge angle.  Raise the right foot enough to make sure the balance has been fully transferred.  Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Practice the Pole Plant

Backgrounder:

A poor pole plant can ruin a perfectly good turn.  Fear of failing to make a good pole plant shouldn't keep you from making the pole plant and, practicing the right moves in dryland is bound to pay dividends.  If the swing of the pole creates rotation of the upper body, then you need to change the mechanics you are using in order to make the pole plant.

Props:  Ski poles, a stick 4 - 6' in length

Place the stick on the ground in front of you and position it to point directly down the fall line.  Start by standing above the stick and place your feet across the fall line to assimilate your position near the end of a turn. Bend the elbow and with a slight lift, position the hand out to your side [in the direction of the stick] and swing the pole forward by a wrist movement only.  Touch the pole by the marker [stick]. This is the basis of a relaxed arm and hand position.  Turn the feet so you stand facing in the other direction and repeat the same arm and hand movements.  Pay attention to how far the basket moves relative to the flick of the wrist.  Change the angle your feet are relative to the fall line to assimilate different turn shapes moving from a very completed turn to more aggressive angles where the initiation point is closer to the fall line and make the pole plant right at the marker.  Notice the subtle differences and similarities in the pole planting.  Try making strong and deliberate pole plants to assimilate the pole plant in bumps and in powder.  As well, make the pole plant with just a "tap" to assimilate the pole plant when you are making turns on corduroy.

Test:

Make sure you are able to bring the pole basket forward and plant the pole without arm gesticulation or shoulder rotation which will help rotate the hips; a big no-no.  So repeat the pole planting maneuver until you can freely bring the basket forward with the arm and wrist only and in a manner where there is no arm, shoulder or hip rotation whatsoever.


These exercises should fill most of your hour up but you should make room for some light weight training.  To be continued.

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