Skiing is probably the last sport that people with back pain are likely to consider. But, according to a leading UK osteopath, a trip to the slopes could be just the remedy.
Sensible levels of skiing can provide numerous benefits for those suffering with back and neck pain, says Mr Michael Fatica, an osteopath with Back in Shape Program.
He claims that because skiing is a low-impact form of exercise, it can help to strengthen the key lower-body muscle groups that support the spine. In many cases, he reports, skiing can help to alleviate back pain and for some people, it can cure their back pain.
Fatica said: “The potential dangers of winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding are well-documented. However, for many people skiing can actually help to strengthen the muscles supporting the spine, including the core, glutes and quads. These areas are all vital in helping to minimise lower back stress.
“Skiing can also help improve overall cardio fitness levels. When combined, these benefits can significantly reduce pressure on the spine and, as a result, help to alleviate back pain.
"In the longer-term, skiing can result in significant benefits for overall back health as the lower body becomes stronger and less dependent solely on the back for stability.”
How to prepare your body for skiing
It is important to build up strength exercises before a skiing adventure or holiday and whether it is downhill skiing, ski touring or cross country skiing. This is the case, if you are new to skiing or a seasoned skier.
Fatica says: “It’s crucial to build up your strength before going skiing in an effective manner, which can take several months prior to going.”
Some good exercises to build into daily routines in the months, weeks and even days leading up to a skiing adventure, include:
Lower impact exercises: Try the cross trainer for fitness and to build strength. Increasing the resistance on the machine week by week. You should feel the desire to stop because your legs are burning from the workout, rather than your lungs are out of breath.
Leg strengthening: Exercises such as squats and lunges will help to to strengthen legs. The goal is higher reps, 15 to 25 rather than 8-10 reps.
Core exercises: Include abdominal rotations (in the gym), dead bugs (at home) and/or side planks. Again, higher reps, 15-25 for 3 x sets of each exercise.
Lunge twists: These help to strengthen the legs, lower back and core simultaneously. They also develop balance for the knees. 15-25 walking lunges is recommended, with a slow twist on each lunge, to the side of the forward leg.
Ski injury prevention tips
Fatica is also keen to point out how there are potential health risks associated with skiing, including the back, although there is plenty that skiers and snowboarders can do before heading off for a trip.
He says: “While skiing can help to alleviate back pain, this type of sport can also lead to muscle strains in the lower back, inflammation of the small joints on the back of the spine – particularly common among snowboarders and the ‘side-on’ posture they need to adopt – and whiplash from falls, or collisions, can all go hand in hand with skiing.
“However, with the right preparation and regime in the weeks and months leading up to a skiing trip most back and neck injuries can be prevented, or at least minimized.”
Tips for back injury or pain prevention while skiing
Stretching or some light massage: Skiing puts pressure on the legs and lower back muscles, which are often not conditioned to deal with the duration spent on the slopes. Simple, regular stretching or a massage at the end of each day will help keep muscles in good condition. A warm shower or bath will also provide welcome relief.
Cold ice: Repetitive stress and fatigue of the lower back are common among skiers. Cold ice placed on the base of the spine for five minutes at the end of the day will help ease any inflammation.
Realign posture: Lying over a rolled-up towel for five-minute intervals will help arch the lower back, which is very important to counteract the constant ‘forward bent’ position skiing requires.
Warm-up tips for skiers
It’s also good idea to warm up each day before skiing. Warm-up skiing exercises include:
Side bend: Stand up straight with the feet hip width apart. Keeping your chest facing forwards, run your hand down the side of your thigh, while slowly bending over to that same side. With your other arm, stretch over your head to release some of the muscles on the side of your lower back. Do not bend forwards. Repeat this both sides.
You can also perform this movement on one knee, bending away from the knee that is on the floor. Again, ensure good posture and hold the stretch for 10-15 seconds and repeat a couple of times each side.
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Fiona Russell is a widely published adventure journalist and blogger, who is better known as Fiona Outdoors. She is based in Scotland and is an all-round outdoors enthusiast with favourite activities including trail running, mountain walking, mountain biking, road cycling, triathlon and skiing, both downhill and back country. Her target for 2021 is to finish the final nine summits in her first round of all 282 Munros, the Scottish mountains of more than 3,000ft high. Aside from being outdoors, Fiona's biggest aim is to inspire others to enjoy the great outdoors, especially through her writing. She is also rarely seen without a running skort! Find out more at Fiona Outdoors.