In my ten years as a skier I’ve undergone not one, but two, ACL reconstruction surgeries. An ACL tear is one of the most common skiing injuries, especially for women. And while surgeries have drained the savings account, I’ve gained a wealth of knowledge in the knee arena. Here are a few tips I’ve learned for strengthening your limbs into sturdy, ACL-loving legs before the snow even starts falling. These steps obviously aren’t guaranteed insurance against an ACL blowout, but they’ll help you with balance and strength that’s key for healthy knees.
Get a Gym Membership/Yoga Pass/Pilates Class.
I know these rack up the monthly expenses, but just go for it. Take my word for it, $60 a month in yoga classes is much cheaper than having surgery. Preventive medicine is worth it, even if it’s just for a few months. Buy into whatever makes you feel healthier and stronger, because durable ACLs are the result of confidence just as much as they are actual strength.
Hips Don’t Lie.
The knee is the middle link in your chain of leg strength, in addition to the ankles and hips. Since skiers—and even snowboarders—are a often deficient in ankle strength due to months stuck in virtual ankle casts, we need to make sure the muscles around our knees and hips are brawny. Look into both hip adduction and abduction exercises. You need both to keep those knees in place.
Don’t Ignore the Core.
Core strength is vital to any healthy, injury-free body. Even if you think Pilates is a fad, give it a try. Your beer-belly will dissipate and you’ll reduce your chances of sports-related aches and pains. After just a few classes, you can start to incorporate some of the basic Pilates principals into your everyday life. You can even do Pilates when you’re driving!
After my last surgery, I was given sound advice by numerous professionals in the ski industry: “A healthy knee is a rested knee.” So, if you’ve been skiing year round for a few years, take a season off and go to Mexico. The sun, warm temperatures, and days out of ski boots will do wonders for your knees. They’ll love you for it and maybe next season you’ll come back stronger than before.
Ham it Up, Especially if You’re Female.
Women tend to be quad-dominant, meaning the front of our legs is more muscular than the backs. This is a huge contributing factor to increased ACL-tear risk in female athletes. My number-one goal coming out of my last surgery is to start the next ski season with massive hamstrings—the kind you’re accustomed to seeing on ski racers. I’m convinced that lack of muscle-bound hams has been my problem all along. Pilates offers quite a few hamstring exercises that you can do on your own, once properly trained to target the right muscle group.
Mountain, road, cruiser—choose your two-wheeled best friend and don’t go anywhere without it. If you choose road, use clipless pedals. They’ll help foster monster hamstrings. Mountain bikes, both with flat and clipless pedals, will make you strong and advocate a better mental game on your skis. (If you choose downhill, you might just end up in another kind of surgery, but it’s probably worth it for the good times.) Cruiser bikes are great fun and tend to have lower seats, which will help target a different set of leg muscles, especially your VMO, the muscle on the inside and front of your thigh, but don’t ride with the seat too low. That can cause future pain and problems in the patella region.
Work on your physical balance by strengthening your legs’ smaller muscle groups—not just the quad/hamstring muscles—that help support stability on and off your skis. My favorite, because you can do it anywhere—in line at the grocery store, at the DMV, in your office—is to stand on one foot with your other leg slightly bent and your arms crossed over your chest. Once you’re there, close your eyes and try to steadily stand still on the one foot for a minute. Change legs. Repeat. If you only last for ten seconds, you have a new goal. Only 50 more to go before ski season. If one minute is easy, focus on tightening your core and go for as long as you can.