Though I don't get to glide down the slopes very often these days, I was lucky to be born to two ski instructor parents, so my siblings and I were on skis very young, eventually skiing competitively as young teenagers. While that was many years ago, I noticed that my skiing was better the last time I was able to go, surely due to a consistent Pilates practice. I should not have been surprised: six years into teaching Pilates, I have seen the movement patterns of countless professional and recreational athletes enhanced by regular practice of the method. In fact, Pilates and skiing fit together like a boot into a binding. Here is some practical advice on how to connect the two.
Do some Pilates mat exercises before going out on the slopes. Yes, you may have to push the sofa out of the way and lay down on a towel in your small rental chalet (my recent experiment at SunPeaks in BC), but it will be worth it! Even a brief Pilates session will warm up your body, mobilize your spine, and connect the activation of your transverse abdominals to the movement of your limbs; this will help to stabilize your pelvis and keep your low back safe and healthy even in the most challenging conditions. If you already know some of the Pilates mat repertoire, do a section of it. If you are new to Pilates try following this short routine that I recommend from our friends at Pilatesology:
Use your breath to engage your core while skiing. In downhill skiing, you will be turning as you descend the slope, both to control your speed and to navigate the terrain. While some advanced runs require more frequent turns, I suggest warming up with some smooth blue runs (or green if you are a beginner), where you are able to get a nice wide serpentine motion. As you travel horizontally, fill your lungs with the invigorating fresh air, then exhale as you plant your pole and turn. Notice how your out-breath encourages a gentle deepening of the navel towards the spine, and use that to bring awareness to your core. This in and out breath rhythm not only supports your muscles in hugging in towards the midline, stabilizing your pelvis and low back, it also calms the mind by connecting your movements to your breath.
Find your form. Longtime ski instructor Trudy David, (who was my very first instructor - she's my mom!), advises skiers to "bend your knees, slightly tuck your tail, and curve your back gently so that your shoulders line up over your knees. In the old days, long narrow skis were originally held close together, but with the modern wider skis, it's definitely best to keep the feet inner hip-width apart, with the knees tracking right over the ankles." If you want to ensure the health of your knees while skiing, use a regular Pilates practice before and during ski season to strengthen the hamstrings. This can help balance overused quads and support the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Exercises that emphasize the adductors (inner thighs), will help keep the skis under the center of the body, thus reducing the stress on another important knee stabilizer, the medial collateral ligament (MCL).
Get comfortable in between runs. You know when you put the safety bar down on the chairlift and a footrest also comes down for your skis? Just as we aim to relax our muscles fully (however briefly) between Pilates exercises, relax your weighted feet on those foot rests. Be sure to only ride chairlifts that are equipped with these if you have any ankle, knee or hip sensitivity: some of the older lifts don't have anywhere to put your feet, and with the weight of your boots and skis, hanging legs can strain joints and restrict blood flow in your lower extremities. Not only can this lead to possible injury, it can also lead to a bad case of frozen toes!
This last tip has nothing to do with Pilates and everything to do with having a well-rounded alpine experience: Enjoy a long soak in the hot tub! Most mountains have one you can access. My brother in-law, who suffers from arthritis in his hip, was in the tub twice a day during a recent ski trip and found it to be very helpful for pain management. An Epsom salt bath would be a great chlorine/bromine free alternative if you prefer.
Téana David is the former Director of Pilates Education at David Barton Gym in New York City. She currently teaches Pilates alongside physiotherapists at FIX Healthcare in Victoria, BC.