By: Jean Johnson for Knee1
It’s one of those glorious, pristine days where you can see forever from the top of the world. A bold blue dome of sky is above and crystalline snow is all around. The scent of pine wafts through the chill air, and the sound of skiers swishing down the slopes is like a thousand whispers.
There you are at the top of the lift with nothing more pressing that contemplating which run to take. The wax on the bottom of your boards is fresh, and your equipment is in top form, having just been checked in readiness for the winter season. With any luck, your knees have been primed for the occasion by a carefully thought out strength and flexibility exercise program begun well ahead of the curve.
Ideally, skiers work on keeping their knees in condition year round, but for those of us who spent a little more time outside in the garden during the summer and less time in the gym than we planned, fall is a perfect time to recommit to an exercise program. It will pay handsome endurance and flexibility dividends when it comes time to buckle into the boots and snap down into the bindings.
Knee Appreciation 101
Considering the knee joint in all its complexity and fragility is a useful starting point. This joint that so many of us take for granted does double duty by bearing weight as it flexes when we walk.
More, the weight the knee bears is considerable. It bears three to five times our body weight when we are walking on level ground and up to seven times our body weight when we are climbing stairs or walking uphill. Therefore, a person who weighs 150 pounds can tax their knees anywhere from 500 to 1,000 pounds with every step they take!
The other notable aspect of knee anatomy and physiology potentially useful for skiers is that collagen found in the cartilage of the knee stiffens and grows brittle as people age. “As collagen becomes brittle, its ability to absorb force decreases,” states orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist Kevin R. Stone, M.D., of San Francisco on his Web site. “Thus, the impact of a hard landing or the repeated jolting of a difficult mogul field is transmitted through the leg into the knee joint, and up the thigh with less shock absorption.”
Stone goes on to explain why good knee health is critical to an enjoyable day on the ski slopes – and why those who don’t enjoy good condition can find themselves sitting in the lodge watching the fun through the windows sooner than they wished.
“Repetitive impact destroys the collagen matrix over time and leads to roughing of the articular surfaces and tearing of the meniscus cartilages. The grinding feeling can often be attributed to a rough eroded area of the articular cartilage, either beneath the kneecap or on the end of the femur or tibia,” Stone explains.
“The sense of early fatigue can be partially attributed to the increased force the body is required to absorb. The ligaments of the knee also lose their elasticity as the collagen stiffens. This loss of elasticity causes larger loads to be transmitted to the articular cartilage surfaces.”
In other words, weak, out of shape knees – especially ones that aren’t quite as young as they used to be – are not only more susceptible to injury, they can bring on fatigue more quickly than even a skier with a half-day pass hoped for.
But Stone doesn’t leave us without hope. Instead he says that “several recent studies have demonstrated that these tissue changes are partially reversible in response to a consistent exercise program.” Those who get up out of the chair and keep things moving increase the odds that their knees will carry them down the slopes and beyond even as the years pass.
Keeping Your Knees Strong and Flexible
|Tips for Caring for Your Knees|
Get into your car fanny first. Twisting on one knee while getting into a car one leg at a time can take a serious toll over the years. Instead, sit down on the edge of the seat and then swing both legs into the car together.
When doing any exercises that require lunging, make sure the knee does not extend out further than the ankle joint. This keeps the knee from having to absorb more weight and pressure than it should.
When you are bicycling and come to a steep hill, considering getting off and walking your bike to the top. Even with all the gears available on modern bikes, your knees will thank you for the courtesy.
Pay attention to your shoes. Know that even the best soles break down over time and do less to cushion the shock and pounding that occurs when running or playing tennis, or even walking. Those with an eye to good health know that money invested in sensible footwear pays off.
For coaching on knee exercises, Knee1 turned to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). Like Stone, APTA points out that aging plays a key role in knee health, and that even a single year can make a significant difference.
“Stresses that would not have caused injury last year,” states APTA literature, “could hurt your knee today. A decrease in your level of activity over a period of time will also contribute to the vulnerability of your knees.”
OK, we’re convinced. And we hope you are too. Below are some basic exercises that serve as a starting point for those with busy schedules. We at Knee1 hope they serve you well, both day by day as you work through them and this winter once the ski season gets under way.
Knee Strengthening Exercises
Wall Sliders: APTA especially recommends this knee strengthening exercise for skiers. Standing on a nonskid surface with your back against the wall, slide down to as near a sitting position as you can. Hold 10 seconds, doing 10 repetitions initially and working up to 30 as you are increasingly able to slide further down into a full sitting position.
Knee Bends: The variation on knee strengthening that Stone favors is one in which you stand with your feet shoulder width apart, back straight, and knees slightly bent. Bend your knees slowly and smoothly until your heels start to come off the floor, taking one second. Then straighten over one second to standing without locking the knees, working the joint in a smooth, slow motion. Stone recommends building up to two-minute sets, and then doing three of those sets with one-minute rest intervals in between.
The orthopedist suggests two more exercises that are variations on the theme above. The first is the same as the above except that it’s done on one leg at a time. The speed is the same, and a set is one minute long. The goal is three sets with one-minute rest intervals.
The last adaptation is to do the initial exercise in what Stone calls a line-backer position with your back bent and your elbows on your lower thighs. The orthopedist suggests taking this one slower than the others. As far as length of time, he says, “Try to maintain duration until your quadriceps begin to burn or until you are fatigued.”
Knee Flexibility Exercises
In addition to strengthening exercises, stretching the muscles associated with the knee joint go a long way toward maintaining youthful vigor and function. Think of these stretching exercises as yoga for the knees. You can even add a meditative component and follow your breath while you’re holding the stretches.
Calf Stretch: Putting your hands on a wall, stretch one leg back. Feel the stretch in the calf of the extended leg. Hold with the heel down for one half to a full minute.
Achilles Stretch: Using the same position as the calf stretch, bend the knee of the extended leg. Again, start with a half minute and work up to a full minute.
Quadriceps Stretch: This can be done standing or lying down. Holding the ankle of one leg, bend it back behind the body in order to stretch the quadriceps on the front of the thigh. Be mindful of the knee joint to avoid putting undue pressure on it. The idea is to stretch the big thigh muscle, not to torque on the knee. As with the other isometric holds, a half to whole minute is ideal.
Overall Conditioning Work
Reasonable aerobic conditioning programs are a necessary part of any plan to get in shape for skiing. Incorporating a minimum of 30 minutes of cardiovascular work four days a week will ensure enough strength and energy when it comes time to load up the car and head for the mountain.
According to Stone, swimming and bicycling are “kindest to the knees.” These low impact types of movements can also be achieved with rowing machines and cross country ski trainers or Nordic Tracks. Further, simply cultivating the habit of taking a 30-minute walk after dinner can be a knee-gentle way to enhance your training program.
Whatever you choose, take it slowly and stay consistent. Like the tortoise, you’ll be there ready to ski long after the hares have lost their way.