The strength to stay upright. Photo courtesy of iStock.

Refining your winter fitness

By Robert Todd Felton

AMC Outdoors, November/December 2009

The first drifting snowflakes of winter may send us scurrying to the basement to wax skis, sharpen skates, and dig those snowshoes out from...where did I put those snowshoes? But as you start dreaming about the promise of winter days to come, you may also want to spend some time fine-tuning your balance skills. Think about it: The winter sports we love often include unstable surfaces, bulky clothing, and things strapped to our feet. In addition, the cold weather can mean that muscles may not work as well as they do in the gym. All that can add up to a recipe for injury, or at least diminished performance.

But not to worry. Contrary to popular belief, balance is not an innate sense but a skill you can practice and develop. As Dr. Paul M. Juris, fitness expert and executive director of the Cybex Institute, the research arm of the exercise equipment manufacturer, explains, “Balance is simply the ability to keep ourselves from falling over.” And while the sense of balance (known as proprioception) is important, it is not what keeps us on our feet. “When you are falling, the problem is not sensory perception, but having the strength and power to make corrections to keep yourself upright,” Juris points out. That’s why he advocates developing good core strength, power, and endurance to ensure your balance is solid throughout a winter of adventure.

HOP TO IT “Hopping drills are outstanding for improving balance,” Juris explains, suggesting a progression that starts with short hops on one foot with your arms out to the sides for added balance. As you feel more stable, you can increase the difficulty by varying the distance, height, or direction (forward versus backward, side-to-side). For even more challenge, try placing your hands on your hips rather than out to the sides.

Early Finnish skiers used poles that served two purposes: aiding their balance and functioning as hunting spears.
To help with core strength, try forward lunges by standing with your arms at your side, then stepping forward and lowering your body until your leading thigh is parallel to the floor. Jason Van Hulen, head of strength and training at the Aria Resort in Colorado, suggests the additional challenge of having a partner give you a gentle push on your shoulder while in the lunge. This nudge should be just enough to move your center of gravity away from its balance point and force you to make the correction.

It is important to strengthen each leg in turn rather than doing drills that work both legs together. As Van Hulen points out, “There are natural imbalances in the body, and if you work one side at a time, you can see which is stronger.” Dr. Jeanette Anderson, a health and wellness specialist, agrees and recommends a simple exercise to do while standing in line at the grocery store: lean to your weaker side and balance your weight over that foot for 60 to 90 seconds.

THE COMPLETE PACKAGE Of course, keeping yourself upright while sliding downhill is a complex operation requiring more than muscle. “When it comes to balance,” Anderson states, “you need strength, proprioception, flexibility, and stability.”

Although work on a wobble board or foam roller will definitely improve balance, a better option is a yoga class. As Debbie Murphy of Shanti Yoga Studios in McCall, Idaho, explained in an e-mail interview, “Balance begins with a strong core...Yoga strengthens these muscles through particular postures such as the boat pose (seated, lift the legs and lower the upper back so your body forms a V-shape), the plank pose (lying face down on the floor as if preparing to do a push-up, push your arms straight under your shoulders, and allow the body to form a straight line balanced on your forearms and toes), and cobra pose (from lying on the floor with your arms to your sides, lift your chest up using only your back muscles). In fact, much of yoga’s emphasis on isolating individual muscles and being aware of the interplay between forces has excellent benefits for balance.” In addition, Murphy points out that “yoga’s most powerful ‘balance benefit’ lies in the ability to bring a sense of ease and calm in the midst of chaos and instability.”

And isn’t that really what the promise of those first few snowflakes is all about?