You're skiing the perfect line through a mogul field. So far, you've managed to avert injury the entire season. It's just one bump. You hit it slightly off-balance, maybe you twist too much or lean back too far. Whatever the trigger, you feel a sharp pain shooting through your lower back, and your day¿maybe even your season¿is ruined.
The bad news is that most of us have suffered or will suffer back pain at some point in our lives. In fact, according to Dr. Rowland Hazard, associate professor of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation at the University of Vermont, 80 percent of all people will experience some back pain. Skiers are certainly not immune.
According to a study done by the renowned Steadman-Hawkins Clinic in Vail, Colo., the back is one of the most active muscles used in skiing. Pain in this region can run the gamut from physical discomfort to crippling disability¿and though theories abound, no one has yet to put a finger on a sure-fire prevention or cure. But there is good news: You can take some measures to minimize your chances of injury.
First of all, keep a balanced body¿don't let certain muscles begin to dominate others. Muscle balance is the most fundamental aspect of a strong body, according to John Walsh, a former U.S. Ski Team member now practicing chiropractics in Boulder, Colo. "Many people tend to ignore the core muscles," he explains. "If your back is strong, but your abs are relatively weak, your pelvis will tilt forward, placing too much direct pressure on your spine." Walsh attributes the abundance of late-season back pain in U.S. Ski Team athletes largely to muscle imbalance. After pounding the slopes all season, their quads become so much stronger than their hamstrings and their backs so much stronger than their abs that the spine can become misaligned.
As a result, pressure isn't evenly distributed. "That's when you're at the greatest risk of a single impact putting you in pain," explains Walsh. Granted, recreational skiers are not as much at risk for this as racers, but the solution¿off-slope conditioning throughout the winter with extra attention paid to the muscles that don't get worked while skiing¿will help everyone have a stronger season.
As long as you're already conditioning, you should work on flexibility as well. Everyone has an optimal position where his or her joints, ligaments and muscles are properly aligned and able to move in unison. If any part of your lower body is not limber, a single twist can be enough to pull your spine out of alignment. Furthermore, muscles tend to tighten up in cold weather and after a strenuous workout, so you're putting yourself at risk of injury by not keeping loose. Do some light stretching, not only at the beginning and end of your day, but before each run¿stretches as simple as toe touches, back bends and trunk rotations.
And remember when your mother taught you not to slouch? Well, that includes while you're sitting on the chairlift or driving to the mountain. Slumping forward while you're sitting loads a lot of pressure onto your spine, according to Hazard. He suggests placing something behind your lower back¿like a hip pack¿to replicate a lumbar pad and force a forward curve while you're sitting.
And while you're schussing a straightaway in a downhill tuck, you should remember that bending forward at the waist is again putting undue stress on your spine. Likewise, sitting too far back on your skis in the deep powder is also unhealthy. Staying loose and keeping a "hollow back"¿a slight forward curve in your spine¿during a run can help minimize the inevitable impact skiing has on your back.
So what if you've already made that fateful turn and are now in pain? The mild soreness for which you pop a couple of Advil or smear on some Asper-creme might be setting you up for a major fall down the road. In other words: Listen to your body. Pain is a signal thatt something is out of kilter. And take caution. Masking pain with anti-inflammatories allows you to push yourself too hard and can aggravate an injury.
The solution? Compromise. First, be absolutely sure that your pain doesn't involve nerve damage or disk problems. If there's a question, especially if feeling in your legs is affected, see a doctor or chiropractor. If you're sent away from the office with only some mild pain relievers, you'll know that you can, and should, begin exercising. But come back slowly. Walsh suggests applying ice to the injured area and keeping it in passive motion to help relieve inflammation and pain. He is wary of support belts because they actually do some of the work for your lower back muscles and could eventually weaken them.
Most important, do a lot of stretching, making sure to retain proper positioning. And when you get back to the slopes, take it easy at first. Do warmup runs, stretch throughout the day, and keep away from the bumps and other jarring terrain. "The back is the pivot point for everything," says Michael Mullin, head athletic trainer at the Stone Clinic in San Francisco. "The spine carries all the body's nerves. If you're going to forget about something during training, that's certainly not what it should be."