This is the third blog in a series of four related to the important aspects of training to prepare you for skiing and snowboarding. The topics covered so far have been endurance and strength. Please refer back to the posts on these topics if you are interested!
This week I am going to talk about balance. This may be an obvious one, but you need to have good balance for skiing and snowboarding! Mountains are riddled with unexpected obstacles and you need to be able to react to these appropriately so that you can reduce your risk of injury.
First things first. You need to know the different components of balance so you can assess which ones you are good at or need to improve.
There are three main components to balance: visual, vestibular, and somatosensory. You use all three of these systems to different degrees depending on the conditions. It is important to train all of them so you can handle whatever situation you find yourself in. For example, if you close your eyes you have to rely on your other two systems, vestibular and somatosensory, to maintain your balance.
For the visual aspect of balance, your eyes have receptors in them that provide information to your brain about how your body is oriented compared to the objects around you. So, when you are in conditions with less visibility like in a white out, fog, or night skiing/boarding, this system is challenged and you rely more on the vestibular and somatosensory systems.
The vestibular part of balance relies on structures in your inner ear that detect head movement. When the head moves from side to side or up and down this system relays information to your brain about the movement. Since you move your head quite frequently when skiing and snowboarding, it is important to try to improve this system.
The somatosensory aspect of balance has two components. This system is related to the receptors in your skin, muscles, and joints that send information to your brain telling it where your body and extremities are in space. This is very important when skiing and snowboarding because you need to know what position your various extremities are in at all times without having to look at them. Receptors from this system also sense what type of surface you are on. When you stand on an uneven surface, the somatosensory system is challenged.
Let’s go through some exercises that test the different aspects of your balance systems so you can see for yourself what system or systems you may need to work on.
A Simple Balance Test
Something simple you can start with to test your balance is to stand with your feet close together on level ground for 60 seconds. With this test, all 3 of your balance systems are being used so it should be fairly easy to do.
Next, try balancing with your feet in tandem (see 2nd and 3rd pictures).
Then the final progression using all 3 systems would be to stand on one leg (see 4th picture). What changes with these three tests is your base of support; the smaller it is, the harder it is to balance.
Now With Your Eyes Closed
Next, we are going to eliminate your visual system and see how you do.
Stand near something you can hold onto if needed, and stand with your feet together. Now, close your eyes (picture 1).
This test makes you rely more on your vestibular and somatosensory systems to help you maintain your balance. If you can do this for 60 seconds fairly easily, then try tandem stance (picture 2).
If that is too easy, then try it on a single leg as in picture 3.Next up is testing your vestibular system.
Start by standing with your feet together and rotate your head to the left and the right. Do this 10 to 20x at a moderately fast speed and see how this affects your balance (pictures 1 and 2).
Now try it bending your neck, bringing your ear to your shoulder, back and forth with the same cadence (pictures 3 and 4). If you want to try more advanced versions of this you can try this in a tandem stance, and then on a single leg.
Challenge Your Somatosensory System
For this test, you need to find an uneven surface to stand on, such as a couch pillow. Perform the same 3 positions as you did above (feet together, feet in tandem, and on one leg) and attempt to sustain each for 60 seconds.
Reacting While Balancing
Lastly, being able to react to things while balancing is very important. Be careful with this exercise, but try standing on an uneven surface with someone tossing a ball to you. This tests your ability to balance and react to things around you.
If any of these tests were difficult for you to do, then you need to start working on your balance! Your ability to react to low visibility conditions, to turn your head and maintain balance, and to react to different surfaces beneath you, as well as things in front of you (e.g., other skiers/boarders, ice, rocks, roots), is extremely important to avoid injury.
Physical therapists are trained in testing and improving people’s balance. So, if you are worried about one of these aspects of balance being a potential area of weakness for you, then come in to one of our Jackson County Physical Therapy locations for an evaluation, and we can prescribe exercises to help you improve your balance.
Thanks for reading! Tune in next week for learning about the importance of mobility and how to perform a proper warm up and cool down.