In colder months, how often are you asked, “Can Pilates help prepare my body for winter sports?” The answer, of course, is yes, there are a number of Pilates conditioning exercises that help prevent injuries, improve balance and augment sport-specific strength. This is good news for the weekend warrior and the Olympic hopeful! The key is to condition the muscles most recruited in the sport of choice. This, in turn, leads to better performance with less likelihood of season-shortening injuries.
Winter sports such as skiing, snowboarding and ice-skating require balance and agility along with core and lower-body strength. The hip, knee and ankle joints are engaged repetitively to navigate the snow or ice. A well-tuned sense of balance allows clients to speed up, slow down or turn, all without winding up in the bushes (or worse). Strong quadriceps, glutes and calf muscles are critical for proper control.
Flexibility is also needed to support and protect the joints. Increased flexibility improves range of motion, which reduces muscle tension and enhances body awareness. Hamstring and Achilles tendon flexibility are especially important for maintaining proper stance—and therefore maintaining maximum control—on skis, skates or a snowboard. Strong internal and external hip rotators are crucial for switching direction effortlessly.
The following six Pilates exercises, broken down by muscle groups, should form the cornerstone of preseason training for skiers, snowboarders or ice-skaters interested in being at the top of their game. Teach these moves one-on-one and then give self-motivated clients the following “cheat sheet” to take home with them.
The Hundred on the Mat
You can’t beat the traditional Pilates hundred for warming up the core. Clients can do this exercise anywhere, and all they need is a mat.
Begin lying on your back, with legs in a tabletop position. Lift your head and look at your navel. Extend the legs to a 45-degree angle, and pump your arms, engaging the latissimus dorsi and serratus anterior. Inhale slowly for 5 counts and exhale slowly for 5 counts (one set). Repeat 10 times. If your neck gets tired, place it back down on the mat.
This exercise builds strength in the hips, glutes, and inner and outer thighs. Lie on one side and bend your legs as if you were sitting in a chair. Stack the hips and ankles directly on top of one another. Keeping the ankles glued together, lift the knee of the top leg, creating your own resistance. Engaging the inner and outer thighs, slowly bring the top leg back to its original position. Keep hips aligned as you open and close the top leg. When the glutes feel as though they are on fire, it’s time to stop!
Achilles Stretch on the Wunda Chair
This exercise strengthens the foot and stretches the Achilles tendon region. It also helps correct foot alignment. Make sure you press evenly through the entire foot. Stand in front of the wunda chair, and place the ball of your foot in the middle of the pedal. Press down and place your knee on top of the wunda chair. There should be no pressure on the knee. The work stems from the muscles of the foot and around the ankle joint. Keeping the knee still, press the pedal down from your foot, hold for 3 counts and slowly release the pedal to the start position. Repeat 10 times and then switch feet.
Front Balance Control to Mountain Climber on the Wunda Chair
This exercise not only strengthens the glutes and quads; it also hones balance. Begin by facing the wunda chair. Press the pedal with one foot and hold onto the side of the chair as you place the other foot on the top back edge of the chair. Reach the arms out to the sides. Lift the heel of the foot on the pedal and rise up. Make sure the knee of the working leg stays aligned. Repeat 5 times.
For an additional challenge, go up only halfway and pump the back leg for 8 counts. Repeat twice. This additional challenge improves endurance, balance and lower-body strength—all key for avoiding the muscle fatigue that often sets in after the first few runs down a mountain.
Eve’s Lunge on the Reformer
This exercise focuses on stretching the hip flexors. Stand on the side of the reformer. Place your outside foot near the end of the frame as you place the other leg on top of the reformer. Place the heel of the foot against the shoulder rest. Have all five toes facing forward. Lunge forward and press the reformer out. Hold for 5 counts. Repeat 3 times on the same side, and then switch legs.
“Tendon Stretch” on the Reformer
Although the name of the exercise is not quite anatomically precise, as it is the muscle that is being stretched, not the actual tendon, this is the exercise name originally used by Joseph Pilates.
Lie on the reformer with your feet in Pilates stance. Engage your inner and outer thighs and drop your heels below the bar for 3 counts. Work through the muscles of your feet and slowly raise the heels back up. Repeat for 10 counts.
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