Are You Ready for Winter Sports?

As we approach the winter season, many of the athletes I work with put their sport-specific training into high gear. When people ask how they can best prepare for a certain winter sport such as sledge hockey, cross-country or even downhill skiing, the first thing I usually recommend is that they begin to use a system called "periodization."

Periodization is a system of training cycles designed to help an athlete peak his or her performance at the proper time.. As I have mentioned in previous articles, an athlete or even someone who is just interested in a winter sport for recreation can't be expected to exercise the same way all year round. The use of training cycles is a must to avoid tendonitis and other over-training symptoms.

Right now, winter athletes are in the "sport-specific training phase", the second of three cycles. They have moved from the first, a general conditioning program, to the second stage of training which included more sport-specific exercises and cardio conditioning.

An example of an exercise employed at the sport-specific training phase would be hammer curls that mimic the picking motion used in sledge hockey and skiing. Pullovers are another great sport-specific exercise which word the muscles that help with the follow-through that comes after your initial push off on a ski or sledge. Equally important, is your cardio vascular conditioning, or heart and lung capacity. In the sport-specific cycle we begin to add weight to the sledge or to the sit-ski to increase the intensity of the program.

On a roller sledge or ski and/or if you're using your manual chair with ski poles, velcro weights ca be attached to your wrists to help increase the intensity of the workout. When the snow flies and ice time becomes available, the same two or three-pound weights can be strategically placed around the frame of the sledge or ski, adding an average fifteen pounds. This technique helps to build endurance by requiring the athlete to push the length of the rink or course with the added weight. The weights are then removed and the course is repeated in a much lighter ski/sledge. The weight used for a cross-country ski would be much lighter than a sledge, of course, as the distance traveled is much greater.

Although hockey, a game of starts and stops, is not considered an aerobic activity it is still important to build your cardiovascular capacity. It's great to be strong but without heart and lung capacity, playing the game or skiing the cross-country course will feel like running a triathlon. Now that your cardio training is changing from a hand crank, roller sledge, or wheelchair to the location where your sport will take place, it's important to increase your aerobic endurance. You can use a series of intervals at different intensities, such as sprints on ice or snow to a designated point and time your progress. Try to better your times at each workout and once you achieve the desired time, increase the distance and number of repetitions.

I like to have the skiers I work with use a wind rower to help develop endurance in the muscles of the back. If you are going to ski for the first time this year then caution is the key. Make sure that you don't over-stress your muscles to the point of injury. If you're a downhill skier try to concentrate on form and technique rather than speed. Don't go all out the first couple of times you're on the snow. That may be fine for a seasoned athlete, but for the novice it can mean the difference between years injury-free and just days.

The importance of stretching is also often overlooked. On many occasions in the locker room with the national sledge hockey team, I have had to stop the players from stretching while their muscles were still cold - you should only stretch once warmed up. I usually have the team do some laps on the ice first, and then begin their stretching routine. The reason for this is injury prevention. Ligaments and tendons stretch much more easily when warmed with a flow of fresh blood. The warm up spreads the blood from the abdominal cavity where about two thirds of it pools at rest to the extremities to help warm the joints. Many people with disabilities, especially those who are wheelchair users, may have experienced shoulder injuries. Warming up helps to prepare for activity while reducing the chance of aggravating existing injuries. Stretching should be done after each warm up and after every session of exercise. Pay close attention to the shoulders in particular, as they are prone to injury - especially if you use a wheelchair.

People in chairs often develop overuse injuries in their shoulders from pushing the chair, making transfers, and simply taking part in every day activities. When a sport is added, it adds stress to the shoulder joint. It is essential for the athlete to prepare and ensure that he/she is in the proper physical condition to take on that added stress.

When the season begins and you concentrate on the competition, the cycle again changes. This "on-season" cycle, also called the maintenance cycle, dictates that the exercise you're doing be reduced in order to maintain your fitness level. We recommend this to help eliminate over-training.

The final cycle is the "post-season" cycle, or active recovery, designed to rehabilitate the body from stress of competition and/or to help rehabilitate any "on-season" injuries you may have sustained. During this cycle, you remain active, doing things like swimming or playing ball for fun or even taking part in some light cardio one or two days a week. This cycle usually lasts about four to six weeks depending whether or not you have sustained any injuries. Once you're sure that you are ready, the cycles begins again from the start with the general conditioning stage.

You must remember to train smart whether your goal is to compete at an international level or just to have fun. Whatever your aspiration, proper exercise principles are vital to ensure you have many years of injury-free fun or competition.

Peter J. Morel CFC,CPT,CAFS
Director Trainers Sledge Hockey of Canada,
President TopShape Inc.