Thursday, 4 February 2016

Which way is up? Top tips for skiing in a white out.

Have you ever skied in a white out?  Some see it as a challenge, but for others it can be disorientating and slightly scary at times. Some people even report motion sickness when skiing in poor light! Is there anything you can do to make skiing in bad visibility easier? Read on to find out more and for some fantastic tips from local ski instructors.  

Your balance relies on three main systems: your visual system, your vestibular system (inner ear) and your proprioceptive system (the muscle spindles, capsules and tendons in and around the joints), which help to relay information to the brain and central nervous system (CNS) about body position, movement and acceleration.  The CNS then sends messages to the body about how to react and adapt to these positions and movement.  If we remove one aspect of the balance system, the other elements face an increasing challenge in providing our brains with information about our body position.  Our visual system plays a major role and if you can't see, body and joint sense position awareness can become impaired.  If you are skiing in white out or poor visibility conditions, this is exactly what happens. For those of you that have experienced this, you can literally lose sense of where you are and which way is up! Skiing in a white out can be extremely disorientating.  

Without our awareness, both our proprioceptive and kinaesthetic systems (which perceives our movement) are constantly adapting to our environment and to our well being.  They are able to unconsciously perceive our spacial orientation and often work interchangeably. These systems can be enhanced with training.  They can also be impaired, for example due to tiredness and fatigue, injury, a cold or illness.

As part of ski injury prevention training, we recommend balance and proprioceptive practice. Skiing requires constant fine adjustments in order to adapt to varying terrain and snow conditions. Good balance and righting reactions can improve the speed at which your body makes these adjustments and can make a huge difference to whether you fall or stay on your feet.  To make this applicable to situations when you are skiing in poor visibility we recommend balance drills with your eyes closed.  This can be as simple as starting with standing with your feet together or standing in a tandem stance, closing your eyes and trying to maintain your balance for 30 seconds.  You can then progress this by doing the same standing on one leg.  

Other suggestions and ways to progress your balance training include:
  • standing on one leg with your eyes closed on an unstable surface e.g. a wobble cushion or bosu ball (a simple pillow will do if you don't have access to balance aids).  Using an unstable surface is an important progression, because when you ski, at times you will be on variable terrain with changing snow types, therefore this helps the body to prepare for alternating conditions.  
  • hopping on the spot with your eyes closed.  Mark out a spot on the floor and see if you can repeatedly hop up and down without travelling away from the spot.  
  • single leg stand with upper body rotations.  Stand on one leg and cross your arms over your shoulders.  Keep your hips facing forwards - imagine that there are headlights on your hips and they must face the opposite wall at all times through the movement.  Turn your shoulders to face the wall to your right, back to centre and then repeat to the left.  Continue with these rotations for 60 seconds.    
  • single leg stand and side to side floor touches. 
  • Hop to deep land and hold. Watch your knee alignment on landing (keep your knee cap over your middle toes).  Practice this with your eyes open and closed.  

Everyone is different in terms of how much balance training you should be doing, but as a rough guide try and work on your balance 3-4 times a week for the six weeks before your skiing holiday.  If you are doing a season, still try and aim for balance practice 3 - 4 times a week throughout the winter. Make sure you are continually challenging yourself and progressing the exercises.     

Balance practice is fun and you can challenge yourself in so many ways.  These are just a few ideas and there are many more drills that you can do to develop your balance skills. You can contact us at for further ways to challenge yourself or learn how to make balance practice specific to the type of skiing that you're doing (off-piste, bumps, racing etc).  The photos below should help to give you some more ideas.  Make sure you are in a safe environment before attempting balance training. 
Lunges with a twist
Core stability and balance training

It is never to late to start some balance drills.  The more you practice, the more fine tuned your balance and proprioceptive systems will be.

Good core stability is also important to facilitate good balance and proprioception. I will talk more about this in a future blog.        

What do ski instructors suggest? To help you further with ski specific tips, we've asked some of the instructors around town what their top tips for skiing in poor light are:

Emma Carrick-Anderson, 4 time Olympian
Skiers struggle in poor visibility as their focus is drawn to the fact they can't see rather than focusing on the contact point with the mountain, the inside edge of their skis.  Keeping this focus allows you to feel the terrain beneath your feet and you can then adjust to what you feel.  Connecting with the mountain and not looking too far ahead will help massively.  Look just in front of you and you can normally pick up some information giving you an indication of the terrain you're on. 

Chris Solliac
In bad visibility ski slowly and use your poles as your eyes.  Feel through your feet and skid through your turns.  

Clare Angus
Keep relaxed and use your pole plant to help determine the gradient.

Andrea Camerotto
Head for the trees. Try and remain well balanced and avoid crashing into the trees!

Ben Arkley
Try dragging both poles on the snow as you ski.  This helps to give a better feeling of the angle of the slope you're skiing, helping you to make subtle movements required to feel more balance. 

James Allen
Make sure you stay nice and relaxed, don't tense up.  Continue to attack the fall line. Don't shy away by leaning up hill which is a natural defensive mode.

Jas Bruce
Ski with feeling through the feet.  Use your pole plant as an extra point of contact. Ski in the trees for more definition.

Dave Cowell
Keep a horizontal eye line.  Try and pick up on six objects to help your focus, such as piste markers which will help give you a gradient of the slope.  If that doesn't work go for a coffee or to the bar!

James McMahon
Try and ski with someone that you can follow.

Craig Halliday
Use piste markers as a point of reference both for where you are on the slope and to gage the gradient. Piste markers with a band of orange are always the right hand side of the piste and can be used to judge how steep the slope is by looking at the vertical distance between each marker. Having this point of reference will hopefully make it easier to maintain balance when it is difficult to see
The other tip I usually recommend is to be prepared to move. If you can't see whats coming you need to be prepared to react to any changes in terrain and snow conditions. We want to attempt to stay in the middle of the ski but to achieve this we have to be ready to move along the ski both fore and aft to maintain your balance.

Thank you to everyone that has let me pick their brains (especially those of you I interrupted in the bar!).  There are some very useful tips which will hopefully help to prevent injuries occurring.

It is always recommended that you seek professional advice when starting new exercise programmes.  We recommend that you consult a physiotherapist or health care professional before starting any of the above drills if you have a pre-existing injury. 

The purpose of this blog, is to provide general information and educational material relating to physiotherapy and injury management. Bonne Santé physiotherapy has made every effort to provide you with correct, up-to-date information.  In using this blog, you agree that information is provided 'as is, as available', without warranty and that you use the information at your own risk.  We recommend that you seek advise from a fitness or healthcare professional if you require further advice relating to exercise or medical issues. 


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 2004 Aug;99(1):149-54. Proprioceptive training for learning downhill skiing.

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