To stretch or not to stretch ?
Dotted all over the slopes of Niseko during peak season are ski schools packed with eager students going through a stretch routine before they eagerly start their lessons and start carving up Niseko, arguably the worlds most consistent powder snow.
The motivation is good and at first glance, it kind of makes sense. After all we care about our students and hopefully the stretches will help them avoid a ski injury and help them enjoy their time in Niseko and their snowboarding or skiing lesson.
But there is a small problem. It probably doesn’t work.
The research is pretty clear that a pre-exercise stretch does not reduce the risk of sports injury(1).
Back in around the early 2000’s sports research started pouring in showing that when they divide Pre activity stretchers and non stretches and measure their injury rates they nearly always come up the same. (3).
The nail in the coffin was 2012 review of all the published literature on the topic and again the results are pretty clear. Stretching before activity simply does not reduce the rate injuries. (4). Those that are going to have an injury in Niseko are likely to have it weather they stretch before or not.
Let’s just be clear here. We are talking about pre-exercise stretching here as apposed to doing yoga or stretching regularly. That may still have some advantages in keeping your body supple with regularly stretching resumes done at non pre- exercise times (5)
In fact some research that pre activity stretching may even make muscles weaker (3).
There is another issue to consider in Niseko too.
It’s really hold here in Hokkaido in winter ! As you know it’s quite common to have wind chill factors here well into the minus 20’s. When muscle temperature drops below 32°C, less energy is required to cause muscle tears (2) so that downward dog on your frozen 45 year old office worker about to have ski lift might actually risk causing an injury rather than preventing one.
So now you have an extra problem. Your clients may be stretching cold muscles. If done incorrectly we run into a real possible chance the stretching may actually increase the chances of them having or worsening an existing injury.
So umm ok what should we do ?
There may still be great benefit in doing some group physical activity for your snow sport students. It’s also a great chance to create some nice group dynamics and establish yourself as the person in control of the day and may even help you identify problems for the pointy end of the Annupuri.
We should also be cautious of absolutes.
There are likely out there some people have a particularly injury that does respond favorably to a pre activity stretch but it’s just the research literature says that on average, for a large group of people it probably doesn’t help. If one of your clients has been prescribed something by their practitioner there may be good reasons for this.
It’s all about the warm up
The current research suggests that rather static type stretches your time with your students may be better spent warming up their bodies and muscles. If you are on the ugly side of 30 like your poor author you will appreciate that like antique cars, our bodies take a little bit longer to get going in the cold.
They will appreciate being driven already gently for a few minutes whilst they blow out the cobwebs and get some blood pumping through.
Any gentle flowing movements you can do will lubricate the joints and pump more blood through the muscles. I would suggest some shallow squats done together and lunges will get some blood through their leg muscles and help the knee stabilizers in the role up on the slopes.
It’s also a great chance to screen for any injuries that may need assessment before the person moves 2km up a chairlift. If a client is having problem doing a launch or squat or gentle spinal twist they are probably going to have a very tough time skiing back down a slope.
So what does prevent injury in our Snow sport clients ?
In a nutshell strength training.
In a meta-analysis study of 25 high quality trials positive results where found for basically everything except stretching (6). If you really want to reduce injury in your ski and snowboarding clients the best advice you can give them is start strength training and some proprioceptive exercise to improve their balance and control of their bodies.
The problem is this is a conversation to have when they first book a lesson with you a few months before. Once they are on the slope there will be little chance to make an impact on their underlying strength and conditioning.
The take home message
The take home message for Niseko Ski instructors should be spend less time on static stretching like hamstring stretches and more time on warming up your students and pumping blood through the muscles they will need up the slopes.
If your students have been waiting for that guy who forgot his beanie and there is windchill then do some exercises to raise their body temperature without overly stretching the muscles.
Wishing all Niseko Ski and Snowboard instructors a great 2019/20 season.