Picture this: You’re carving the course in butter conditions on the first day of what you hope will be a perfect ski summer. The sun is out, the water’s warm and all seems right with the world. But as you cross the second buoy on your first run of the day, something goes wrong, and you feel a bolt of mind-numbing pain in your right knee. Now, instead of an entire summer on the water, you face months of casts, crutches and rehabilitation.
Fortunately, this doesn’t have to happen. By strengthening the muscles that surround your knees before and during the season, you can minimize your risk of knee injury and maximize your time on the water.
Muscles and ligaments support the knee, and when quadriceps, hamstrings and calf muscles are strengthened, they act as shock absorbers for the knee, says Dr. Terry Weyman, a chiropractor who is clinic director of the Chiropractic Sports Institute in Westlake Village, California, and a former medical consultant for the pro water-ski and wakeboard tours. If these muscles are weak due to poor conditioning, however, the knee ligaments will absorb all the stress. This, Weyman says, is when the knee is most susceptible to injury.
Logically then, strengthening your quads, hamstrings and calf muscles is the best way to prevent knee injury on the water. While there are a number of ways to strengthen these muscles, Dr. Michael Fulton, a Daytona Beach, Florida, orthopedist and a former U.S. Water Ski Team physician, says rotary exercises such as leg curls and leg extensions are most appropriate because they isolate each of the muscle groups. Other quad- and hamstring-strengthening exercises, like squats and leg presses, are less focused and less effective.
“If you squat or leg press, you’re going to do some pushing out, and while you know you’re going to get an effect on the quads and hamstrings, you’re never sure how much of an effect you’ll get,” Fulton says.
In the months leading up to ski season, Fulton recommends intense weight training three days a week, with a day of rest in between. But just how intense is intense? Well, Fulton says in a supervised environment he has his knee rehabilitation patients perform just a single set, but with enough reps to take them to muscle failure (the point at which they can no longer perform the exercise.) For the typical skier in the pre-season, though, Fulton recommends fatiguing the muscle with at least two sets of each exercise every workout. Once into the season, skiers should reduce their leg workouts from three intense workouts to one intense and one less-intense workout, Fulton says.
“You still want to get good stimulation for muscle growth, but you don’t want to overtrain,” Fulton says. “So rather than taking the muscle to failure, stop at 10 reps. Just remind the muscle, but you don’t have to push it too hard.”
In addition to weight training, skiers also need aerobic training to condition muscle and protect their knees from injury. Although any aerobic exercise will do, Fulton recommends exercises that include rotary and gliding motions, such as bicycling. Because the knee is designed to rotate, rotary exercise promotes the health of the knee cartilage. Higher-impact exercises like jogging are acceptable as well, as long as there’s no history of knee injury, Fulton says.