The first time Carrie Kaarre skinned up the Big Mountain in Whitefish, Montana, pain in her hips forced her to turn around.
"It felt like my hips were on fire, and not in a good way," says Kaarre, 32, who works as the Director of Outreach at Chrysalis, a therapeutic boarding school in Northwest Montana. The next time she tried, the same intense pain turned her around. "The third time, it was only stubbornness and pride that got me to the top."
This winter, Kaarre had a completely different experience on the uptrack. During a "Skin with a PT" clinic, hosted by Kim Weichers, DPT, a physical therapist at Whitefish Therapy & Sport Center, she learned crucial tips for utilizing the right muscles at the right time to maintain solid form and minimize pain.
"My passion of getting people into new outdoor recreational activities melded with my career of helping people get rid of pain, sparking the idea to lead the clinic," Weichers says. She wanted to share her wisdom about "how body mechanics and technique can help decrease overuse syndromes involving the hip flexors, allowing people to skin farther distances or multiple laps without continuing to damage their muscles."
If you spend a lot of time sitting, it's likely that your hip flexors will be tight or weak. But you don't have to muscle through the pain, pun intended. Visiting a physical therapist is always wonderful, but you might also experiment a bit on your own with form, and build strength.
Here, three major takeaways from "Skin with a PT:"
For a more efficient stride:
Instead of lifting your ski off the snow and "stepping" up the mountain, glide the ski uphill. This will decrease strain on the hips from yanking the hanging weight of the ski. When you're skinning across a steep slope or double fall line, roll the ankles slightly downhill—not uphill— to increase skin-to-snow contact.
A shorter stride is generally more economical, especially on steeper slopes. Imagine your stride like a fluid pendulum swing. Use rhythmic breathing to find your flow. Unless you can be smooth at a faster speed, don't rush it. Remember: slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
To take the heat off hip flexors:
Resist the tendency to lean your torso into the hill, because this position shortens the hip flexors. Pole planting near the toe of the boot can help maintain upright posture. Your highest heel riser level also shortens the hip flexors, so if you're going straight uphill and it's getting steep, start switchbacking before you flip on the highest heel level.
While we're talking about heel risers: the more proficient you are at changing them quickly, the more likely you'll adjust them with minor changes in slope steepness, which can be beneficial for tight hip flexors. Whenever your party stops for a break, take a lunge stretch for at least 30 seconds on each side. As you stretch, remember to keep your trunk upright, and tuck in your pelvis.
Utilize all your muscle groups:
Because many skiers are so strong in the quads, they frequently fail to adequately strengthen other muscles, like hamstrings, glutes, and core, Weichers says. Without a strong core, the hip flexors need work double time—both advancing the leading leg and stabilizing the trunk; without strong hammies and glutes in the back, the front of the leg has to work harder, exacerbating hip flexor pains.
Make these muscle groups pull their own weight. To engage the core, Weichers recommends gently tucking the belly button toward the spine at the beginning of each step. To utilize all the leg muscles, fire up the glute/hamstrings by more actively pushing forward on the last inch of each stride.