Rehab: Getting Back to the Slopes after a Serious Knee Injury

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 02/26/2014 - 10:00
Scott Smith, Ski Cooper

Scott Smith, Ski Cooper

By Patrick Byrne, Colorado Ski Country USA Public Affairs Manager

When I'm not representing Colorado's ski resorts before elected officials and the media, I enjoy playing soccer (and skiing, obviously). Despite my advancing years (33 of them as of Monday) I'm able to perform at a relatively high level when I'm fit. Or I should say, I *was* able.

Back in early June, while playing on my men's soccer team I was chasing after the ball and tried to cut really hard to my left, putting the same strain on my body as I would when holding an aggressive left turn on skis. It didn't happen. Instead, the cleats on my right boot caught in the artificial playing surface, sending all of that rotational force into my knee joint. A decade sitting in a desk chair had degraded the strength in my leg enough that my quad and hamstring couldn't absorb the strain, instantly snapping the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in my right knee.

These sorts of injuries can be traumatic and painful, especially if the meniscus and cartilage are damaged along with the ligaments. I was fortunate; an instant of pain caused by my knee buckling in an unnatural direction was the worst I had to deal with, and then numbness and a few minutes of shock set in. I understood instinctively what had happened and knew that I was done playing soccer for a long time and was in jeopardy of missing the ski season. Not good!

The surgery for this type of injury is fairly straightforward due to advances in science and the fact that orthopedic surgeons in Colorado see a lot of torn knee ligaments. The friendly doctors at the University of Colorado Hospital put me under, cut out the middle third of the patellar tendon in my right knee, and drilled it into where my ACL used to attach to my tibia and femur using titanium screws. This created a new ACL that is just as strong as the original ligament without compromising the strength of the patellar tendon.

Rehabilitating from reconstructive ACL surgery is all about building up functional strength and mass in your quadriceps muscle. It's astonishing how quickly muscles atrophy when you don't use them; between the damage from the initial injury and the necessity of cutting through nerves during surgery my right quad basically shut off for several weeks and shriveled to the point that I would need serious rehab to ever engage in athletic activity again.

Nine months of work later, I'm almost ready to ski. Countless hours of treadmills, stability balls, box jumps, and spin classes have built up my right leg to 95% of the strength of my left, and I'm hoping to get the green light to head to the slopes this weekend since as an employee of the ski industry it would be fun to, y'know, ski.

These days, I'm splitting my time between plyometric workouts like shuttle runs and jumping drills and raw strength exercises at my wonderful home gym of nine years, the Downtown Denver YMCA. Everyone who skis or snowboards can benefit from workouts that strengthen the lower body; your legs and core are the athletic foundation of every sport. The stronger your legs are, the less likely you are to suffer a knee, hip, or ankle injury on the slopes. Here are some of the things I'm doing to get strong again:


Patrick Byrne, Downtown Denver YMCA

Patrick Byrne, Downtown Denver YMCA

When performed correctly, squats are one of the most effective exercises to build lower body strength. It's a complete exercise that will strengthen your core, glutes, hamstrings, and quads simultaneously. NFL running backs are known to squat enormous amounts of weight, which helps them maintain forward momentum while being attacked from all sides by fast, powerful, and highly motivated defensemen. For example, Washington's Alfred Morris can squat 645 pounds. That's crazy strong, and Alfred could probably rip it in the moguls if he wanted to. I'm not ready for 645 pounds just yet; in fact, I'm not even ready for weight plates. Hand weights combined with high repetitions will suffice for most people to build the muscular endurance to keep you energetic on the mountain.

With squats, it's important to learn and master the proper form before you put any weight plates on a bar. To avoid back and knee injuries, always keep your weight on your heels and your back as close to upright as possible. Consult a trainer and learn good form before you ever try to lift even half of your own body weight.


Downtown Denver YMCA

Downtown Denver YMCA

This simple exercise works several of the same muscles as squats with a slightly more challenging element of core stability, especially if you incorporate weights such as dumbbells, kettelbels, or barbells. This exaggerated walking stride brings your trailing leg parallel with the floor while keeping your upper body upright and faced forward. Just like with good skiing form, you will want to let your lower body do the work while engaging your core to keep your upper body quiet. Short strides work your quads while longer strides put more of the effort on your glutes. When you've mastered your form (with the help of a certified fitness instructor) try plyometric lunges, where you jump explosively between strides.

Plate-loaded Squat Press Machine

Patrick Byrne, Downtown Denver YMCA

Patrick Byrne, Downtown Denver YMCA

This is an exercise of brute lower body strength that requires a specialized piece of equipment. Most gyms will have something similar to the machine featured in this artistic photo of yours truly. The idea is to push as much weight away from you as you possibly can. The assembly can come in different styles; sometimes you're pushing a platform away from you in a stationary position, and sometimes you're on a sliding assembly and push off of a fixed platform. Depending on how you approach your exercise on this machine it can tone your lower body (high repetitions of low weight), increase your functional strength (medium repetitions of medium weight) or add muscle mass (low repetitions of high weight).

I choose to do pyramids: Twelve repetitions at approximately 60% of my maximum weight, then add ten pounds and do twelve more, then ten more pounds, then ten fewer, and finally twelve reps at the same weight I started with. The goal is to do this with as little rest between sets as possible, to test your muscular endurance to the limit. You can do this with any weight training exercise; it will rip you up and humble you at the same time as that 20-pound dumbbell feels more like 60.

See you on the slopes hopefully maybe!

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