How to snowboard better through stretching and improved flexibility

One of the biggest obstacles to come across when coaching any sport is something that you have little or no control over. Over the last 10 years coaching I have found it to be a lack of flexibility in students – regardless of their level.

You can of course tell them to go away, showing them what stretches to do, and encourage stretching. But at the end of the day, for the most part, it is out of your control.

Now how about if the student knew the benefits from stretching and keeping their body flexible as well as strong – would that change the way they thought about their sport? If so, the role of the coach is not only to show / demonstrate or describe a task but also to encourage out of training hours to improve on flexibility, if of course this is not already incorporated in the session.

You see me stretching..?

calf muscle stretches to improve snowboardingHow many of us actually stretch before and after a session on the slopes?

One area of the body in particular that I have found holds people back is flexibility in the ankle joint. Because we use this joint so much during our everyday life, muscles and tendons associated with it become tightened.

The area in question is triceps surae (or more commonly known as the calf muscles). Triceps surae is actually made up of 3 muscles but only 2 will be referred to here,Gastrocnemius and Soleus both of which attach to the calcaneal (Achilles) tendon which in turn connects to the heel bone.

With its origin lying at the base of the femur, Gastrocnemius is responsible for both plantar flexion (pointing the toes down toward the ground) and flexion of the knee. Soleus sole action is plantar flexion. If plantar flexion is to shorten those muscles (contract) then dorsiflexion would be to lengthen (pointing the toes to the sky).

High Heels

Constant wearing of high heeled shoes can lead to the shortening of these muscle due to the fact they are held in Isometric contraction. (this is when a muscle increases its tension, but the length of the muscle is not altered. A good example of this is holding a heavy object in the hand with the elbow held stationary and bent at 90 degrees, or trying to move something that is too heavy)

Another point worth noting is that in the upright position, the body has a natural tendency to fall forward at the ankle. This is prevented by isometric contraction of both the Gastrocnemius and Soleus muscles.

Gym work

Now imagine that before the start of the season you head off down to the gym to build those leg muscles up, you want to be strong and last until the end of the day, right? Well essentially this is what you are doing every time you snowboard – creating tiny tears/rips in the muscle fibres which over time re-build and without going into too much detail, make the muscle bigger and stronger. Without then stretching these muscles, you run the risk of shortening them and reducing the ability to lengthen (dorsiflexion).

Dorsi this, Dorsi that..

So why do we need free and uninhibited movement in the ankle joint when riding?

Well, we need to at least have ability to dorsiflex the foot when riding in order to flex at the ankle joint. A tight or shortened set of calf muscles will inhibit this movement and we essentially lose our suspension, overall stability and range of movement.

There are times when we need to keep this joint flexed quiet a lot and other times where we do not

Having the ability to be flexible, in terms of how you can adapt and change your riding style to the terrain is key to being a strong all round rider.

If we don’t, one of two things then happen – we either end up looking like the board is taking us for a ride, stiff in the lower joints and unable control or stabilise ourselves especially in more variable terrain, or even worse, put ourselves at risk of injury with the possibility of damaging ligaments / tendons or muscles should we be so unfortunate to fall.

Forward and…. stretch

calf muscle stretches to improve snowboarding 2So now that we know a couple of benefits from soft, flexible ankles – lets stretch! Here’s a couple I like to do early morning while sipping on some herbal and honey tea.

Stretch 1: (right in picture) Ensure that the lead leg (closest to the wall) is flat to the floor – step back with the other leg and extend through the heel trying to get it flat to the floor. DO not bounce during the stretch.

Ensure a good posture with head in line with the spine supporting yourself with both hands flat against the wall.

Stretch 2: Sitting on floor with one leg stretched out, tuck the other in at 90 degrees with the flat of the foot on the inside of your thigh. Point the toes towards the ceiling, then try and pull them back while extending the leg through the heel, away from you – only use a towel to increase the stretch and if you feel you must.

Hold it…lets re-cap

So why are we stretching? To improve flexibility but also to iron out those newly torn muscle fibres. Remember, it is not the action of the calf muscles to flex the ankle joint but more their ability to stretch/lengthen into this position that we are more concerned about here.

Kevin Neeld has a good article about isolated stretching: He goes on the explain how he experimented NOT stretching at all for 8 weeks (the experiment had to be cut short to 6 due to a very upset and tight subject…!). Definitely worth a read!

The main focus of this post was on flexion of the ankle joint but there are also other places where the action of dorsiflexion is crucial in snowboarding including turning / freestyle etc. The post Struggling with heel to toe turns on a snowboard? discusses this.

Staying subtle when riding is also key to improving your freestyle riding.
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Written by Chris Skinner.
BASI ISIA Level 3, VTCT Sports Massage / Anatomy & Physiology Diploma