Hip flexor pain is a common affliction among backcountry skiers, from simple soreness to debilitating pain. “Push through it, it will get better” they say. Don’t discourage; there are ways to enjoy these moments spent up in the mountains without limping the next day.
The Victim: the Iliopsoas
The Iliopsoas (a combination of the Psoas and the Iliacus muscle) is the primary hip flexor. It is designed to swing the leg forward during walking. As shown in the image below, it originates from the lower back and the iliac bone and inserts
on the femur.
Backcountry skiing significantly increases the stress on the Iliopsoas. This muscle designed to work under very small loads now has to swing a leg carrying skis, boots and skins uphill. It easily becomes too much and as the muscle fatigues,
spasms, soreness and pain appear. Don’t despair though, certain adjustments to skinning technique will provide relief and solve the problem for most skiers.
Making Your Iliopsoas Happy Again
Muscles function more efficiently when they are provided a stable and strong foundation to do their work. Since the Iliopsoas originates from the lower back vertebras, it is greatly influenced by core stability. A weak core yields to an overstressed Iliopsoas as it had to perform two tasks at the same time: bring the leg forward, and stabilize the lower back.
Next time you skin up, try to feel how your abdominals engage as you stride. You should feel that they fire as you start bringing your leg forward, providing your Psoas some much needed support. If you don’t, try to tuck your belly button in as you stride (without holding your breath); this will fire your Transverse Abdominis. Rotate your pelvis forwards and make the whole movement more efficient. There is definitely no way to escape having a strong core!
On the ski track, notice that many people lift their skis high off the ground when swinging their legs forward. An ideal stride involves minimal to no lift of your ski off the snow, as this reduces the load that your Iliopsoas has to swing uphill. Let the hill carry you up and reduce the stress on your hip flexors by using them to glide your skis forward. An easy fix to this is to practice efficiency every time you go out skinning. Focus on keeping your skis as close to the ground as possible and take advantage of the gliding properties of your skins.
Another way to lessen the hip flexors work when skinning up is to lighten up the weight underfoot. Next time you replace your skis, consider weight as an important factor. The same applies to boots and bindings. 100g less weight under your foot translates to a 2 to 4% energy saving. Unfortunately, it usually comes with a price. But let’s be honest here, we never have enough pairs of skis and it’s impossible to have too much gear!