winter sports snowboarding

As winter approaches, many Americans are hoping and praying for the clouds to kick into full gear and blanket the mountains and hillsides with foot upon foot of fluffy, white powder. At least 10 million of these people are eager to strap on skis, snowboards or snowshoes and have some fun in the cold.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of people who participate in many outdoor winter sports do not properly prepare themselves ahead of time for the stress these activities can place on their bodies. Furthermore, most do not live close enough to an area where they can engage in these activities on a regular basis.

At best, they end up hitting it hard on the weekends or, more likely, packing as much activity as possible into sporadic stints of a week here or long weekend there. As a result, a combination of a lack of proper preparation and intermittent yet intense periods of activity can frequently lead to post-exercise soreness, strained and pulled muscles—or worse.

A sports massage therapist can do a few things to help this type of client. there are four different types of sports massage: general massage, pre-event massage, post-event recovery massage and injury massage. For most individuals involved in winter sports, massage can be consolidated into two categories: general pre-activity massage and post-activity recovery massage.

For both types of sports massage, it is useful to go through a series of range-of-motion tests before the session to look for areas that may be tight and restricting normal movement, and again after the massage to examine how the treatment has impacted these restrictions.


General Pre-Activity Massage

General pre-activity massage should focus on loosening up the muscles that are primarily engaged during that sport and preparing the body to perform the best it possibly can. The work should combine slow, controlled strokes with compressions and kneading. The pressure should be deep enough to be effective, yet not so deep that your client’s body fights you by resisting and tensing up. It is also beneficial to incorporate some assisted dynamic stretching, such as Active Isolated Stretching, into part of your session.


Post-Activity Recovery Massage

Post-activity recovery massage should be geared toward helping the body recover more quickly from an activity, while at the same time addressing any muscle strains or pulls. It should combine flushing strokes using moderate pressure with trigger-point therapy and movement techniques, such as pin-and-stretch or Active Release Technique. Static stretches of 30 to 45 seconds can also be incorporated after massaging a muscle or region. A cold whirlpool or ice bath for 10 minutes is a great way to top off the end of the session.

Regardless of which type of massage you are giving, it is important to understand the muscles that experience the most stress for each of the more popular winter sports. Outlined below are five recreational winter activities and the primary muscles that are engaged during those activities.


Downhill Skiing

The entire way down the mountain, downhill, or alpine, skier is essentially maintaining a quarter-squat position. The rectus femoris, vastus intermedius and gluteus maximus bear the brunt of the workload, as they are in a constant state of contraction. A large part of the massage should focus on these two regions.

Other muscles that are stressed in the lower body during downhill skiing include the peroneus longus, biceps femoris, adductor longus and gluteus medius. Although the upper body is usually not heavily involved, it may also be worthwhile to check certain muscles around the shoulders including the rhomboids, trapezius, latissimus dorsi, pecs and deltoids as well as the erectors down the spine.



Snowboarders stress their bodies a bit differently than downhill skiers do. The core plays a key role in moving a snowboarder down a slope. As a result, the low back has to do a significant amount of work.

You should start by working the quadratus lumborum, multifidi, external obliques and psoai. The gastocnemius, soleus and tibialis anterior of the lower legs should also be massaged, as they are fundamental to the heel-toe motion that occurs when snowboarding. The hamstrings and quadriceps muscles should also be checked.

Beginners who fall a number of times also stress their wrists and shoulders. Snowboarders who end up spending a lot of time on the ground usually require work on the forearm flexors and extensors as well as supraspinatus and subscapularis.


Cross-Country Skiing

Cross-country, or Nordic, skiing using a diagonal stride is a great full-body exercise. It engages a coordinated use of both the upper body and lower body to propel the skier forward.

For the lower body, focus on the sartorius and rectus femoris, especially at the proximal end. You should also check the gastrocnemius. The biceps brachii, triceps brachii and latissimus dorsi are the main muscles used in the upper body.

Preparing for cross-country skiing in the warmer months does tend to be easier than for other winter sports, because skiiers can use a NordicTrack or elliptical trainer.


Cross-Country Skating

During cross-country skating the upper body uses a similar motion to cross-country skiing, but the lower body is engaged a bit differently. The main muscles used in the upper body include the biceps brachii, triceps brachii and latissimus dorsi. The primary muscles involved in moving the lower body include the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, rectus femoris, biceps femoris and sartorius.



Snowshoeing is one of those activities many people approach without fully respecting how stressful to the body it can actually be. The fact that snowshoers are hiking with added resistance from snow and added weight from snowshoes is really very different than going for a walk or hike on a dirt trail.

As a massage therapist, you should check the iliopsoas, rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, and all three hamstring muscles as well as the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus and adductor magnus. If your client uses poles while snowshoeing, you should also pay attention to the pectoralis major and minor, rhomboids, deltoids, supraspinatus and subscapularis. If your client wears a backpack, you can also work the erectors along the spine and the quadratus lumborum.


An Ounce of Prevention

As a sports massage therapist, you can provide your clients self-massage exercises as a supplement to your work on the table. In addition to making the hands-on massage more effective, within your clients it builds a more profound level of trust and confidence in you as a therapist. A series of self-massage exercises are outlined below.


Self-Massage 1: Quadriceps

Lying facedown, place your legs on the roller as shown. Roll up and down the quads, making sure not to roll over the kneecap. Rotate your body so that you roll the inside and outside of the quads as well. For more pressure, cross one leg over the other. You can also bend your knee in order to stretch the quad while massaging it at the same time.

Quad 1

Quadriceps massage

Quad 2

For more pressure, cross one leg over the other.



Self-Massage 2: Hamstrings

Place your body on the roller as shown. Roll up and down the muscles. Rotate your body so that you roll the inside and outside of the hamstrings as well. For more pressure, cross one leg over the other. Bend forward at the waist, bringing your chest down toward your knee in order to stretch the hamstring while massaging it at the same time.


Hamstring massage


Self-Massage 3: Calves

Position your calves on the roller as shown. Roll up and down the muscles. Rotate your body so that you roll the inside and outside of the calves as well. For more pressure, cross one leg over the other. You can also flex and extend your foot, or perform ankle rotations.

Calf 1

Calf massage

Calf 2

To add more pressure, cross one leg over the other.



Self-Massage 4: Shoulder

Note: For this exercise it is important to use a roller with grooves or ridges.

Lie on your side with your arm positioned between two grooves as shown. Roll up and down and rotate your body forward and backward. You can also internally and externally rotate your shoulder.

Shoulder 1

Shoulder massage


Make Winter Sports Wonderful

By targeting your massage techniques and self-care recommendations to the unique needs of your winter-sports-loving clients, you can help them enjoy the cold-weather activities they love while remaining healthy and injury-free.


About the Author

Mark Fadil is the co-founder of Sports Medicine Institute, a performance center which focuses on sports and orthopedic massage, in Palo Alto, California. He is also the founder of PHLX, a comprehensive foam roller system that empowers the user to recreate hands-on techniques utilized by skilled massage therapists. He wrote “Sports Massage for Runners” and “Massage for Golfers: Keep Your Clients on the Course” for MASSAGE Magazine.