Proprioception in skiing and snowboarding

June 06, 2016 Vince Shuley

Proprioception [PRO-pree-o-SEP-shən]
noun, Physiology.
1. perception governed by proprioceptors, as awareness of the position of one’s body.

What are proprioceptors anyway and why should we care about them? They are sensory nerve endings located in your muscles, tendons, and joints that relay information about positions of the body and its parts in space. If you can hit baseball without focusing on the bat, your using proprioception, what some people describe as a “sixth sense.” A pretty important part of the anatomy for skiing, snowboarding or any action sport, don’t you think?

Awareness of body position at the most critical moment | Photo Andy Wong /AP

Like any physical or cognitive skill, proprioception can be trained. Just like your nerve endings and receptors can monitor sensations like pressure, sound, heat and light without you consciously thinking about it, your body manages the fine adjustments to keep you balanced and avoid collisions with your own body or with other objects. Proprioception is sometimes termed “kinesthetic awareness,” however the terms are not interchangeable. Kinesthetic awareness is the conscious effort to react to the situation, whereas proprioception is an unconscious or subconscious brain process. Take an example of a skier moving through different types of terrain; the skier’s body acts subconsciously to stay upright while their mind process the upcoming terrain of bumps, trees, and steeps and makes the appropriate adjustments.

Skiing in the snow or in the air, anticipation is key to a smooth landing | Photo – Jun Yanagisawa

Proprioception can be lost when athletes sustain an injury. Nerve fibers can be severed at the same time, causing messages from the muscles, tendons, and joints to go undelivered or reach the brain with incorrect information. This is one of the reasons that injuries such as a sprained ankle are susceptible to reinjury, even if the joint has sufficient strength.

Devices such as the Sweetspot Trainer can be used to train proprioception | Photo – Snow Guide

Retraining proprioception in the lower body comes with balance exercises. Wobble boards and slacklines require a sort of hyper awareness of you own body position and anticipating the next disruption to your balance. For skiing, plyometrics (jump training), change of direction drills and strength training with leg presses and squats helps reinforce the connection between muscles and nerves. That’s why these exercises are so popular in pre-ski season training regimes.

Split second reactions required to stay safe in the trees | Photo – Dave Silver

There are still many unknowns about proprioception and the medical community has debated plenty about the role of it in an athlete’s biomechanical development. However, what we do know involves a combination of balance, sense of joint position, and body awareness. Keep sharp on these things and ski season will hopefully have reduced injuries.