Ski season is coming! If you’re not a skier, you may be scratching your head, and thinking “there isn’t even any snow on the ground.” But die-hard skiers and snowboarders will tell you that now is the time to start thinking about getting new skis and boards or preparing your current equipment for the season. However, you should also be thinking about preparing your most important piece of equipment – you! Are you ready to hit the slopes? Now is the time to start getting into shape so you can get the most out of the season and prevent injuries.
What is the risk?
Skiers and snowboarders make more than 78 million visits annually to North American ski areas.1 The risk of injury for these individuals is 2-4 per 1,000 participant days.1 Falls are the most common cause of injury for snowboarders with 50% of the injuries involving the upper extremities. Skiers are more often injured in collisions with stationary objects such as trees or lift poles and 40-60% of the injuries involve the lower extremities, especially the knees.1
Research identifies several risk factors related to injuries, including age, gender, experience and skill level.1
While some of the risk factors noted above are difficult to change, there are a number that are easily within your control and can be managed. These include:2
Lack of proper pre-season conditioning
Fatigue (time skiing/boarding without rest) and dehydration
Poor judgment (boarding/skiing beyond ability level and/or going off trail or out-of-bounds)
Failure to observe posted warning signs
Inadequate adjustment to altitude
By doing some planning and pre-season preparation, you can avoid becoming an unwilling spectator in the ski lodge, or a passenger on the ski patrol sled.
Where do I start?
“’The hardest thing on the body is to do absolutely nothing for nine months and then ski all day for three days in a row,’ says Dr. Rob Brophy, associate professor of Orthopedic Surgery at Washington University School of Medicine and a team physician for the St. Louis Rams. ‘And then you wonder why you get tired, you’re sore, you may increase your risk of having an ACL [knee] injury because you are fatigued, and your muscles aren’t keeping your balance as well as you’d like.’”3
Any conditioning program should address strength (core), power, and flexibility as well as include a well-rounded general cardio element such as running, cycling or swimming. Interval training, or repeated short bursts of intense work followed by a short rest, is recommended for skiers or boarders as this simulates skiing and then riding on the lifts.2 This program should be implemented well before ski season starts to ensure you can manage an entire day on the slopes without excessive fatigue.
It is important to focus on strengthening the muscles that are used for skiing and boarding, specifically the muscles that support the knees and hips and the muscles that support your trunk and spine. Include exercises that will enhance your overall strength (including core) and reduce the risk of falls and injuries.
In addition to strength and cardio conditioning, a good program must also address flexibility. Stretches that target all the major muscle groups in the legs, hips, back, shoulders and arms should be included.
As with any sport or athletic activity, it is recommended that you complete some warm-up activities prior to hitting the hill.
Skiing and boarding utilize muscles in unique ways and both activities use these muscles differently than when you are doing squat exercises in the gym. Sport-specific exercises are important to make you more agile and to prepare your body for the specific demands of a particular sport. Talk to a physiotherapist or trainer familiar with the sport and include exercises that will address the demands of the sport as well as those that challenge your balance and endurance.
There are many workout programs and resources available to both beginners and more experienced skiers/snowboarders. Search for a local class, online program or other resources to get you started. Check with your health-care professional to ensure you are healthy enough to start a more intensive exercise program.
Check your equipment
Have a qualified technician check your equipment to ensure that it fits properly and is working safely. Many ski injuries happen when bindings do not release when they should.
I’m at the hill: now what?
Here are some suggestions to help keep you safe and to ensure you enjoy the entire day, weekend or week in the mountains:2
Warm up. Cold stiff muscles are more prone injury. You should do a quick warm up routine that includes light cardio and stretching before getting on the lift in the morning and after any extended break during the day. This can be as simple as light jogging in place or walking up hill with your equipment and then stretching for a few minutes before getting on the lift or after that mid-day break in the lodge. Some stretching at the end of the day may make you less stiff the next morning.
Stay within your own ability and experience level. Ensure you are skiing on runs that match your level, at speeds you can control, and do not let others encourage you to try things if you are not comfortable. Make sure you know the layout of the hill so that you do not suddenly find yourself on a black diamond run that’s beyond your skills, with no other way down the hill.
If you are going to fall, let yourself fall and stay down until your fall or slide has stopped. Trying to stop a fall often leads to increased injury as we stiffen up and throw our bodies into awkward positions to avoid hitting the ground.
Wear safety equipment such as helmets and wrist guards. Although the risk of head injuries on the slopes are less common than injuries to arms and legs (10-20% of injuries involve the head or neck), they are often more severe and can result in serious brain injury, spinal cord injury, or even death. Helmets may not decrease the risk of head injuries but may reduce their severity.1
Listen to your body. Know when to take a break or leave for the day. A high percentage of injuries occur during the “final run” of the day.2 Your body may have reached its physical limit for the day and your responses may be slowing. This combination of fatigue and slower response time increases the chance of a fall or the risk that you will be unable to control your run leading to a higher risk for injury.
I’m injured: now what?
Studies have found that approximately 20-40% of ski injuries are knee-related and 50% of boarding injuries occur in the arm.2 If you do suffer an injury, start by visiting a health-care provider such as a physiotherapist to have the injury properly diagnosed and treated. Physiotherapists can guide you through a personalized rehabilitation program to help you safely return to the slopes and can provide advice on how to prevent similar problems in the future.
Ease back into skiing or boarding after any injury. Ideally, opt for groomed snow conditions, good visibility and choose easier runs as you get back on the slopes.
Take notice of how your injury feels after skiing. If you notice the area has become swollen, stiff or achy, you may have overdone it. Apply an ice pack, elevate the limb and rest. If symptoms persist, return to your physiotherapist for treatment and only return to skiing or boarding when your injury feels better and you and your physiotherapist agree you are ready to hit the slopes again.
Canadian Paediatric Society. (2012) Position Statement : Skiing and snowboarding injury prevention. Available at https://www.cps.ca/en/documents/position/skiing-snowboarding-injury.
Roy, BA, Stimpson K. (2014) Ski/Snowboarding injuries and Prevention: Brought to you by the American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM’s Health and Fitness Journal: January/February 2014. Volume 18 (1) doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000002. Available at https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/fulltext/2014/01000/ski_snowboarding_injuries_and_prevention__brought.3.aspx .
Shapiro, D (2016). On the Snow: 4 Reasons You’re at Risk for a Ski Injury and what to do About it. Available at https://www.onthesnow.ca/news/a/587430/4-reasons-you-re-at-risk-for-a-ski-injury-what-to-do-about-it .
Born to Move
Regulating Alberta's physiotherapy profession and acting as an association by providing member services.