With ski season just around the corner and the first snow of the season already in the books, we couldn't be more excited to get back on the slopes – especially after being cooped up inside since March! However, due to our new homebound lifestyles as of late, physically preparing our bodies for downhill skiing and riding is paramount to avoiding injuries.
Bottom line: maintaining good physical health is key to enjoying a full and epic ski season.
At Vail-Summit Orthopaedics & Neurosurgery, our sports medicine specialists are here to help you prepare for the 2020/2021 ski season. Here's what our orthopaedic surgeons had to say:
Strengthening & Conditioning
In Summit County, we have a large population of elderly athletes. (60 is the new 20 in the Colorado High Country!) While our older inhabitants tend to be in fantastic shape, we must still consider our biology when taking on strenuous activities. When we're young, our muscles and ligaments are pliable and tend to stretch better. As we age, our bodies lose their elasticity, and our tendons and ligaments don't respond as well as they used to.
Twisting, pivoting, and falling are all inevitable realities of skiing and snowboarding. An awkward pivot or a bad fall can result in torn ligaments or broken bones. Strengthening and conditioning are crucial in preparing our bodies for minor accidents out on the hill. If you aren't doing so already, begin implementing some basic at-home workouts into your routine:
Stretching is often overlooked when it comes to a pre-ski workout repertoire. Skiing and riding require a wide range of full-body motions that are often sudden and involve twisting and jerking, putting your tendons and ligaments at risk for potential tears. Incorporating a mix of stretches into your routine helps keep your muscles pliable and your body limber.
Hamstring, calf, quad, and glute stretches are of the utmost importance when skiing and riding. We utilize our legs quite a bit when on the hill – not only will lower extremity conditioning help protect you from injury; it will reduce the dreaded burn we're all too familiar with at the start of ski season!
Leg & Glute Workouts
Leg strength is another essential factor in staying healthy all winter. Muscle overuse can lead to injuries that might prevent you from skiing for a few days, or worse, could put you out for the season. Simple leg workouts are an easy way to avoid injury and fatigue on the slopes. “I find that many people in the mountains who bike, hike, and ski are very strong in their quadriceps and hip flexor muscles, but relatively weaker in their gluteal and hamstring musculature,” Said Dr. Richard Cunningham, knee and shoulder surgeon here at VSON. “These muscle imbalances can predispose to tearing one’s ACL when skiing as well as causing chronic anterior knee pain.”
A simple at-home circuit involving squats, lunges, deadlifts, and step-ups will keep your glutes and leg muscles toned, so your days spent skiing and riding feel less like a workout. Dr. Cunningham recommends leg strengthening exercises every week leading up to and during ski season.
“With ski season coming soon, be sure to do some strength training exercises at least two days per week where you concentrate on your glutes and hamstrings,” said Dr. Cunningham. “It’s also helpful to roll out your IT band on a foam roller as this can become tight as a result of these muscle imbalances.”
Professional skiers and riders understand the importance of core strengthening. Our core connects our entire body and is used in all the pivoting, twisting, and turning we do on the hill. Strong core muscles improve your ability to turn and stop, and assist with the less-fun aspects of skiing, like climbing out of deep powder or getting back up after a fall. “If your core is weak, you can more easily get into the back seat on your skis which again predisposes to ACL tears and other knee injuries,” said Dr. Cunningham. “To me, the best and safest core strengthening exercises are ones in which you are keeping your spine stable while it is subjected to a load. Avoid loading your spine while rotating it to the extremes as this can result in spine injuries.”
Basic exercises such as sit-ups, planks, bridges, and metronomes are all you need to get your core ready for ski season, and they don't require anything more than your body weight!
Upper Extremity Conditioning
We've all had a day on the hill that left us feeling like we woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Since we tend to use the muscles in our arms, neck, and back more than we realize while skiing, upper body stretches are incredibly important. Practice a range of stretching that incorporates your upper extremities and muscles, particularly your neck and shoulders.
Start with overhead arm reaches, chair rotations, and butterfly stretches. If you practice yoga, basic yoga stretches are also fantastic in stretching and strengthening your upper body.
Balance is one of the first things we must master when learning to ski or ride, and it is a continually learned skill as we advance to more challenging terrain and pitches.
If you can, grab a BOSU ball and practice squats and lunges, eventually progressing to one leg at a time. You can also implement one-legged balancing exercises into your workout routine utilizing the floor. A strong core also goes a long way in improving your balance!
Invest in Proper Gear
We can't stop the inevitable, but we can prepare for it. Ensuring you have proper gear is critical in reducing adverse side effects from accidents on the slopes. Make sure you are properly fitted to your boots, skis, or snowboard. Loose boots increase your odds of slipping out of place and losing your footing, thus impeding proper turning and increasing your risk of catching an edge.
Skis or snowboards that are too short/long hinder your ability to maneuver downhill correctly, putting you in harm's way. Additionally, set your bindings to release according to your ability. A bad fall in which your skis don't detach can lead to severe knee injuries.
Your helmet is another crucial piece of gear protecting you from concussions, head injuries, or worse. Invest in a top-of-the-line helmet backed by good reviews, and remember: helmets are designed to bear the force of one impact. You need to replace a helmet that has incurred the blow of one or more collisions.
Wrist injuries and fractures are among the most common snowboard injuries we see here during winter at VSON, so if you snowboard, consider purchasing a pair of wrist guards. You can even find a good pair of gloves or mittens with wrist guards built-in for added protection!
Adopt Safe Ski & Ride Practices
Staying in control while on the slopes is sort of like wearing a mask: it doesn't just keep you safe; it keeps everyone around you safe, too. The majority of ski resort accidents occur on blue trails because people tend to feel more comfortable going fast. Speed, crowds, and trees don't mix well when it comes to skiing. Always be mindful of how fast you're going, and never exceed a pace out of your total control. And remember, individuals below you have the right of way!
Learn to Fall Correctly
Everyone falls (especially when skiing and riding). The important thing is making sure you can get back up! Believe it or not, there are dozens of falling techniques you can adopt so that when you go down, you can get back on the lift.
Falling techniques vary when it comes to skiing vs. snowboarding, but there are some basics that apply across the board.
When you go down, try and land on your side rather than your head, back, or chest. If you're falling forward, try to land on extended forearms, rather than breaking the fall with your hands and wrists. If you're on skis, try and keep your legs parallel to avoid your skis getting tangled, which can lead to torn ligaments.
Always avoiding landing on your head, neck, or back at all costs (it's better to injure a ligament than your brain!).
Know When to Seek Medical Attention
Bumps and bruises are common when it comes to downhill skiing and snowboarding. Usually, they're harmless and don't require much more than icepack. However, if pain after a tumble persists or worsens, it's imperative to seek medical attention right away.
Every season, VSON sees dozens of injuries left untreated for days, and sometimes weeks. It may seem like broken bones and torn ligaments are the only afflictions that require prompt care, but ignored sprains and strains can lead to a lifetime of chronic issues, including arthritis.
"Sprains that last 2-3 weeks and don't get better need to be checked out," said Dr. Terrell Joseph, orthopaedic trauma surgeon (elbow, hand, and knee) at VSON. "We see a lot of wrist injuries that might typically be missed by practices less familiar with the active lifestyle here in Summit County."
When pain and swelling don't improve with ice and rest, a more serious injury might be the cause. If you have difficulty fully extending or bending an extremity, a bad sprain or torn ligament might be the culprit.