I am excited to share my 17 best tips for ski injury prevention to start warming up our bodies and minds for the upcoming ski season! I am stoked and I hope you are too!
A lot of this information is observational from my 8+ years of experience ski instructing here in Keystone, CO and some of it is drawn from the thesis I wrote for my M.S. in Exercise Physiology.
Downhill skiing is just that downhill – so without going into the weeds of physics, forces, speed etc. we must acknowledge the inherent risk that comes with this exhilarating and fun activity! While I do not think we can ALWAYS prevent injury, I think there are some obvious tips to follow.
- Know Your Own Fitness Level. I am amazed when, half-way through the lesson, a client says “Oh…this is like a sport? I am so tired”. Yes, skiing is a sport (think winter Olympics!). We see images of resort skiers with their family, drinking hot coco, or sitting in a hot tub and connotate it with “relaxation”. Don’t get me wrong, it can be relaxing, but first and foremost we are engaging our muscles, tendons, and brain. Alpine skiing (for the recreational skier) has been determined to be a slow, aerobic (using oxygen) activity. While we might be cruising gently we are still using oxygen through our muscles, lungs, and brain for a long and slow amount of time. It behooves us to be honest with ourselves and look at our own aerobic fitness before our next ski trip. While it may be hard to simulate the exact use of our aerobic system during skiing, it may help to start a consistent ethic of cardio workouts prior to ski season.
- Hydration. Hydration was a main focus in my thesis paper from 2015. One conclusion I made was that dehydration was a main contributor to increased fall risk with a following tendon injury. Being in a high alpine environment inherently means we are exhaling more water. Coupled with the fact we are engaging in that long ski day really puts us at risk of dehydration. From working in the field, it is one of the major risk management tactics our ski school leaders push on us as instructors – keep ourselves & our guest hydrated!
- Know Your Bodies Reaction to Altitude. You don’t know until you go! I recommend before planning a serious ski trip understand how you personally react – eveyone is different. Nausea, headache, dehydration, insomnia are some of the more common general issues one may face but plan a “rest day” to acclimate before jumping into your activities. You are literally lacking oxygen…think about how that may affect your physical performance.
- Check the Time. Around 80 % + of all total injuries reported happen within the last 1/3 of a skiers day. The hydration and oxygen depletion, changing snow conditions, and muscular and mental fatigue all go into this statistic. I see the resort combat this a few ways; they recommend guests download the gondola (or chairlift) for your last run, informative signage, and coaching instructors to look for signs of fatigue in their clients. Anecdotally, the few injuries I have seen in my lessons do fit the description of “last 1/3 of the day”.
- Helmets. Skiing has the potential to be at high speeds whether you think you are going fast or not. It is pretty much the industry standard now, and if you have not skied in a few years it is now the new normal to wear your helmet.
- Wrist Straps. If you are not sure ask a rental technician or an instructor to help you make sure you are wearing your pole straps correctly. A modest amount of injuries reported are broken thumbs/wrists/extremities from improper use of poles and straps. Side Note: It is my personal (and some instructors) opinion that until you are comfortably linking turns down green and introductory blue terrain a pole is an unnecessary piece of equipment; skiing comes from our feet not our hands!
- Take a Lesson. I had to sneak this one in here; in sincerity I do believe a good instructor can help you identify your own personal biomechanics advantages and challenges and set you up for injury prevention. Often times an instructor will just spend some time working on your “athletic stance” which will help you really understand more ideal movements to help you prevent injury.
- Strong Booty. Knee injuries (strains/sprains/tears) are a significant portion of all reported injuries; yes the skiing mechanics, conditions, equipment etc. play a role but the overuse of muscles in and around the knee are also a contributing factor. Instead, focus up higher on the body – how strong are your glutes and core? Are you only training your leg muscles and not recruiting your glutes? They are harder to activate muscles (especially for women) and arguably harder to train. Start building your booty now for ski season! Here are a few of my favorite glute exercises that I wrote about for hiking but I will also compile one soon for skiers: Bodyweight Workout for Hiking: Exercises to Prevent Knee Pain and subscribe to my email list so I can send your a free 5 day ski workout plan!
- Understand and Check Your Equipment. Three pieces of equipment to have professionally checked before you go skiing each season: boots, DIN setting on your bindings, and your ski tune. Make sure your boot sole is intact (so it fits in binding well), the DIN release has been checked (injury rate goes WAY up if your skis do not pop off in a tumble) and your ski tune matches the conditions you want to ski.
- Dress Appropriately. This is an obvious one – but I want to circle back to the hydration piece and intersect it with layering clothing. Hot springs days our layering may affect our hydration significantly – plan ahead, rent a locker to leave layers, pack water, take breaks etc. ! Cold days too can be sneaky – you might be dressed well but be tricked into thinking you do not need water ….do not be fooled! Tip: We all know resorts can be expensive (but they will give away hot water), I like to pack a collapsable cup and herbal tea bag to make myself drink more water during the colder months. It can be hard to drink water, but the warm water makes me feel happier and more hydrated!
- Start Small. With out going into the weeds of physics here, acknowledge that “easier” terrain can really be your friend until you have mastered the best movements for your body! Do not attempt bigger terrain if you still have “wedge” or “pizza” feet to start your turns – this movement pattern can seriously fatigue you and put you at more risk of injury . Stay on green terrain until you no longer need those”pizza feet”.
- Check Snow Conditions. This one can be tough; ask a local, patroller, or instructor their thoughts if you are novice. Later in the day especially you may feel or see change in the surface; this could be ice patches on a cold day, or mushy warm snow on a spring day. Tip: If you find yourself on an ice path avoid “slamming on the brakes” instead do you have space to let the bases of the skis slide over the patch and speed check after the patch? For warm snow, I am often thinking of how centered can be (hips over feet) , I do not want my hips to fall too far behind up hill and catch an edge).
- Understand How to Fall. While the ski school discourages us teaching this in a lesson I do see applications from other adventure sports I have taught. Think about your small extremities versus the big ones. I often teach a “fall to the long bones” instead of an “outstretched hand”. If we can control the fall to the “long bones” think think hip/side we may prevent from falling backwards (puts knee at risk) and or on a wrist (easy break).
- Don’t be Scared of the Fall. If you feel yourself falling – let it happen. Never fight a fall, stranger twisting motions, or falling “back up the hill” might be worse than if you just let your body go to the snow. When the hips come way behind the knee that puts the knee in a very compromised position – especially if your body keeps moving (aka sliding downhill).
- Understand the “Fall Line”. The fall line or sometimes referred to as the gravity line is in essence “the downhill” or where you would roll if you were a bouncy ball. Understanding the fall line can help you start to understand skiing faster; it can help you make more efficient movements, which as discussed earlier may prevent fatigue ultimately aiding in injury prevention. For example, If you have fear of skiing in the fall line (versus traveling across the hill like a big Z) on blue terrain that might be an indicator you need to stay on green terrain until you have mastered more efficient techniques on snow.
- Hill Etiquette. Following the “fall line” conversation brings me to hill etiquette, intentionally so: being aware you turn turn shape and others is imperative to preventing a collision, taking care of the downhill skier and yielding to others. There are 7 “laws” in Colorado that we teach on snow to keep everyone safe. Check them out here.
- Don’t Give Up. Practice makes perfect. If you have had an injury in the past armor yourself with knowledge, and start strengthening booty/core now ( and incorporating a little more cardio than you think you need!). More time learning effective movements on you skis will only give you more options if you are struggling. Feel free to reach out to me too if you have more questions!
I hope these tips get you thinking about your own preparedness for the season. Injury prevention can be hard to think about but incorporating these habits can only help. Personally I have started to up the cardio and resistance training (extra focus on glute activation), and getting my gear ready for the season. What do you do?! Please share with me!
Best – Emily
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