New York, NY – Downhill skiing continues to be one of America’s favorite winter pastimes, attracting nearly 20 million participants to the snowy slopes each year. Snowboarding is gaining popularity too, as recent reports found more than eight million Americans participate in the sport each year. Yet, along with the excitement of a day on the slopes, alpine skiers and snowboarders face numerous health risks associated with these activities, which are considered among the most physically demanding of all sports.
The good news is that many of these injuries can be prevented with a smart pre-season training program to add strength and flexibility to the muscles, tendons and ligaments used while skiing – many of which are rarely, if ever, used during normal everyday activities, said a leading orthopaedist.
“Skiing and snowboarding continue to rise in popularity because they are fun and they offer an opportunity for outdoor activity during the cold winter months,” notes Kevin Plancher, M.D., a leading New York-area orthopaedist and official surgeon of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Teams. “Moreover, these sports have a very benevolent reputation; and they sometimes look easy to the average non-skier, and many people even believe that the soft, powdery snow will cushion their fall and help them avoid injury,” Plancher adds.
Not so. In fact, while an increase in helmet use has resulted in fewer head injuries in recent years, and better equipment has all but eliminated instances of severe leg and ankle fractures, the overall boney injury rate among skiers has remained stagnant for the past ten years. As for snowboarders, injury rates more than doubled during that time.
“For skiers and snowboarders alike, we are concerned both with the rate of injury, and with the fluctuation in the types of injuries we see from year to year,” explains Dr. Plancher. He notes that many of the changes in injury patterns reflect changes in the sports themselves, as younger participants begin to “push the envelope” by incorporating riskier freestyle moves into both sports. “The most prevalent injuries now involve tendons, ligaments and muscles in the legs, knees, and even in the upper body, which – when specifically trained for added strength and flexibility during skiing – may withstand greater load and range of motion without injury,” he adds.
Dr. Plancher, who serves as Chairman the Orthopedic Foundation for Active Lifestyles – a non-profit organization dedicated to advancements in research and education for orthopedics and sports medicine – encourages skiers and snowboarders of all ages and skill levels to begin training early for the winter season. He recommends a program that focuses on four key areas of conditioning:
- Flexibility: “Increasing the flexibility of connective tissue is the most important thing skiers and snowboarders can do to reduce the risk of injury,” Dr. Plancher advises. That’s because virtually every major joint in the body – including ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, wrists and elbows – are relied upon heavily during active skiing and snowboarding, as well as during a fall. “More flexibility can help skiers and boarders stay on their feet, but it can also help them land properly during a fall with the least chance of injury,” he notes. Engaging in a 20-minute full body stretching routine daily – after an aerobic activity that has warmed up the muscles – can result in better flexibility within 6-8 weeks, Dr. Plancher assures.
- Strengthening: Strength and flexibility go hand-in-hand in preventing ski injury, Dr. Plancher maintains. Here, the key is to strengthen muscles, tendons and ligaments that may not have even been used since last winter’s final trek to the slopes! For example, doing squats and rotations on a bosu ball – a device with a large flat surface on top and a soft ball-shaped underside – can give underused leg and knee muscles a stretching, strengthening workout. Dr. Plancher cautions everyone to avoid deep knee squats or leg extension exercises with weights.
- Endurance: Overall physical fitness is important, as an exhausted, winded skier or snowboarder may be more prone to injury than a fit one. Thirty to sixty minutes of daily aerobic exercise can increase cardiovascular endurance, lung capacity and overall fitness; choose walking, running, tennis or biking to strengthen leg muscles simultaneously.
- Core Development: When well-developed, the structures that make up the body’s core – the spine and abdomen – can improve balance, coordination, gracefulness and overall power and strength. “This is an often overlooked aspect of pre-season training,” Dr. Plancher reveals, “But it can be one of the most crucial ones, because few sports require such a well-honed sense of balance as do skiing and boarding,” he adds. Dr. Plancher recommends professional guidance, and for those who enjoy yoga and pilates to help develop those core muscles, and for increasing mental focus – also key to reducing the risk of ski and snowboard injury.
“There is no ‘magic bullet’ to preventing all skiing and snowboarding injuries,” Dr. Plancher admits. “However, preparation that starts now can have snow-sports enthusiasts well on their way to a safe season this winter.”