For some, winter ushers in an opportunity to enjoy winter sports and activities like skiing or snowboarding. Heading down a mountain slope can be exhilarating but it can also be dangerous, potentially turning an enjoyable vacation into a trip to the emergency room.
Thankfully, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk of injury, says Jim Myers, director of Digital Fitness and Virtual Coaching for FX Well, a managing entity for the Texas Health Fitness Centers. Myers is a Colorado local and specializes in getting people ready to ski and snowboard. So, we spoke with him to learn about preventing common winter sports injuries on the slopes and how to best prepare, so you can make the most of your trip.
Common Skiing/Snowboarding Injuries and the Causes
Skiing and snowboarding are full-body sports, meaning you use your entire body to create the movements necessary, opening you up to injury in various areas of the body.
The most common injuries include:
- Anterior cruciate or collateral (ACL) ligament injuries
- Shoulder dislocations or fractures
- Shoulder separations
- Lower extremity fractures
- Spinal injuries
- Closed head injuries
- Wrist, hand, or thumb injuries.
Knee injuries, such as ACL tears or sprains, are more common in skiers due to the twisting and turning motions made, while upper body and wrist injuries are more common in snowboarders, as they tend to fall back on their arms or wrists during a fall.
“When you first start skiing or snowboarding, it is likely you will fall a lot but at a slow speed. As you progress, you will most likely fall less, however, your falls could become more serious, and injuries can be vastly different between the two,” Myers says. “Either way, be prepared to take a fall or two if you are skiing or snowboarding — no matter your skill level.”
Rare but serious injuries can also occur involving the head and spine. During the 2021/22 season, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) reported 54 catastrophic incidents and 57 fatal incidents. The majority of both fatal and catastrophic incidents resulted from collisions with trees. Males represented 72% of all skier/snowboarder catastrophic injuries, and 95% of all skier/snowboarder fatalities.
However, helmet use is increasing, which can improve outcomes if you are in an accident. In 2021/22, NSAA reports that 90% of skiers and snowboarders wore a helmet at U.S ski areas, setting a record for helmet usage. According to NSAA, helmet usage has increased every season for 20 consecutive seasons, up from just 25% in 2002/03 when research began.
“When it comes to helmets, just wear them. That is really all that needs to be said about that,” Myers adds. “At the end of the day, there are a lot of things out of your control when it comes to skiing or snowboarding. Protecting your head is one of those things you can control.”
As far as causes of common injuries go, Myers says it’s important to remember where you are, be cognizant of your surroundings and be honest with yourself about your skill level.
“When you are on the slopes it is important to understand you are at the mercy of Mother Nature, yourself and other humans,” he says. “Ski within your ability level, get a trail map and know where you’re going beforehand, stay off closed trails (they’re closed for a reason), take rests in a safe area when you’re tired, and know that the people ahead of you have the right of way.
“The weather can change quickly, so follow it closely leading up to a ski trip and the morning you’re about to head out to the slopes, so you know what to pack and what to wear,” he says. “Wind can kick in, visibility can be low, and the snow conditions can change. Make sure you are prepared for all scenarios. That is your responsibility, as is everyone else’s personal responsibility.”
Additionally, think about taking lessons, whether you’re new or seasoned.
“I would highly recommend lessons for people of all skill levels. If you are brand new, it's almost a must,” Myers adds. “Taking a lesson can help decrease how much you fall, increase your enjoyment for the sport and help set you up for success. And yes, even seasoned veterans can get some use from lessons. In college, I took a six-week snowboarding course. At this point, I could do double black diamonds and was confident in my ability. However, the instructor taught me how to see the mountain differently and have fun in a different way.”
Prep to Prevent
Whether you’re new to the sport or a seasoned veteran, preparation will always set you up for success and lower your chances of injury. But getting prepared for the physical demands of a high-altitude snow sport in North Texas can be pretty tough!
“Preparing for a ski or snowboarding trip can be tricky! You are generally moving around at high altitude for 4-8 hours a day, for multiple days in a row, and that can be hard to mimic here in our area, especially if you’re new to the sport and don’t know what to expect,” Myers explains. “There are a lot of factors to consider as well, such as your current fitness level, overall strength and conditioning, and movement capacity. Generally, I like to focus on strength, endurance and mobility at least three months out from the trip.”
“When you first start to perform movements like the squat or deadlift, you will generally start with the weight of the bar, which is 25-45lbs. This is great because you will be able to master your technique at a lighter weight,” Myers explains. “Once you master your technique, you are able to add 5-10lbs each week. If you are consistent with your training, you will be able to add 20-30lbs a month, which can add up to 100-200lbs over a year! This increase in strength will help make everything on the slopes (and in life) easier!”
Your inner thighs and calves also play important roles while skiing or snowboarding. To work your inner thighs, incorporate side lunges, inner-thigh leg lifts, side-step squats and leg lifts into your workout plan. If your gym has exercise bands, a cable machine or an abductor/adductor machine, these can all help strengthen your inner thighs.
To work your calves, try standing calf raises or machine calf raises, if available to you.
It is important to have sufficient mobility of all joints for skiing and snowboarding, but certainly all joints below the hip require special attention.
You use your ankles and feet a lot in snowboarding and skiing, so ankle mobility is key!
Here is a quick test to assess your ankle mobility. Find a wall and kneel close to it with your shoes off. Use a tape measure and place the big toe of your forward foot 5 inches from the wall. From this position, push your knee forward attempting to touch the wall with your knee. Your heel must stay in contact with the ground the entire time.
Are you able to:
- Have your knee touch the wall at a 5 or more-inch distance?
- Keep your heel firmly planted?
- Keep your knee aligned with your foot?
- Do the movement without pain?
If you answered yes to any or all of these, you show adequate ankle mobility. However, if you answered no to any, you may have some mobility restriction.
You can improve ankle mobility by performing:
- Heel lifts
- Toe raises or heel drops
- Toe/heel walks
- Static or walking lunges
Next, you want to check your knee mobility. Here you want to make sure to do forward, reverse and lateral lunges. Foam rolling your quads and calves can also help alleviate some pressure and stress on your knees.
Lastly, you want to check hip mobility. This is a very dynamic area of the body and needs a duplicate amount of strength and mobility. Try doing couch stretches, hip circles, and this 7-way hip drill.
“A lot of people have shoulder, hip, knee or ankle pain. If you fall into this category, it would be wise to visit a physical therapist or rehab specialist prior to your trip or trying any of these mobility exercises on your own,” Myers advises.
When skiing or snowboarding, you’re spending a lot of time in low-oxygen conditions (hello high altitude!) as well as performing highly physical movements for long periods of time. That’s going to require a good deal of endurance from you, even if you work out regularly.
“If you are below average on the tests, you will want to spend some time improving your aerobic endurance before your trip,” Myers explains. “This can be using a treadmill, Stairmaster or bike at a moderate pace for 20-60 minutes. I generally recommend keeping your heart rate between 130-150 and increasing the duration of the exercise.”
Myers adds that a week before your trip, you’ll want to lessen the overall work you do with your training to help prime yourself for your trip. Aim for 8 hours of sleep during training and leading up to your trip.
To maximize your performance via nutrition, make sure your diet is composed of 80% fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Lastly, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! A lot of ski resorts are high elevation making it even more important to hydrate.
The Guidance You Need, Nearby
“Trips like this are expensive, so in addition to safety and injury prevention, partnering with a professional can go a long way in ensuring you’re fully prepared for your trip so you can make the most of your time there,” Myers says. “All members at Texas Health Fitness Centers receive access to a complimentary lifestyle assessment, movement screen, fitness test, and personal training session when joining. Using this information, your personal trainer will create a custom plan to get you ready for your trip! You can work in-person, virtually or in a hybrid setting depending on your budget, schedule, and desire.”
Whether you’re a regular snow bunny or hitting the slopes for the first time, some preparation can go a long way in preventing serious injury and helping you make the most of your trip.