By Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie
A snow-covered mountain is one of the best nature-made gyms out there. Controlling your body as you zig and zag your way downhill burns more than 400 calories an hour while strengthening your legs, butt and core. And best of all, when you finally unstrap your skis or snowboard, you'll have spent an entire day engaging in the ultimate endurance workout that doesn't even feel like a workout (until you're sore the next morning!).
But ski injuries are among the most prevalent seasonal injuries to land in sports medicine surgeon Bradford Tucker's office this time of year, largely due to lack of preparation by weekend warriors. "People don't work out, they just go on ski trips completely cold," says Tucker, who specializes in knee and shoulder surgury at the Rothman Clinic in Philadelphia. "And by the end of the day when they're a little fatigued, they end up blowing out a knee." But with a little conditioning before you hit the slopes, you can cut your risk of injury. Here's how:
The number one injury Dr. Tucker sees among people coming home from the mountains is ACL tears, or tears to the ligaments that support the bones of your knee. ACL tears are common in sports that involve a lot of pivots and quick movements, like soccer. ACL tears from snow sports are most likely to happen when you fall backward.
But research has shown that a regimen of stretching and strengthening before hitting the slopes can reduce your risk by as much as 88 percent. Dr. Tucker recommends squats, lunges and abductor/adductor exercises (a.k.a. the inner/outer thigh machine at the gym) to tone the muscles that support and protect your knees. Get the full strengthening and stretching routine used in the study from the Santa Monica Sports Medicine Foundation.
To avoid strains and sprains on slick surfaces, make sure your boots fit properly and work on strengthening the peroneals on the sides of your lower legs. These muscles help to stabilize the lateral collateral ligament, which is the most common site for ankle sprains, says Dr. Tucker. Here are three ways to do it:
You may not be thinking about your hands when you head out skiing (other than your frozen fingertips, perhaps) but "skier's thumb" accounts for 8 to 10 percent of skiing accidents. The gist of skier's thumb: you fall with your hand outstretched — ski pole in hand — and the pressure of the pole in your palm sprains your thumb. The best way to avoid it is to improve your balance skills so you're less likely to fall. Even if you think you're a total klutz, it is possible to train yourself to be more coordinated, says Tucker. Before you head for the slopes, practice standing on a wobble board (or other unstable surface such as a pillow or couch cushion) and work up to doing squats on a wobbly surface. And start your day on the mountain with a skiing or snowboarding lesson to brush up on your technique.
Along with knees, shoulder injuries make up the bulk of the 500 to 600 surgeries Dr. Tucker does a year. Falls are usually the cause of shoulder injuries in winter sports, so your first line of defense is simply staying within your physical and skill limits. For example, don't go over a jump that's beyond the scope of what you think you can do reasonably easily, cautions Dr. Tucker.
The next line of defense is strengthening the rotator cuff so it's able to withstand a blow if you do wipe out. Dr. Tucker recommends a series of exercises known as "Sixbacks" among the Philadelphia Phillies, who he works with as the assistant team physician. Because your shoulder moves in different directions, it takes three exercises to strengthen the full range of motion. Start by lying facedown on a floor (or table, a coffee table works if you have one). Do 15 to 20 reps of each of the following, and work up to 2 to 3 sets.
Published January 16, 2012.
Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie is a health and fitness writer in Syracuse, NY. Her book, Tone Every Inch (Rodale, 2012) will be published this February.