Experts say you can hedge against these dangers with things like flexibility and balance training. But for the best odds of staying safe, you need to build strength — especially in the legs, hips and core — before the season, said Bob Poehling, director of high performance for U.S. Ski & Snowboard.
“Strength is the biggest preventive measure against injury,” he said. “It’s pretty astonishingly above everything else.”
The most common injuries
Today’s stiff ski boots and quick-release bindings have led to a dramatic drop in tibia and ankle fractures compared with the leather boots of the past. But this technology has made skiing harder on the knees. Knee injuries, such as a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) or medial collateral ligament (MCL), account for about a third of skiing injuries, according to a 2019 review.
Injuries to the shoulder, wrist and lower leg are common — broken tibias and ankles still occur — as are tears of the thumb ligament, known as “skier’s thumb,” said Dr. Jim Lubowitz, an orthopedic sports medicine specialist who serves on the medical staff of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team.
Snowboarders are more likely to see broken or sprained wrists, dislocated shoulders and collarbone fractures, often from falling on an outstretched hand, according to the review.
Mistakes to avoid
“Skiing is unique in that you have a massive lever on the end of your foot, and it just creates a huge amount of torque around the knee, Poehling said. Once you get into a compromised position, like sitting too far back and catching an edge of your ski in the snow, it’s difficult to correct.
The goal, Poehling said, is to stay out of compromised positions.
Lubowitz said he had seen many ACL injuries occur in people who were falling slowly and tried to fight it: “They try to stand back up while still moving, the ski shoots out from under them, and it takes their knee ligament with it,” he said. If you fall, he said, let yourself come to a complete stop.
In addition, for skiing and snowboarding, beware of late-day fatigue, said Michael Koehle, director of sport and exercise medicine at the University of British Columbia. As a onetime ski patroller at the Whistler Blackcomb resort, he was surprised by how many injuries occurred at low speeds, on easy runs, at the end of the day when people are physically and mentally tired.
“You wouldn’t see as much bad stuff on crazy runs because people there are really focused,” he said.
Save the gnarliest double black diamond for when you have the most energy and focus, whether in the morning or after lunch when you’ve had a break, Poehling said. “Be smart when you take risks.”
Level up your gear
Tune your bindings properly so they release during a fall, said Rick Shandler, director of the National Ski Patrol safety team and a ski patroller himself. People often tend to overestimate their abilities at the ski shop, he said. Don’t.
“You want to make sure they’re adjusted to reality, not your aspirations,” he said.
Helmets are also critical, he added, and “could be the difference between a serious brain injury or a minor brain injury.” Snowboarders should wear wrist guards and kneepads, as well.
Lubowitz believes that some of the body armor worn by professional skiers will become as ubiquitous as helmets someday. Before he hits the slopes, he zips on what’s called a downhill jacket, which has protective shells over the spine, chest, shoulders and elbows, and he wears padded shorts and kneepads.
Strengthen muscles most at risk
Skiing requires a tremendous amount of leg strength, said Matt Jordan, an exercise scientist at the University of Calgary, whose research focuses on ACL injuries. The hamstrings, he said, may be the most important muscles for stabilizing your knee joint, and people with weak hamstrings and strong quadriceps are especially prone to ACL injury.
A little strength training can improve your odds considerably. And the benefits go well beyond skiing, improving balance and risk of age-related injuries, Poehling said.
Ideally, you should start training at least 4-6 weeks before your first run, and should aim to do the routine three days a week, he said: “You need some time to actually adapt to the exercise and create strength. I don’t care how strong you can be for one turn — I care about 60 turns.”
If you’re a casual downhiller looking to do groomed green and blue runs with your kids, Poehling said a 20-minute beginner workout may be fine. But if you’re looking to push yourself, he recommended a more advanced 30-minute option. If this feels too intimidating, start with one set of each exercise and then build up.
Start with a few warm-up exercises, done in order and then repeat once.
- Single-Leg Glute Bridge — 10 reps on each side
- Inch Worm — 5 reps
- Leg Out T-Spine Rotation — 6 reps on each side
- Tall Plank Hip Extension — 10 reps on each side
Next, repeat these four exercises three or four times, depending on your fitness level, taking a 15-second break between each exercise and 30-seconds between each set.
- Reverse Lunge into Single-Leg Jump — 6 reps on each side
- Reverse Fly Bridging — 10 reps
- Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift — 8 reps on each side (with or without a weight)
- Body Saw — 8 reps (you can use paper plates or a towel under your feet)
Complete the beginner workout, plus two to four sets of these exercises, again with a 30-second break between each set.
- Squat to Lateral Lunge — 6 reps on each side
- Copenhagen — hold for 15 seconds
- Single-Leg Sit Down (Two-Leg Stand) — 10 reps on each side
- Hamstring Walkout — 8 reps