Downhill skiers hoping to look good on opening day at Snow Summit, Mammoth, Aspen or other locales should already be focusing on pre-ski conditioning during their workouts.
Skiers in reasonably good physical condition should allow at least six weeks to get into shape, suggested Dr. Robert Hunter, an orthopedic surgeon in Aspen, Colo., who also teaches at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver. Skiers who are sedentary the rest of the year should start conditioning at least 12 weeks before their first ski trip.
During workouts, the emphasis should be on improving both endurance and strength via cardiovascular conditioning and weight training. Hunter recommends cross training by engaging in activities that include many of the same movements as downhill skiing. Good options include handball, squash, basketball, indoor cycling classes and aerobics classes that incorporate stepping or martial arts movements.
Or consider uphill walking on a treadmill set at a 7% to 12% grade, suggested Dr. Richard Steadman, chair of the Steadman Hawkins Sports Medicine Foundation in Vail, Colo. Walking backward on the treadmill set at the same grade is also a good pre-ski conditioning activity, Steadman said, because it isolates the quadriceps muscles. But exercisers who plan to walk backward should use a treadmill with sidebars and start slowly, Steadman added.
When weight training, focus on strengthening the muscles of the legs, back and shoulders, which are used the most in downhill skiing. Whether using weight machines or free weights, the goal should be to perform a high number of repetitions at relatively low weight, not vice versa, Hunter said.
Paying attention to equipment and improving technique on the slopes also can help reduce risk of ski-related injuries, such as tears of the ligaments stabilizing the knee, fractures of the shinbone or ankle, thumb injuries and shoulder injuries. "Probably 30% to 40% of all downhill skiing injuries are related to the knee," said Hunter, who surveyed ski injuries for a report in an upcoming sports medicine journal.
Buy or rent boots and bindings that have been set, adjusted, tested and maintained by a ski shop that adheres to standards set by the American Society of Testing and Materials, recommends the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Before skiing, each day perform a release test of the bindings. "Try to step out of the ski by turning sideways and not using the poles, to see if the bindings are releasing properly," Hunter suggested.
Think twice about high jumps, advised Dr. Fadi Tarazi, an orthopedic fellow at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City. He studied spinal fractures and neurological deficits suffered by 34 skiers and 22 snowboarders during a two-year period at Whistler Resort north of Vancouver, and found that jumping was the primary cause of these injuries for 20% of skiers and 77% of snowboarders. For the study, he defined jumps as intentional jumps of more than 6 1/2 feet.
How a skier falls also can increase or decrease the chance of injury. "In every ski school, some of the attention should be focused on how to fall," Hunter said. "Fall to the side." Avoid falling between the skis. Once you sense a fall, give in to it, experts advise. Trying to recover your balance can result in a worse injury.
To decrease the risk of painful thumb injuries, don't ski with straps on the wrists, and let go of the pole before falling.
Knowing when to leave the slopes can also help lessen the risk of injury. "One of the major causes of injury is fatigue," Hunter said. "Stop before fatigue is a limiting factor." A skier who wonders if she's too tired for one more run, he said, probably is.
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