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Nothing kiboshes a ski season like an injury. Unfortunately, on-the-slopes accidents happen: Up to 55 skiers and snowboarders end up in Colorado emergency departments every day during resort season, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment analyzed by the Colorado Sun.
Claire Hsing, a physical therapist at Colorado Sports Physical Therapy in Boulder, says she most frequently sees alpine ski injuries involving the knee, since that’s the joint that tends to absorb a lot of rotational force when people fall or lose control en route to falling. Snowboarding injuries, on the other hand, tend to occur in the upper body—think shoulders, wrists, or hands—as those are the areas impacted when folks brace themselves for a spill, Hsing explains.
Of course, downhill skiing and snowboarding are inherently risky activities, and no one who hits the slopes is bulletproof. “You can be really, really strong and fit and still have an injury because you’re just trying to manage very, very large forces at high speeds,” explains Hsing.
Moreover, certain elements on the mountain are out of your control, like the terrain and other people. “A really big part of managing injury is just assessing risk and making judgment calls,” says Hsing. For example, maybe you avoid the resort’s most popular run to reduce your chances of a collison. Or perhaps you slow your speed when ducking into the trees.
Another way to reduce your injury risk is to strengthen and condition your body with targeted exercises before hitting the slopes.
“A lot of folks who are otherwise really active might go into ski season thinking, ‘I don’t need to be fit to ski; I’m fit all year round,’” explains Hsing. “But it’s a really different demand that you’re putting on your body, so it can be really helpful to have more specific programming going into the ski season.”
Hsing encourages people to think about skiing and snowboarding as having an endurance component—after all, most runs will take several minutes, not seconds, to get down. The stronger and more conditioned you are, the better your body can respond to unexpected elements that crop up along the way, like a patch of ice or errant rock. To build that stamina, Hsing encourages people to do power-endurance movements in the gym—say, 90 seconds of bodyweight lunges—rather than just busting out a set of 10 reps and calling it good.
Doing strength moves for a longer duration can also help you understand how quickly your muscles may fatigue on the mountain. “I really like [the gym] as a place for people to notice like, ‘Oh, I really start to get tired around here,’” Hsing explains. That awareness can help you know when it’s time to take a breather on a run instead of pushing through with overtired muscles, which could increase your chances of falling.
In terms of specific moves, Hsing recommends skiers and snowboarders incorporate single-leg exercises into their gym routine. Single-leg exercises like lunges, step-ups, and single-leg squats are those where just one leg is doing most (if not all) of the work. Compared to double-leg exercises where both legs are working simultaneously (think squats and deadlifts), single-leg moves more closely mimic your positioning on the mountain where you’re shifting your weight from side to side, making them a really functional way to train. They also introduce a balance challenge, which helps engage and build strength in your core muscles, Hsing says. That can serve you well when you’re trying to stay upright on varying terrain.
With this in mind, Hsing recommends the following four ski exercises to prep both skiers and snowboarders for the upcoming season. These are intended for folks who are already comfortable in the gym. If you’re starting from zero, try climbing a stair machine for three minutes instead, Hsing suggests.
The frequency of performing these moves depends on your current fitness routine, but as a general rule of thumb, you can incorporate them into your routine two to three days a week, according to Hsing. You’ll need a dumbbell or kettlebell for the farmer’s carry and just your bodyweight for the other moves.
Stand tall with feet hip-distance apart. Press through your left foot to hop several feet to the right. Land softly and with control on your right foot, knee slightly bent, as your left leg swings back and across to the right behind you. Pause, then press through your right foot to hop several feet to the left. Land softly and with control on your left foot, knee slightly bent, as your right leg swings back and across to the left behind you. That’s one rep. Continue performing reps, alternating sides, for a minute. Work your way up to two minutes.
This movement challenges you to move and land laterally, an important skill on the slopes where you’re often rotating side to side. Make it harder by bounding over a box.
Stand tall with feet hip-distance apart. Step your right foot forward about two feet and bend both knees to form 90-degree angles with your legs as your back heel comes off the ground. Keep your chest lifted and engage your core. Pause for a moment, then press through your front foot to return to standing. That’s one rep. Continue performing reps for a minute, then switch sides and repeat. Work your way up to two minutes per side.
This moves helps you build endurance and produce and absorb force through your legs. Make it harder by adding a jump at the top of each lunge, or doing single-leg squats instead.
Get into a high plank with wrists under shoulders, feet hip-distance apart, and core and glutes engaged. Your body should form one long straight line from your head to your ankles. This is the starting position. Drive your right knee toward your chest. Continue engaging your glutes and core to minimize movement in the rest of your body. Imagine you’re balancing a glass of water on your back. Lower your right leg back to the starting position. Now repeat with your left leg. That’s one rep. Continue alternating legs at a steady, controlled pace for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat as needed if that feels easy.
This movement helps build core strength. In the plank position, your hips will naturally want to sink and your back will be tempted to arch, explains Hsing. You have to brace your core to prevent that from happening.
Stand tall with a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand, arms by your sides. Slowly walk forward several paces. Engage your core to ensure you stand upright and don’t tip your torso toward the side holding the weight. Turn around, transfer the weight to your other hand, and repeat. That’s one rep. Continue performing reps for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat as needed if that feels easy.
This is another core exercise. Your body will naturally want to lean to the side holding the weight. You have to brace your core to prevent that from happening.