Doing just a few targeted exercises ahead of your time on the mountain can greatly reduce your likelihood of sustaining ski and snowboard injuries.

Image: Stacy McCooey

It's probably not the first thing to cross your mind as you strap in for a day on the mountain, but you know skiing and snowboarding are dangerous sports. From minor bumps and bruises to broken bones, injuries are just part of the territory. That said, there are ways to reduce your likelihood of sustaining an injury and minimizing the amount of time you're sidelined in the event you do.

When she's not at work, McCooey takes advantage of Park City via downhill, snowboard, telemark, nordic, touring, fat tire biking, and an occasional snowshoe. 

Image: Stacy McCooey

According to Stacy McCooey, an avid outdoors-woman and physical therapist with more than a decade of experience treating ski and snowboard injuries, the winter’s most common casualties involve the knees (ACLs) and shoulders, with several spinal (neck and low back) injuries as well. Recovery time, of course, varies from person to person and depends on the severity. “A lot of people can feel better within six weeks, but if the injury requires surgery, return to the sport is typically six months,” says McCooey.  “As physical therapists we offer evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment. Treatment can range from acute (immediately after the injury) to our Transitional Rehab program which trains people at a high level despite a past or present injury. Physical therapy includes an emphasis on manual (hands-on) therapy and therapeutic exercises, from aquatic therapy and Pilates to dry needling, taping, and so on.” Since physical therapists work to optimize the joints and range of motion, this is typically the best route to take if you want a quick return to fitness. 

Of course, avoiding injury altogether is preferable. The good news is most injuries can be prevented with simple exercises or minimizing the amount of time you spend walking in ski boots. Knee problems, for instance, can be mitigated by strengthening the hamstrings and hips while shoulder injuries can be offset by working on the rotator cuffs. “I think dry-land training is so important in injury prevention and now is the perfect time to do it,” says McCooey. “It depends on your sport and body type, but often we develop muscle imbalances from our activities and daily habits. The general theme is to lengthen what is too short and strengthen what is too long. It is all about creating a balance that allows your joints, muscles, tendons and nerves to function optimally. Balance is crucial within the demands of your sport/desired activity.” While it usually takes around six weeks to see meaningful muscle growth from exercise programs, people can begin to gain strength and improve neuro-muscular connections within the first couple of weeks. Although there are dozens of individual exercises, from lunges and squats to hip lifts and everything in between, one of McCooey’s favorites is the clamshell (check out the video below). 

So what about stretching? Apparently, the jury is still out on the benefits of static position stretching. Instead, McCooey recommends warming the muscles up with some dynamic movement, taking it easy on the first couple of runs, and tuning into what’s happening with your body. After a day on the slopes, many of us head straight to the hot tub for a long soak, but it may not be for everyone. “For cooling down, you can try some gentle stretches or other forms of recovery,” says McCooey. “A hot tub can feel great and loosen up stiff joints, but it may also increase inflammation. Personally, I feel great jumping in a snow bank after a hard workout! Everyone’s body is different so it’s important to educate yourself on your own responses and sometimes all you have is trial and error.”

Anyone who's wished they too could tumble sans pain into the ridiculous shapes young children do while skiing and snowboarding, also knows injury can become more prevalent as we get older. “Nutrition, genetics, and body type all come into play, but in general, as we age, our bodies become less pliable and we lose muscle mass,” says McCooey. “This increases the demand on a maintenance or ‘TLC’ routine we likely could get by without in years past. The good news is that the effects of aging can largely be mitigated by catching things early, before they turn in to an actual injury.” Adding variety to your routine is one of the best ways to do this. Since most of us spend a lot of time sitting, with our legs bent at 90 degrees, and facing forward, any movement that switches up these day-to-day patterns can be helpful, whether it’s moving from side to side or getting down into the "third-world squat". McCooey also suggests getting over the ‘one final run’ syndrome. “Injuries usually happen when we’re not feeling one hundred percent and decide to take that last run we’re not mentally or physically prepared for,” says McCooey. “The most important advice to avoid injury is to always listen to and respect your pain.”

Need some more ideas for training? Check out these simple, but effective exercises.  

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