Any skier will tell you there's nothing like a cool, clear winter day on the slopes: You make your way down the soft white powder, traversing mogul after mogul as the sun shines down through the trees. But as you gain experience with age, you also develop creaky joints, which can limit your ability to bounce back after one of these memorable runs. Luckily, if you're an older skier, there are some proven methods you can use to help you avoid injury and stay in shape for the slopes.
How Risky Is Skiing?
There's some debate in the research -- and among avid skiers -- as to whether skiing is a high- or low-impact activity. Simply put, it depends. Because force is dictated by acceleration, the amount of impact on your body rises as the velocity with which an activity is performed increases. For the same reason, ski jumps or racing at high speeds tend to be higher-impact and have a relatively high potential for injury. Without a buffer to soften impact, the forces your body experiences on hard, icy surfaces are greater than they would be on soft powder.
In the big picture, however, skiing is a safe sport, and most injuries are avoidable. The incidence of lower-leg and ankle injuries, for instance, has largely decreased over the past 40 years with advancements in technique and equipment, including bindings, boots, and skis themselves.
But knee sprains, particularly those involving the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), have increased. One principle mechanism of injury is when the skier places their weight on the inner edge of the ski during a backward fall, resulting in the ski turning sharply inward, thereby torquing the knee. Some advancements in bindings -- specifically, a binding with two pivot points -- may help limit this risk. But if you're a skier, the best thing you can do to limit the potential for ACL injuries is to take matters into your own hands.
How to Ski Safer
The most powerful tools for preventing injury are proper technique and appropriate equipment, including helmets. It's also imperative not to ski at the edge of your ability. Instead, play it safe: Limit high-speed racing, jumps, and maneuvers requiring sharp cuts that increase your chance of awkward movements or falls. You can also work to develop strength and flexibility, which will improve your movement mechanics.
A good ski stance allows you to absorb bumps and high-acceleration impacts through your legs. To limit impact to your lower back and high-risks joints like the knees, keep your lower-extremity joints (your hips, knees, and ankles) flexed, not perfectly straight. You'll need sufficient muscle strength and endurance to maintain this posture -- specifically, a strong core trunk, hips, and quadriceps (your thigh muscles).
Good exercises for these key skiing muscle groups include:
- side-lying hip abductions: lie on your side with your feet on top of each other, and lift your upper leg to hip width repeatedly.
- supine bridging: lie on your back with your knees bent and feet hip-width apart with your arms down flat by your side, then gently lift your hips off the floor.
- prone bridging or planking: start by lying on your stomach, then position your elbows at 90-degree angles in line with your shoulders; gently lift up onto your toes and hold the position.
- side-bridges: balance your body weight on your feet and elbow with your side parallel to the floor.
- lateral step-ups: stand with a step or stair to one side of you and step up to your left or right on one foot before returning to a standing position on the ground.
- standing lunges: stand with your feet hip-width apart, take a large step forward and sink down until your front knee is at a 90-degree angle while keeping your upper body straight, then push off from the same foot to return to standing.
It's not just the trunk that matters, either. Your neck, shoulders, elbows, ankles, and even finger extensors all play important roles in downhill skiing. To ski as safely as possible, you'll need to implement a training program that properly conditions your muscles and increases their endurance, strength, and flexibility.
Skiing provides beauty and serenity, but it's also a physically demanding, whole-body activity. Consider consulting a health care practitioner who can help you build a personalized conditioning program to prevent injury and maintain proper technique. If you take the right preventive steps, being an older skier doesn't have to mean being an injured skier.