For many hale and hearty souls, winter is a stretch of halcyon days spent schussing past majestic ponderosa pines, laughing in the face of the elements and dodging noobs. Your body is one with the mountain, your every response quick as lightning-or at least it was back in 1993. These days, perhaps, you're a little slower, a little creakier; those knees just don't cushion like they used to, do they?
No matter how hale or hearty you feel at the base of the lift, the combination of gravity, near-zero friction, bone-jarring bumps and ligament-straining jumps from the lift can equal pain. On average, three out of every 1,000 skiers on the slopes in the US will suffer an injury on any given day, according to the American Medical Association. Every season, many skiers and shredders put unnecessary strain on already weakened joints, ligaments and muscles. Falling can range from embarrassing to very bad indeed, but even if you stay upright all the way back to the lift line, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, muscles and bones can take a beating.
The most common ski injury is the MCL (medial collateral ligament) tear. This ligament stabilizes the knee and doesn't take kindly to some of the Cubist angles the leg can achieve during a tumble down the slopes. Basically, when the knee joint moves too far in directions it is not meant to move, painful and serious long-term injury can result. Other ligaments in the knee can be damaged in what is euphemistically referred to as a "complex injury." That's "complex" as in, "Damn, your knee is messed up 20 ways 'til Sunday, fool." Other common injuries from skiing include thumb sprains, muscle strains and tears, dislocated shoulders and, of course, broken bones. Snowboarders risk the same traumas, but are also more likely to break their wrists and tailbones, a result of the way boarders tend to fall.
Even the most well-conditioned, well-trained skiers and snowboarders can meet with a faceplant. Remember the "agony of defeat" guy in the opening to ABC's Wide World of Sports? That was world-class ski jumper Vinko Bogataj, who, despite hurtling endlessly against the ice as if he had been thrown from a speeding Lamborghini, miraculously sustained only a minor concussion. It may very well be that his years of training, conditioning, practice and religiously applying a pre-ski warm-up routine saved him months of recovery time.
Also, he didn't borrow his Slovenian buddy's gear. It turns out that a skier is eight times more likely to sustain an injury if he's using borrowed equipment. Ski length and width, ski boots and poles, are all sized according to a person's height, weight and ability level. Borrowed gear spells trouble, as does misrepresenting your ability level at the rental or sales shop.
The obvious macho foolishness of skiing closed trails, or trails above one's reasonable ability level, or skiing after a few too many Irish coffees or ignoring signs that say, "Danger! Avalanche Conditions Ahead!" result in a relatively small portion of ski injuries.
Most ski injuries can be attributed to a lack of physical preparation and conditioning. Getting in shape for skiing reduces your chance of being injured significantly. Many skiers think it's reasonable to camp on the couch the other three seasons of the year, eating Chubby Hubby and watching America's Got Talent and then heading out for a solid six hours of sudden athletic winter fun.
Mark Gurule, owner and director of New Mexico Sports and Fitness Center, and an occasional skier, says the biggest mistake recreational skiers and snowboarders make is underestimating the impact and the physical demands of skiing. "People think, 'Well, I've done it before, I've been skiing plenty of times, I can just get right out on the slopes.' But, depending on a person's level of conditioning, there is an increased risk of injury with this approach," he says.
Ski training, in fact, involves a specific series of strengthening exercises. "If someone comes into our facility and wants to get ready for skiing or snowboarding, we get a sense of the individual's physical capabilities and design a program starting from there. We also keep in mind the demands of the type of skiing. Then we'll vary the program based on those factors," Gurule says. "We offer a conditioning program that focuses on strength and flexibility throughout the lower body. We don't ignore upper body strength either, especially since planting one side of the body and pulling with the other is central to mogul and more advanced skiing."
The basic concept is that muscle strength training provides protection for ligaments, tendons and cartilage, while adding flexibility and endurance. "The muscles in the abdomen are important, and we also develop a program for strengthening the muscles around the spine, hips, quads and hamstrings. Lower body strength in general improves knee, ankle and hip stability," Gurule says.
Gurule also points out the importance of both aerobic and anaerobic conditioning. "A certain amount of aerobic conditioning is a good idea, even for downhill skiers. More important is getting ready for short bursts of energy, the anaerobic conditioning that's similar to what a sprinter needs."
Equally smart is a relatively low-impact pre-ski warm-up routine that gently stretches muscles, loosens joints and conditions tendons and ligaments. "Joint awareness is very important. We also use stability balls, balance disks and single leg exercises to wake up and develop the proprioceptive, or balancing, system," Gurule says. The warm-up routine doesn't have to be a big deal. "Even if you just stretch for about 5 to 10 minutes, do some jumping jacks and loosen up your joints, it's way better than nothing," he adds.
And Vinko Bogataj? According to a recent Associated Press story, he lives a quiet life in his hometown of Lesce, Slovenia, and his hobbies are painting and wood carving. Draw whatever conclusions you wish; just don't forget to protect your MCL.