Feb. 7, 2002 -- The Winter Olympics are just around the corner. And they may just inspire you to dust off those old skis or hit the sporting goods store for your very own snowboard. Both sports are great exercise -- they burn around 400 calories an hour -- as well as terrific ways to get outside in the fresh air. But watch out!
The slam-bang crashes of these mountain sports -- particularly when you're a beginner -- are a lot more likely to make your orthopaedist rich than would, say, a summer full of swimming and cycling. And that's especially true if you're a forever-young baby boomer who's decided to catch some air with the grunge crowd. How do you prevent injuries both before you get on the mountain and while you're speeding down it?
Before we talk about preventing injuries, let's talk about what injuries you're trying to prevent. Some reports say skiing and snowboarding have about the same risk of injury -- between four and six injuries for every thousand visits to the slopes. But other studies, which do their figuring according to "distance traveled," say that snowboarders get three to four times more injuries that require hospital treatment than skiers do. In any case, skiing and snowboarding have different injury patterns: Skiers are more likely to damage their knees and thumbs, while the most common snowboarding injuries attack the ankles, wrists, and shoulders.
And skiing's a little more forgiving to beginners than snowboarding: Some 30% or more of those injured skiing are beginners, while beginners account for somewhere between 49% and 60% of snowboarding injuries. That's partly because of snowboarding's novelty and popularity: There are a lot of beginners out there to get hurt.
Although skiing and snowboarding make for great workouts, you shouldn't use them to get into shape. If you hit the slopes without having walked farther than from TV to refrigerator in years, you'd better make sure your health insurance premiums are paid up. Whether you're a beginner or a pro, conditioning is key. If you don't work out much, plan your first trip to the mountain at least a few weeks ahead of time, and get in some cardio and strength training in the meantime.
"The biggest reason for injury is lack of fitness," says Jonathan Chang, MD, a clinical assistant professor of orthopaedics at the University of Southern California and at Western University, and a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee's Olympic Sports Medicine Society. "Try to approach this with some preparation. You'll enjoy it more if you don't get hurt." In addition to regular cardiovascular exercise -- walking, running, swimming, biking -- Chang advises would-be skiers and boarders to focus on strengthening their leg muscles, particularly the quadriceps (on the front of the thigh), which will take a big beating on the slopes.
Orthopedic surgeon and avid skier Kyle Palmer, MD, offers a handy guide to strengthening exercises for mountain sports on his ski-health information Web site. "After you're on the mountain all day, riding your brakes down the hill, your knees are going to be screaming. The ones who'll be in real pain are the folks that don't have a lot of quad strength," he says.
Okay, so you've been working out for a few weeks and now you're ready to go, right? Not so fast. Either before you leave home or once you get to the lodge, arm yourself with some protective gear. Most lodges will rent you helmets and wrist guards. You can also ransack your rollerblading gear for those wrist guards, which are similar.
Like many other boarders, Palmer learned the wrist-guard lesson the hard way. After a lifetime of skiing, he took his first snowboard lesson this year. "At first I had on my wrist guards and my helmet, and I was falling all over: It was great. Then I decided, 'This is a pain.' I took my wrist guards off. Within five minutes, I ate it. I didn't break my wrist, but I really sprained it. I like wrist guards."
And helmets? Really? "I've never seen a skier wearing a helmet," you're probably saying. That's true. But Chang cites Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy as just two of the most famous examples of skiers who might be alive today if they had been. "It's not yet a consensus, but it's rapidly going in that direction -- that if skiers and snowboarders would wear helmets, it would eliminate many of the deaths that occur every year," he says. "Most deaths occur from collisions either with other people on the mountain or with trees, and they're often strictly preventable. I've seen helmets split down the middle, brought to me by patients grinning and saying, 'I'm glad I was wearing this.'"
Get Some Class
Some of the world's top snowboarders and skiers learned by messing around on the mountain and falling down until they got it right. But you're not an Olympic athlete. Take lessons. "Most injuries in skiing and snowboarding occur to beginners," says William O. Roberts, MD, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine in practice with MinnHealth Family Physicians of Minnesota. "If you take lessons, you'll get through that phase faster." Don't settle for just the basic half-day introduction, either. "You want a series of lessons to get the basic skills down to where you can advance to intermediate without spending a huge amount of time at the beginner level."
Finally, when you're ready to hit the mountain, follow the skiers' (and snowboarders') credo: Be aware, ski aware. And don't try to do more than you're ready for. "Where most people run into trouble is if they try to do more than they're capable of doing," Chang says.
"For skiing and snowboarding, a lot of your safety equipment's in your brain," agrees Palmer. "Stay in control."