By Marc Lee
Western ski resorts saw a ton of snow in the weeks after Thanksgiving, and the season is under way. Many resorts are offering great deals, and air fares are ridiculously cheap. So you donâ€™t have any excuse to skip the slopes this year or to put off trying the sport for the first time.
Weâ€™ve talked to experts and scoured from sea level to mountaintop for fitness tips and tricks to help you have a safe and fun ski adventure.
Get in shape
Whether youâ€™re a beginner or an old pro, preconditioning is important. If you donâ€™t prepare, it could mean a serious injury.
Bob Black, director of mountain operations for Utahâ€™s Snowbird resort, has seen his share of injured skiers during his years on patrol.
â€œBefore you get out on the slopes, be sure youâ€™re in shape,â€ he advises. â€œThere are some muscle groups used in skiing that people donâ€™t use during normal activity.â€
Many experts recommend aerobic exercises that work the quadriceps, glutes and lower back, such as bicycling or climbing with the Stairmaster. These activities not only strengthen muscles used on the slopes, but also prepare your body for reduced oxygen in alpine areas.
â€œSkiing requires leg strength,â€ says Dr. Jeffrey Hadley, a certified ski instructor and research associate at Johns Hopkins Institute for Research and Policy.
â€œRun up some hills or run steps. One of my favorite things to recommend is running in a place where thereâ€™s a lot of trees so youâ€™re darting back and forth, quickly changing direction and changing speed, which mimics the activity of skiing.
â€œMake it fun â€” hold your hands out like youâ€™re holding your poles.â€
Donâ€™t get hurt
The most often injured areas for skiers are the knees, the shoulders and the thumbs. If these are problem areas for you, either from past injuries or from surgery, check with your doctor to see if you should ski.
â€œThe most-common skiing injuries are strains and sprains,â€ says Mr. Black. The knees support your body weight and help with balancing. Injuries in that area most often happen to the medial collateral ligament (MCL) and the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Both can be quite painful.
An MCL injury can often be healed with braces and rehab, but ACL injuries usually require arthroscopic surgery. If you hear a popping sound and your knee swells, you can bet you have an ACL injury. Cartilage in the knee can also be injured during twisting falls, and it isnâ€™t self-healing.
Injuries to shoulders happen while falling, sometimes resulting in dislocation. â€œSkiers thumb,â€ a strain of the collateral ligaments, occurs during spills when the skier has an improper grip on the pole.
No matter how skilled or prepared you are, exhaustion precipitates many injuries. Novices and experts alike continue to shove their bodies over the snow when they should take a break.
â€œUsually what people do is expend themselves too quickly,â€ says Mr. Black. â€œSlowing down at elevation is a good thing to do. What I tell people is that they find a level of activity they can maintain and stay there.â€
What other things cause injury?
â€œCollisions with inanimate objects like trees and rocks are a problem.â€
Donâ€™t let all this talk of getting hurt put you off. Beginning skiers arenâ€™t in the highest-risk category for injury, so relax. Almost all resorts have instruction â€” both group and private â€” for new skiers.
And trepidation is your best friend: It means youâ€™re more careful and more likely to be prepared.
â€œIf youâ€™re a beginner,â€ says Dr. Hadley, â€œyou have to take a lesson. And not from a boyfriend or a girlfriend. A lot of people have given up skiing because of that. They fall all the way down the hill the first time and they donâ€™t have any fun.â€
Dr. Hadley has put together a website, www.snowlovers.net, that has a multitude of tips for beginning skiers, culled from his years in practice.
Intermediate skiers are the problem children, because they sometimes bite off more than they can chew.
â€œIntermediates have troubles,â€ says Mr. Black. â€œIn skiing you donâ€™t get better unless you push the envelope and try different things. Thatâ€™s fine for intermediate skiers. But pushing too hard can get you into trouble.
â€œThe problems people have usually relate to control, and that relates to speed. They may be trying to achieve a level they were at two or three years ago and they canâ€™t do it. The No. 1 problem on the mountain results in failure to maintain control.â€
Even if youâ€™ve had some experience on skis, go slow and take a couple of easy runs. Itâ€™ll help you warm up for bigger challenges. And donâ€™t think youâ€™re too experienced to take lessons. Many intermediate skiers benefit from continuing education.
The final word
Conditioning. It all comes down to that. Being prepared will help you avoid injury and keep you on the slopes instead of in the lodge. Dr. Hadley advises beginning as soon as possible:
â€œIf youâ€™ve been a couch potato, youâ€™d better start now.â€
Other tips from our experts
Bob Black: â€œThe first thing to look at is your equipment. Make sure itâ€™s properly prepared; make sure the edges of the skis arenâ€™t rusty. Even if theyâ€™re new, they need to be tuned.â€
Dr. Jeffrey Hadley: â€œIf youâ€™re in better shape, you can adjust easier. One part of being in shape is having more efficiency at the cellular level. You use oxygen better.â€
Mr. Black: â€œTake lessons to learn new things. Group lessons are good, because most people in the class are at the same stage. Half-day lessons are great. And everybody makes the same mistakes.â€
Dr. Hadley: â€œSunscreen and skin cancer risk. The air is thinner and the UV rays are more intense. A study at Vail that measured the UV rays found the amount increases with every 1,000 feet. Vail is at the same intensity as Miami.â€
Mr. Black: â€œAt elevation itâ€™s not loss of oxygen thatâ€™s a problem, itâ€™s a loss of pressure. By pursing your lips and breathing deeply you can create more pressure.â€
Dr. Hadley: â€œIf your back hurts itâ€™s not just that youâ€™re out of shape, itâ€™s that youâ€™re not standing on your skis properly. You want to balance and use your muscles as little as possible.â€