Skiers should hit the gym before heading for the slopes

Exercise and stretching remain keys to avoiding ski-related injuries

Health & Fitness

December 14, 2003|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun Staff

The most effective thing you can do to avoid a ski injury this year should begin when you get home tonight: Start planning an exercise and stretching program, to make sure you don't become a ski injury statistic.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 400,000 ski and snowboard injuries were reported last year. (Only basketball, cycling and football caused more injuries.) The commission reported that it cost $9.4 billion to patch up those injured skiers.

Strapping waxed boards to the feet and riding them down a steep hill is inherently dangerous, so no set of exercises could ever be a panacea. But there are ways to reduce the risk of injury.

"Good physical conditioning can stave off a lot of injuries," says Art Roerink while attending a recent meeting of the Baltimore Ski Club. Roerink, 55, has skied for more than 30 years without injury.

"I really work hard prior to ski season," he says. "I have a ski machine that I use for lateral movement. I work predominantly on my legs."

Roerink, who lives in Crownsville, works out several times a week. This year, his incentive to keep up the routine is a ski trip to Switzerland and two trips to Colorado -- that's in addition to regional skiing.

Fellow ski club member Joe Herbert, 54, hasn't been so lucky in the injury department. He has torn his rotator cuff and his calf muscle in separate ski accidents over the years. Now he does a lot of work to stay in shape. "I jog and ride a mountain bike, and I do the stair stepper," he says.

Herbert, who lives in Timonium, also knows his limits. "When my body says, 'Give it up for the day,' I give it up," he says.

Good aerobic conditioning gives you more endurance, and that lessens the likelihood of injury.

"Anything cardiovascular that you can do to get your heart rate up is going to pay off tremendously when you start skiing," says Lonny Whitcomb, who oversees the ski patrol program for Liberty, White Tail and Roundtop ski resorts in Pennsylvania.

"A lot of skiers will jog or bike, and some will just walk," says Whitcomb, who recommends doing about 30 minutes of any one of these activities every other day to help get in shape for ski season.

Cycling is a particularly good exercise for skiers. In addition to providing a cardiovascular workout, "it helps you build up balance and downhill body-eye coordination," says Dr. Jeffrey Halbrecht, who served as medical director for the Women's Pro Ski Tour from 1991 to 2001.

But don't stop at aerobic training. There are a number of plyometric exercises that are perfect for skiers. Plyometric exercises -- ones that spring-load the muscles -- help skiers develop the quick, explosive power needed to control skis through a turn or over a bump. Good exercises include jump squats, jumping side to side over a box or running up stairs. To avoid overstressing the muscles, physical therapists recommend doing plyometrics only once a week.

Plyometrics can help build strong thighs. That's important because the thighs protect the knee, "which is probably the most injured joint while skiing," says Steven Ehasz, an exercise physiologist with the University of Maryland Medicine's Kernan Physical Therapy facility.

Since she tore her anterior cruciate ligament several years ago, skier Karen Weedon rides an exercise bike 90 minutes a day to strengthen her knee. The ACL is one of four ligaments that secure the knee. Tears to the ACL are common in skiing and other sports.

After her injury, Weedon, 49, has become a more cautious skier, but she never considered quitting. "I would never not ski," she says.

Strength training is Joel Pecker's secret. The 71-year-old Parkton resident, who still likes to ski aggressively, works out every day. "I want to ski with the big dogs," he says.

He alternates his workout routine, doing weights one day and cardiovascular exercises the next. "I'm compulsive about it," Pecker notes. His regimen works -- he's skied for more than 30 years and says he has never been seriously injured. This year he'll go on five or six ski trips.

Skiers should also incorporate stretches and flexibility training into their pre-trip workouts. "This allows for increased absorption of bumps and dips in the terrain," says Ehasz. "It allows you to be more powerful and flowing while you are on the slopes."

Stretching immediately before getting on the mountain is important, because "tight muscles really invite injury," ski patrol member Whitcomb says. He recommends 10 minutes of stretching before skiing.

If a body is in good shape, it must be properly hydrated and fueled for a ski trip. Hydrated muscles have the elasticity to endure shock, Ehasz says. Most injuries occur during the latter part of a trip or late in the day because of fatigue and because muscles lack fluids -- especially at higher altitudes.

Ehasz recommends doubling fluid intake if you're going to be skiing at altitude, and suggests that you start hydrating a week before the trip.

Lastly, know your limitations. Start on easy trails before jumping on to more challenging terrain.

"When people get to a ski area, the first place they go is to the top of the mountain," says Whitcomb. "They should take some time to warm up on slopes that are easier and give them a chance to renew their skills."

Whitcomb, who has been skiing for 20 years, admits that he doesn't always follow his own advice. "I go right to the top like the rest of them," he says.

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