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Injury Prevention on the Slopes


Helmets, goggles, correctly fitted equipment, water and snacks—these are essentials as you get ready for a day on the slopes. A helmet will protect your head if you fall, and equipment that fits you will make the day easier on your body. But what are some simple ways to ensure you don't end up hurt at the end of the day?

Travis Maak, MD, associate professor in the Department of Orthopaedics at University of Utah Health, is here to provide insight into how you can prevent the injuries that may occur on the mountain. These questions were submitted through Ski Utah's Instagram.

What are the best pre-ski practices?

The best pre-ski practices are advance quadriceps/hamstring (thigh), gluteal (buttock), and abdominal (core) muscle strengthening. Stretching in advance and warming up the muscles is always a great way to start the day. I would encourage you to perform largely lower body stretching and even considering a gentle exercise bike routine in the morning to warm up the muscles before a big ski day.

How important is it to be healthy and strong for injury prevention?

Healthy nutrition and overall cardiopulmonary (heart and lung) health is extremely important for injury prevention. Fatigue and muscle strain are primary contributing factors to sporting injury. The most common types of injuries occur to early muscle fatigue and "getting that last run in" when it's the first ski season day or end of the day. These types of injuries can be minimized by avoiding the exercise rollercoaster ride. Instead, off-season strength and conditioning should be employed. If you haven't been able to do that due to COVID-19 or other restrictions, I would suggest starting your season slowly and then working into it rather than going zero to 60 on the first day.

Where can I find a list of the best stretches for snowboarders?

There are a number of great strength and conditioning exercises for skiers and snowboarders. These are quite different and thus the types of exercises should be tailored. Snowboarding requires a large amount of buttock, core, and thigh strength. Stretching of the lower back and hamstrings are of particular importance for snowboarding due to the mechanism of turning and to avoid injury when falling. I would encourage you to consider enrolling in our preseason classes.

What is the best way to strengthen your MCL and ACL for ski season?

Unfortunately, the ACL and MCL ligaments cannot be "strengthened" in the classic sense as they are more like a rope than a muscle that can be changed with exercise. That being said, there are some great ways to avoid ACL and MCL injuries that utilize muscle strengthening to stabilize the dynamics of the knee. The best exercises include squats, leg press, hamstring curls, knee extensions, and plyometrics (box jumps, etc.). Plyometrics, in particular, have been shown to significantly reduce the risk of ACL injury.

Any quick daily exercises you recommend?

The best daily exercises that can be done easily at home without specialized equipment include straight leg raises, wall sits, box jumps, and weighted squats (put some water jugs or cans in a backpack). And then perform the squats with the backpack on.

What can I do the help my knees before/after skiing?

Warming up the knees with gentle exercise prior to skiing impact is always a good activity. Consider an exercise bike or bike trainer for 30 minutes prior to hitting the hill. When you return from a long day, using cold therapy such as ice packs or frozen peas can also help with post-skiing soreness. The best thing you can do above all is else make sure when your knees and legs start to get tired at the end of the day—stop! Don't go for that one last run. This is when your muscles are fatigued and the impact goes directly to your knee ligaments increasing the risk of injury. Hit the cold and then hot tub instead.

I've been struggling with bad shin splints, even during skiing, and nothing is working. Tips?

Shin splints is a unique term that is typically used to describe pain in the front of the shin bone (tibia) with impact loading such as skiing, running, etc. It can occur with skiing for a different reason—poorly fitted boots or skiing in a far forward leg position. This can put a large amount of stress at the interface between the top of your boot and the front of your shin. I would suggest considering getting your boots checked or refitted. If you have already done this, consider changing the incline on your boots a little more toward your heel. If this doesn't solve the problem, and you're experiencing pain with other activities besides skiing, then I would consider getting a plain x-ray of your leg to make sure there isn't a small crack that might need treatment.

Being on the mountain is a wonderful way to enjoy the outdoors, but with any activity comes risk. Understanding these risks in advance can help you take the extra precautions to keep yourself safe while soaring down the mountain. Hopefully, from the help of Dr. Travis Maak, you will enjoy a safe winter season.