Crisp fall temperatures mean only one thing to avid downhill skiers: Ski season can’t be far off. But before you hit the slopes, it’s crucial to prepare your back in order to avoid painful spinal injuries, according to Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, founder and president of Atlantic Spine Center.
While it’s not possible to prevent all ski injuries, many back problems resulting from skiing can be averted before the season even begins, Dr. Liu says. How? By preparing for the array of bodily turns, twists and bends required to safely swoop down the mountain.
“Skiers should give serious thought to conditioning for the sport long before ski season actually arrives,” explains Dr. Liu, who is fellowship-trained in spine surgery. “Few sports are as physically demanding on the spine as downhill skiing, and yet many recreational skiers hit the slopes after little or no training in the pre-season. Fall is the best time to make sure your back is slope-worthy.”
Why your back is vulnerable on the slopes
A wide range of injuries can occur during snow skiing – including those affecting the knee, shoulder and head in addition to the spine – but falls account for 75% to 85% of all of them, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. But there isn’t a single piece of protective equipment available that can stop all spinal injuries from occurring on the slopes.
“That means it’s up to each skier to prime themselves for the huge range of motion needed to ski safely – including bending, twisting and turning – and being able to do these movements quickly, depending on the rigors of the course,” Dr. Liu says. “Unless you’re on the bunny slope – and even then, sometimes – you’ll need to instantly adapt your movements to the nuances of the mountain. That can mean icy conditions as well, which can make skiing even more treacherous.”
Dr. Liu suggests that skiers “go with it” if they feel themselves starting to fall on the slopes. Also, wearing a helmet is a must to protect the head as well as the neck, which is the highest portion of the spine.
“When you start to fall, let it happen as gently as possible,” he says. “The more rigid you are, the more likely you’ll unconsciously twist or turn your body to compensate and the more likely your back will be injured. It’s also important to ski on a slope that fits within your individual ability level.”
Tips to avoid back injuries on the mountain
But what about before you hit the mountain? That’s the most important time to take steps to prevent your back from becoming another ski injury statistic. Dr. Liu offers these tips for avoiding spine injuries on the slopes:
- Build flexibility: Each day, stretch the hamstrings, quadriceps, hips, calves and trunk muscles. Hold stretches for 20-30 seconds, with 2 to 3 sets for each muscle group.
- Go for core strength: Skiing requires the body’s “core” muscles, including those in the lower back and abdomen, to keep the body in proper form. Improve your core strength by using dumbbells, or resistance bands to strengthen the upper and lower body. Also do squats, lunges and leg presses to strengthen your lower half.
- Enhance balance and coordination: Ski simulation machines at the gym do a wonderful job of preparing you for real-time ski conditions, along with agility ladders and physio-ball kneeling.
- Raise endurance: Running, hiking, rowing, biking, swimming or stair-climbing 3 to 5 times each week helps prepare your cardiovascular system for the exertion of downhill skiing.
- Build speed: The quick side-to-side movements’ integral to skiing can be practiced by hopping over a solid object (such as a pillow or a book) from foot to foot while maintaining a balanced upper body.
Regardless of which conditioning exercises you choose in the pre-season, aim to begin your regimen at least six weeks before hitting the slopes, Dr. Liu recommends.
“With a pre-season ski conditioning plan, you can avoid the pitfalls most likely to lead to back injuries and take your skiing to new heights,” he says. “Your ability to take to the slopes in the best shape possible is key to getting the most enjoyment out of skiing.”