For orthopedic surgeons like me, winter is the season for sports injuries, especially to the crucial ligaments that support the knee. So now is the time to think about how to stay fit and healthy, whether on the ski slopes or just when shoveling your stoop or driveway.
Performing any type of exercise in cold weather puts more strain on the body. That’s part of the reason skiers are so injury-prone. But even among cold-weather sports, skiing places intense demands on the body. Over the years, I’ve found that a few factors often contribute to injuries:
The first common factor is falling out of skiing shape, or out of shape in general. After all, most skiers will spend the majority of the year not skiing, so it is important to build strength, endurance, and flexibility before hitting the slopes.
The second factor is intrinsic to the sport: skiing includes a lot of pivoting movements, which place tremendous stress on the knees.
The most common ski injury I see is a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), an injury that also bedevils athletes who play soccer, basketball, football, and any other sport that requires a pivoting motion. A fall, a collision, or even losing your balance can cause a tear.
The third contributing factor for injuries is all the other people on the slope. Many injuries happen when you collide with another skier, or veer to avoid hitting someone. So it’s crucial to pay extra attention.
A classic scenario for ski injuries goes something like this: It’s late in the day, and you want to get in just one more run. You’re tired and not as in control as you were when you were fresh.
As a result, you may “catch an edge” — accidentally digging the edge of your ski into the snow.
Because your ankle is in a binding, the torque, or rotational force, goes straight through the knee, causing the ACL to rip.
What steps can you take to prepare yourself for winter sports?
The most important step is preconditioning — in particular working on flexibility, core strengthening, and cardio.
The core muscles are key players in skiing, and they are often overlooked in the off-season. To prevent that, I recommend doing lunges and planks, both to the front and side.
Also, incorporate cardiovascular activity that mimics what you would do on the ski slope, such as walking or running on an incline or the stair stepper several times a week, alternating with your strengthening workouts.
Another thing to keep in mind is that your body needs time to acclimate to the altitude. It’s critical to listen to your body. If that means taking a slower first day than the rest of your friends, or arriving a day early, just do it. Don’t override that little cautioning voice or push yourself too hard.
Water consumption is vital for all sports, but it also helps with altitude change. Dehydration worsens the headaches and fatigue that accompany altitude sickness. A quick rule for staying hydrated is that you should drink enough liquid to produce urine that is clear yellow.
One of the best steps you can take to prevent injury is to take a ski lesson if it has been a while. Small changes in technique can make a world of difference in preventing later injuries.”
Whether you’re a skier or not, staying healthy during the cold winter months takes some extra effort. We are right in the middle of the season for slips and falls that can lead to broken bones and torn tendons, so fall prevention is something we all need to take seriously.
Even a simple balance exercise can make a difference: Try standing up from a seated position without using your hands. Balancing your weight on one leg is another classic, but you can start out by simply shifting your weight from one leg to the other.
The National Council on Aging offers user-friendly tips on fall prevention at ncoa.org/healthy-aging/falls-prevention/falls-prevention-awareness-day/.
Be strategic about planning your outdoor workouts in the winter. Wear layers, so you can cool off a bit as you start to sweat. And be extra diligent about warming up. Start with dynamic movements that get your heart rate moving at the same time that they use big muscle groups, like jumping jacks, jump squats, or lunges with a twist.
During your cool down, I recommend stretching out a bit more than usual, and it’s always a good idea to walk for a few minutes to get your heart rate to slow down.
And always treat shoveling as you would any intensive physical exercise. Drink water, take breaks, and don’t use a shovel that is too heavy for you.
Dreary days and cold weather may make you want to just sit at home and just watch TV. Resist!
Even if skiing isn’t an option, there are thousands of indoor exercise guides at your fingertips on YouTube and phone apps. When it comes to exercise, something is always better than nothing.
Alexis Colvin, MD, is an Associate Professor of Orthopedics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
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