Winter Sports Conditioning


Prepare for ski season. It’s imperative!

In winter, I’m often asked for winter sports advice in regard to the rigors of mountain activities. “Can I prevent injuries in skiing and snowboarding by preparing in advance?”

First, a few statistics. The risk of injury among all skiers is about three in 1,000, and injuries are more frequent in beginners. In alpine skiing (commonly known as downhill skiing), about 30 percent of injuries involve the knees, with the most well-known — and perhaps most feared — knee injury being an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear. ACL damage accounts for about 10 percent of all knee injuries in downhill skiing. Of course, the incidence of severe knee injury is much more frequent in competitive ski racing, where the athletes speed down the mountain with incredible intensity.

With these stats in mind, try to enjoy alpine sports as safely as possible. Many people prepare for ski trips by training well in advance to maximize their enjoyment and avoid injury. We all dread the thought of an injury on the first day of our long anticipated trip to the mountains, but there are three areas to work on in this regard: aerobic fitness, strength and flexibility.

Of course, it takes weeks or months to improve aerobic capacity, but you can make small advances by working out with more intensity beginning four to six weeks prior to a trip. Start on a three-week program by advancing your endurance training gradually. Pushing yourself twice a week beyond your basic exercise program will allow you to develop better endurance. You’ll feel less fatigue in the higher altitudes at the mountain summit.

Skiing and snowboarding require quadriceps (thigh, quads) strength for maximum enjoyment. These muscles allow you to ski with proper form, and they act as shock absorbers for the knees. As you fatigue on the slopes late in the day, you may begin to lose form, get lazy and set yourself up for injury. Therefore, a period of quad strengthening in preparation for skiing is wise. Specific exercises include leg presses, wall squats, lunges and knee extensions. Avoid deep squats, and be sure to use good form with your squats and lunges since these exercises can irritate patellar (kneecap) issues. It’s wise to get personal training or physical therapy advice if you’re not proficient at these exercises.

Hip abduction strength is also important to improve form. This references the muscles on the outer side of the hip (gluteus medius and minimus), which support you when you balance on one leg. Strengthening these muscles can be done by using the hip abduction machine at the gym or doing stretch band exercises walking sideways. There are specific exercise machines which mimic downhill ski movements, and this equipment is very helpful in building hip abduction and quad strength.

Proper ski form requires good flexibility in the hips and spine. Coordinated movements in the knees, hips and lumbar spine make for maximum efficiency, more confidence and less wasted muscular effort. It’s important to emphasize low back rotational stretching exercises in your preseason workouts. Hamstring stretches will also improve your spine flexibility. Don’t forget to combine quad stretches with your strengthening workouts to avoid tight quads and anterior knee pain.

Leg soreness and stiffness is usually experienced the morning after the first day on the mountain. This is expected because you’re using your muscles in an unaccustomed fashion. The ritual post-activity hot tub may add to this stiffness, however, most of us are willing to trade the morning soreness for that great soak in the tub. A few tips I’ve found valuable include: Icing any potentially troublesome joint after being in the hot tub may reduce stiffness the next day – remember, 20 minutes of icing is plenty; Go for a run after skiing. You may not run far or fast, but it seems to diminish morning stiffness, since it helps clear some lactic acid from those tight quads; And if you have a swollen or tight knee, be sure to ice it after skiing and after getting out of the hot tub.

Hopefully, by doing some fitness preparation for winter sports activities you can avoid injury and enjoy outdoor fun.


About John Hefferon, MD

John A. Hefferon, MD, Northwestern Center for Orthopedics, is focused on the treatment of sports- and active lifestyle-related injuries and conditions. His expertise includes total joint replacement of the knee and shoulder, and orthopedic sports medicine. Currently, Dr. Hefferon serves as the league physician for the NBA and WNBA. Additionally, he had previously served as team physician for the Chicago Bulls and 1996 U.S. Olympic team. Dr. Hefferon is also chairman of the orthopedic surgery department and co-medical director, Neurosurgical and Orthopedic