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Avoid Injury

Avoid Injury

Fitness
By Stu Campbell
posted: 09/19/2001

You know the sitcom cliché: Character goes skiing. Breaks leg. Balance of the episode takes place in front of ski-lodge fire. Character wears huge cast; hobbles on crutches; enjoys sympathy. It's enough to give skiing a bad name. But skiing's reputation as a dangerous activity is often overblown. Skiing injuries have decreased 50 percent over the past 25 years, according to Dr. Jasper Shealy of the Rochester Institute of Technology. Thanks to better bindings, the rate of broken legs has declined 95 percent since the early Seventies.

True, knee injuries, particularly to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), are up. About 24,000 skiers a year injure their ACLs, which works out to one torn ACL for every 2,100 skier visits. But a bit of common sense, along with planning and conditioning, can help you stay off the disabled list. Here's how.

Before You Go
Sure, you've heard these admonitions before, but do you really follow them? If not, you're asking for trouble.

Stay Tuned Sharpened, waxed skis simply turn better and more accurately than those with rusty, dull edges and dried, gouged bases. Square, polished edges grip better and help you maintain control. Inspect your bases for gouges, and run your finger down the edge to check for dings. Keep your skis in good condition, and insist that rentals or demos be tuned. And don't get sloppy with your boots. They should be set up for your particular legs and feet, so that they fit like a custom-made glove. Proper cant angles and forward lean mean the difference between some control and complete control. Custom footbeds provide comfort and better feel for the snow. A visit to a good bootfitter is a must.

Check Your Bindings Visit a certified technician at least once a year to have your bindings calibrated and function-tested. A setting that is too low (causing your ski to come off when you don't want it to) is every bit as dangerous as one that is too high. Transport your skis in a bag to keep them clean. Dirt, grime, road salt and overhandling affect a binding's function. Wiping your bindings dry and giving them a shot of lubricant such as WD-40 will give you peace of mind.

Shape Up Skiing is not about brute force, but it pays to strengthen both your muscles and your cardiovascular system. Especially focus on ski-specific exercises. (See "On Top Of The World" on page 102.) Many ski injuries occur from muscle imbalances, so make sure you don't train one muscle group while neglecting its opposite. For example, you must strengthen hamstrings as well as quads, back muscles as well as abdominals. Muscular strength gives you confidence, staves off fatigue and affords more control. Being aerobically fit is especially important at altitude. The more oxygen you pump to your extremities, the safer you will be. But remember: Regardless of how much time you spend in the gym, you are going to get tired and sore. Skiing employs muscles that exercise machines never reach.

Stay Loose Warm, loose and elongated muscles not only work better, but also put less stress on the ligaments that connect your bones and the joints themselves. The more you warm up, the greater your range of motion and the less your risk of injury. It's best to stretch indoors before each ski day (as well as non-skiing days). But even simple stretches atop the lift before your first run are better than nothing. Concentrate on your quads, hamstrings and calves, but also stretch the shoulders, lower back and abdominals.

On the Hill
Pre-skiing prep won't help much unless you also follow these on-mountain precautions.

Falling Well There is one constant in skiing: We all fall. The trick is to fall without getting injured. Some falls happen unexpectedly, and some are intentional (falling is our fail-safe brake). If you see a fall coming, keep your arms out in front of you and try to land on your side. If you put a knee, elbow or thumb down first you are more proneo injury. Also, don't fully straighten your legs when you fall; keep your knees flexed.

Knowing how to (and how not to) fall is the best protection against ACL injuries. First, don't fight a fall. If you lose balance backward and feel your hips fall way behind your feet, your ACL is stressed and vulnerable to tearing. Better to tip over sideways and slide to a stop than battle to stay upright. Lose face, but save a knee. Second, don't try to stand up while you're sliding; use your poles or skis to arrest yourself if you're sliding toward trees or rocks. Third, don't attempt to sit down after you lose control-this also can stress your ACL.

Vermont Safety Research (VSR)-which provides ski-safety videos, workshops and a website-describes the most common scenario that leads to an ACL injury: The skier's uphill arm is back, and the uphill ski is unweighted. The skier is off-balance to the rear, and his hips fall below his knees. His weight is on the inside edge of the downhill ski tail, with his upper body generally facing the downhill ski. For more information about how to avoid this situation, visit www.vermontskisafety.com. A $33 video about knee-friendly skiing is available at this site.

Stay Centered To keep falls to a minimum, you have to stay balanced over the center of the skis. Your bindings and boots encourage you to stay in this athletic stance, much like a tennis or basketball player's "ready" position. Keep your hands forward and sense the soles of your feet at all times; then make corrections as needed.

Test The Snow Forget the kamikaze approach: Good skiers test snow before they charge down the hill-especially in the more extreme in-bounds territory. Ice, drifts, windslab, rocks, hazards, cornices and crevices are often not visible. Feel the snow by poking it with a pole or stamping it with your ski. Venture slowly into uncharted snow.

Look For The Fall Line The most catastrophic falls occur when a skier is momentarily confused or disoriented. Sometimes we fail to understand where the fall line would take us if we lost control and fell. This is especially true in bumps, or on off-camber (tilted) runs. Study an unfamiliar slope beforehand. Where is the basic fall line? In other words, if you were to let a ball roll down the hill, what course would it take? Where and how often does the fall line change? What are the consequences of a fall? Will I slide harmlessly down the middle, or will I slide into rocks, trees or over a cliff? If the latter is true, ski more cautiously.

20/20 Vision Glare reflected off snow is a serious menace to vision, which often leads to on-hill mishaps. Choose sunglasses and goggles for their UVA/UVB ray-screening properties as well as fashion. Take them with you, even if it looks cloudy; light changes rapidly in the mountains. Fog, shadows and flat light make it tough to gauge snow texture. Consider using goggles or glasses with photochromic lenses; they automatically adjust to varying sunlight, becoming darker in bright conditions and lighter in flat light. Or look for eyewear with easily interchangeable lenses, so you can choose the right tint whatever the light condition-yellow or red when it's cloudy; brown, green or orange for moderate or variable light; gray or mirrored for bright sunlight; and polarized to cut glare. If you choose to use just one color, consider orange. "An orange tint-light, medium or dark-seems to be the best color for allowing proper light transmission and helping you see moguls and curves," says Sue E. Lowe, chairwoman of the Sports Vision Section of the American Optometrist Association. "And orange is versatile; it's good for both bright and foggy days." In addition to finding the right lens, make sure your eyewear has a good ventilation system. And don't move your goggles up to your forehead and then back down to your eyes. They're sure to fog. Remember, you can't ski if you can't see.

Dress Right Cold skiers are stiff and slow to react, so it's important to dress warmly. Overheated skiers, on the other hand, get tired faster, lose strength, and become short of breath and dehydrated. Wear layers you can take off or put back on. Choose high-tech fabrics that keep you warm but also let your body breathe.

Drink Liquids Dehydration saps strength and impairs judgement. You can become dehydrated long before your body senses you are thirsty. Carry water with you, and drink plenty and often. Go light on coffee and alcohol, which actually lower hydration levels.

Know Your Limits Skiers get hurt when they are where they should not be. Too often they are lured or goaded there by well-meaning friends. Accept challenges, but don't get in over your head. If it is your first time at a new mountain, get a trail map and identify those runs that are right for you. Ask locals or ski patrollers for directions and advice about conditions, or hire an instructor or guide. Ski with people who are slightly better than you are, but avoid those who are a lot better-unless they are willing to slow down and ski your terrain at your speed.

Never Take a "Last" Run An astounding number of accident victims lament, "It was my last run!" Cold, adrenaline and excitement can mask fatigue, so we are often tired before we think we are. Be superstitious about calling a late-day run your "last." Quit while you're ahead. If you do get through the lift maze just before it closes for the day, make that final descent a leisurely one. Off-mountain traffic flow may be heavy. The snow may be icy and the light flat. Enjoy the scenery, and drift home slowly. And safely.

Are you health and safety savvy? To find out, take our quiz on www.skimag.com (type in keyword "Healthy Skier Quiz").

Health Hit
A skier's chances of sustaining an ACL injury are statistically similar to those of a college football player. -University of Vermonters are stiff and slow to react, so it's important to dress warmly. Overheated skiers, on the other hand, get tired faster, lose strength, and become short of breath and dehydrated. Wear layers you can take off or put back on. Choose high-tech fabrics that keep you warm but also let your body breathe.

Drink Liquids Dehydration saps strength and impairs judgement. You can become dehydrated long before your body senses you are thirsty. Carry water with you, and drink plenty and often. Go light on coffee and alcohol, which actually lower hydration levels.

Know Your Limits Skiers get hurt when they are where they should not be. Too often they are lured or goaded there by well-meaning friends. Accept challenges, but don't get in over your head. If it is your first time at a new mountain, get a trail map and identify those runs that are right for you. Ask locals or ski patrollers for directions and advice about conditions, or hire an instructor or guide. Ski with people who are slightly better than you are, but avoid those who are a lot better-unless they are willing to slow down and ski your terrain at your speed.

Never Take a "Last" Run An astounding number of accident victims lament, "It was my last run!" Cold, adrenaline and excitement can mask fatigue, so we are often tired before we think we are. Be superstitious about calling a late-day run your "last." Quit while you're ahead. If you do get through the lift maze just before it closes for the day, make that final descent a leisurely one. Off-mountain traffic flow may be heavy. The snow may be icy and the light flat. Enjoy the scenery, and drift home slowly. And safely.

Are you health and safety savvy? To find out, take our quiz on www.skimag.com (type in keyword "Healthy Skier Quiz").

Health Hit
A skier's chances of sustaining an ACL injury are statistically similar to those of a college football player. -University of Vermont

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