Maintaining healthy joints and ligaments will keep your powder days injury-free.
By Jennifer Olson
Winter sports can do a number on the knees, especially on women’s knees.
A wider pelvis, bio-mechanics, and hormones make us ripe for injury. Women tend to have more pronounced femur angles, which increases side-to-side stress on the quadriceps and can cause abnormal movements of the knee joints. Hormonal fluctuations not only loosen our ligaments—great for child birthing, 1but not great for gravity sports—but estrogen also inhibits the healing and recovery processes of muscles. That combination of forces combines to make women three times more susceptible than men to anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears. Skiers beware: you’re particularly at-risk.
As if biological vulnerability isn’t enough, winter sports of choice augment the danger. Snowboarders often suffer acute injuries in the spine or wrist fractures and sprains. Recreational figure skaters compound fall-related bruises and sprains with the twisting forces that they generate during jumps or spins. Ultimately, says Chantal Donnelly, physical therapist and founder of Body Insight Inc., a website geared toward injury prevention through exercise and education, each activity carries its own risk.
Chronic injuries are most easily prevented but most commonly ignored, as they often set in gradually. Ice climbers overuse flexor muscles and suffer higher-than-average numbers of elbow injuries. And wide-gaiting snowshoers feel the effects of hip flexor overuse—if they manage to stay upright and avoid twisting knees and ankles on unseen, under-snow obstacles. Skiers may suffer patellofemoral syndrome (the softening and degeneration of the cartilage under the kneecap), and women, adolescents, and young adults are at higher risk. Women who snowboard, says Donnelly, may experience lower back and sacral pain.
But for most of us, the risk of injury is no reason to stay indoors. Knowing your limitations, using good judgment, and taking preventive action are effective ways to reduce your risk—and they’re well worth the trouble.
Balance and strength training, coaching, and equipment fit can help prevent both chronic and acute injuries. Balance training, especially helpful for reducing the risk of accidental falls, improves proprioception (the sense of feeling you have for your limbs in space) that can prevent joint-twisting tumbles and missteps. “Working the core is also essential,” Donnelly says, explaining that movement originates in the core and improving strength there improves your body’s biomechanics all-around. She recommends Pilates and cross training to strengthen and increase flexibility in muscle groups supporting your sport’s target joints. Begin your training program at least eight weeks before hitting the snow for the first time this season.
One place to focus, suggests Donnelly, is the hamstrings. Athletes taking part in any snowy endeavor can experience muscle strains, and the hamstrings or groin are especially vulnerable. But, if the three large muscles in the back of your thigh are strong, they take stress off of the ACL during downhill maneuvers. Hip strengthening is also important for knee support and pelvic stability. Strong butt muscles will ultimately protect your joints, as they keep the pelvis stable, which keeps legs and knees in proper alignment. “Weakness in the hips and butt muscles cause the pelvis to tilt and the knee to roll inward,” Donnelly says. Solid hamstrings, quads, abs, and gluts are important, but Donnelly also stresses the importance of flexibility for muscles that work optimally both on and off the slopes.
Along with regular exercise, balanced nutrition is important for avoiding snow sport injuries. The list of recommended ingredients that may improve bone and joint health fluctuates and includes everything from vitamin K to alcohol to fish oil, with Czech and Chinese herbs taking center stage right now. Low levels of vitamins C and D have been associated with knee osteoarthritis. “It is important to make sure you are getting sufficient amounts of those two vitamins in your food or supplements,” Donnelly says. Saturated fat can also cause cartilage breakdown, increasing the risk of osteoarthritis, and most research suggests that a healthy diet generally is a big boon to healthy joints. “If you eat too much you gain weight, and if you are overweight you are more susceptible to knee pain and back pain,” says Donnelly, adding this bottom line: “Extra weight puts stress on joints of the body.”
Ready to hit the slopes safely this season? Take one final tip from Donnelly: warm up. “Start your day on the smaller, easier hills before moving to advanced runs,” she says. No matter your fitness level, and whether the scale is one day or an entire season, start slowly and build up to a full range of motion, skill, and speed. It will help your joints and ligaments last in the long run.