Christopher M. LaPrade,1 Evan W. James,2 and Robert F. LaPrade, M.D., Ph.D3.
In anticipation of winter, it is important to remember that while many winter sports are enjoyable, they can also be dangerous at times. Here in Vail, our picturesque mountains offer some of the best terrain and conditions in the world for skiing and snowboarding. However, hazards such as trees, steep terrain, cold temperatures, and large crowds present increased risks and hidden dangers. Other popular winter sports, such as ice hockey and skating, require certain precautions to minimize the risk of injury. To help you stay active all season, here are some general recommendations to prevent winter sports-related injuries, whether it's here on the mountain in Vail, on the hockey or skating rink, or in your own backyard.
The first step in preventing winter sports injuries is to dedicate time during the offseason to develop a solid fitness foundation. Committing to a regular exercise program throughout the year, with a focus on building strength, endurance, balance, and flexibility, will ease the transition into winter sports as your body adjusts to new and increased demands. For skiing and snowboarding, leg and core strength is most important to keep you fresh during long days on the mountains. Making time to exercise even a couple times a week now will pay off considerably throughout the winter months.
Other potential problems during winter activities include frostbite, hypothermia, and dehydration. Frostbite can permanently damage skin if not recognized and treated in a timely manner. Signs of frostbite include first reddening, then graying in the color of the skin. Frostbite most commonly affects the face, ears, fingers, and toes. Proper equipment such as goggles, moisture-wicking socks, and warm, waterproof gloves can help prevent frostbite.
In addition, hypothermia may occur while on the mountain. In order to maintain your core body temperature, be sure to dress in layers of moisture-wicking material underneath your snow pants and ski jacket. Also, on especially cold days, make sure to take frequent breaks in warming houses or chalets to rest, eat, and warm back up.
Finally, dehydration is another common risk during the winter season. The bulky clothing that is designed to keep you warm on the mountain or safe on the hockey rink may cause you to lose excessive moisture in perspiration. When excessive perspiration is combined with high elevation and infrequent water breaks, your body is at a very high risk for dehydration. As dehydration sets in, athletic performance and endurance declines. Therefore, proper hydration with water or carbohydrate-rich beverages is essential before, during, and after winter activities. Once thirsty, it is already too late to adequately replace fluids.
There are several important safety precautions to keep in mind when skiing. First, make sure you know the rules of the mountains. The most important rule to remember is that the people in front of you have the right of way. They cannot see you approaching, so keep your speed under control in order to protect both your own safety and the safety of others on the mountain. Also, make sure you wear the proper protective equipment. Most importantly, this means wearing a helmet — regardless of your ability level or the types of terrain you plan on skiing. Remember, the mountain will be filled with skiers and snowboarders of all ages and abilities. Wearing a helmet will help prevent potentially devastating and permanent traumatic head injuries. Also, make sure that your ski bindings are adjusted by a trained professional to release appropriately and that they are compatible with your ski boots. The release setting on bindings determines the amount of torque required to make your ski release properly during a crash. While expert skiers might wish to have a high binding release setting in order to pass through extreme terrain, beginners need a lower setting so that their skis will release more easily.
Snowboarding possesses many of the same inherent risks as skiing. Like skiing, it is important to know the rules of the mountains. Snowboarders must realize that the people ahead of them cannot see behind them, and use caution when near groups of people. A helmet is important to avoid head injuries, regardless of where you plan on riding. Choose bindings and boots with the help of a trained professional. Softer bindings and boots are usually preferred for beginners and intermediates in order to provide additional comfort and give while riding. Make sure that the boots and bindings are tightly secured. Beginner snowboarders may want to wear wrist guards to prevent wrist fractures while breaking a fall. Some brands offer gloves with wrist guards built in, which helps make wearing protective equipment convenient and fashionable.
Ice hockey and skating are other popular winter activities. Whether you plan to skate on an outdoor rink, at an open skate on an indoor rink, or in youth or recreational hockey leagues, it is important to be aware of others skating around you. Just like skiing and snowboarding, a helmet is an essential piece of equipment that helps to prevent traumatic head injuries during a fall or during collisions with posts or boards. In addition, if you plan to participate in a hockey league, it is especially important to wear a mouth guard to prevent jaw, brain, and dental injuries. Finally, make sure that your hockey equipment is appropriately sized, because loose shin pads, breezers, elbow pads, and shoulder pads are less effective at preventing injuries.
If your plans bring you to Vail this winter, we wish you a season filled with many new memories and, most importantly, a safe time on the mountain.