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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of November 21 - 27, 2001


Itís important to 
stay fit all season

Express Staff Writer

There are two overriding reasons for skiers of all kinds to maintain a high level of physical fitness: safety and performance. The fit skier has less chance of injury, the fit skier performs better while having more fun. Being injured is not fun.

Every year in the United States there are more than 500,000 ski injuries. Last year 33 skiers and six snow boarders died, and there were 45 "serious" injuries, which means they were life threatening and/or resulted in permanent disability (paraplegic, quadriplegic, severe head injury). The total cost from ski injuries last year, including medical, legal, liability and work loss expenses, was $5.7 billion.

The good news is that over the last few decades injuries from skiing have dropped from 7.5 per 1,000 skier days to 3.0 per 1,000 skier days. Also, the once feared broken lower leg injury has declined more than 95 percent since the early 1970s.

The bad news is that knee injuries continue to account for between 20 to 35 percent of all ski injuries. The chance of a skier suffering anterior cruciate ligament injury is about the same as that of a college football player. (The ACL is the ligament that crosses the knee at a diagonal angle underneath the kneecap.) The University of Vermont Department of Orthopedics says that injury rate is about 365 times greater than that of the general public.

The negotiable news is that every skier can significantly reduce his or her risk of injury by nothing more complex than being fit. Skiing is a risky endeavor, so injuries can never be eliminated completely, but being fit gives the skier better odds.

There are two overriding realities about physical fitness for skiers that are often ignored or not known by the general public: one cannot ski oneself into shape, and skiing alone will not maintain a safe level of fitness. There are no studies that this writer can find showing the relationship between physical fitness and the incidence of skiing injury; but common sense, experienced subjective judgment, as well as the judgment of professionals who deal with the aftermath of skiing injury agree that the fit skier is a smart skier.

One of those professionals, Colleen Coyne, P.T., of Sun Valley Sports Rehabilitation Clinic in Ketchum, says, "We see that early season ski injuries tend to be different than those from later in the season. Early season injuries are often in the lower back and knees, caused by poor fitness and spending too many hours skiing too soon. Later in the season, injuries are more the result of aggression, that is, more stress and strain injuries."

Most ski injuries occur later in the day, an indication that fatigue is a factor. When asked what time of day most ski accidents happen, one waggish Sun Valley ski patrolman replied, "two-thirty-two p.m." Fatigue and lack of fitness are, of course, as closely related as, say, a binding and a ski.

A contributing factor to injuries occurring later in the season is that too many skiers who begin the season with a good level of fitness from a regular exercise program quit working out as soon as skiing begins. After a couple of months of only skiing for exercise, they are no longer as fit as they should be for safe or high performance skiing.

Coyne also said the clinic is seeing an increase of knee injuries due to the use of shape skis which, she says, "Öcreate more force and lots of torque on the knee." Lifters under modern bindings also create more torque on the knee. She recommends an exercise program emphasizing strength, endurance and flexibility.

According to Coyne, the most effective course of skiing fitness is a year round regimen of fitness rather than a special skiing fitness crash course in the fall. This is especially true for what she calls "aging athletes," a description that fits a significant number of Sun Valley skiers. "The basics donít change," she says. "Skiers need cardio, flexibility, muscle training, and there are many ways to get it. You donít have to go to a gym or pump iron to stay fit. Push ups, sit ups, dips, running, hiking, walking and stretching are things you can do on your own. Gyms are great and provide more options but you donít absolutely need one to stay in great shape."

Enjoying what one does to keep fit is more important than the particular regimen.

"If someone doesnít like what they do, theyíll go nowhere with it. People underestimate the simple benefits of hiking and walking and they completely underestimate the value of daily stretching," Coyne says. She emphasizes, again, that the value of stretching is especially important for the aging athlete.

"Core strength" is the current buzz word(s) in the physical fitness/rehabilitation industry, according to Coyne. If a bodyís core strength is weak, even if the rest of the body is fit, it is at risk. In laymanís terms, this means that the abdomen and the back need to be strong. Coyne defined it as "trunk strength, full spinal strength, how stable and efficient the body is between the shoulders and the hips." Being fit for skiing is not just a matter of having strong legs, and core strength is emphasized by all modern ski coaches and trainers.

All of the above is just as true for Nordic skiing as for lift serviced alpine skiing, Coyne says. She deals with many clients who have strained, sprained or somehow injured their bodies while Nordic skiing. While the type of injury from Nordic skiing tends to be different than the typical alpine skiing injury, including shoulder and lower extremity injuries, many of them could be prevented, avoided or alleviated by a fitness regimen before and during the ski season.

She recommends that Nordic skate skiers pay more attention to proper body position while skiing, not putting undue strain on muscles and joints from improper alignment and insufficient training. Coyne estimates that about 80 percent of skate skiers only use the one dominant side of their body instead of switching sides regularly. This results in repetitive injuries that are completely avoidable.

The importance of being fit for skiing is that it is safer and more fun. The unfit skier is akin to the person who drives automobiles at high speeds on bald tires, except that a new set of tires costs money and a fitness program does not. All it takes is a bit of time and a bit of effort to be a lot safer and to have a great deal more fun.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.