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Skiing: Be aware of the risks so you don’t spoil the fun

Dr Roxanne Labranche
Radiologist

Downhill skiing and cross-country skiing are two winter sports with their own benefits, but they require vigilance and attention to avoid injury.

Skiing to get in better shape

Regardless of experience level, skiing stimulates many parts of the body and significantly improves long-term health. However, there are distinct differences between downhill and cross-country skiing.

Downhill skiing, an exceptionally well-rounded sport

While one might imagine that skiing or snowboarding requires mainly technique and motor skills, these activities are actually much more demanding and thus more beneficial to our health than they appear.

  1. Develops proprioception
    The proprioceptive system allows us to sense the position of our various body parts and their movements in space. It provides our nervous system with the necessary cues to move and maintain our balance. Thus, the body’s constant adaptation to the terrain, texture of the snow and obstacles during descents improves reflexes and neurological reactivity.
  2. Strengthens bones and joints
    Going downhill requires a lot of effort from the knees and hips, which, in addition to supporting our weight, must frequently initiate changes in direction. These efforts strengthen the muscles and joints of the lower body. In the long run, this sport can reduce the risk of osteoporosis and knee damage.
  3. Improves the cardiopulmonary system
    It’s all a question of intensity and duration to evaluate the long-term benefits. The faster the speed, the greater the strain on the heart. However, even at a moderate pace, the benefits are equivalent to practicing sports like cycling and rowing.

The different skills required for downhill skiing offer an excellent combination of endurance and strength. Skiing also works more parts of the body than most other sports for the same amount of time.[1]

Endurance at its best

Although not as full-body intensive as downhill skiing, cross-country skiing is one of the best endurance sports. Many professional runners, racers and cyclists practice it during the winter season.

While less aggressive on the joints than downhill skiing or running, it also increases cardiopulmonary endurance because you use your arms and legs to propel yourself. Therefore, in addition to improving bone density, it is recommended for people suffering from vascular problems.[2]

Finally, both cross-country and downhill skiing improve sleep quality. The fatigue accumulated after a long period of outdoor exercise is one of the best contributors to getting a good night’s sleep.

What to know to reduce your risk of injury while skiing

Downhill skiing – 77% of injuries are due to falls

With 800,000 Quebecers practicing snow sports, there are about 16,000 medical visits per year to treat injuries.

Not surprisingly, most cuts and injuries are caused by falls. The ease of reaching high speeds and the possibility of performing jumps or acrobatics mean that falls are rarely harmless when they occur.

A study by the ministère de l'Éducation du Québec classified the following injuries in order of frequency to determine which ones are most common:

  1. Sprains (mainly the knee)
  2. Simple fractures (often the tibia)
  3. Bruises
  4. Cuts
  5. Dislocations (mostly the thumbs and shoulders)
  6. Concussions (especially in snowboarders)
  7. Scrapes
  8. Internal injuries
  9. Others
Three main risk categories to consider

As with many other sports, especially outdoor sports, several factors increase the risk of falls or injuries.

  1. The environment can change the skiing conditions. The danger varies depending on the weather, visibility, snow conditions and the type and layout of the trails.
  2. The quality of the equipment (skis, clothes, boots) can impact the activity.
  3. Personal attributes play a role in how you ski. Physical condition, skill level, age and risk tolerance all play a role in how you approach the sport and assess the danger.
Youth are disproportionately represented among the injured

The Ministère de l'Éducation du Québec research shows that the average age of injured skiers is 23.7 years old, and for snowboarders, the age is 16.8 years old. When asked, they admit to being the cause of the fall more than 70% of the time.

The study tends to show that inexperience is a significant risk factor for skiing accidents, especially if combined with a reckless attitude.[3],[4]

What are the dangers of cross-country skiing?

Even if cross-country skiing is considered less risky than downhill skiing, it is not without its dangers. Falls can also occur, especially going down slopes, and cause various traumas. Poor technique can also create musculoskeletal repercussions and injuries. On the other hand, poor weather conditions or inadequate equipment can lead to dehydration, hypothermia and frostbite.

The particular case of overuse

In both downhill and cross-country skiing, overuse injuries can result from doing your favourite activity. This can be due to repetitive, incorrect movements, ill-fitting equipment or a particular weakness. This situation can lead to tendonitis, lower back pain, or even rotator-cuff syndrome. Therefore, it is important to know how to listen to your body and how it feels to avoid aggravating such injuries.[5]

What to do if you are injured

Despite all the preparation and care taken, injuries can still occur. It is important to consult your doctor in the case of significant pain or injury, such as a knee sprain or severe pain with decreased shoulder strength that could indicate a torn tendon. Your doctor may then request diagnostic tests such as a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, computed tomography (CT) scan, X-ray or musculoskeletal ultrasound. These different tests can help identify injuries that may require immobilization of the limb (in the case of a fracture) or surgery (in the case of a torn tendon or ligament, for example). Early diagnosis allows for more effective treatment, increasing the chances of recovery and reducing the risk of complications.

What to remember about the risks and benefits of skiing

Although, like most sports, it does involve some risk, skiing is great for the body. It also allows you to stay active and get some fresh air during the winter, which is just as important for your mental health and sleep.

To avoid accidents, it is essential to know how to assess the ski conditions based on your physical and technical level and to have the proper equipment at all times.

So, whatever your level, skiing can only be beneficial if you remember to warm up and follow these simple precautions.

Enjoy the winter!

For professional support, we’re here for you.

We offer fast and efficient services that can help your doctor diagnose musculoskeletal injuries and determine the appropriate treatment.

Do you have a medical prescription for one of these tests? Book an appointment online or contact Biron Health Group’s customer service at 1 833 590-2712.

Sources5
  1. Équipe Physioproactive. Benefits and risks of downhill skiing, January 6, 2020, https://physioproactive.com/fr/benefices-et-risques-du-ski-alpin/.
  2. Spiroux N. Cross-country skiing: a sport that's good for you, undated, https://oppq.qc.ca/blogue/ski-de-fond-un-sport-qui-vous-veut-du-bien/.
  3. Dr. Goulet C. An overview of injuries and risk-taking in Quebec's downhill ski resorts, November 2002, http://www.education.gouv.qc.ca/fileadmin/site_web/documents/loisir-sport/PortraitGeneralBlessureSetPrisedeRisqueki.pdf.
  4. Morneau M-J. Advantages and risks of downhill skiing: everything you need to know before hitting the slope, undated, https://oppq.qc.ca/blogue/avantages-et-risques-du-ski-alpin/.
  5. Équipe Physioproactive. Benefits and risks of downhill skiing, January 6, 2020, https://physioproactive.com/fr/benefices-et-risques-du-ski-alpin/.
Dr Roxanne Labranche
Radiologist