Christina Eyers, Ed.D., AT, ATC, is the Director of Athletic Training & Community Outreach with Henry Ford Sports Medicine.
With the winter Olympics kicking off, you might be wondering which (if any) winter sports are safe for you to try.
In addition to favorite pastimes like skiing, snowshoeing and ice skating, athletes in the winter Olympics are shining a light on lesser-known sports that are worth checking out if you're feeling adventurous. (Curling anyone?)
Breaking Down Winter Olympic Sports
Whether you prefer snow or ice, there are plenty of cold-weather activities that offer a heart-pumping workout — and you don't have to be an Olympic athlete to join in the fun. A bonus: Many of these activities are easy on your joints and offer cross-training benefits.
- Cross-country skiing. Cross-country skiing is a full-body, endurance pursuit similar to running. But since you're gliding through the snow, not pounding pavement, there's less stress and strain on your joints — and a lower risk of repetitive use injuries.
- Ice skating. Figure skating is among the most popular winter Olympic sports. It's also the oldest sport in the winter program. Even if you feel unsteady on ice skates (and what beginner doesn't?), taking an introductory lesson can help you glide safely while learning proper mechanics. Since falling is common for beginners, make sure you wear some extra padding and take your time as you master new maneuvers.
- Curling. A unique Olympic sport, curling is like shuffleboard on ice. While it may be one of the slower sports in the winter games, it's also a great game to play on the ice with your family.
- Skiing. Skiing is a fun activity for the whole family. But if you're an amateur skier, it's critical to be realistic about your abilities. Don't be afraid to take ski lessons to get the basics under your belt. A ski instructor not only gauges your skill level, but can also direct you to the slopes that are the best fit for your experience.
- Snowboarding. One of the newer Olympic sports on the circuit, snowboarding was first included at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. But since its introduction, snowboarding has become one of the most popular sports in the Games — and for winter recreation among nonathletes.
No matter which winter sports you choose, make sure you have appropriate equipment that fits. Winter sports gear can get pricey, but try secondhand stores or even rent equipment for weekend use. Just make sure to ask the experts for advice on things like length of skis, boots, bindings, figure skates or hockey skates. Most importantly, make sure to always wear a helmet for activities such as skiing and snowboarding (kids should wear helmets when ice skating too!).
Cold-Weather Sports Caveats
Winter sports can be engaging for everyone, no matter what their age or skill level. You can use the Olympics as inspiration or try one of the many non-Olympic sports that get your heart pumping during colder months. A few favorites:
► Sledding. Tubing and sledding require you to climb up the hill in order to ride your way down. Toboggan runs and sledding hills are a great way to enjoy local parks during the wintertime — and they're fun for the whole family.
► Snowshoeing. Like walking on sand, snowshoeing requires you to navigate uneven surfaces, which helps strengthen your leg and glute muscles.
► Hiking. If the weather is on the mild side, don't be afraid to get outdoors and explore. With newer materials and textiles, it's easier than ever to dress warmly and remove layers as you work your way up a hill or mountain.
Whatever winter activity you choose, keep in mind you’re not competing in the Olympics. If you’ve been mostly sedentary, it's important to start slow. Gradually increase your activity level and be sure to wear appropriate safety gear.
Injuries happen to skiers of all levels, even under pristine conditions and when using the best available equipment. “Beginners are more likely to get injured. But when experienced skiers go down, they tend to have more severe injuries,” says Michelle Gambino-Gorney, a certified athletic trainer at the Henry Ford Kutcher Clinic for Concussion and Sports Neurology.
But you don’t have to let the risk of injury hold you back from having fun on the slopes. A few basic safety tips? Stay within your ability level and ensure your skis are in good condition. That said, going beyond ski safety basics and learning how to avoid injuries can help you stay safe on the slopes. Here are six expert tips:
Use caution when getting on and off the ski lift. Ski lifts make a lot of people anxious. Being high off the ground on your journey up the mountain can invoke a fear of falling. “But it’s getting on and off the ski lift where the vast majority of lift-related injuries occur,” Gambino-Gorney says. To lower your risk of injury, remove pole straps and backpacks before loading, look over your shoulder to make sure you sit squarely on the seat at the correct time, and don't try to retrieve items you lose hold of (including poles, gloves and phones). It’s best to let them go and ski back for them.
Keep it simple at terrain parks. Terrain parks include human-made features like ramps and rails that enable skiers to do jumps, flips and other maneuvers. Any time your skis leave the ground, injuries are possible. You can safely enjoy terrain parks by starting with smaller obstacles and maneuvers and mastering them before moving on to other challenges. Do not rely on online tutorials to learn new skills. Ski instructors can help you learn the correct technique and provide personalized tips for achieving your goals.
Beware of trees. Trees present multiple dangers. Colliding with a tree, especially at high speed, leads to some of the most severe ski injuries. A small number of skiers die each year from tree collisions. To avoid collisions, ski with control. Other concerns include tree wells and snow immersion suffocation. This type of injury occurs when a person falls head first into a pocket of loose snow near a tree trunk and gets trapped. Skiing with a partner on ungroomed paths, which typically run past tree wells, is essential. If you become immersed in a tree well, a partner can step in to help you break free.
Pay extra attention during your final run of the day. Injuries are more common during skiers’ last runs. “Skiing later in the day can be dangerous because small changes can affect your ability to maneuver and react to conditions,” Gambino-Gorney says. Fresh powder may get matted down. Groomed areas become bumpy. And fatigue can make you less aware of hazards and other skiers. While it may be tempting to give it your all on your last run, it’s better to ease up and take your time.
Follow the Skier Code of Responsibility. People of all ages, abilities and ski levels can safely share the slopes when everyone follows the National Ski Area Association™ Responsibility Code. Key points include: Giving right of way to people ahead of (downhill from) you, staying off closed trails, and looking uphill for other skiers when merging.
Expedite access to help in an emergency. Being prepared can help you quickly reach ski patrol in an emergency. Most ski areas list their ski patrol phone number near the lifts. While you are waiting in the ski lift line, program it into your phone. If you or someone nearby experiences an injury, being able to call for help will save precious time. Instead of waiting for someone to ski down the mountain and ask for help, you can stay with the injured person and call for help. Calling also makes it easier to share important details so that ski patrol arrives with the appropriate people and equipment.
“Skiing is like any sport in that there’s a risk of injury. But many people hit the slopes without incident. Some skiers go decades without a single fall,” Gambino-Gorney says. Follow these insider tips and don't forget to wear a helmet so you can relish your next powder day and get the most out of the season.
Michelle Gambino-Gorney is a certified athletic trainer at the Henry Ford Kutcher Clinic for Concussion and Sports Neurology.