How to prevent back pain and injury when skiing or snowboarding

Now I know that you are all a well educated, body aware bunch when it comes to skiing related injures of the knee. But can you guess what area of the body that gets injured the most while skiing in the absence of any trauma? You guessed it  – our lower backs.

Every winter in mountain clinics all over the world patients present to us with a history pertaining to what I like to call ‘The Back Attack’ (not as scary as it sounds but rhymes really well).

Their stories tend to go something like this:

Physio: “Hello, how can I help you today?” 

Mr X or Ms Y: “Well, I was skiing yesterday and throughout the day my back just kept getting tighter and tighter.  Once I was off the hill having a beer or six, it seemed to feel better at the time but then when I woke up this morning I couldn’t get out of bed!”

Physio: “Ok, were there perhaps any other signs in the days prior that your back was a bit unhappy? 

“Now you mention it, it was a bit tight after the long flight here, as well as lifting the suitcases and all the layovers you know?  I also skied pretty hard on our first day yesterday – did five laps of  *insert favourite run here* and was pretty stiff this morning as a result.

Fortunately for Mr X or Ms Y, their physio is confident that their back is structurally sound. And with a few days of looking after themselves, light exercise and gentle mobility drills they should be back on the hill soon.

But anyone that has been through an acute episode of lower back pain knows how debilitating it can be. And one of our patient’s biggest frustrations with an acute episode of lower back pain is the lack of a ‘moment in time’.

It’s much easier to understand pain when we can pin it on an event, like hitting a tree. Much harder when it’s been the accumulation of a bunch of unaccustomed events that our bodies weren’t quite ready for.

Let’s take Mr X. He works sitting/standing at a desk as a consultant for around 60 hours per week. Loves to do marathons. Says running is his meditation and all anyone needs to do to stay fit. Oh, that and ski twice per year. Hard. Heli, backcountry, tight trees, you name it.

Ms Y is a nurse, and a bloody good one at that. She’s on her feet for 40 hours per week, which she says is a darn sight better than sitting at a desk. She also loves to do yoga and walk the dog. Oh and lets not forget her annual ski trip to Japan where she also skis hard. For a month.

Both Mr X and Ms Y have a great approach to exercise, but what they haven’t done is incorporate any movement patterns or exercises that mimic the weird and wonderful nature of downhill skiing.

Now here’s the real kicker; there’s nothing in their exercise regimes that specifically targets back and hip muscle endurance in hip flexion. This is vital if you are planning on doing five laps of your favourite run on your next trip and not hurt your back.

How to prevent back pain from skiing

In the interest of prevention over cure, here are a few pearls of wisdom to prevent this from happening to you on your next ski trip.

A run or a yoga class ride wont cut it when it comes to ski fitness. Every man, his dog, and his personal trainer these days has a “fit-2-ski” program. Jump online, chat to your PT, or talk to someone like us for one.  Give yourself at least two months to carry it out and look forward to seeing the results not only in toward preventing injury, but also improving performance.

Your warm up needs to include some mobility around your hips and middle back. A lot of the time is reduction in movement in these areas causes the back to placed under extra strain when skiing.

Here’s an example of a great ski warm up from a colleague/friend/miss snowit all contributor extraordinaire, Guillaume Tual.

Try not to get too carried away on your first day. Especially after a long-haul flight. I know I know this one is tough! But easing your way onto the next 10-28 days if skiing is one of the best ways to prevent injures.

Perhaps “First on. Last off” could be replaced with “Start gently. Build slowly”?

For more Fit2Ski goodness check out our Fit2Ski page.

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Physiotherapist and Manager of Altitude Thredbo and Furano, Kate still can't believe she gets to combine her profession and passion. She loves working with everyone from the beginner snowboarder to Australia's elite winter sport athletes, and has her mum to thank for that first ski trip to Mount Buller at age 8 of which she claimed "was better than Christmas!'

1 COMMENT

  1. When I started skiing at 50yrs. I could not walk for two days after day one lesson. Strain to both hamstrings next day and then day two knees and calf muscles. That’s the last it ever happened Youtube and fit for ski websites taught me core basics and stretching exercise prepare the body for snow sports. It also strengthens your body’s ability to take a tumble without the arms flying about panic.

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