Why Most Novice Ski Injuries Happen in the Afternoon and How to Help Prevent Them

With a winter storm from the arctic bringing sub-zero temperatures and snow across the country, skiers are reveling in the good news. Cars are packed, cabins are reserved, and flights are booked. Visions of sugarplums and powdery slopes are dancing in eager heads. Excitement abounds.

Hopefully, these skiers prepared for the new season by starting a regimen of exercises at least two months ago! If they weren't getting in shape by September or October, they're already behind now, as adequate preparation time is required to condition and improve strength. The result? An increased risk of injury that could bring that joyous trip to a grinding halt.

Injuries on the ski slopes happen fairly frequently, and there are some common denominators. Let's take an average family (we'll call them the Johnsons) living in a busy city. It's a long drive or a short flight to their nearest ski resort. The excitement builds during the travel and the family knows they will only have 4-5 ski days this season, so they want to make the most of their time on the slopes. That first beautiful winter morning starts with cold, crisp air. The lift lines aren't too long and in minutes the Johnsons are cutting and slashing their way down the slopes. This repeats again and again providing exhilaration and an appreciation of a well-deserved vacation. By noon, the family can feel fatigue beginning in their legs.

There is a welcome lunch break so they trek over to the lodge. Hot coffee, warm cocoa, perhaps a little alcohol, and lunch and they are ready for an afternoon repeat of their fantastic morning experience. When the family stands up from the table, their legs feel stiff and fatigued as they would after a tough workout of leg presses, squats, leg extensions and leg curls at the gym.

As the next ski runs start, that euphoric adrenaline rush comes roaring back and everyone is having a great time, despite continuing fatigue in their legs, hips and back muscles. It was a long trip to arrive at the ski resort, after all, and this family intends to ski as much as possible for the duration of their vacation.

And that's when it happens. The family's patriarch makes a turn that his knee muscles are too tired to support. Suddenly, there is a popping sound and feeling as the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), medial collateral ligament (MCL) and the medial meniscus tear. Mr. Johnson crashes and rolls in pain. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common occasion for the Ski Patrol, especially after lunch, and such incidents peak around 3 p.m.

Other factors contributing to these after-lunch ski slope injuries are changing weather and slope conditions. The air temperature, which began crisp for the Johnsons, may have warmed during the day, impacting slopes that were skied many times. When it begins to cool again in the late afternoon, the snow hardens and there is less traction for skis. Such a surface combined with muscular fatigue is a disaster waiting to happen.

If you're about to head to the slopes yourselves and don't want to end up like the Johnsons, the best plan is to shorten your ski days. This may sound like a terrible idea on a ski vacation, but the possibility of a complex knee reconstruction is a far worse idea and will impact your life for years to come. If you plan to stop skiing each day in the early afternoon, you may avoid the muscle fatigue threshold and re-cooling of the snow that typically creates challenging conditions. This will also allow you to return to the slopes the next day and even the day after and have a wonderful ski vacation.

If you prepared properly by strengthening your legs, hips and back, and you have already skied this season, you should be able to enjoy longer days on the slopes. But, for the rest of us, consider making a simple adjustment to limit skiing hours if you want to stay healthy and have fun.