Wether it’s from weak legs or skiing on steep terrain above your ability, knee injuries are unfortunately a common injury for skiers. In this guide I’m going to compile all my research on knees and skiing so you can get actionable advice to stay injury free this winter.
Knee injuries typically occur if your body goes one way while your knee goes the other. This can happen from over or under rotation through a parallel turn or changing snow conditions that speed up or slow down your skis relative to your momentum.
Common Knee Injuries
Knee injuries occur when the knee is twisted or knocked outside of its normal range of movement. This can tear, rupture or damage ligaments, tendons, cartilage or bones.
The femur (thighbone) sits at the top of the knee joint while the tibia sites at the bottom. In between site the patella (kneecap) which covers the joint area.
Cartilage tissues cushion the bones and allow the ligaments to slide easily as the muscle contract and relax. The ligaments hold the bones together and stabilize them in place. Tendons attach to muscle while ligaments move with the bones (source).
High impact trauma directly on the knee can cause fractured knee caps, but this is not very common unless there is an underlying osteoporosis or extremely hard impact on hard snow or ice.
Modern advances in ski bindings help to prevent broken bones and thankfully these are much rarer occurrences.
The introduction of releasable bindings has decreased the rate of leg fractures by 90% in the past 30 years
Move Forward, Physical Therapy
2. ACL injury
The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) runs down the front of the knee and stabilises the knee joint. During a hard fall or sharp unexpected change in motion, the ACL can be damaged on a scale from 1-3 (sprain to tear).
3. MCL injury
The medial collateral ligament (MCL) is another of the four major knee ligaments which stabilises it from outward turning forces (source). In skiing, the MCL injury is more common than the ACL, but it is usually faster to heal (further reading). While surgery may be required in extreme cases, physical therapy can repair most ligament injuries.
How to identify a knee injury?
ACL or MCL injuries can typically be identified if you:
- have a severe pain
- a swollen knee
- a stiff joint
- or hear a popping sound
How to avoid knee injuries while skiing
#1: Ski within your limits
The best way to avoid knee injuries while skiing is to stay on trails that match your level of skiing. If your a new skier stick to baby or slopes marked with a green symbol. If you can stop and make wedged turns and you want to try skiing on slightly steeper terrain then you can move up to blue colored runs.
Only once you can parallel turn and hockey stop on each side at will should you attempt to ski red runs (Europe) or black diamond runs (North America). If you’re interested I wrote a whole guide to trail colors here.
Skiing on steeper terrain forces you to make sharper turns at higher speeds which increases the likelihood of a knee injury. Stick to shallower slopes and smooth rounded S turns unless your skiing technique and strength is up to it.
Ski length is another factor. While beginners find it easier to ski on shorter skis (up to your chin) than longer ski (forehead or higher) – shorter skis also cause sharper turns that generate more stress when used at speed. Learn more about ski length and its effect here.
#2: Know the conditions
If a particular spot is icy it can make one ski slide much faster than another during a turn, which can put your knee out of place if it is unexpected and at the wrong moment.
Being aware of your surrounding is crucial to preventing injury and the more you can anticipate the conditions, the faster you can adapt your skiing technique or movement to cope.
#3: Listen to your body
Some days we’re just not as strong – mentally and physically – as other days when we’re full of energy. If you feel a low dip or energy or muscle strength then stop and rest or take is easy. I’m often prone to over exerting myself and trying to maximize my skiing time – but I’m getting better at learning to slow down and take a break when I’m tired.
Drink plenty of water (always carry a water bottle in your backpack) and stay hydrated. Plenty of calories will keep you warm and give enough energy to fuel your ski muscles.
#4: Fall properly
While you’ll have little time to react during a fall, everything you can do to ‘fall properly’ will lessen the likelihood of an injury. Tuck in your chin and try to stay loose rather than stiffen up. Further reading: How to fall on skis.
#5: Pre-season exercise
The stronger and fitter we are the more we will get out of skiing. Not only will a fitter body help us improve our skiing it will also help prevent injury. Focus on strength training to build muscle strength and cardio to improve stamina.
Great strength exercises:
- Squat jumps
- Wall squats
- Side planks
Full exercise instruction here.
Pre-season training is great and so is taking 5-10 minutes to stretch out your entire body before you hit the first run of the day. Stretching is often overlooked, but it will really benefit you.
Skiing and snowboarding both use a wide range of movements that are sporadic, sudden, and potentially stressful for muscles and ligaments. Make this stretching routine a priority will significantly reduce the likelihood of soreness and injury.
Here are some great stretches to do before you ski or snowboard:
- Transverse Oblique Twist
- Straight Leg Hang
- 3 Way Hamstring / Back Reaches
- Deep Glute Pull
- Hip Flexor / Quadriceps
- Chest Stretch
#7: Avoid alcohol
While having a mid-day tipple might seem like a great idea, alcohol decreases cognition, reaction speed and makes you more prone to injury. The effects of alcohol are also stronger at altitude making skiing and drinking a risky combination. Save your drinking for apres-ski.
#8: Use safe gear
Always check your bindings and skis for signs of damage before setting off for the day. Make sure you ski boots firmly click in and out of their bindings and your DIN release value is set correctly.
Your unique release value determines how easily your skis will detach from your boots during a fall, and so it is extremely important to prevent injury. The precise value depends on your weight and skill level. The full guide is here: How to put your skis on.
What to do if you injure your knee?
First thing first is to stop, asses the pain and either ask a fellow skier to call ski patrol for you or slowly and carefully make your way down the mountain – only if your legs can bear the weight and pain.
If you’re alone, move to the side of the slope and put your skis into an ‘X’ shape which will signal to passing ski patrol that you need assistance and also mark your spot clearly for passing skiers to avoid hitting you.
Once you’re off the piste, seek medical attention. A doctor will be able to determine the seriousness of your injury and provide care before it gets worse.
How are knee injuries treated?
Depending on the seriousness of the injury, the treatments range from rest to surgery. Physical therapy and exercising the surrounding leg with specific exercise is also part of the healing process. The main ways knee injuries heal are with:
- Physical therapy
Is Skiing Dangerous?
Compared with other high action sports or even everyday activities like driving – skiing is not inherently dangerous. While it has its risks – if you ski within your limits and on trails that match your ability with the right gear – your chances of injury are very low.
If you’re interested – I wrote a whole article on the topic of skiing and the dangers.
No one wants to cut an expensive ski trip short with one wrong move. Ski injuries are far and few between but if you train before your trip, stretch each day and follow the tips above you’ll cut your risk of knee injury.
Enjoy the fresh mountain air and stay safe.