Conditioning is key to ski season preparation and avoiding injury |

Conditioning is key to ski season preparation and avoiding injury

A skier drops a cliff in Copper Mountain Resort's Copper Bowl last season. Proper conditioning and not pushing it too hard early can be key to a healthy ski season and avoiding injury.
Tripp Fay / Copper Mountain |

With ski season just around the corner, now is the time to start thinking about conditioning. Early season-ending injuries are all too common, and often avoidable. We spoke with Vail Summit Orthopedics surgeon and U.S. Ski Team physician Dr. Erik Dorf to gain some quick insights on how to best prepare for the coming season.

He offered a few key suggestions that can both lower a person’s risk of injury and better prepare him or her to start the year.

“The main thing is transition time,” he said, referring to the time when the weather starts to turn, when people might be less inclined get out and exercise. “People have a tendency to take a month and not do a whole lot. You definitely put yourself at risk of losing some of the gains from summer.”

It’s also worth noting that even a full summer of cycling or mountain biking isn’t enough to carry over to ski season and could potentially contribute to injury.

“People have a tendency to take a month and not do a whole lot. You definitely put yourself at risk of losing some of the gains from summer.”
Dr. Erik Dorf

“It’s a whole different set of muscle groups,” Dorf said. “You’ll have a lot of strength at the end of the cycling season, but you lack a lot of the agility stuff.”

He called biking a “one-dimensional” exercise, as opposed to skiing and snowboarding, both of which rely heavily on lateral movement. The danger with cycling is the potential for overdeveloped quads and underdeveloped hamstrings. That can lead to an imbalance in the leg muscles which can put added strain on the ACL and other knee ligaments — making them especially susceptible to early-season injury.

So what can be done? He suggested a combination of plyometric or fast-paced jumping exercises, agility drills and core strengthening to help reduce risk of injury and have muscles ready to go when the snow comes.

“You don’t have to do a lot of it,” Dorf said of transitional conditioning. “Just a couple times a week for four to six weeks can make a huge difference.”

And a number of the exercises can be accomplished outdoors through activities while the weather’s still reasonable rather than in the confines of a gym.

First and foremost, he said, trail runners are actually at an advantage over cyclists, because of the amount of the lateral movement and agility required to navigate rocky singletrack by foot.

If running’s not your thing, Dorf suggested brisk hikes up steeper inclines. That can really help build the hamstrings and lead to more stability in the knees. A few trips up Mount Royal or Quandary Peak would be good places to start.


Focusing on lateral movement with activities like sideways shuffles during a run or lateral jumping drills will help add to lateral movement stability. Jumping rope can also help prepare a skier or snowboarder for the quick flexion and extension that their tendons are put through on the slopes.

“Tendon preparation is one of the most important things you can do,” Dorf said. Early-season ligament damage is a common occurrence when skiers and riders haven’t had a chance to properly adapt to the new season’s motions.

When the snow does come, early-season Alpine touring is a good choice because it builds strength in the hamstrings.

Traditional core exercises like crunches, leg lifts and planks are always a good idea in the interim, with emphasis on “dynamic core strengthening” or incorporating a variety of movements, both forward and lateral. Medicine ball drills are another option.

“Those midsection muscles are having to adapt,” Dorf said. That kind of unique muscle memory does not carry over from year to year.

But perhaps most important is not pushing it too hard too early. Always ease into ski season, Dorf said. Overuse injuries often are the result of jumping into the season too fast. The tendons are much stronger later in the season once they’ve had time to adapt.

Pushing it too hard on early-season conditions can be risky.

“The worst thing in the world is to have your season ruined on the first day,” Dorf said.

So remember, it’s a long winter, don’t rush it.

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