Preparing for ski season, an orthopedist’s view

Nov. 22, 2019
An alpine skier goes down a sunny ski slope in this photo.
Proper conditioning and gear can set you up for a great day of skiing or snowboarding. Photo by Getty Images.

The mountains are covered in snow, the ski passes have arrived, and it’s nearly time to hit the slopes.

To make sure your ski season is as long as possible, check out these tips for avoiding injury from Dr. Michael Sisk, an orthopedic surgeon in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.

Focus on fitness

“The issues we see with injuries on the mountain can sometimes be related to a lack of fitness,” Sisk said.

Take one classic skiing injury: tearing the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, which helps stabilize the knee.

“At 10 o’clock in the morning during ski season, the emergency department in the hospital is basically a ghost town,” Sisk said. “By 4 o’clock, it’s ACL happy hour. People are skiing the same terrain, they’re on their same gear, but they get tired. They make a turn and their quad says, ‘Not doing it.’ That’s all it takes: that split second of weakness can cause an injury.”

Give special focus to strengthening your quadriceps, which Sisk calls the “protectors of the knee.”

“The biggest weapon in preventing a knee injury are your quads,” Sisk said.

This is a photo of Dr. Michael Sisk.
Dr. Michael Sisk is an orthopedic surgeon in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.

Follow the example of professional skiers and snowboarders, and also spend time strengthening your core.

“All the fundamentals of skiing – form, performance, avoidance of injury – start and finish with having a core that’s strong,” Sisk said.

Strengthen your skills

Working with an instructor can be a game-changer for both skiers and snowboarders, and can help you avoid injury.

“I can’t tell you how many broken wrists and broken collarbones we see almost on a daily basis in people learning to snowboard,” Sisk said. “Snowboarding can be a brutal sport. There’s a steep, steep learning curve. We have a lot of very qualified instructors on the mountain and just a day or two of instruction can mean avoiding a trip to the emergency department.”

Update your gear

“Skiing with bindings that aren’t adjusted properly for your ability and your weight, or boots that aren’t fitting right, can lead to trouble,” Sisk said.

Sisk recommends working with a local ski shop to make sure your gear is right for you.

“Skiing and snowboarding gear, just like the technology we use in knee replacements and trauma medicine, has advanced in a huge way in just the last few years,” Sisk said. “Upgrading to newer gear can help you ski and ride better, and you may avoid an injury. It’s not always cheap, but neither is a trip to the ER.”

Be a ‘fair weather’ skier

Choose your days wisely if you want the best chance of staying injury-free. “When we’ve got a fresh dump of light snow, the ER is pretty quiet,” Sisk said. “But when the snow is like concrete, or it’s super icy and hard and cold, that’s when we see injuries.”

Protect yourself from collisions

Always wear a helmet, and be sure to ski within your ability levels.

“Skier collisions can result in terrible injuries,” Sisk said. “You need to understand that the downhill skier has the right of way, always. Rocketing down Vagabond at 80 miles per hour with hundreds of people on the slope – you know where that’s headed.”

The best part? Being prepared helps you not only avoid injury, but also to enjoy your days on the slope even more.

“You’ll definitely have more fun on the mountain if you go up there prepared and in shape,” Sisk said. “And that’s an awesome thing.”


This article first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

About the author

Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office writing and analyzing data. She blogs about writing and science at