Winter Sports Safety: How to Prevent Injuries While Enjoying Outdoor Activities

A sports medicine specialist offers safety tips for kids and adults heading outside for winter sports and activities.

Person on a snow board practicing winter sports safety
Person on a snow board practicing winter sports safety

From skiing down snow-packed slopes to strapping on ice skates, the winter season offers a variety of fun, family-friendly activities for people at all skill levels. But winter sports also come with unique safety risks due to bulky equipment, slippery surfaces, and frigid environments.

“Staying warm, staying loose, staying conditioned, and knowing your limits are all great ways to reduce the risk of injury while enjoying winter sports,” says Dr. Elan Goldwaser, a pediatric and adult sports medicine physician with NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Here, Dr. Goldwaser, who is also the team physician for U.S. Ski & Snowboard, shares with Health Matters tips to help kids and adults stay safe while enjoying winter sports and activities.

Bundle Up

With temperatures often well below freezing, it’s important to protect yourself against frostbite. Dr. Goldwaser recommends dressing in layers – a thermal base layer of moisture-wicking elastic material to keep you warm and dry, a middle layer of thicker cotton or polyester to keep the heat in, and an outer shell layer to shield you from the wind and cold air. “Remember, while you can always remove layers if it gets warmer, you can’t add them on,” he says. “So dress warmly and adjust your layers as necessary.”

Dr. Elan Goldwaser

Dr. Elan Goldwaser

Stretch Before and After

When you’re in cold weather, your muscles can tighten up, so the best way to combat that is by staying loose, explains Dr. Goldwaser. “The most common injuries we see in winter sports are spraining the ligaments and straining the muscles. So touching your toes, leaning side to side, all of these simple stretches can help loosen up your muscles and help you avoid these sprains and strains.”

The best thing you can do, he says, is stretch right before you put on your ice skates, skis, snowboard, or hockey pads. Also, make sure to stretch after the activity to loosen up muscles tightened by the cold.

Strengthen your Hips, Ankles and Feet

Staying conditioned is very important, says Dr. Goldwaser. “With a strong core and good hip strength, you’re at a lower risk of falling, especially in sports like ice skating or skiing, which require a lot of balance,” he says. He recommends doing exercises to strengthen your core and glute muscles, such as hamstring stretches and variations of planking. Yoga, he adds, is excellent for balance.

When wearing ice skates or ski/snowboard boots, ankle and foot strength are also critical, particularly if you have a history of rolling or spraining your ankles. Using resistance bands to pull your foot in all directions can help build stability and strength in the ankle. Dr. Goldwaser also suggests wearing a lace-up ankle brace or even extra-thick socks while you’re skating or skiing to prevent rolling the ankle.

A great exercise to strengthen your foot is the “towel scrunch.” This consists of putting a towel flat on the floor under your foot. While sitting in a chair, scrunch the towel with your toes and hold it for a second or two. “Doing this exercise over several weeks will really improve your foot muscle strength and balance,” he says.

Fall Safely

Learning how to fall on hard, slippery surfaces is important for injury prevention, says Dr. Goldwaser. For instance, don’t place your arms out in front of you to stop yourself if you’re falling. That can lead to fractures in the bones of your wrist and arm. “When you fall on an outstretched arm with your elbows locked, you load up stress on the elbow joint pretty heavily. With this heavier force going straight through, you put not only your wrist, but your elbow at risk of fracture,” explains Dr. Goldwaser. Instead, he says, try to fall on your shoulder, knees, or butt if you are snowboarding or on your side if you are skiing so your body can more safely absorb the impact.

It’s also important to be aware of your surroundings when you fall. Ice skate blades are sharp, notes Dr. Goldwaser, so if you fall while skating, do not leave your limbs or hands splayed on the ice, because you risk having someone skate over them. If you fall while skiing or snow tubing, try to hurry off to the side of the slope, and look uphill to make sure there’s no one coming directly at you.

Don’t Ignore Pain

While it’s easy to end up with bumps and bruises from falling, sometimes what you think is just a bruise could be something worse: a stress fracture. “Stress fractures, or microfractures on your bones, happen because you do too much activity too quickly and your bone is not structurally ready to handle the workload that you’re putting it through,” says Dr. Goldwaser. A bruise typically happens from banging a body part into something, whereas a stress fracture is a gradual, deep ache directly on a bone that sharply hurts when pressed on and may or may not have a small bruise associated with it.

A stress fracture in your foot can start to feel better if you take off your skates or skis, leading many people to try to “play through the pain,” he says, but continuing the activity can lead to worse outcomes. “If a person continues pushing, the bone can’t handle the amount of stress, and all those little microfractures add up into a large break in the bone.”

The best thing to do for a stress fracture is to reduce activity to the point where you don’t feel pain, and rest the bone, says Dr. Goldwaser. If you do, typically this type of injury will resolve itself in about six weeks.

Wear Equipment Correctly

Wear protective equipment like a helmet if you’re skiing or snowboarding and wrist guards if you’re snowboarding, says Dr. Goldwaser. But it’s also important to know how to wear your gear. Ice skates or ski boots, for instance, should be a little larger than your regular shoes to give your toes room to move around. “When we plant our feet and propel forward, our toes spread down into the shoe and grip,” he explains. With a skate or boot a little bigger than your normal shoe size, “your toes will have the appropriate room to wiggle around. Otherwise, the bones start to crunch, and that’s when injuries start to happen.”

If you have flat feet and don’t wear the right support to hold up your arch, the ankle can roll inward, putting your ankle, knee, hip, and back into a biomechanical disadvantage. This instability from not having the appropriate alignment can start to strain your bones and muscles, putting you at risk for more injury, he says. Kids and adults with flat feet can purchase over-the-counter inserts to provide extra arch support in their gear.

Know Your Limits

Whether you’re a novice or experienced in the sport, you should know your limits. “Stop when you’re tired,” says Dr. Goldwaser. “Don’t try to push yourself if you’re not ready for it because that’s when you can really hurt yourself.”

Elan Goldwaser, D.O., is a sports medicine physician with NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and an assistant professor of sports medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. He cares for athletes of all levels and ages, with a specialty focus on office-based interventions that accelerate healing. Dr. Goldwaser serves as the team physician for U.S. Ski & Snowboard, head team physician for Fordham University Athletics, physician for the New York City FC soccer team, and ringside physician for the New York State Athletic Commission.

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