Learn from Those Who Fell Before You

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, December 1999 Page: 1 | 2 | 3

Learn from Those Who Fell Before You

Think injuries are a necessary evil? According to Dr. William Sterett, an orthopedist at Vail's Steadman-Hawkins Clinic (and a former physician for the U.S. Ski Team) who has spent ten years treating the same winter sports mishaps, injuries are often avoidable. How? "Preparation and recognition," he says, adding that conditioning your muscles is a form of preventive medicine. But once a joint or muscle is hurt, ignoring it makes it much worse. Here's how to detect—and, perchance, avoid—the most common mishaps of four winter sports.

Nordic Skiiing/Ice Skating Partial tear in the medial collateral ligament Since this is an injury of improper technique, caused by a big surge of lateral pressure, practice controlled, even strides when skate-skiing and ice skating. You would do well to have a trainer analyze your stride for excessive lateral motion, which can gradually weaken the ligament. Pressing on the inner side of your knee is painful.
Alpine Skiing Torn anterior cruciate ligament Embracing your wipeouts helps. After analyzing hundreds of falls, skier-safety consulting group Vermont Safety Research found that many ACLs are torn during attempted recoveries mid-fall. And take breaks. Most of Sterett's patients had been skiing more than three hours without rest. ACL tears usually arrive with that fabled "pop." If you hear one during a fall, you lose. Immediate swelling is another clue. A knee that doesn't balloon until the next day, on the other hand, often has just damaged cartilage. Actually, that's good news.
Wrist sprains and fractures Wear wrist guards, for starters. Even better, tuck in your arms when you realize you're falling. And try to fall backward or on your side rather than forward. You feel dull, throbbing pain, after breaking a bad fall with your hands, that lasts more than three hours

Hold the Suds
Except for swing dancing, you'd be hard pressed to think of a physical activity that embraces drink as enthusiastically as skiing. Just take one look at the line at any mountaintop pub around lunchtime. Of course, "drinking while skiing is arguably even more dangerous than drinking while driving," says Sam Zakhari, a researcher for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "You may be skiing just as fast as you would drive, but you've got trees and the steeps." But given that "Don't drink and ski, or snowboard, or telemark" doesn't have the zippy ring of a national ad campaign tag line, the best deterrent might be knowing precisely how alcohol affects your turns.

ONE PINT (estimated blood alcohol content: 0.03)*
You think: A warm, tingling glow
You're really: Getting colder. Your skin's capillaries have dilated. The blood flow makes your limbs feel warmer, but because it's at the surface, your body is in fact losing heat faster.

TWO PINTS (estimated BAC: 0.06)
You think: I rip!
You're really: Getting clumsy. Your ability to handle multiple split-second tasks (such as planting a pole and turning in the bumps) and your reaction time have declined measurably.

THREE PINTS (estimated BAC: 0.09)
You think: Why don't they put a bathroom up here?
You're really: Drying out. The alcohol's diuretic effect is causing your bladder to fill. Worse, the energy spent on keeping it warm draws more heat from your body's core. And about those reflexes: If you were driving, you could be arrested in 16 states.

*For a 175-pound male. Note: Alcohol affects women's BACs about twice as strongly as it does men's.

Command Your Air Force
Most folks regard asthma as a chronic disorder that plagues a small, unfortunate percentage of the population. Not so fast. Any athlete can "catch" asthma during exercise, and you are particularly at risk in winter. According to asthma specialist Bill Silvers, who practices in Denver, Vail, and Aspen, the combination of dry air, high altitude, and hard exertion is the perfect milieu for asthma attacks. A notable Swedish study found that elite cross-country skiers who trained in subfreezing temperatures had asthma attacks four to eight times more often than the general population. Even if you don't train like an Olympian, you'd do well to recognize exercise-induced asthma (EIA) if you get it—it will likely grow increasingly worse over time, which means you'll be coughing more frequently all year round.

Unfortunately, EIA is difficult to diagnose. "If you feel chest-tightness and shortness of breath, you may have EIA," says Silvers. Be concerned if you get coughing fits—which are hard to distinguish from non-asthmatic, dry-throat coughs—within five minutes after you start exercising. Thankfully, there are countermeasures: Lengthen your usual warm-up time by ten minutes, and breathe through a scarf or mask to warm the air before it hits your lungs. While you're running, concentrate on inhaling slowly through your nose, making sure each breath makes it all the way down to your diaphragm. If your breathing becomes unduly labored, lower your pace or take a rest. It's not rocket science, but it'll keep you from having to take a hit off an inhaler before every hill.

Illustration: Ingo Fast

Kevin Foley can often be found snowshoeing near Charlotte, Vermont, regardless of the weather conditions.

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