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Yes, You Can Get Hurt Cross-Country Skiing

Dec 26, 2019 09:57AM ● By Editor

Photo: Val Thoermer/Shutterstock

By Steve Evans of - Posted: December 26, 2019

Cross-country skiing, aka nordic skiing, is basically an aerobics workout on snow. It’s also a fun way to enjoy beautiful winter landscapes at almost any age. But even though it seems safer than downhill skiing — and it is in fact safer, thanks in part to slower speeds and the fact that chair lifts aren't involved — it's still entirely possible to get hurt. So it pays to take some precautions.

“Skier’s thumb” is the most common upper-limb injury in cross-country skiing, according to Mike Langran, MD, who runs the website. “This occurs when a skier falls onto an outstretched hand with the pole still in their grasp,” he says. As Langran puts it, the pole acts as a lever and pulls on the thumb's ulnar collateral ligament. Prevent skier's thumb by holding the poles loosely in your hands rather than keeping your hands in the straps, says Langran.

In many cases, skier’s thumb requires surgery, says Chris Bean, MD, a sports medicine doctor in Vermont. “So if you know you are about to crash,” he says, “relax, let go of the poles and go with the flow.”

The most common lower-limb injury involves ligament tears caused by a sharp twist of the knees or ankles. This usually happens when a ski edge or tip catches on something. Torn ligaments or a badly sprained ankle will make it difficult if not impossible to get off the trail without assistance, Langran says, underscoring the importance of not skiing alone.

Here are some tips for enjoying a cross-country ski outing without incident, courtesy of Langran, Bean and the Cross Country Ski Areas Association.

Before you hit the trail

Keep your skis tuned. That means ensuring the skis have sharp edges, a flat base and a good wax job. Tuned skis perform better. You should tune the skis at least once a year, and up to weekly if you ski a lot. Get advice from a qualified ski shop about how to best tune them.

Pack wax. Apply the wax only to the smooth surface of the ski base.

Carry your skis safely and comfortably. Rip-and-stick fasteners can hold your skis together while you’re walking from your vehicle to the trail.

Consider buying climbing skins. These are removable traction enhancers for the skis that allow you to walk uphill on snow if you do a lot of uphill cross-country. You can wax the skins if they ice up. (Of course, remove them before you go downhill.)

Choose trails that match your ability. In addition, be aware of blizzard or avalanche conditions before heading out into the backcountry. The National Park Service offers news and safety information on cross-country skiing conditions at U.S. parks.

Say where you're going. Even if you're skiing in a group, let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return.

Pack sufficient water. Staying hydrated helps keep you warm and alert.

Carry an emergency kit in your daypack. Many camping stores sell small, compact and light-weight emergency kits that include a sleeping bag, poncho, headlamp, folding stove, flashlight and waterproof/windproof matches and more.

Dress in layers. And don't forget the sunscreen. Snow reflects the sun. 

On the trail

Learn trail etiquette. You’ll be less likely to collide with another skier, Langran says. Good etiquette includes staying to the right on two-way trails, according to Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage, and letting others know you are approaching them from behind and plan to pass them by calling out "trail" or "on your left." If you fall, get off the trail as quickly as you can.

Ski in groups of at least three. If a skier in your party is hurt, someone can stay with them while another person goes for help.

Practice your technique. Find a gentle slope where you can practice climbing and descending. 

Stay in control. “To slow your descent when skiing in groomed tracks, carefully lift one ski out and set it at an angle to the track,” Langran says. “Put pressure on the inside edge of that ski, in a "half snowplow" formation. Don’t press too hard, though, or you may catch your ski and stop too fast.” It’s those sudden ski stops that can cause leg twists, leading to knee and ankle injuries, he says. 

Go at a pace you can manage. Don't try to keep up with more experienced skiers. 

Remember that downhill skiers always have the right-of-way. If you are climbing a slope, move to the far right.

Rest when you need to. Injuries tend to happen to tired skiers. 

Steve Evans, MA, is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years experience in daily news, investigative, health and business journalism. Among other jobs, he has served as managing editor of the Central Virginia Newspaper Group, as a senior writer for SNL Financial and as a staff writer for The Progress Index and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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