If you have experience either skiing or snowboarding, you are probably aware that both sports are commonly associated with knee injuries such as anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), lateral collateral ligament (LCL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL).
If you’re contemplating taking up a snow sport and are worried about minimizing the impact on your knees, it’s important to consider which one is easier on the knees.
As a general trend, snowboarding is much easier on the knees than skiing. Because snowboarders are attached to a single board and keep their knees mostly flexed, they experience less torque movement in their lower legs. Skiing involves a lot more twisting and torqueing from the knees and requires using the muscles all around the knees to control two separate skis.
As a result, skiers are more likely than snowboarders to injure their knees and get ACL, LCL and MCL tears on the mountain.
This isn’t to say snowboarding doesn’t have its own risks. If you are battling with knee weakness or a past injury, you should understanding the impacts each sport has on the knees and how to minimize the risk of further injury. Let’s take a closer look.
Skiing knee injuries
Ski injuries are associated with both the gear a skier makes use of as well as the physical act of the sport.
Because skiers are connected to two separate components, they have four ski edges and are more likely to fall by catching an edge. Often, a ski will fully rotate or completely stop while the rest of the skier’s body continues down the mountain.
Depending on one’s binding settings, skis are often not released in time and a fall can risk a torn ligament. ACL tears are largely caused by tightly set bindings which fail to release when a skier has an accident.
Basically, skis act as big levers which can force the body in two different directions, resulting in a severe twisting force placed on the knees.
Interestingly enough, this twisting force is more dangerous in low-speed accidents than in high-speed crashes. This is because bindings are more likely to release in a high-speed impact than a slow one.
Low-speed accidents often occur in slushy or powder conditions. Catching an edge in powder can put a huge amount of strain on the knees as one’s skis are less likely to be released.
For this reason, it is advised to lower the DIN settings on your bindings before you head out on a powder day.
Ski boots are a lot harder than snowboarding boots. However, while they are great for protecting a skier’s ankles, they don’t safeguard the knees.
Mogul skiing, which involves repetitive movement between flex and extension to absorb the bumps, is especially tough on the knees.
While catching an edge in moguls is always a possibility, mogul skiers are typically affected by gradual wear and tear injuries due to the consistent force on their knees.
Knee and lower-leg injuries are the most common injuries for the average skier, again due to twisting movements that causing inflammation in the lower-legs.
Another familiar injury in skiing is “Skiers thumb” which is caused by ski poles pushing against one’s thumbs during high-impact accidents.
Snowboarding knee injuries
If you have never stood on a board, you might feel insecure having your feet strapped sideways into a single snowboard unit. However, snowboarding has some advantages when it comes to knees.
As a boarder’s legs are fixed into one position, the possibility of overextending and pivoting your knees is unlikely.
Common snowboarding knee injuries occur in the fleeting moments when a boarder unstraps the binding of their back foot, either to push themselves through a flat area or when getting on and off a ski lift.
Icy conditions and stressful crowds are a bad combination, and many novice boarders see the end of their session at the top exit of a ski lift. An out of control board connected to only one foot can lead to all sorts of torn ligaments.
Another typical snowboarding knee injury occurs when riding through ski moguls. Depending on the competency of the rider, speeding through a mogul run balancing between toe and heel edge can result in a rather nasty crash.
Riding switch can also lead to a knee injury if you get your downward angle wrong and dig your nose. A fair share of meniscus’s have been torn by competent boarders riding switch in the park.
The park opens up even more opportunity for injured knees. Besides the fact that the snow is always very compact in a park, ramps, rails and boxes are very agile toys and call for snowboarders to completely change the way they ride.
When sliding over a rail or a box, boarders need to equal out their toe and heel edge and maintain speed on the base of their board. For many, this balance doesn’t come easy and even competent groomer riders can end up catching an edge and sliding off the rail and onto their knees or coccyx.
It’s no surprise that while injury is a possibility at any stage of one’s skiing or snowboarding career, the most pain is experienced at the beginner stage. While we know skiing can place more torque on the knees, beginner skiers are less likely to fall straight onto their kneecaps. Instead, they often fall to one side.
On the other hand, learning how to snowboard is often associated with bruised coccyx’s, wrists and knees. Other snowboarding injuries include damaging the ankles, head, spine, arms and shoulders and are usually caused by high-impact crashes.
Some disagree completely and believe that because skiing is a much more natural stance, the sideways action of snowboarding puts more strain on the knees than skiing. There is no doubt that a boarder of any type will always have one dominant leg, and this could be cause for injury.
Snowboarding or skiing with a bad knee
As mentioned, snowboarding does put a lot less stress on the knees. If you had to choose whether to board or ski with a bad knee, snowboarding would probably be your better option due to the lesser probably of twisting.
Of course, there is a higher chance of an injured knee giving in on the mountain, as is there always a risk of slipping on ice or being hit from behind by another rider. It is recommended that those with knee ligament injuries consider reconstructive surgery before hitting the slopes.
Assuming you aren’t a snowboard racer or park competitor, an average snowboarder may be able to ride for 5 days straight without needing a day’s break. On the other hand, a skier will be hungry for a day off after 2 solid days on the mountain.
The following are a few important tips for a skier or snowboarder with existing knee issues:
- Stay fit. Maintaining flexibility by warming up your joints and ligaments is always advised, especially for those with tendon and ligament injuries that will otherwise seize up on the slopes. Physical therapists can provide you with specific exercises and stretches to strengthen the right muscles around an injured knee.
- Make use of a well-fitted orthopaedic knee brace during the season. Braces which include a patella pad for the knee are great for snowboarders who often need to kneel on hardpack snow while waiting for their crew.
- You should generally avoid parks, jumps, half-pipes, moguls and intense powder runs if you have a defective knee. These scenarios will just increase the risk of reinstating your injury.
- Generally speaking, take it easy when you can and make sure your crew knows about your impairment.
Minimizing risks of knee injuries (ski or snowboard)
The most straightforward way to minimize the risk of a knee injury is to choose the type of terrain, snow and time of day you ride carefully. Skiing or boarding on a softpack groomer during the day will be a lot less risky than riding in an icy park at night.
Equally as important, your level of expertise and your overall strength and stamina play a big role in minimizing your risk of injury. You should be extra careful at the beginning of a season, until you have built up your fitness.
If you are worried about an injury, don’t overexert yourself and always stick to terrain which you are comfortable on.
The equipment you use can also make a difference. As a skier, you should make sure your bindings are not set too tight. While rental shops might set the bindings according to your weight, this can often be too stiff and not allow for a quick release in the case of a crash.
Set your binding tension from the average 1.5 to about a 2 DIN setting for an easier release should you need.
Another precautionary measure is to ski with your knees close together following the Austrian Arlberg method. Short carver skis, for example, only ride well if your legs are far apart from one other. On these skis, your legs are on their own separate journeys and the risk of one knee going in the opposite direction to another is high.
The closer your feet stay together, the more equally the load of your body is distributed.
Some skiers prone to knee injuries use a knee binding for extra support. It adds a lateral release to the standard toe and heel release system of a binding and secures the ACL.
Skiers often switch to snowboarding because of persisting knee injuries. As discussed, while snowboarding has a lower risk of knee injuries, boarding has an increased risk of upper body issues due to both high-impact incidences as well as long term wear and tear.
Snowboarders who want to minimize the risk of a knee injury should also consider lining their bindings up at a more neutral angle at the beginning of a season. Once you are fit enough, your joints will be able to tolerate a more externally rotated binding set-up.
Protecting yourself from an injury really depends on how hard and how often you ride, what your equipment looks like and how confident you are on the slopes. As they say, no pain, no gain!
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