Extreme Sports Series: Understanding the Demands of Snow Skiing and Snowboarding part 1 – The Overview

 In Physical Performance

Snow Skiing


Snow skiing and snowboarding a very popular sports. The demographics of the participants is quite diverse. For some, the snow experience is a first and it starts with guided tours where skiing and snowboard packages are bought in a bundle offer. Most commonly, these snow experience trips include hiring all necessary gear plus an hour or so of basic induction. At that level, injury rates are usually low and of low severity given the controlled environment provided by the instructors.

Snow skiing and snowboarding a very popular sports. #performbetter @pogophysio Click To Tweet

On the opposite side of the spectrum are the professionals. Elite athletes who are very comfortable with their equipment and used to mountain hazards. In this group injuries are a result of the constant pursuit for better performance. Like in any other sports, by trying to push their own limits, accidents tend to be of greater significance and a rise is seen in the injury profile according severity.

However, the middle group, those who are not highly experienced but still confident enough to tackle the slopes by themselves, who are at the greater risk. Most in this category are ski or snowboard passionate and, being driven by their passion, they will make poor decisions.

Alpine skiing became an Olympic Sport in 1936 whilst snowboard, a much more recent addition, was only introduced in 1998. It is estimated that 60% of the people on slopes are skiers, snowboarders account for 30-35% and 5-10% are tobogganing or engaged in off-piste activities. Overall number of participants world-wide is around 200 million skiers and 70 million snowboarders being currently active.

Understanding the common modalities

Alpine ski

The main subdivisions of Alpine skiing are Downhill, Freestyle and Freeride skiing. The first can yet be subdivided into further 4 categories: slalom, giant slalom, super giant slalom and downhill racing. Freestyle skiing involves tricks and maneuvers which are performed on rails, ramps and terrain parks. Freeride participants challenge themselves navigating through wild terrain off-piste such as cliffs and natural ramps. For all the variables above, specific equipment is required.


Snowboarding has implemented skateboarding concepts and characteristics, such as half-pipes and quarters, into the snowy mountains. Like skiing, it has main three subdivisions: Freeride, Freestyle and Freecarve. Like in Alpine Skiing, variations with equipment are seen among the different styles. The first two modalities have the same characteristics as for skiing. Freecarve encompasses slalom type of racing, the least popular modality in snowboarding.

Understanding equipment differences


One the most important parts of the skiing equipment are the boot and binding mechanism. Uncomfortable boots can cause calf pain, circulatory problems and also affect the ability of the skier to balance if not transmitting forces well. Ski poles are used to assist with balance. Many different types of ski binding are available and they all have some safety system that releases the ski in certain circumstances, such as a fall. The bindings are also fitted with a braking system such that if the ski detaches from the boot, brake arms are activated. This function reduces the risk of a runaway ski sliding down the mountain causing injury. Materials and technology are chosen according to the one’s ability and pocket. Carving skis for instance will have wide tips and tails together with a narrow waist in order to allow for better carving control. Similarly, freestyle skis have a twin tip, which helps the rider in landing or moving backwards during tricks.


Snowboarders, on the other hand, are attached to a single board by non-releasable bindings. The snowboard stance is angled relative to the board and again variations do exist to accommodate for riders preferences as well as chosen modality. About 95% of snowboarders wear softer boots than Alpine skiers. These aim to combine functionality with comfort. Various binding systems are available including step-in plate bindings, strap, and flow designs. In general, snowboarders must release their back foot from its binding when using most lift systems. Contrary to Alpine Skiing, Snowboarding systems are not equipped with release functions or brakes. A common solution uses an extendable leash can be attached to the board in order to reduce this risk of a board sliding down the slope.

Common gear

Warm, layered outdoor clothing is necessary to regulate body temperature according to conditions. Outer layers need to be both windproof and waterproof as conditions can quickly change without much warning in most mountains. Hypothermia and frostbite a real treats and clothes must be able to protect the participant from both scenarios. Although resorts have ski patrol who are first aid trained, medical help in such a hostile environment is not always readily available.

Safety gear

An increase in the use of helmets by skiing and snowboard participants have increased. To some extent thanks to accidents occurred with celebrities such as actress Natasha Richardson in 2009, leading to her death and the case of F1 superstar Michael Schumacher in 2013, who was told to be only alive thanks to his helmet. Some data suggests that in America, about 60 % of all skiers and snowboarders now wear a helmet, and in Switzerland, the figure is almost 80%. One of the current good advantages of wearing a helmet apart from obvious safety comes out the possibilities it provides, such as integrated video cameras, music players etc. There is now a large body of evidence supporting the view that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of sustaining a head injury by up to 60 %. While the majority of this evidence to date concerns minor or moderate head injuries, recent American data has also shown a positive association between helmet use and a reduction in both skull fractures and serious intracranial injuries. Helmets are mandatory for competition but not compulsory to recreational participants. Although there is no present evidence to demonstrate that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of traumatic death on the slopes, common sense should prevail. It has been argued that helmet wearers may take more risks and ski/board faster than non-helmet wearers (the so-called risk compensation theory).

There is now a large body of evidence supporting the view that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of sustaining a head injury by up to 60 %. #performbetter @pogophysio Click To Tweet

Some form of eye protection is also recommended. The bright light reflecting on the white snow can significantly impair one’s ability to see what lies ahead. Both sunglasses or goggles are used depending on weather conditions.

Off-piste gear

For those adventuring in unknown terrain, further preparation is required. Apart from weather knowledge, mountaineering and survival skills are highly desired. Those should carry first aid kits, compass and at least some reliable location system, not over relying on phones or gadgets which can suddenly run out of battery or be easily damaged in an accident.

Next steps

In the next blog I will dive into injury rates and characteristics, as well as some management tips for those keen on an adventure. Ciao.

Bruno Rebello (APAM)

Bruno Rebello

Featured in the Top 50 Physical Therapy Blog


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