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Beginner’s Guide to Winter Sports

Entering the world of winter sports and all of its bountiful trimmings (the equipment, the traditions, the techniques and the thrills) can be thoroughly overwhelming and exciting for someone who hasn’t done it before. If you’re about to enter that world and you’re completely new to the concept of controlling things attached to your feet in order to move sturdily down a mountain face at some speed, read our handy guide below:

Skiers strap skis (which are long and have curved tips) to each booted foot and use them, along with ski poles, to navigate themselves down the snow-covered slopes.

Learning to ski is a gradual process – many beginners find that learning the basics makes them resemble a new-born deer, stumbling round, unsure how to walk – however, the process is pretty easy to pick up, and with enough practice the sport becomes extremely enjoyable.

To start: Picking one foot up at a time, with your skis on, and turning them to the right, and then to the left, to get familiar with the feeling and which muscles to use. This principle doesn’t change once you’re on the slopes – you point your skis where you want to go primarily by turning your feet. Keep your feet shoulder width apart, with your toes pointing inwards and your heels apart, so your skis make a triangle/V-shape (like a slice of pizza). This position (the snow plough) gives you a solid base even on the move. Bend your ankles, knees and waist slightly, keep your arms out wide and feel your weight move evenly on the balls of your feet and heels. Begin!

To stop: Typically, novice skiers use a technique called ‘the snowplough’ to turn and stop by pointing one end of the both skis inward. More experienced skiers use advanced methods such as ‘carving’ where the skier turns their knees and feet, keeping their body and hips facing forward, in order to stop.

Learning how to snowboard is similar to surfing, just in a generally safer and colder environment. However, it isn’t particularly frustrating, once you get the hang on how to control yourself once you’re on the board, snowboarding becomes more fun really quickly as you can start to conquer the many slopes your resort has to offer.

To start: So you’ve got your gear, a good night’s sleep and the anticipation of being able to slide at a fast pace down the mountain face with beautiful surrounding is building.

Next step is strapping your lead foot (whichever you feel is more dominant and would serve better steering at the front of the board) in place. Leave your back foot free for now, and put on your snowboard leash to keep your snowboard from escaping down a hill when you step out of it. Sit down with your board perpendicular to the slope. This makes your board act as an extra brake to keep you from sliding.

Put your rear foot into it’s binding and make sure both foot bindings are snug and secure (if you can move your foot whilst it’s in the binding, or pull your heel up from the base, it’s too loose)

Once you’re strapped in, you’re ready to board! Stand up and turn your snowboard so that the lead end of the board is pointing down the hill and apply some weight to your lead foot to encourage the board to move forward- gravity should take care of the rest.

The right kind of weight you apply to your lead foot should feel like you’re pretending to squash a bug under the ball of your foot. Keep your knees slightly bent and your back straight in order to maintain balance as you gain speed.

To stop: Turn your snowboard so that you’re perpendicular to the slope of the mountain/ Be sure nobody is bearing down on your position from further up the slope or that you’re in the way – you could cause a collision. Lean back into the slope of the hill as far as you can without falling over. This will put almost your entire weight onto one edge of the board, forcing the friction to stop you gradually but effectively. As you lean into the hill, lean back on your rear foot, releasing all pressure or weight from your lead one. This further reduces the surface area of the board. The more you lean back, the faster you’ll stop (but you do run the risk of falling over entirely)

How to Avoid Winter Sports Injury

By all means get out and enjoy the slopes whilst you’re away on holiday, but it’s also equally important to make sure you’re safe and avoid any injuries as medical expenses build up, especially in countries across Europe where the cost of medical attention is only partially subsidised by your EHIC card. Without decent travel insurance, you can end up paying thousands for something you thought was worth a lot less stress and money.

With over 270million people taking part in winter sports holidays every year, it’s likely that injuries are going to happen. Taking part in a colder climate that we’re not used to and putting our body through extra physical strain can also lead to unexpected twists, sprains and breaks, and often most injuries occur after lunch and towards the end of the day as people try to get in one more run despite their fatigue or discomfort.

Most winter sport injuries can be prevented if participants stay in good physical condition, gradually increase their level of difficulty, stay alert and stop when they are tired or feel in pain.

Below is our guide to avoiding winter sports injuries, from the head injuries which can cause harm to the little things:

  • HEAD – most snow tourism experts recommend skiers and snowboarders to wear the appropriate equipment, including a fitted helmet. At the elite end of the runs, the advanced and expert levels require helmets to be compulsory, and as head injuries make up 5% of all winter sports injuries, it’s well worth the investment.
  • WRISTS – beginners especially should watch out for their wrists and use wrist guards in order to reduce the chances of wrist injury. As beginners tend to fall more, they place more stress and strain on their wrists as they fall onto outstretched hands.
  • THUMB – It might only sound little but Skiers thumb is a serious malady. When someone falls, the wrist and fingers are vulnerable and more likely to break or become sprained. If a fall happens whilst the skier is grabbing a ski pole, Skier’s thumb is more likely to happen. The thumb’s main ligament (the muscle on the curved bit between your thumb and index finger which helps you pinch, grab and grip things) can rip and if not fixed with emergency surgery, can lead to long-term disability. The trick to avoiding this comes with remembering to let go of the ski poles as you’re falling.
  • BACK – Damaging your back can be risky business and it could take months to recover or fully heal. Many people give themselves whiplash when the fall and their head fall forward, then whips back. Compression is another risky injury, where the vertebrae in the back are pushed into each other. Don’t be reckless on the slopes, avoid jumps of over 10ft, and most importantly, if you think someone has injured their back, don’t move them until appropriate medical help has arrived.
  • LEGS – Leg injury rates have improved dramatically due to improves sportswear, bindings and equipment release mechanisms, but to make sure you have little risk of breaking or tearing your leg ligament, try not to make jumps from huge heights and land awkwardly.
  • WARM UP – As with any sport, you reduce the chances of you breaking, spraining or twisting something if you warm up correctly. Muscles, tendons, joints and ligaments which are cold are more susceptible to injury.
  • DON’T DRINK TOO MUCH – Drinking at lunch time is a popular part of the winter sport holiday culture, and a few too many could lead to a collision on the slopes. Make sure you can still stay in control and aware of things happening around you as you enjoy a glass with lunch.
  • WEAR THE RIGHT KIT – By dressing appropriately and wearing the right gear, you’re preparing your body for the sport as much as you can. Protective gear like helmet, goggles, padding and gloves are essential in keeping you safe and unhurt. Make sure that before you hit the slopes, all equipment such as ski or snowboard bindings are in good working condition.
  • DON’T GO IT ALONE – Stay with someone, a partner or friend or even as part of a group as much as possible. Make sure someone knows where you are or where you will be if they are not participating in the same activity.
  • BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS – Collisions with other skiers or snowboarders is a common incident for those enjoying the piste to get injured. Make sure you keep an eye on what everyone else is doing whilst you enjoy yourself.

Mike Langran, a Scottish doctor who specialises in piste safety and related issues gives this advice:

“Take your time to gain experience on the slopes. Get professional instruction but don’t be tempted to try too much too soon, especially if encouraged by more experienced friends.

“Read and follow the FIS rules. Use the best equipment you can, wear a helmet whenever possible and, if you’re a snowboarder, get yourself a pair of good quality wrist guards.”

Piste Safety

Winter sports are great fun and relatively safe, with less injuries being caused each year than more ordinary sports such as tennis or running. As long as you’re sensible, you shouldn’t find yourself at risk of an accident or injury.

However, every year hundreds of people who participate in winter sports such as skiing, skating or snowboarding find themselves in hospital with injuries. Some are minor and some are serious and require urgent medical attention leading to hospitalisation, permanent disability or even repatriation, so travel insurance is a must.

Below are some tips we’ve gathered to help you stay safe whether you’re on, or off-piste.

#1: Make sure you take out the right winter sports travel insurance.

  • Check the policy suits you and your needs before you invest.
  • Keep your travel insurance medical emergency helpline number and policy number to hand at all times.

#2: Make sure either your equipment, or the gear you hire – is in good condition

  • For skiing, make sure the skis are the right length for you.
  • For snowboarding, make sure your boots are comfortable and fit snugly.
  • Make sure the bindings are fitted correctly.
  • If you’re ice skating, make sure your blades are sharp.
  • Don’t borrow skiing equipment – it should fit your height, weight and skill level.

#3: Wear protective headgear

  • Make wearing protective headgear or a helmet mandatory amongst your travelling group, especially if they include kids.

#4: Prepare for the cold climate with layered clothes underneath waterproof and windproof jackets, trousers or similar.

  • Make sure you keep as warm as you can, even if it means adding extra layers.
  • Add a hat, gloves and scarf – although they’re small they can make a huge difference.

#5: Don’t just assume that you can pick up the sport having never tried it before.

  • Have lessons if you’ve never done it before and if you haven’t been on the piste for a while, a few lessons will refresh your memory and polish up your skills.

#6: Wear goggles or polarised sunglasses

  • Because the sun is at such a low point, you can often find yourself unable to see which can be dangerous.
  • If you wear prescription glasses, wear goggles that fit comfortably over them. Alternatively, consider prescription goggles – pricey but they’re worth it.

#7: Take regular breaks

  • When you’re having so much fun, it can be easy to forget to eat or re-hydrate. Take regular snack breaks to stop wearing yourself out.
  • Make sure you reapply sunscreen to any exposed skin on your breaks and remember that the higher you are, the more potent the UV rays from the sun.

#8: Ski/board with a friend

  • Keeping an eye out for each other on the slopes can prove to be safer than skiing or boarding alone. If you disappear or fall, they’ll be first to your aid and can call for help.
  • Going down those slopes at such a pace can be similar to driving – the better your observation, the safer you’ll be.

#9: Know your limits

  • Keep to your skill level on the runs. Green is beginner, blue is intermediate, red is intermediate/advanced and black is advanced.
  • NEVER go off-piste unless you’re advised or authorised to do so by the resort themselves and even then, go with a guide who knows the mountain. Make sure you obey all warning signs, especially during avalanche season.

#10: Carry important documentation and a fully-charged mobile phone with you

  • Including your travel insurance emergency medical helpline number, your policy number and the number of any friends or family in the resort with you so you can call for help if you need it.

#11: Don’t drink and ski or board

  • A glass of wine or beer with a meal is fine, but excess alcohol will slow your reaction time and drastically affect your observation and balance.

#12: Obey the International Ski Federation Rules:

    The following is a summary of the ISF rules, which are now held to be binding in law:

  • RESPECT – Do not endanger others.
  • CONTROL – Adapt the manner and speed of your skiing to your and to the general conditions on the mountain/ ability
  • ROUTE – The skier/snowboarder in front has priority – leave enough space.
  • OVERTAKING – Leave plenty of space when overtaking a slower skier/snowboarder.
  • STARTING OUT – Always look in every direction before starting.
  • STOPPING – Stop only at the edge of the piste or where you can be seen easily.
  • CLIMBING – Always keep to the side of the piste.
  • SIGNS – Obey all signs and markings – they are provided for your safety.
  • ASSISTANCE – In case of accidents, provide help or alert the rescue services.
  • IDENTIFICATION – All those involved in an accident, including witnesses, should exchange names and addresses.
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