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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:

Skiing
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.

Snowboarding
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.

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.”

Being at peak fitness

The fear of making an idiot out of yourself is the biggest turn-off for most skiers. By making sure you’re at your peak fitness, you can make sure you make the most out of your skiing holiday, instead of finding that you are too physically exhausted to get out of bed four days into your trip. Even if you’re a skiing beginner, doing the same manoeuvres over and over again for six or seven hours a day at high altitude for an entire week can be exhausting. The only way to make sure you have the energy – both physical and mental – to fully enjoy the experience is to get in shape long before you hit the slopes.

You don’t have to be at professional athlete standard before you go on your holiday, but the fitter your body is, the less the chance of injury. For this, make sure you include stamina and endurance training, strength and flexibility and ski-specific exercises into your workout routine before you go.

  • The most important points that your body needs to be strong at include quad and gluteal muscles, as these are the main stability and power muscles used during skiing. These can be trained with exercises such as lunges, split squats, step ups, deep squats and cycling.

 

  • The lateral hip muscles also require strengthening before you go on your trip. There are no sports that rely on the external hip rotation movement as much as skiing does so the importance of training these muscles cannot be underestimated. Lie on your side with your hips and knees in a skiing position. Keep your ankles together and your hips steady as you lift your top knee, you should feel the muscle working in the outside of your bum. Repeat 30 times and then practice the same movement standing so you can use the benefits when skiing.

 

  • Your body will work super efficiently if you build up your stamina to cardiovascular exercise. Carry out circuit or interval training to help burn fat, and make you lighter on the slopes, but also to improve the length of time you can endure the sport for. Try going for a 20 or 25 minute run without stopping – if you find yourself out of breath, make sure that you slow down but don’t stop in order to keep you stamina up. If running isn’t your thing, try fast walking for an hour, or cycling on varying difficulty levels for 30 minutes

 

  • If you have a disability you can also adapt a fitness routine into your lifestyle for before you hit the slopes. For those with mobility issues, common sports-related injuries such as shoulder pain and tendonitis can happen if you over-do it. Whilst shoulder injuries are common in certain sports such as basketball and baseball, they are also common to the everyday wheelchair user so extra caution should be exercised when undertaking a fitness regime.
    Wheelchair users should perform stretches to strengthen their body whilst focusing on the upper back and shoulders, as when these are strong, the shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands will show greater power, endurance and efficiency as well as reducing any chance of injury – this will help your control and accuracy when navigating the adaptive equipment.

 

Choosing the right piste

One of the best things about skiing and snowboarding is that you can alter the level of ability with experience and/or training, which makes the sports so unique and interesting.

When you first arrive at your resort, you’ll be eager to start right away and see how many of the runs you can tackle. However, bear in mind that a slow advancement of the slopes is the best way to explore safely. Trying to tackle a run which is too steep or too difficult for you when you aren’t ready or experienced enough to handle it can be dangerous.

Ski runs are categorised into different colours based on their difficulty. In both Europe and America, green is used to designate learner slopes which have a lesser gradient and are appropriate for those who are just starting out. These are also good to practice techniques if you’re not yet confident enough for a steeper slope. Make sure you move on from the green slopes pretty quickly though, it can get boring and not challenging yourself with the next level can leave you not developing your skill. Blue slopes are the next level, and are usually suitable for beginners and lower intermediates. Red slopes only exist in Europe and are for the upper intermediates, but the American equivalent is the black run (which can be confusing for European skiers as the black runs in Europe mean ‘expert’ level). The equivalent of a European black run is marked as a double black run in America, and orange and yellow runs are for the more advanced and expert level skiers.

Runs aren’t always marked on their gradient, but also the variety of challenges and difficulties that skiers have to face whilst on the slope. Mogul fields occur regularly on some slopes. Moguls are a series of bumps formed on a trail from the skiers pushing the snow into mounds or piles as they execute short-radius turns. Navigating through moguls is the mark of a skiers control and can be really tricky. Narrower runs also require you to employ different skills, with slopes that pass through dense forests offer a different perspective and experience to those that are located on mountain faces, which are more exposed.

Weather conditions also play a huge part in the experience of a run or slope. The difficulty of a run can be altered depending on the weather. Slopes that are very exposed are likely to become icy and more dangerous when the winds pick up and blow the powder snow away. Alternatively, forest trails tend to be more sheltered and will therefore be a lot softer as they are guarded from the strong winds.

Booking your Winter Sports holiday

There are a huge range of resorts and piste types to choose from whilst you’re thinking ahead and planning your winter sports holiday. Ideally, you need to be able to decide what type of winter sports holiday you need and whether the resorts you’re looking at will suit you.

Where?
European ski resorts are famed for their beautiful chalets and great atmosphere, and with several of them spread across the sprawling and highly-rated Alps mountain range, you have plenty to choose from – over 41 countries with multiple ski resorts in each. Europe obviously also offers the convenience and comfort of being closer to home which can be better if you have a younger family, as travelling with children for longer periods of time, like a trip to America, can be difficult as they become tired and bored quickly.

American ski resorts are admired worldwide for their world-class skiing and snowboarding quality. Top instructors can teach you if you’re inexperienced and there is a huge variety of runs no matter what your ability. With over 427 resorts in the US alone, it can be well worth the extra expense for a visit you’re not likely to forget.

How much?
Knowing how much you’re willing to spend on your holiday, how much you can afford and how much you can get for your money are also really important things to think about whilst browsing for a winter sports holiday.

All ski resorts know they can vary their prices throughout the year dependent on peak, off-peak and quality snow seasons. Almost all of them will hike up their prices during peak seasons, so you can save a lot of money by booking around these times. Pay attention to the weather predictions as if you’re booking at the bottom of off-peak season, you’ll want to make sure the snow is still good, or even still there!

Booking as a group is a great way to get discounted prices, and it’s usually a case of the more the merrier! Accommodation is particularly cheap when you book as a group, as you can usually book a larger chalet and it’ll cost less per head than separate smaller chalets or individual hotel rooms. Self-catering is a good option if you want to keep the cost down too.

Looking at chalets and packages outside of the usual European and American resort clusters is a good idea too. Places such as Eastern Europe; Bulgaria, Poland and Slovakia all offer cheaper and alternative destinations for a good and usually affordable price.

What’s your skill level?
Going on a winter sports holiday and hitting the slopes feeling unsteady and very uneasy can be really overwhelming, and you won’t be able to learn properly on an advanced or even intermediate slope as it’s important you grasp the basics of what you’re doing, but also that you make sure you’re doing it safely. Look for resorts with nursery or beginner slopes, you may even be able to join the schools there and learn within a larger group, or alternatively hire out a private instructor.

If you’ve done this all before, then just make sure the resorts you’re looking at have enough variety of slopes and that there are a few more slopes that are challenging enough for you to conquer. A sense of achievement really adds to the holiday.

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