MedUni Vienna: Recreational skiing – an ideal family sport, but don’t underestimate the dangers

This Friday, the Olympic Winter Games will open in Sochi. Just two days later, the first Alpine medals – the Men’s Downhill – will be contested in the Olympic Park. Inspired by these top athletes, many amateur skiers will take to the mountains in the second week of the school holidays. “And many of them will try to emulate the racers, endangering themselves and others,” warns Piero Lercher, specialist in sports medicine at the MedUni Vienna.

According to Lercher, one factor that leads to the over-confidence seen today, is a combination of, on the one hand the “over-protection“ provided by helmets and back protectors – an opinion not up for discussion – and the quality of the equipment on the other: “Modern kit, and the skis in particular, is so good that it enables speeds that push more than just amateur skiers to their physical limits.” Consequently, the carving technique, for example, has resulted in a marked increase in serious knee injuries among women.

Lercher also considers that this top equipment also tempts people to take to the slopes unprepared. “In the past, inexperienced skiers would soon end up flat on the snow because it was very hard to balance. Modern equipment and comfortable lifts are now encouraging even beginners and those who are out of practice to venture ever further up the mountains – but then they have to get down too.” He advises skiers to prepare by taking up ski gymnastics for several weeks beforehand.

And he also warns against getting too stressed over a day’s skiing: “Skiing is an expensive sport but that doesn’t mean you should ski non-stop all day in an attempt to get your money’s worth on your lift pass. You should take a rest before it hurts,“ says Lercher, lecturer and academic course director of the Masters in “Public Health” at the MedUni Vienna. In his opinion, skiing is an ideal family sport, and should be a “shared pleasure” in “movement and nature”. “It’s not worth drilling and hustling the kids through a day’s skiing – that just takes all the fun out of it. Don’t worry about taking a break at a ski hut now and then to enjoy the mountain air. But avoid drinking alcohol – that has no place on the slope!“

Skiing recommended as a healthy physical activity
Speaking of children: the number of ski courses on offer in Austrian schools has halved since 1979. “This trend is dangerous in a variety of ways,“ says Lercher. “Children are no longer learning to ski at an early age and in a playful way, we are losing talent for top-class sport and city children in particular are losing any connection with the mountains and their fantastic atmosphere.” Piero Lercher was also involved in drawing up the Fund for a Healthy Austria’s so-called “exercise guidelines” – these include controlled skiing. Similarly, the Austrian Society for Sports and Preventive Medicine (ÖGSMP) recommends skiing as a “physical activity with health benefits”.

If you want a day’s skiing to benefit your health and not land you up in hospital, you need to know the general rules of the slopes, says the sports medicine specialist. “Many people just have no idea and end up recklessly putting themselves and others in danger. Recreational skiing is both fun and good for you!”

The key rules of the slope (according to the International Ski Federation FIS):

  • Respect: Do not endanger others skiers and snowboarders.  
  • Be in control of the manner and speed of your skiing.
  • Choice of route: Do not endanger the skier/snowboarder in front.
  • Overtaking: Leave plenty of space when overtaking a slower skier/snowboarder.
  • Entering, starting and moving upwards: Look up and down the mountain to ensure that you are not endangering yourself or others.  
  • Stopping: Only stop at the edge of the slope or where you can easily be seen unless it is an emergency.
  • Climbing: When climbing up or down on foot, always keep to the side of the piste.
  • Obey all signs and markings.
  • In case of accidents all skiers/snowboarders should provide help and alert the rescue service.
  • Identification: All those involved in an accident, including witnesses, should exchange names and addresses.

Link to the rules of conduct on the Österreichischen Skiverband (ÖSV) website with video explanations:

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