How To Keep Skiing Pain-Free Into Middle Age and Beyond
Tips from lifelong skiers and experts to get you out on the snow year after year
Editor’s note: We want our readers to pursue their athletic passions for as long as possible. This story is part of a series that aims to help make that happen. Rashelle Brown's earlier pieces were on running and cycling and she plans to share insights on how to keep on golfing and even weight-lifting.
Whether they're swooshing down steep slopes or gliding silently along woodland trails, skiers are a dedicated bunch. To those who have never skied, the thought of donning bulky layers to head out into freezing temperatures might not sound like fun, but the skiers we talked to don't mind it a bit. If you're among this hearty group, we've got tips on how to keep skiing safely for decades to come.
One Name, Two Sports
Downhill and cross-country (XC) skiing share a common name because their essential gear also does — you need skis, boots and poles for each. But experienced skiers from both camps know that's pretty much where the similarities end.
Our primary focus for this article is XC skiing, because it tends to be gentler on both the body and the budget. J. D. Downing, president of the World Masters Cross-Country Ski Association (WMA), told us that he did a fair amount of downhill skiing from childhood through college, but, "more recently the cost and risk of injury would make it unlikely that I do much downhill ever again."
However, the other skiers we talked to said that, while they primarily focus on XC skiing now, they still enjoy zooming downhill from time to time.
Skiing Past 50? You Betcha!
Skiing is incredibly popular among adults over 50. The WMA, comprised of around 20 to 30 member nations, organizes Masters World Cup events and promotes the sport worldwide for skiers over 30.
"Given the choice of anything, if there's snow, I'd choose to ski."
There are 14 age groups, in five-year brackets, from ages 30 to 90-plus, and they have skiers racing competitively in every bracket.
What's more, Downing said of membership, "there's definitely a bell curve, and we've seen the peak of that curve move upward in age over the past decade." In 2019, the age group with the most skiers was 65 to 69.
Apart from those serious 50-plus skiers who like to compete, many more people simply ski for the health benefits and the joy it brings.
A Lifelong Passion
A pair of friends from the Twin Cities suburbs have been joyfully meeting up to ski for decades.
"We love everything we do, but skiing is probably our favorite," Karen Casper, 57, of Roseville, Minn. said. "When it's forty below, we're the only people that can get each other to go out."
Casper's partner in crime is Kerry Bogenreif, 61, of Lino Lakes, Minn., who said: "Given the choice of anything, if there's snow, I'd choose to ski." Both women have been skiing since their early teens and find the sport perfect for those seeking outdoor adventure in the dead of winter.
I interviewed the two together, in a Zoom video chat, and their faces lit up as they described their many adventures "bushwhacking through the woods." They've even done a winter trip in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area, skiing from island to island across the frozen lakes that people normally canoe in summer months.
This adventurous spirit seems to be a common trait among skiers. When there's snow on the ground and he's not busy with WMA duties, Downing, 55, skis near his hometown, Bend, Ore. XC skiing has been his sport for over 45 years, and he says, "When I want to, I have the experience to ski into many backcountry areas."
How to Keep Skiing, Injury-Free
Even if you only stick to groomed trails, XC skiing is a great workout with a low risk for injury. That's one reason why it's so popular among adults over 50.
"It's a workout that encompasses the whole body, and it's really safe for athletes of all ages," Zuzana Rogers, 49, of Anchorage, Alaska, said. Rogers is a physical therapist for the U.S. National XC ski team and the clinical director at Runner's Edge Alaska, a clinic focused on outdoor activities for people of all ages.
"I've never been injured as the result of skiing," said Bogenreif. Casper agreed, with one caveat: "Maybe just a tweak or some sore muscles when I've gone out and done too much."
Rogers said that's fairly common. "Injuries happen when there's too much, too soon, usually at the beginning of the season." With XC skiers, she said, "We see a lot of tendon overuse injuries in the lower leg, and maybe an occasional strain in the lower back."
"There's a misconception among masters skiers. We tend to decrease our lifting weights, hoping to be more careful in our workouts, but we should be doing the opposite."
Downhill skiers are also prone to overuse injuries, primarily in the knees, hips and lower back. She said that the best way to prevent these types of injuries — for both groups — is to make sure your body is ready to absorb the load you place on it. That means doing shorter XC outings and sticking to gentler downhill runs early in the season.
Another key to staying safe and injury-free is skiing terrain your body can handle. Downing said that the WMA has different courses for different age brackets: The skiers in their 80s and 90s aren't doing the same distance and grades as those in their 30s or 40s.
He's also mindful of this in his own skiing. "For me, right about age fifty, that was kind of the dividing line. I would say, maybe not act your age, but take appropriate levels of caution."
He noted that as we age, we don't tolerate extreme cold as well as when we were younger, so it's also important to pay attention to the weather. Downing added: "Not that you're not going to still do the big things, but you need to prepare for that. Think about safety equipment and have a buddy along."
Training Tips For 50+ Skiers
When asked how skiers can prepare their bodies for the season, Rogers recommended strength training.
"There's a misconception among masters skiers," she said. "We tend to decrease our lifting weights, hoping to be more careful in our workouts, but we should be doing the opposite. We have to be able to maintain our muscle mass in order to prevent injuries. My advice is, get back to the gym and lift heavier weights."
For Casper and Bogenreif, year-round strength training is just one part of their very active lives. In the summer they pole hike (in which you use trekking poles while hiking) paddle and run, and Casper says she regularly works on flexibility and mobility as well.
"These days, when I'm not stretching and maintaining flexibility, I can really feel myself tightening up," says Casper.
Bogenreif, who coaches the Champlin Park High School XC team in Champlin, Minn., does a lot of core strengthening, adding: "For good skiing or good anything, the core is the key factor."
Casper agreed, and noted, "In the winter, though, there's nothing like specificity of training. That means more skiing!"
To help with that, she recommends keeping an old pair of unwaxed skis on hand for bushwhacking through the trees and skate-skiing (a type of XC skiing where you make a skating motion versus moving in a straight line) on crusty, icy snow.
The pair's best piece of advice, though, was to find a skiing buddy and keep getting out there. "We don't get together for coffee," Bogenreif said. "Meeting indoors is pretty uncommon for us."