Fitness, lessons keep older skiers, riders on the slopes

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At their best, alpine skiing, telemarking and snowboarding are exhilarating, freeing and fun sports. At their worst, they are, well, painful.

Particularly for skiers and snowboarders 50 or older, a bad injury can be enough to end their season or even cause them to give up their sports for good.

Maintaining good overall fitness, however, as well as brushing up on skills and staying on top of new equipment can help keep the sports fresh and injury-free for these skiers and riders for years to come, local skiing and fitness experts say.

"That's the best - when you see 70- and 80-year-olds out there with their families," said Belinda Brownell, a part-time physical therapist who works with many 50-plus clients at her fitness studio, Forever Fit of Steamboat Springs.

Common injuries among older skiers tend to be bone fractures, rather than torn ligaments, because bone mass decreases as with age. Falls commonly occur when fatigue sets in, slowing skiers' coordination, agility and balance, said Brownell, who also is a part-time ski coach.

It also doesn't help that retirees, in particular, tend to experience a lull in fitness prior to ski season as they head to relaxing locales. They come back thinking they are fit from summer activities, but the high-altitude and short-bursts of energy involved in skiing prove different.

In addition to strength training, which increases lean muscle mass to support bones, Brownell suggested skiers challenge themselves during aerobic activities by working on balance-, quickness- and agility-related moves when they become tired.

On a typical day, middle-aged skiers and snowboarders make up roughly 70 percent of students at Steamboat's adult ski and snowboard school, and a little more than half of participants typically are new to the sports, said Bill McCawley, adult ski school supervisor.

Perhaps accustomed to mellower vacations, these first-timers usually are shocked by the physical demands of skiing and snowboarding. While they may be in good aerobic shape, they often lack muscle strength, he said.

The physical aspects of the sports usually aren't "deal breakers" for novice skiers, but establishing good overall strength provides them a good basis for learning skiing and snowboarding skills.

McCawley recommended pilates as the best overall strength training because it lengthens muscles that tend to get short and tight with age while strengthening the core, which helps control and align the body while skiing.

David Moulton, a 40-year ski veteran and former instructor, agreed that a strong core is often neglected.

"If you don't have a strong core, you just get bounced all over the place. Other (body parts) pick up the slack, and that's when you get hurt," said Moulton, who also is a member of the Over the Hill Gang, a local ski club for skiers 50 and older.

Skiers also tend to overlook the importance of lessons. Newer skiers often quit lessons when they get to a low-intermediate level then fail to improve and sometimes even backslide into beginner mistakes, he said.

While recreational skiing lacks the direct competition that can sometimes motivate people to take lessons in sports such as tennis or golf, lessons are just as important in snow sports. Even advanced skiers can hone their skills, learn about new equipment and identify and correct bad habits.

"Someone always has a new trick to teach about how to get down the mountain more efficiently," said Moulton, who plans to take a few lessons himself this winter.

Steamboat's ski and snowboard school offers group, semi-private and one-on-one lessons for all levels of skiers and riders as well as a variety of multi-day clinics and seminars, including gender-specific and telemark workshops.

Some ski schools also offer clinics or lessons specifically for the older-than-50 crowd. The Bumps for Boomers program at Aspen, for example, aims to help skiers get off groomed runs by learning to ski powder and black-diamond moguls.

Various sources help skiers and snowboarders get fit, including snow sports publications, which often have regular fitness sections. Local gyms and fitness studios also offer ski conditioning classes - though most have already started - as well as fitness trainers who can get participants started in the right direction.

Tamera Manzanares can be reached at tammarie74@yahoo.com.

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