Simple answer, yes, you can ski with arthritis. It can still be enjoyable if we understand how to appropriately prepare our joints! There are important things to take into account including balance and confidence on one leg, muscle endurance, and keeping your joints warm. With these three things, you will be able to enjoy your adventure on the mountain with friends and family.
Living with arthritis doesn’t mean you have to give up on your adventures. I have met lots of ambitious people who have been dealing with joint pain and stiffness who work very hard to stay out on the mountain! Doing the right things can keep you on the mountain too, even without paying the price afterwards. It is important you read each carefully as these three things are equally as important. There are some instances skiing may not be a good idea and those are at the end of the article. Let’s get started.
3 tips on how to ski with arthritis
1. Improve your strength and balance on one leg
When you ski, you need your legs to have symmetrical strength to keep you balanced. You also need power from your leg muscles (glutes, quads, calves) to keep you in a stable position. These muscles are all incredibly important to keep you safe, especially at higher speeds. If we have asymmetrical strength, meaning some of our muscles are working more than others or one leg is weaker than the other, you could have uneven loads going through your joints. This can typically lead to more pain. So what movements should you master if you want to ski with arthritis? Here are two movements to focus on.
Note: If your knee or hip feels like it is going to give way or feels unstable, skiing will not be safe for you. You have to rebuild strength and confidence before attempting.
- Master the supported single leg squat, at least 10 reps on each side without pushing off using your arms. This exercise challenges the muscles that are important for skiing. Ideally, you want to be able to complete this exercise with your other leg out straight and toe pointed up. If you are having difficulty, practice with your leg slightly in front of the leg you are standing up with. Continue to increase the distance between your feet. The goal is to complete 10 reps on each side with control, confidence, and without significant pain.
- Master the single leg dumbbell pass through balance exercise. This exercise challenges your single leg balance. When your body is trying to balance yourself, it counts on all the muscles in your legs to work together. When we see instability or pain, your muscles likely are not working together how they should. Some muscles may be compensating for others, altering where the load is going through your joints. With appropriate balance, you are more likely to have stronger, more stable joints especially during high level activities. The goal is to be able to complete this exercise for at least 60 seconds each side with a 5-10lb dumbbell. When you ski with arthritis, you are relying on your balance to be able to react to different movements, such as side to side. This exercise can help to train that.
These two exercises will help give you a good idea of your single leg strength and balance. Practice will help you to continue to get better. Keep in mind, these are the basics and if you are trying to perform at a higher level or looking to do a high volume of skiing- you will likely need a further strength program. If you are having pain or difficulty with either exercise, there are modifications we can make to help you work up to it! In both situations, I have some options for you.
2. Work on muscle endurance
Skiing challenges not only your muscle power but also how long your muscles can perform for. This is called muscle endurance. If our muscle endurance is lacking, this means our muscles fatigue quickly. When our muscles fatigue quickly, we change our mechanics which can lead to parts of our joint taking more stress. For example, if your quad (thigh muscles) or glutes fatigue easily, you start relying on muscles in your low back or in your hips to help compensate. This can lead to more pain and a higher risk for muscle strains especially with arthritis.
Do you feel out of breath walking up and down the stairs or walking up and down hills? If so, that may be an indication to work on your endurance. What should you do to make sure your endurance is up to snuff?
- Before ski season, or at the start of the season, start to add in cardio workouts to your routine. Some examples include:
- Walking hills: walking on straight ground is okay but doesn’t challenge the muscles we need for skiing. When you walk hills whether on cement or hiking you challenge the leg muscles that are vital to your performance skiing. It also makes the walk more intense, meaning your heart rate increases and feels more challenging than walking on flat ground. The goal is to try to walk for longer than 30 minutes to begin to challenge your muscle endurance. If you are just starting, try to find gradual hills and work your way up to steeper hills. If you have knee osteoarthritis, you can use nordic walking poles to help decrease the pressure on your knees as you go down the hill.
- Cycling: Cycling can be a great way to challenge your endurance while being nice to your knees! One of the key things though is to make sure you are going at the right intensity. For example, going for a ride around the neighborhood at a leisurely pace may not be enough to increase your endurance. A couple of options could be challenge yourself at a faster pace for 20-45 seconds then decrease to a comfortable pace and continue these intervals for 20+ minutes. You could also ride for a shorter time but try to sustain an increased pace. You can use an indoor trainer, stationary bike, or a recumbent bike, as well as outdoor options.
3. Keep your joints warm
This section includes both, keeping your joints physically and figuratively warm. In colder weather, arthritis pain tends to increase (learn why here). Our joints like to be kept warm and col temperatures can lead to more stiffnes and pain, especially if you are trying to do outdoor sports like ski with arthritis.
We have to first keep our joints physically warm to help keep them lubricated and decrease stiffness. You can do this with compression tights under snow pants (men’s and women’s), neoprene knee sleeves, or compression gloves if your hands tend to get stiff. Using compression can be helpful to increase and maintain joint temperature. Compression also can give you more confidence as the compression acts like a hug to your joints.
Next, we have to keep our joints figuratively warm as well. This includes warming up prior to heading out to the mountain. Completing a quick warm up can improve mobility and increase blood flow which helps to decrease both pain and stiffness. If we head out without a warm up, you may notice more severe pain, earlier fatigue, and more stiffness especially on your first couple of runs. Moving through simple movements for 5-10 minutes can be helpful to make your skiing experience more enjoyable. With arthritis, you may notice you have to warm up a little longer than your friends or family. That is normal. Some ideas of simple workouts can be found here:
- Lower body warm up
- Seated exercises for knee stiffness
- Exercises for low back stiffness
- Exercises for hip stiffness
When skiing with arthritis may not be a good idea:
If you can relate to any of these following points, you may want to reconsider heading out to the mountain. This does not mean you can never ski again but if we don’t have the appropriate strength and endurance you may experience more severe pain and stiffness both during and after. When heading out, you want to make sure the activity will not only be safe but that it will also be enjoyable! Look into these before heading out:
- If you have severe joint pain at least 50-75% of the day (6+/10)
- If you knee or hip feels unstable, including feeling like it is going to give out or give way at least once per month as this could be very dangerous when skiing down a mountain
- If you have had a history of fall in the past 12 months related to your arthritis pain
- If you have difficulty standing on one leg for longer than 15 seconds as this could indicate your legs are not stable enough to support yourself at this time.
- If you have difficulty doing a squat without support. Without the appropriate muscle support, our knee joints will be taking a majority of the force which can lead to increased pain.
Special considerations to ski successfully with arthritis
When starting off the season, you want to make sure you gradually get back into skiing. We also want to be careful about overdoing it too early. This can leave you frustrated and discouraged. Understand that you may need more rest breaks now and that’s okay! The harder you work on keeping your legs strong, the more you will be able to handle. You just have to make sure you are doing the right things to get you there.
After a day of skiing, you may need to take the next day off depending on how you feel. You want to make sure that when you get back, you are trying to stay moving and avoiding sitting for long periods of time because stiffness will begin to set in. Take it slow, take care of your body, give yourself some time to recover, and you will be able to keep your adventure alive!
Dr. Alyssa Kuhn is a physical therapist and arthritis specialist with Keep the Adventure Alive. She has helped arthritis sufferers all over the country finally break free from their pain without surgery or more pills. She has lots of adventures she loves like hiking, biking, and skiing. She wants you to have adventures too! There is such a lack of positive and optimistic information out there about arthritis and Dr. Alyssa is on a mission to change that once and for all.
Disclaimer: This post is for general informational purposes only. It should not be used to self-diagnose and it is not a substitute for a medical exam, cure, treatment, diagnosis, and prescription or recommendation. It does not create a doctor-patient relationship between Dr. Kuhn and you. You should not make any change in your health regimen or diet before first consulting a physician and obtaining a medical exam, diagnosis, and recommendation. Move Well Age Well, LLC and Dr. Alyssa Kuhn, PT, DPT are not liable or responsible for any advice, course of treatment, diagnosis or any conclusions drawn, services or product you obtain through this video or site.