I just returned from skiing in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, after not skiing for more than a decade. At the age of 59, I wondered whether I might be too old to ski, or at least ski the way I did when I was younger.
It turns out I was fine, but older people have a lot to consider before downhill skiing. And not all of it bad. About 18 percent of skiers in 2016 were over the age of 55, according to Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, up from 17 percent in the previous year.
“Ten or 15 years ago, we did some research, and we anticipated this huge exit of baby boomers that was going to materially impact the total number of skiers,” Berry said. “Our predictive analysis proved to be wrong.”
I told Berry, 69, how surprised I was at how well I skied after a lapse of 10 years, and with minimal soreness. Even though I thought it might have been because I exercise regularly, he pointed out another possible reason. “Skiing is so much easier now,” he said.
There are more seniors on the slopes than ever because of better ski equipment, better grooming on the mountains and faster chairlifts, he said. Today’s skis are shorter and parabolic — or hourglass — in shape rather than straight, Berry said, making them more maneuverable and easier to turn.
“All you have to do is think about turning, and the skis turn.” More specifically, “You don’t have to jump and twist and do the kind of stuff you used to have to do to make your skis turn,” said Tee Murray, 70, who’s been a ski instructor for 46 years, the past 20 at Steamboat Springs. “You simply put a little pressure on the edge, and the ski turns.”
Boots, too, are more comfortable, Murray said, and comfort is important to older skiers. Murray added that he’s noticed folks continuing to ski year after year, even in their later years, and he agrees one reason for this is better gear overall, including comfortable and warm clothing.
I did feel as if the boots and skis were doing all the work, but according to Kevin McGuinness, a physical therapist and sports clinical specialist at Washington Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine in Washington, D.C., your overall level of fitness is a factor. “If you’re not regularly active, no matter the age, you might feel like you got hit by a truck the day after skiing,” McGuinness said.
Another factor, he noted, that contributes to your level of fitness is how quickly you become fatigued. There isn’t another sport, except maybe tennis, that comes close to the endurance or intensity of skiing, he said, so knowing when you need to stop can be critical. Research across all sports tends to suggest that fatigue plays a huge role in injury risk, McGuinness said, with more injuries occurring toward the end of a game or the end of a season, after the body is already fatigued and weakened. That transfers over to ski trips, too, where you’re more at risk on the last run of the day or toward the end of a ski trip, he added.
Mary Harrison, 71, who lives in New Orleans but spends most of the ski season at Steamboat Springs, said she tires more easily than she used to and doesn’t want to ski all day. “I’ll ski hard for three to four hours, and that’s plenty,” she said. “I’ll ski anything groomed, and the bumps if I have to.”
Harrison, who hikes and bikes when she’s not skiing, was 19 the first time she skied. Berry said that overall, U.S. ski resorts are doing a better job at grooming slopes and installing high-speed chairlifts, which reduce the risk of injury and make it possible for people who tire more quickly to put in a full day of skiing in half the time.
Harrison, who’s been skiing for many years, checks to see which slopes have been groomed before heading out and watches for condition updates posted on white boards at lifts throughout the mountain. But for others who may not be as familiar, Berry said many resorts provide free guides geared toward seniors. The Over the Hill Gang, a social club for older skiers founded in the 1930s, has chapters throughout the United States that also provide guided runs for senior skiers.
Regardless of the sport, age-related changes such as issues with balance, decreased flexibility, decreased power and loss of muscle mass can increase your risk of injury, McGuinness noted.
Yet there are benefits to being an older skier. “Just as more-experienced athletes tend to have lower injury rates than less-experienced athletes,” Berry said, “older skiers may take fewer risks because they may understand their body better and understand conditions better.”
Skiing may also be better for someone who can’t tolerate running, because there’s not as much actual impact on the knees, McGuinness said. “Although skiing exerts force on the knees, you don’t have the constant pounding and ground-reaction forces going through the knees vertically.” A person with arthritis, for example, might tolerate skiing better than running, he said.
As with any exercise regimen, you should check with your physician first. McGuinness said the skiers he treats in his clinic have serious ligament tears and fractures that often require surgery and can require lengthy rehabilitation.
I did return home to Washington with a minor injury. And, yes, it happened on the last run of the day, on the second-to-last day of the trip. We were making our way down to the base of the mountain, and it was taking longer than we had planned. It was getting dark, and there were small patches of ice. The tips of my skis crossed, and I fell, crashing down on my thumb. As I sat by the fire in the hotel lounge and iced my hand, the waitress told me I had a common snowboarding injury. “There isn’t anything anyone can do about it,” she said. “It’s happened to all of us. You’ve just got to let it heal.” I told her I wasn’t snowboarding when I fell, but I was feeling a bit younger just thinking about the idea. Maybe next year. When I’m 60.