Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 14, 2017
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Balancing Act

How to turn an adult into a snowboarder

Learning to snowboard doesn't mean you have to pierce your nose, buy baggy pants or go through a mid-life crisis. Nor is it mastering contorted tricks in a half-pipe. While the majority of snowboarders are still around 20 years old, and often pushing the limits of their boards, there are over 400,000 "mature" North Americans -- that's 35 and older in snowboarding terms -- who've picked up the sport since it first hit the slopes back in the 1970s.

This growing generation of boarders wear their old ski clothing, often accompanied by wrist guards and a helmet, never venture into the snowboarding parks, never skid by skiers at breakneck speeds and certainly never speak the jargon. Usually, you see these boarders travelling with skiers, albeit at high speeds, along groomed trails.

It may come as a surprise, but snowboarding is a perfect fit for adults. For one thing, it's easier on the knees than skiing. If you're an experienced skier over 40, you may have noticed that your knees can't take the pounding of the moguls the way they used to. You're probably more cautious, and even a little tentative, on those steep chutes you used to blow down with abandon. The idea of surgically carving turns with a grace that no longer seems possible on skis is obviously appealing. After 20 or 30 seasons of downhill, the next step may be strapping your feet onto a short wide plank.

Snowboarding has a short learning curve, meaning even an adult can become proficient with seven days of practice. It's not unusual to advance from floundering on the mildest bunny hill to carving deep trenches on groomed black diamond terrain in a single season.

That said, you don't have to have a skiing background to snowboard. They're two different sports, each with a different set of skills. Skiers will be able to use their knowledge of edge control; other than that, they'll be starting from scratch. The main difference between skiing and snowboarding is balance: because you can't shift your weight from one leg to another, snowboarding requires a better sense of your body's equilibrium.

But learning to snowboard does mean falling -- a lot -- particularly during your first three days. And if you do manage to endure the time it takes to go from tumbling to turning, you'll find sores and bruises in places you never imagined. So before you recklessly head for the hills, you might want to consider some tips I would have appreciated knowing before my first time on a snowboard.

Take lessons
Most Canadian ski hills offer snowboarding programs designed specifically for adults. The most popular, and certainly the largest, is the Whistler/Blackcomb Ski & Snowboarding School, which has an easy-to-manage chair lift and a good-sized slope, both exclusively dedicated to lessons. Whistler has more than 300 young instructors trained to maximize the progression from standing to sliding to turning to riding.

Most of the instructors I spoke to agree that, while skiing is easy to learn and hard to master, snowboarding is harder to learn but easier to master. In both sports, the first thing you learn is how to turn in both directions. This is trickier on a snowboard, where you must maintain your balance while both feet are locked in a sideways position rather than being able to move independently.

When I signed up, the Whistler/ Blackcomb school recommended a minimum of three days of lessons, which can be broken down into full or half days of private or group lessons. Ideally, you should book your lessons in half days and bring your skis along to get in some runs during the afternoon. Even if you're in fantastic shape, your stomach, arm and leg muscles won't be prepared for all the strenuous pseudo sit-ups that come with falling and having to get up again. Gruelling is the only way to describe your first two days on a snowboard: you will get tired, dehydrated and just plain frustrated.

Ideal conditions
Don't try snowboarding if it's icy -- especially if it's your first lesson. Remember you have no poles to control your fall and the ice is much harder when you do fall. Do try it on powder or even in semi-slushy conditions. Having more snow to "push" makes it easier to learn turns.

Equipment
Don't borrow your son's stiff, unforgiving racing board with the bindings mounted at a 60 degree angle or, for that matter, your daughter's soft, tiny twin-tip freestyle board with the bindings mounted "duck stance" (both feet angled outward). You're better off renting for your lessons. You can rely on the shop tech to fit you with the proper boots, board and bindings, and to adjust the width and angles of your stance.

When you rent your board, you'll be asked which foot is dominant. Most people snowboard left foot forward (regular), but about one-third of all snowboarders go right foot forward (goofy). If you water-ski, use the same foot you would put forward. If you're not certain which is your dominant foot, try this exercise: with a running start, slide across a linoleum or slippery floor in your socks. Instinctively, one leg should thrust forward for balance, while the stronger leg remains behind for support.

As far as boots go, the most popular type is a hybrid between soft and hard. Soft boots offer maximum comfort and extreme manoeuverability, which is not necessarily good for beginners who need some ankle support. Hard boots, on the other hand, are less comfortable but provide more support. Hybrids are a combination of a hard and soft boot and provide a good balance between stability and flexibility.

Bodily injuries
When snowboarding first hit the slopes in the 1970s, people saw it as a dangerous outlaw's sport. But, as it becomes more accepted in the mainstream -- snowboarders today make up about 40 percent of all mountain traffic -- more experts are saying it's no riskier or safer than skiing. That doesn't mean snowboarding isn't without its patterns of injuries, the most common being to the wrists and hands. For a beginner, this comes from holding out your hands to keep your body from meeting the hard snow. Some beginners wear protective wrist guards (similar to those used for inline skating) or tape their wrists for added support. If you own elbow guards and kneepads, you may want to bring those along as well.

The bad news for beginners is that about 25 percent of all injuries occur during the first day of snowboarding, and about 50 percent during your first season. The good news -- for adults at least -- is that snowboarding statistics are a lot like the profiles we see in driving accidents: 80 percent of injured snowboarders are males, around 20 years old, with a penchant for jumps and aerial manoeuvres. Once you advance to an intermediate stage -- in other words, fall a lot less -- the risk of hurting yourself also drops.

Hurting your head is not likely on a snowboard, unless, of course, you beeline straight for the snowboard park. There's also little risk to your lower body. As both your feet are attached to your board and your bindings are specifically designed not to release, twisting your legs or injuring your knees is not as common as it is in skiing.

Dress code
During your first few days of learning, you'll be sitting more often than you'll be carving your way down the slopes. Unlike skiing, you will be falling a lot more. If you have padded snowboarding pants, all the better. If not, wear waterproof gloves and pants and something to cover your rear like a long jacket.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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