Conditioning For Skiing and Snowboarding
You might think that stepping into a pair of skis or a snowboard, riding the lift, and carving through fresh powder down a mountainside, then repeating the process over and over again, wouldn't be something you'd need to prepare for. However, skiing and snowboarding are high-activity sports, and if you want to make the most of them, you need to invest a little time and forethought into getting ready for the season.
Before your eyes glaze over at the thought of reading one more article on "preseason training," realize that this topic applies to everyone, from novice to expert. "Regardless of your ability level, don't make the mistake of assuming you can ski or board yourself into shape," says Dave Merriam, head coach of the PSIA and AASI Demonstration Teams. "These are demanding activities, and if you haven't conditioned your body accordingly, you tire quicker, become sore more easily, and also stand a greater chance of getting injured."
The fact is, if you haven't done any ski- or snowboard-specific cross-training, the muscles that have been relatively dormant for several months are going to get a rude awakening, and you're sure to be quaffing Ibuprofen before day's end. Don't think you can just "coast" through the day to minimize the toll of exerting yourself; snow is an ever-changing medium, and your physical preparedness will be tested continuously as you move through powder one minute to blue ice the next.
So, where to start? Merriam suggests targeting three main areas in a preseason training regime to speed your transition to the slopes and steer you away from injury. "I follow this regime and I also advise the PSIA Demo Team members and ski school instructors I coach to do the same," he says. "The objective is to build an aerobic base while increasing flexibility and strength."
To Aerobicize Or Anaerobicize?
In any conditioning program, the first step is to identify the intensity level of your particular sport and make sure the exercises you perform will match that pace. "In most snowsports, it's important to build a strong base of aerobic fitness, because that's what's going to allow you to be on the hill longer and reduce your chance of injury due to fatigue," Merriam says. "At the same time, skiing and snowboarding are anaerobic activities, which means that they require short, intense bursts of energy interspersed with rest periods."
This is where sport-specific conditioning comes in. "You have to train for this high level of anaerobic output," Merriam says. "It's a different focus than building your aerobic tolerance." The need to supplement an aerobic base with anaerobic training is what sets skiing and snowboarding apart from other sports, he notes.
The timing, as well as the focus of training, is important, so that as the season approaches, you increase the intensity and challenge of your workouts, Merriam suggests. "Shortly before fall, I shift gears in my workouts, moving from a primarily aerobic to more of an anaerobic focus," he says. "I like to incorporate some two-minute sprint intervals into a session of running, with a rest period afterward. These transitions are so similar to skiing, and getting into this mode seems to stimulate my mental as well as physical preparedness for the season."
In addition to running and sprinting, there are a variety of excellent training activities that are specific to skiing and boarding: hill running, stair climbing, using a ski machine, inline skating, and bike riding. Linda Crockett, education director for the Professional Ski Instructors of America and the American Association of Snowboard Instructors, points to trail sports such as running or mountain biking as activities that are especially good for skiing and boarding. "These activities really force you to look ahead at all times and pay close attention as you're exercising to the terrain, which is exactly what you do when you ski or board," Crockett says.
In terms of specific anaerobic exercises, you might want to try plyometric exercises (e.g., bounding or other explosive movements that fine-tune muscles for anaerobic sports), interval training like sprints, and weight room exercises. All of these train the body anaerobically and transfer well to snowsports, Crockett says.
It's important to stretch everyday and incorporate some form of aerobic training three-to-six times per week, Crockett says. Sessions should be at least 30 minutes at a low intensity; more time would add to the effectiveness. Anaerobic work (again, in the form of sprints, plyometrics, or heavy weight lifting with low reps) should be incorporated at least two-to-three days per week, and one rest day is crucial.
"Consider the rest day part of your training," Crockett says. "Taking a day off is not akin to failure; think of it instead as getting the gains from your workout." It's also important to do a warm-up before; options include sliding, walking herringbone on the hill, side stepping, walking the flats, and stretching. "When you're on the hill, consider that to be an anaerobic day, or a strength day in the whole week's routine," she says. "You should still get two-to-three aerobic workouts in that week too."
Preseason training doesn't stop with aerobic and anaerobic exercises. Dave Mannetter, a member of PSIA's Alpine Demonstration Team and the head staff trainer at Mammoth Mountain Ski School in Calif., is one skier who swears by weight training. "I strongly believe that strength is the key to snowsports. It just makes sense that the stronger you are, the less you have to try to hold yourself up to make the moves," he says.
Mannetter says that by targeting major muscle groups in the upper body, the arms, chest, back, and shoulders, he's seen significant gains in his strength and fitness levels. He also focuses on leg work that involves the calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteals. Still recovering from cartilage surgery last spring, Mannetter says he tries to isolate specific leg muscles used in skiing. "For example, it's very common for skiers' legs to be stronger on the outside than on the inside, but it's important to get the inside of the leg strong so the kneecap can be held centered," he says.
During strength training, it's important to "train more muscles than you can see in the mirror at the gym," which is a common mistake among athletes, says Teams coach Dave Merriam. "You need to train your lower back and your hamstrings to balance out opposing muscles like the quads and abdominals. Using free weights will also give you more results for your time spent lifting. When you're wedged against an apparatus while lifting, muscle groups are isolated. Free weights force balance and range of motion into the equation, which resembles skiing and boarding."
Stretching is the one aspect of pre-season training that should be done every day, Linda Crockett says. Both demo teams follow Adrian Crook's INFLEX program, which combines flexibility and movement exercises to increase an athlete's balance and coordination for the maximum range of motion.
Crook's program pivots on five main points: focus, balance, strength, range of motion and longevity. He learned his trade from a Chinese healer and kung fu master and passes it along to elite-level athletes, who claim it gives them an edge to compete at the highest level of the sport, without injury.
Because Crook's method hones an athlete's balance, it's great for snowsports, Merriam says. "Adrian teaches a lot about the origins of movements. He emphasizes having a very strong center (abdominals), as well as the use of knees, ankles, hips, and spine from a balancing perspective. In doing his exercises, the muscles feel as though they are being stretched and massaged." Fellow team member Mannetter concur, saying "My posture and balance have improved so much since I began using Adrian's InFlex tapes. He talks about the importance of flexibility in longevity of life, and it's true. Flexibility is essential, especially in snowsports."
No Time Like Now
To quote a phrase, it's never too late to get started. According to Crockett, the six weeks before the season are the most important in strength training and anaerobic conditioning. Even if you haven't been conscientious about training in the off-season, you should focus on a regime during these fleeting days before the snow flies. "After all, you can't get up to the slopes and expect your body to do something that it can't even do on dry land," she says.
Again, preseason training is for everyone. The suggestions offered here are intended to either motivate you to develop your own regime or tailor the one you have for more effectiveness. Who knows? Feeling sore after a day on the slopes, or even incurring an injury, may become a thing of the past.