Seeing a skier being carted off the hill by the ski patrol is never nice, but when it’s in the first week of the season, I always feel a massive wave of sympathy for the poor person in the basket. All those hopes and dreams of a fabulous winter dashed in an instant.
Over the summer, our ski fitness will be significantly degraded, as will our motor skills. In short, both our bodies and brains will have forgotten how to ski.
That amnesia will combine with oodles of early season enthusiasm to make an especially dangerous cocktail. Minimising the likelihood of a stretcher or helicopter ride is both easy and hard. The easy bit is that everyone knows the solution: training. The hard part is that training benefits don’t come quickly, or for free, or easily, without some application. To maximise training benefit, it’s good to have a structure, helping us to keep motivated.
There are lots of ways of structuring a training plan – here’s what I’ve found works for me after developing and tweaking ski training for the last 20 years of work as a guide. I
- start with a solid base of cardiovascular fitness and then
- build ski specific core strength using an exercise regime which builds in intensity over a couple of months. Somewhere towards the back end of this, the training gets
- even more specific with exercises that replicate skiing as closely as possible. And throughout the whole process, I keep
- visualising what it’s all for. Finally, the fun bit:
- Ski technique training to maximise the benefit of all that hard work.
And yes – it should be hard work. As this famous quote by Greg Henderson tells us: “Training is like fighting with a gorilla. You don’t stop when you’re tired. You stop when the gorilla is tired.”
I’m one of the lucky people who enjoys training but, if you’re not, then motivation is key and rather than this motivation being stick based (I’m training to avoid injury), think of it as a carrot (I’m training so I’ll be an even more awesome skier than I am already).
Cardiovascular fitness is cited by many high level mountain athletes as the base from which to start. Mark Twight in Extreme Alpinism and Steve House in Training for the New Alpinism both tackle cardio early on. Now while the demands of downhill skiing are somewhat different to those of mountaineering, the principles remain the same. The system needs to be able to supply the muscles with the oxygen for your activity. Without that, all the subsequent stages will be
- wasted and
Because I want to preserve my knees for as long as possible, I avoid mountain running now, and cycling has taken its place as my weapon of choice.
I usually start with Long Slow Distance (LSD), and then build intensity gradually. I’ve used a combo of reading Fast Over 50 by Joe Friel, and personal advice from the physio who looks after me, Neil McLean Martin from La Clinique du Sport in Chamonix. The former stresses the importance of doing hard and fast as well as LSD. The latter has directed towards interval training. When you think about it, skiing is short periods of intense, sometimes even anaerobic, levels of exercise, so we need to build a system which can go at full belt for long pitches and then recover as quickly as possible.
Core, Balance and Stretching
My cardio system stays pretty tuned up, thanks to my work at altitude throughout the summer. But ski fitness is different from climbing or mountaineering fitness. Climbing is a natural thing to do. We climbed down from the trees aeons ago, so it’s only natural to want to climb back up things again. But sliding around on a pair of planks at speeds higher than which we can run and in particular putting our knees under ridiculous levels of torsion for which they weren’t designed isn’t natural at all. So we need to train specific muscle groups to do movement we don’t do for much of the year. This starts at the core, using the strongest and largest muscles the body has to control our position on two fast moving “feet” that are about 6 times longer than our usual ones.
Good performance at any sport –skiing or snooker, dance or darts – has balance at its heart.
Without balance, we’ll always be playing catch up, and if we’re tired, then being able to stay balanced will protect really effectively from injury. Like all skills, balance can be trained.
For many years now, I’ve been using SkiFit as the mainstay of my prehab for the skiing season. It’s an 8 week programme designed by Neil, the physio who looks after me here in Chamonix, with 4 increasingly challenging stages, building you up to full ski fitness. With warm ups, core training, circuits of ski specific exercises, balance and dynamic control, it’s rounded off with some stretching to keep you in tune at the end of each hour long session. At the start, you’ll feel like someone’s beaten you on the bum with a baseball bat. But twice a week for 8 weeks, and you’ll definitely feel the difference and yes – it does translate to skiing performance.
For the 2023-4 season, there is now a free video from Neil available thanks to support from Atomic Skis
You can also rent the full library of SkiFit exercises on Vimeo. Think of it as insurance, cheaper than a replacement ACL and way more fun.
Ski Specific Work
Training equipment develops every year. In the last 12 months, I’ve been trying out two very clever pieces of technology. Roller skis have existed for many years and are very good for cross country skiers. The problem I have with those is that we need a nice smooth road to use them. Potholes and passing traffic make this a feisty proposition, but what if you had an all-terrain roller ski ? So you could go training off road on the kind of paths on which you might run (if you were that way inclined for your cardio)?
Enter the Skike, a really well thought out piece of gear. Basically XC roller skis crossed with a Hummer. Chunky tyres, an effective braking system, ruggedly built. If you were training for the Patrouille des Glaciers, to my mind they’re a really useful bit of kit. And even if not, they’re great fun and you get loads of people chatting to you on the trails.
For the downhill element, some pre-season ski technique training is super valuable. In the UK, we’ve had dry slopes for many years. It’s how I started as a teenager. And now there are a number of snow domes available. Here in Chamonix, a brand new and innovative tool is taking the concept of the dry slope and raising the game. Ski Indoor 4810 has a rolling carpet so you ski without moving. That means you can check your position in the mirror in front of you, do your SkiFit exercises in the most applied way possible, hold a side slip turn for minutes at a time, get video feedback from in front, behind, left, right and even above. The surface is totally consistent, so you can investigate the effect of subtle foot changes on your skiing. The potential for this tool is huge. If you get a chance, go check this facility out.
On Snow Ski Coaching
Having got ourselves fit, we now need to use all that strength effectively, and for that it’s best to get some coaching input. I provide ski coaching to many of my clients as part pf my off-piste and ski touring guiding. If someone goes away from their holiday having improved their skiing as well as having had a nice time, that’s a total result. And yes I practice what I preach, getting a few days of input every year from The Talented Mr Christy. My skiing over the last few years has been cajoled, moulded, gently nudged into something very different. Skiing is a journey of lifelong learning , and I like to teach and be taught new skills.
Warning – training is tough. So find a happy place
As we said at the beginning, training should be physically tough. But it can also be mentally challenging. I’m one of the lucky people who enjoys getting repetitively beasted, but I appreciate it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. So if it’s boring or you’re not motivated, try visualizing your best ever days on skis. What’s the temperature feel like, how do the pine trees smell, what sound does the ski make on the snow? Or picture a skier whose style you aspire to, and imagine YOU skiing in the same way. Why not?