Had your skis or board freshly tuned? Good. Layered clothes, helmet and sunscreen all packed? Check. Car ready with new wipers, antifreeze fluid, tire chains in the trunk? Great. But let’s consider the most important piece of gear. Is your body truly in shape for winter recreation?
As they used to say on the streets, “Betta’ check yourself, before you wreck yourself.”
The absolute best time to begin preparing for a new ski season is at the close of your last ski season. That’s due to a simple truth: It’s much smarter – as well as much easier – to keep fit than it is to become fit.
This maxim is particularly apt for heart-lung fitness, your “VO2 max,” or aerobic capacity. Generally, this measure of athletic health falls by about 1 percent per year after age 25. The only thing that slows the decline to any significant degree is maintaining a regular aerobic regimen.
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The challenge of keeping your VO2 max strong literally rises with increased altitude. If you live anywhere between sea level and a 1,000-foot elevation, the percentage of oxygen in the air you breathe is just above 20 percent. If you ascend to a 12,000 foot-high mountain top, that percentage remains the same. However, due to reduced air pressure, you take in fewer oxygen molecules in each breath – around 40 percent less. Consequently, heading up to ski areas tends to heighten demands on your aerobic capacity by a third to a half.
Preparing in advance
If you happen to be a regular cyclist, runner, swimmer or rower, and you hope to ramp up for winter recreation, then you don’t need do much more than increase the frequency, intensity or length of your workouts. However, if no activity even remotely similar has appealed to you, an easy way to begin to own aerobic fitness is to start walking. Next, walk fast. After that, walk hills. Then ultimately, walk hills fast.
Gym treadmills or elliptical trainers not only provide an equivalent activity, but dashboard readouts offer ways to measure your progress. Alternatives might be bike-based spinning classes, or exercise sessions on ergometers (rowing machines).
As the administrative director of the Tahoe Center for Orthopedics, Chris Proctor has long promoted being prepared for the slopes. “Activities that people don’t ordinarily connect to ski fitness, dance workouts like Zumba or even ballet barre classes can be helpful,” Proctor said. “Those are things that I commonly recommend to my patients.
“I also tell them to target any area of weakness, or a site of an old injury, for making gains in fitness. In my case, as a hockey player, I’ve found it’s my lower back I need to focus on. In general, injuries will proceed from your weakest link.”
Another focus of training should be strengthening the muscle groups appropriate for your winter sport activity. For both skiers and ‘boarders, in the main, we’re speaking here about everything south of your belly button. Sure, trunk or torso strength stays important, but it’s your legs and buttocks that need to bear the brunt of the challenge.
Since leg strength is crucial, focus on quads and hamstrings, and not just your gluts, but all muscles, large and small, around your hips.
“Look at star athletes of the Winter Olympics when they’re wearing their tights,” Proctor says. “It’s truly striking, everything in a 360 degree radius around their hips is really well developed.”
A side benefit is that increased muscle strength in your butt and legs will help protect your hips and knees from sudden impacts and accidental stresses. Squats and lunges, as well as leg presses on gym weight machines, or simple lifts with ankle weights, can assist in building up desirable mass.
Proctor recommends beginning with isometrics, i.e. a system of poses that you hold under stress. One example is the wall-sit: With your back braced on a wall, slide down into a sitting position and hold. “Planking” is another common isometric posture.
Next, you also want to build in explosive force and more precise motion control, which means nerve patterning. For that you need “plyometrics” – or exercises in which your muscles exert force over short, repeated intervals. For legs, simply put, this means doing some jumping around. It doesn’t need to take an extreme form. Using a jump rope is one easy approach; you can also lay a broomstick or length of string on a floor, then leap back and forth across it.
More ambitious (or younger, or stronger) folks can lean down to put their hands on an exercise bench while looking down its length, then jump their legs back and forth over the bench. Running stadium steps or even just regularly ascending stairwells helps too; just remember to exert while going up, but then to soften strides and baby your joints (reducing impact) while coming back down.
You’re not just after explosive movement capability, but also agility and balance, Proctor says. To this end, using a simple device like a bosu ball for home workouts is useful, or even just a foam pillow folded in half that you stand on.
The goal is not only to develop an ability to generate bursts of strength, just like those a skier would use while running the bumps or making deep powder turns – or that a ‘boarder would use while jumping and landing in a terrain park – but also train for poise and precision in your movement.
Gaining in strength is not an unalloyed value. One should also focus on retaining or acquiring flexibility. Doing so helps keep your muscle groups operating harmoniously during exertion, and reduces the chance of injury amid a fall or any other unexpected incident. Yoga, a classic and increasingly popular discipline, can prove quite useful in this regard. But any regimen of total body stretching will help, especially if performed a minimum of twice a week.
Taking it out onto the hill
All the fitness assets in the world won’t help if you’re not careful on the hill – not just for other skiers and ‘boarders, but for your own safety and well-being too.
This means skiing or riding “within your envelope” of ability, especially at the season’s start. Even if you’re a hotshot, there’s no shame in making your first runs on groomed blue squares (intermediate slopes) instead of black diamonds (expert). Or if you’re an intermediate, go for the green circles (bunny runs) first. Doing so helps warm up muscles and joints, and will reawaken your reflexes and muscle memory.
In fact, one brilliant early-season move is to take a remedial ski or snowboard lesson. No matter what niche you believe you occupy along the skill spectrum, an instructor can always spot a few deficiencies and bad habits, and make suggestions for improvement. Absorb this information at the start of a season, then you can spend the subsequent months confirming your new moves and better habits.
But always, bear in mind that even experts can be surprised or take a fall. A blown turn on an icy patch, a caught edge, another skier or rider bursting out of a grove of trees can provide a lot more excitement than you might be prepared to handle. If you’re already speeding along at the peak of your ability, both your reaction time and your window of opportunity for making a compensating maneuver might prove lamentably curtailed. However if you stay within your envelope, i.e. hold back from going all out, you can maintain a buffer zone that could offer a crucial margin of safety.
“In the realm of orthopedics,” Proctor says, “we generally find, when people go well outside their envelope of ordinary capability, that’s when all the trouble starts.”
A basic lesson in smart and safe skiing or ‘boarding is knowing how to fall safely, then building that into your performance by visualizing a good fall, and even sometimes practicing one. Bad injuries can occur by fighting a fall too strongly, or for far too long after it turns inevitable.
Commonly, skiers and boarders get wheeled into the first-aid shack with knee injuries, such as an ACL (anterior-cruciate ligament) tear from hyperextension (forceful over-straightening of the knee). Basically, your boots, feet and board or skis stop moving or go one way, while your upper body keeps moving or heads in a different direction – especially if your legs stay straight and your muscles fight to stave off the fall. It’s much simpler and safer to perceive the fall early, accept it, relax the legs and just sit down, using your pole handles or hands and elbows to brake to a halt.
After you've fallen, don't try to rise while still moving. If sliding on the steeps, keep your legs together, swing skis together downhill, use the edges to brake, and never try to stand until you've stopped.
Skiers can also tear the lateral ligaments, the straps of connective tissue that link bone to bone on each side, or the meniscus, which are two pads of cartilage inside each knee, due to severe torque under stress.
Snowboarders are less prone to these latter injuries, since their legs are secured side-by-side and their knees operate in parallel. However, that does make them more prone to upper-body injuries in a fall. If they catch an edge and don’t squat in time, their whole bodies flop back or forward with extra leverage, and thrusting out an arm or both arms to break that fall can injure wrists, elbows and shoulders – or heads, if, foolishly, they happen to not be wearing helmets.
We’re used to absorbing the world through our famed five senses, but there’s also a literal sixth sense. Live nerves in our muscles and scattered around our joints actively report on stresses and strains, as well as the orientation of our trunk and limbs to each other and even to gravity. This sense is called “proprioception.”
It’s thought that some of these nerves might also be embedded in our ligaments, and provide early warning of impending tears. While it’s true that joint repair via surgery has come a long way, those embedded nerves may remain lost.
Or, to put it in automotive terms, the after-market parts might never be quite as good as your original factory equipment – which is a strong argument for keeping those originals intact.
A general conclusion to draw from all this background briefing is that we all possess an innate ability to “listen” to our bodies at all times. One can become aware, even keenly aware, of this stream of information through practice. If you pay close attention to it during your physical training, and then again while you are out enjoying winter recreation, your chances of having safe and enjoyable outings will go way, way up.
Personally, I always try to remember a tip from Dr. Scott Dye, a chief of orthopedics at San Francisco's Davies Medical Center, and a prominent knee specialist. "My main advice to skiers is, don't let ego put you into a risky situation. Not if you want to keep skiing for another 20 years."