Ski Fitness Training | Preparing for the Slopes
Approximately 7 minutes of reading time
Brief Article Overview
- When preparing clients for their ski holidays, we modify their training programs about 6-8 weeks before they travel.
- We practice ski-specific functional strength and resilience conditioning training, which replicate the physical needs required for skiing.
- Functional strength is the ability to maintain joint stability throughout the full range of motion, in multiple planes of motions.
- Resilience conditioning is the ability of the cardiovascular system and muscular system to resist fatigue whilst performing physical exertion.
- Strength and conditioning should be lower-body focused, although core and upper body training is also required.
- Multiple planes of motion should be weighted equally within a ski-prep training program.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of exercise recommendations to prepare you for the slopes, we first need to conduct a “needs analysis” of recreational/downhill skiing. A needs analysis is pretty much a breakdown of the physical attributes which are required when skiing, to help prevent fatigue, aid performance and reduce the risk of injury. The idea is to prepare the body well enough that you can ski for consecutive days without feeling tired or needing long rests.
We’re going to approach this from two aspects: 1) Functional Strength and 2) Resilience Conditioning. Granted there is some overlap between the two, but for simplicity and practicality, we will view them as two separate entities. Functional strength is the body’s ability to withstand external load/forces, both static (holding still) and dynamic (moving). Resilience conditioning is the body’s ability to resist fatigue over time.
Ideally, we like 6-8 weeks to prepare our clients for the slopes. This is based on the assumption that they are already training fairly regularly and are interested in incorporating ski-specific training into their current program. If you haven’t been in the gym for a while (>6months), we would suggest at least 12 weeks to build a solid foundation before you fly out.
Functional Strength Needs
Lower body strength and mobility are the first on the priority list when preparing for the slopes. If we first look at the optimal ski posture, you need to be able to maintain a flexed position at your hips, knees and ankles for prolonged periods. This position allows you to be able to:
a) Keep your torso upright
b) Maintain a stable centre of mass
c) React appropriately to deviations in the terrain
d) Turn at will
This is the reason it’s pretty common for the quads, calves and glutes to burn during your first ski session and feel tight and sore the day after!
When negotiating steep gradients, decelerating and turning, not only do joint angles and forces increase, they do so throughout multiple planes of motion. The ability for the joints (ankles, hips and knees) to achieve these ranges of motion and for the muscles (quads, calves, glutes and hamstrings) to hold the lower body stable in these shapes is crucial.
Torso and Upper Body
Imagine your body as a sailboat. Your spine is the mast, your lower and upper extremities are the sails and your entire core functions like the rigging lines. It’s your core’s job to control the interaction between your lower and upper body as you navigate your way down the mountain. These rigging lines need enough flex to be able to absorb external forces (first image), but also have enough strength to maintain tension and control, keeping your spine and torso upright and stable (second image).
Functional Strength – Our Approach
Mobility, then Strength
The first port of call is to gain full functional range of motion throughout all the major joints, especially the ankles, knees, hips, upper back and shoulders. This can be like chipping away at a brick wall and requires frequent, consistent attention (10-20mins full-body mobility a day).
Static, then Dynamic
“Owning a shape”, requires the ability to hold still the required positions with integrity, whilst also being able to breathe. To challenge these static holds we can at external forces or unstable surfaces. We usually time these until the client is able to hold for 1 minute.
Once the 1min mark is met and fairly comfortable, we can move onto more dynamic movements. People commonly perform exercises in the sagittal plane (front and back) such as squats, deadlifts, press-ups. This is fine and should be a staple of any good strength program, but being strong in the frontal (side to side) and transverse (rotation) planes is just as important, especially when preparing for skiing.
Resilience Conditioning Needs
Skiers are amongst the fittest athletes around. Cross country skiers, in particular, have the highest measured aerobic fitness (VO2max) compared to all other sports. Downhill skiing is slightly different and occupies the space in between the aerobic (continuous and steady) and anaerobic (short, fast bouts) energy systems. As you ski, you fluctuate between the two. More specifically, aerobic metabolism predominates on relatively flat slopes and transitions to anaerobic metabolism on steeper runs. Your technical proficiency will determine the size of this flux, but on average your heart rate will hang around 75-85% of max (1&2).
With the length of most pistes between 5-10km, at an average speed of 15-30km/h, each ski run will last between 20-40min. Even though you’re not likely to complete each piste in one continuous effort, it’s good to be fit enough to do so. Weather and fitness permitting, you’ll probably like to complete this cycle 3-5 times per day, which is a total of 1-2hours of actual daily ski time.
During these 1-2 hours, you’ll be performing several bouts of moderately high physical exertion, with a relatively large proportion of time spent under tension. This means your muscles (specifically in the lower body) need to be resilient to fatigue. If these muscles fatigue quickly, the technique will suffer and injury risk will increase.
To achieve this, both the general cardiovascular and local muscular system need to be able to deliver oxygen to and remove waste from the muscles quickly and efficiently. This keeps you away from fatigue for as long as possible, which is the definition of resilience.
Resilience Conditioning – Our Approach
If a client is very unconditioned we usually start at both ends of the spectrum, completing one long (40-60min) steady-state session (zone 2, 60-70% MHR) and one short (20min) sprint interval session (10-20s with 2-4mins rest) per week.
The fitter you become, we will introduce “threshold” sessions, which aim to replicate your ski runs. This will be a 20-40min leg dominant session (cycle, assault bike, lunges, sledge) with intermittent exertions (30s-1min with 1-2min rest), at an intensity hovering around your anaerobic threshold (zone 3-4, 75-85% Heart Rate Max).
Here’s Nath, one of our most successful and hard-working clients! She’s just returned from her trip to the french alps with her daughter and friends! Before Christmas, she let us know that she had booked her trip and wanted to get ski fit so that she could make the most out of her week and keep up with the teenagers. She is a competent skier but just wanted to feel physically prepared. Here were her words upon her return:
“All the training was put to good use on the slopes, trying to keep up with energetic teenagers! Stamina was through the roof! Couldn’t trail mum behind! Agility was fab! Watch out, moguls. And leg soreness completely manageable. Well done guys”
Skiing is fun and recreational, but the physical demands can be under-appreciated. Proper physical preparation is often overlooked when people go on their annual ski holiday. Even though you may be experienced and technically proficient, if you’re unable to meet the physical demands of this sport, you won’t be able to make the most out of your time in the mountains and fully enjoy the experience. Not only this but being fit and strong will massively decrease your risk of injury. We suggest spending at least 6 weeks with us to get you in peak condition for carving that powder!
If you’re interested in starting your health and fitness journey with us…
Disclosure: This article is not to be used as medical advice. If you are currently experiencing physical or mental health issues, please seek professional advice from a fully qualified Nutritionist, GP or Physiotherapist.
1. Physiology of alpine skiing. (2009) Turnbull J.R., Kilding A.E. & Keow J.W. Scand J Med Sci Sports 19(2), 146-55.
2. Physiologic responses of older recreational alpine skiers to different skiing modes (2009) Scheiber, P., Krautgasser, S., von Duvillard, S.P. et al. Eur J Appl Physiol 105-551.