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Ready For Ski Season?

Ready For Ski Season?


As the winter properly begins to set in many of you will be looking forward to ski season. Many of my clients spend time on the slopes and are quite accomplished skiers. To fully enjoy your holiday on the snow, and get the most out of your time on the slopes it’s probably worth scheduling in some ski-specific strength and conditioning into your usual workout routine.

Demands of skiing

In a recent review on alpine skiing the (American) national strength & conditioning association (NSCA) suggested that Skiers should: “Focus on hypertrophy, maximal strength, power, balance, dynamic mobility and anaerobic metabolic support”. Phew! Well what does that mean?

Maximising hypertrophy/lower body strength & power

Why do we need strong legs for skiing? Well its simple really, ask anyone who has been on the slopes and they will tell you that it’s hard work on the legs! By increasing your max leg strength you will find it easier maintaining sub maximal pressures of the piste. Most people seem to suffer from isometric (holding) position of the legs. I.e. simply maintaining correct form is difficult and leads to a build-up of lactic acid and burning in the thighs. If you’re strong, the muscles of the legs will be better prepared at maintaining the holding position and legs during the run. The weaker the legs, the less time they will take to fatigue and ‘burn’.

It’s important to note as well that skiing requires you to use eccentric loading through the legs. This basically means that when turning, your legs have to go through a process of ‘breaking’ (start of the turn) and forceful acceleration (out of the turn) many times throughout the day. Eccentric loading is a term given when a muscle (the hamstrings, quads and glutes in this instance) lengthen under tension. This notably causes many micro tears in your muscles and leads to soreness. So it’s essential that your muscles get used to eccentric loading and that you utilise breaking style moves in your training. Exercises like pause squats, lateral hops, and break landings (all shown in video) are excellent techniques to strengthen the legs and ready them for the demands of eccentric loading.

Coming out of the turn and other moments of acceleration will require powerful leg movements. Most forms of jumping, or very fast weightlifting movements will help you develop powerful legs. If we remember that power is essentially force (muscle strength) x velocity (speed of movement) we can identify that using heavy and therefore slow movements will improve force, (squats, deadlifts etc.) and fast, therefore lighter movements (box jumps, clean/snatch etc.) will improve velocity to increase our overall leg power. Plyometrics are probably the best way to improve lower leg power and require very little expensive equipment. However it’s vital that before you start jumping and hopping around the gym your body is conditioned enough to handle the strains of a very demanding form of training. Read this blog to find out more about plyometric training. Plyometric Training

Balance & dynamic mobility

The purpose of improving balance in the gym is to improve the motor patterns for dealing with unstable environments (like hurtling down a black run for example). In easy terms motor patterning is training the brain and muscles otherwise (known as the neuromuscular system) to respond quickly to course conditions by increasing the speed and coordination of muscle contraction and increasing speed of ‘feedback’ from the muscles and tendons to ensure balance. Adding in unilateral and stability based exercises like single leg squats or step ups, lateral single leg hops, or even bosu step ups will aid balance improvements. It’s worth remembering though that strength will not be improved through this type of training as the loads are not enough to stimulate a strength or power response. So these balance type exercises should really be assistance to your strength program, and not the bulk of your gym training. As a side note, loads of people like the ‘sexy’ balance work because it’s less physically demanding. But it won’t improve your strength, power or injury resistance. So don’t dodge the squat rack.

Dynamic mobility training

Basically the more mobile you are, the less likely you are to be injured and the more likely you are to be able to get into positions of squatting and other positions that demand a good level of functional mobility, for example the rotational mobility that turning quickly demands. Stretching, while considered useful is probably not the most advantageous to develop mobility. This is because usually (and I realise I am generalising here) most people will simply stretch one muscle in isolation. A good example is the classic lie-on-your-back hamstring stretch. However, mobility really refers to a range of movement around a joint. This requires contraction and relaxation of several muscles in coordination of each other. So mobility is as much a neuromuscular development as it is a flexibility development. To improve dynamic mobility think about using lunge, or squat techniques as well as dynamic hip and thoracic exercises. A great way to incorporate these into training is during a warm up or cool down. Exercises like hurdle steps, bear crawls and other such movements are a fun way to mobilise and warm up simultaneously.

Anaerobic and aerobic system development

So you finish your first run injury free. You even managed to beat the flashy McFly-looking ski dude down the run. You’re elated with your performance and smugly content that ‘you still got it’. You are however, completely exhausted. Your muscles are burning your heart is racing and you’re starting to rethink your impromptu race with ski-dude. Maybe it’s time to head for après-ski? Unfortunately its only 9:30am… Conditioning has let you down.

The energy demands for skiing basically fall into two categories: anaerobic conditioning (during more intense ski sessions) and aerobic (during rest or leisurely runs). The anaerobic system supplies energy to the muscles when the demands of the activity are too large for the aerobic system to deal with. Unfortunately the anaerobic system (without oxygen system) only lasts for approximately 2 minutes and has the god-awful by-product of lactic acid. Lactic acid (LA) accumulation is the burning feeling I’m sure we have all felt at some time during our skiing or training. By enhancing our tolerance to LA we can essentially buffer the effect of LA production and therefore increase our body’s ability not only to reduce LA build up but to also improve its removal from the muscles. This will allow us to ski at higher intensities for longer periods of time and even challenge ski-dude to a best of 5 run series!

By training at or above lactate threshold (the point at which LA production is stimulated) we can improve our buffer zone. However simply training at very high intensities such as repeat sprint training, prowler sled pushing, stair or hill sprints we enable a development of our anaerobic system. So to improve conditioning think about working on some high intensity intervals. Work from 30 seconds to 2-3 minutes, making sure you have significant rest periods to ensure partial or full recovery. I don’t think you can go too wrong with Tabata style intervals here. Have a look at this blog to understand more: sprint training

Aerobic system development is also key to improving your efficiency on the slopes. Your aerobic capacity will allow you to maintain repeated runs throughout the day by aiding LA removal from the muscles and improving your recovery between runs. Now while we can improve aerobic capacity (sometimes known as V02 Max) by simply training for long periods of time at a steady state, research has shown that HIIT will develop V02 max as well. So the big question is how much time do you have? Most people would be better simply working some HIIT into their workouts and developing their recovery and V02 max in the rest periods. Arguably this probably better matches the stop-start demands of skiing too. So my advice would be to scrap the jogging and start the sprinting.

So that’s a general rundown of making your training ski-specific. The only other potential element we have not focused on is core stability. Everyone makes a big deal of core training, and while it is important, you should really keep your focus on strength & conditioning development. While lifting and moving heavy loads, and performing powerful movements will inherently improve your core stability anyway, perhaps its worth adding in some side planks, planks, band holds etc. just to work your trunk strength a little more. I’ll say it again though, just because core stability exercises are ‘sexy’ and everyone likes sore abs (even though that’s NO indication of effective training) it’s the unsexy work of squats, jumps and sprints that will inevitably pay dividends when you hit the slopes.

Thanks for reading guys.

Haydren et al: Review of Strength & Conditioning for Alpine Ski Racing. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Vol. 35 2013
Schoenfeld et al: High-Intensity Interval Training: Applications for General Fitness Training. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Vol. 31 2009