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 enjoy 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 snow sports, 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 to the terrain as you’re exercising, 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 snow sports, 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 weightlifting 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 California, is one skier who swears by weight training.
“I strongly believe that strength is the key to snow sports. 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. When he was recovering from cartilage surgery, Mannetter tried 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 preseason 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 snow sports, 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 concurs, 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 snow sports.”
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.
Whether you are a novice to winter sports or an expert, one of the most important ingredients to having an enjoyable experience is to dress efficiently; it’s not as simple as pulling on a hefty sweater and giant parka. For skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, winter running, ice climbing, or any other outdoor pursuit, the goal is to stay warm and dry. How to do it? Dress in multiple, lightweight layers.
The Layering System
The beauty of layering is that you can shed and add clothing as conditions or your exertion levels change. Thanks to new high-tech fabrics, personal climate control is now a reality: body-warmed air is trapped between layers of clothing while moisture vapor from perspiration is allowed to escape.
A layering system usually includes three components: an inner moisture-wicking layer; a middle insulating layer; and an outer shell layer. It’s important to keep several things in mind as you consider the numerous styles and fabrics available for each layer. Garments should be lightweight and compressible; if you need to shed a pullover, for instance, it should easily fit into a fanny pack or rucksack. Look for high-quality synthetic fabrics that are breathable. Be sure to choose a shell that is large enough to fit comfortably over several layers and try to select garments that are versatile enough to adapt to changes in the weather and useful for a variety of activities.
Additional variables to consider include your fitness level, your body type, the activity you’ll be doing, and where you’ll be doing it. Do you chill easily? Sweat a lot? Dress accordingly. Highly aerobic activities such as cross-country skiing and running require very different clothing systems from sports such as snowboarding and downhill skiing, in which your energy output constantly fluctuates. If you’re heading into the backcountry or will be far from a heated shelter for any extended period, your clothing will be as important as any piece of equipment you have. It can mean the difference between life and death.
The weather, of course, is one of the most significant factors in what you decide to wear. Heeding the weather forecast can help ensure an enjoyable excursion; ignoring it can make you rue the day you first strapped on skis or boards. Even if you’ve checked the weather report, you should always be prepared for unforeseen changes. Remember Murphy’s Law, and be prepared for anything, particularly in the backcountry.
Dressing For Highly Aerobic Winter Sports
Even though the thermostat reads 15 degrees and you can see your breath, if you’re running, hiking, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing, you can expect to heat up fast and perspire. If the sweat you produce during this workout is trapped next to your skin, you will eventually feel chilled. Not only is this cold clammy feeling uncomfortable, it can be dangerous, especially as you start to cool down. Protect yourself by wearing lightweight layers that you can remove quickly and stow away as you warm up. They should be compressible; if you need to shed a pullover, for instance, it should easily fit into a fanny pack or rucksack. Look for high-quality synthetic fabrics that are breathable.
Moisture management is the first consideration here. To keep the body warm during high-energy activities, clothing should transport moisture away from the skin to the outer surface of the fabric where it can evaporate. Tall order? Fortunately, companies such as PolarMax are using ultra-light fabrics like Acclimate Dry in their long underwear. These materials wick moisture from the skin and move it away, so start with this as an inner layer. Also, look for garments made from the new stretch fabrics for better fit and performance.
Your next layer should be a lightweight stretchy insulator, such as a breathable fleece sweater or vest. While you might not need it once you’ve warmed up, you’ll appreciate a cozy top on your descent or on the ride home.
The final part of your cold-weather wear should be a lightweight and versatile shell jacket that will function for highly aerobic, as well as less strenuous activities, depending on what you layer under it. Fabrics like three-layer Gore-Tex and Windstopper allow companies to create shells that are ultra lightweight while remaining waterproof, windproof, and breathable. For aerobic activities, a shell’s ventilating features are particularly important. Look for underarm zippers, venting pockets and back flaps.
Depending on the activity and weather, a lightweight wicking layer and stretch fleece pant are often all you’ll need on the bottom. In deeper snow, you can wear gaiters to protect your feet and ankles, but carry lightweight shell pants with side zips just in case the weather gets nasty.
Always bring a hat and gloves, regardless of the weather or your activity level. As with the rest of your clothing, synthetic materials work best for protecting you against the extremes, and they don’t itch! Look for fleece hats made with Windstopper fabric, gloves and mittens layered with Gore-Tex and fleece, and socks made of synthetic, moisture-wicking materials.
Dressing For Activities Where Energy Output Fluctuates
It’s 8:30 a.m. and you’re in the parking lot at Breckenridge or Stowe, surveying the skies and your duffel bag as you try to decide what to wear. Getting dressed for a day of downhill skiing or snowboarding can be especially tricky. In the next several hours, you’ll work up a sweat carving turns and negotiating mogul fields, but you’ll also sit on the chairlift, exposed to biting winds and wishing you had a down-filled mummy bag.
As you mull over your ensemble, keep the basic principles of layering in mind, incorporating warmer, windproof garments with plenty of venting options. Underneath, choose mid- or heavyweight long underwear with wicking capabilities. Staying dry is the best way to combat the inevitable cooling while you’re at rest in the lift lines and on the chairlift. Also, look for undergarments with zip turtlenecks.
Next, layer on a lofty insulator, such as fleece pile, to trap warm air and protect you against the cold. Again, the fabric should wick moisture and breathe to help you stay dry. Another good option for skiing and boarding is windproof fleece. Several manufacturers offer garments that feature a layer of wind protection sandwiched between layers of fleece, providing extra warmth and protection without added weight or bulk.
Shells for downhilling should be completely windproof and have many ventilation options. A longer, three-quarter length shell parka will keep wind and snow out most effectively with the added benefit of keeping your backside warm on the lift. A hood is handy for extra head and neck protection in high winds.
For the best performance and comfort, wear shell pants over stretchy fleece tights. Features to look for in shell pants include full side zips for ventilation, articulated knees for ease of movement, and bibs for extra snow protection. Some people, particularly snowboarders, like an extra layer of warmth and padding for sitting in the snow; it’s also nice on the lift.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What’s wrong with wearing cotton?Cotton is a poor choice for insulation, because it absorbs moisture and loses any insulating value when it gets wet. Hence, moisture-wicking synthetics, which move moisture away from the skin and stay light, are the best choice for active winter sports like skiing. Not only do synthetic fabrics wick moisture away from the skin, they dry quickly and help keep the wearer warm in the process.
- What’s the difference between Gore-Tex and other shell fabrics?Gore-Tex is actually not a fabric but a membrane that is laminated to a shell fabric such as nylon or polyester. Before the mid-1970s, when Gore-Tex was invented, wearing a water- and windproof shell jacket meant sacrificing breathability. Both waterproof and breathable, Gore-Tex set a new standard for technical outerwear. Today, many outdoor clothing manufacturers offer functional alternatives to Gore-Tex, all of which provide varying degrees of waterproofing and breathability. One of these alternatives might work for you just as well or better than Gore-Tex–it’s really a matter of assessing your personal needs, depending on your activity level, body type, and where you’ll be skiing, boarding, or snowshoeing.
- What items are absolutely essential when it comes to having a budget?For any outdoor winter activity, an inner wicking layer is crucial. Nothing will help you stay warm and comfortable more than a garment with moisture-transport capabilities. You can purchase an inexpensive fleece insulator that will function during most activities. Look for features that add versatility, such as a snap- or full-zip turtleneck. An outer shell doesn’t always have to be both waterproof and breathable; you can consider more affordable alternatives that are highly water-resistant, yet still breathable. Again, keep versatility and ventilation in mind. Snap-off hoods, underarm zippers, and ventilating pockets are features that add value and performance to a shell garment. A pair of full side-zip shell pants are another investment worth making. As the weather changes, you can easily put them on or take them off without removing skis or snowshoes.
- Where is there more info on how to dress for winter sports?There are many good sources of information on apparel. On the Internet, check out the SnowSports Industries of America can help you locate many outdoor manufacturers. Other good sources are W.L. Gore & Associates, the creator of Gore-Tex, Activent, Windstopper, and other technical outdoor fabrics, and Patagonia, a manufacturer of high-quality outdoor apparel for serious skiers, boarders, hikers, runners, and climbers.
Equipment (excluding board, boots, skis, and poles)
- Lip balm
- Bag to carry clothing, boots, and extra equipment
- Long underwear
- Ski pants or bibs
- Outer layer jacket (waterproof/breathable shell)
- Gloves or mittens
- Neck gaiter
- Sweater or fleece
- Socks or sock liners (one thin to medium pair)
- Vest (for insulation)
- Face mask
- Warm-ups for after skiing or riding
With the growing free skiing/riding movement, more and more skiers and snowboarders head out of ski area boundaries every winter in search of untracked powder and adventure. In the backcountry however, pristine slopes, solitude, and unparalleled natural beauty are inexorably linked with inherent risks. This terrain is neither patrolled nor controlled, creating its paradoxical allure. Out there, the snow conditions are vastly different from those found within the more predictable confines of a ski area; out there, avalanches accommodate no one.
A humbling reminder of nature’s power, avalanches can easily obliterate anything unfortunate enough to be in their path: people, trees, cars, and even buildings. While the techniques for predicting and avoiding avalanches are generally reliable, anyone who ventures into the snowy backcountry will never be completely safe from the threat of an avalanche. That’s why it is so important to be well-versed in avalanche safety and search and rescue techniques.
The goal of all avalanche safety instruction is to help skiers and snowboarders make smart decisions in the backcountry so they can minimize their chances of having to deal with an avalanche and know what to do in the event one occurs. Armed with avalanche knowledge and safety awareness, skiers and snowboarders are better prepared to balance an acceptable level of risk with the chance to experience the euphoric beauty of the backcountry. Here are some essential safety principles to keep in mind.
Before You Go….
- Take an avalanche safety course or clinic. These educational opportunities provide invaluable hands-on experience in personal safety and rescue techniques. (The National Ski Patrol offers excellent Basic Avalanche and Advanced Avalanche Courses for a minimal fee.)
- Read up on avalanches. Supplement what you’ve learned in the courses by devouring as much additional information as you can. It’s important to maintain a healthy respect for these deadly forces of nature, no matter how experienced you are at backcountry skiing or snowboarding.
- Learn to recognize avalanche terrain. Most avalanches travel in paths, on smooth exposed slopes of between 25 and 60 degrees, but there are many exceptions. To make an informed assessment of avalanche danger, it’s essential to understand the significance of various terrain features, including slope angles, rocks, cornices and other wind-snow formations, ledges, and vegetation. This takes experience, preferably in the company of a guide or instructor.
- Practice searching for your companions’ avalanche transceivers. Rehearse this until everyone you’ll be traveling with feels confident about his or her ability to locate each beacon as quickly as possible. It takes only one incident to realize the importance of this level of preparation.
- Do your homework. Research your route and snow conditions in the exact location(s) you plan to ski. Call your local avalanche warning center and check the current and forecasted weather before heading into the backcountry. Be prepared to adjust plans and/or routes accordingly.
- Remember and anticipate the “Human Factor”; that is, the fact that people may exhibit undesirable behavior in stressful situations. Your attitude and the attitude of your companions can often mean the difference between a safe trip and catastrophe. Make sure you travel with people who have similar goals and attitudes.
Once You’re There….
- Always carry avalanche equipment, including avalanche transceivers, probes, and shovels (in addition to basic camping gear, extra clothing, high-energy food, and plenty of water). Every member of the group needs to carry all three of these avalanche rescue items, and know how to use them.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Stay alert, and constantly be on the lookout for information about the environment that indicates the potential for a slide. This includes recent avalanche activity and changes in terrain, snowpack, and the weather.
- Analyze the snowpack stability. As with studying terrain features, reading the snowpack takes years of experience. There are however, several tests that reveal the layers in the snow and can help you assess risks involved with unstable snow. These include ski-pole tests, snowpit tests, resistance tests, and “shear” tests. In the National Ski Patrol’s avalanche courses, students learn how to conduct these tests and have the opportunity to see the snowpack firsthand.
- Cross potential avalanche slopes one at a time. If you doubt a slope’s stability but still intend to cross it, only expose one person at a time to the potential for danger. When climbing or traversing, each person should be at least 100 yards from the next person. Travelers should climb steep narrow chutes one at a time, and when descending the slope, ski it alone. This not only minimizes the number of people who might get caught (and maximizes the number of people available for rescue), but it also reduces the stress put on the snowpack.
- Have the courage to know when you shouldn’t go. In the words of Chuck Tolton, ski patrol director at Copper Mountain, Colo., “No turns are worth putting friends and family through the ordeal of your death.”
General rules of the road….
- Don’t overlook clues. Evidence of potential avalanche hazards will be there, so pay attention. If you educate yourself and communicate with your companions, you should have the tools needed to make smart decisions in the backcountry.
- Try to avoid traveling in the backcountry alone. Also, never leave the group. Otherwise, if you run into trouble, you’ll be on your own.
- Don’t assume avalanches occur only in obvious large paths. While most slides travel on broad, steep, and smooth slopes, they can also wind down gullies or through forested areas. Remember, if you can ski or snowboard through it, an avalanche can slide through it.
- Never travel in the backcountry on the day after a big storm. Allow the snowpack to settle for at least 24 hours.
- Don’t assume a slope is safe because there are tracks going across it. Wind, sun, and temperature changes are constantly altering snowpack stability. What was safe yesterday (or this morning) could slide this afternoon. Further, when you cross a slope, you apply stress to the snowpack, which can cause it to slide.
- Don’t allow your judgment to be clouded by the desire to ride the steepest pitch or get the freshest snow. Staying alive is much more important.
- Don’t hesitate to voice concerns or fears. As Chuck Tolton said, “No one is going to criticize you for wanting to be safe in the backcountry.”
- Don’t consider yourself an avalanche expert just because you’ve taken a lot of courses and traveled extensively in the backcountry. “What you don’t know can and will kill you,” Tolton says. “If you work or play in the backcountry, you have to gain an understanding and knowledge of the ever-changing and dangerous environment.” Avalanche expert Knox Williams agrees, adding that although he’s been studying avalanches for 27 years he still learns something new every winter. “Learning about avalanches is a lifelong endeavor,” he says. “A ‘know-it-all’ arrogance can kill you.”