my favorite personal trainer, my dog Foxy,
taking me hiking along North Crestone Creek

ski instruction
autumn 2008



Let me count the ways…
     to get in shape
          for skiing


Getting in shape, pre-season training, autumn exercise just ahead of the ski season... It all has a rather grim and dutiful sound to it. Something one ought to do, but scarcely fun. Something ski magazines have been writing about since the dawn of time, but not actually something you really want to do, or ever will do.

But it ain’t necessarily so. I’m here to say that with a little imagination, getting in shape for skiing (and hopefully staying in shape for skiing throughout the off season) can be almost easy, and mostly a pleasure.

Time was, many seasons ago, when getting in shape for the coming season was not even on my radar screen. As a more-or-less young skier I always assumed I could just “ski myself into shape.” Sure, certain muscles might be used more, or maybe just differently on the slopes than in everyday life, but they would wake up and do their thing as each new season got underway. My only nod to the notion of trying to get in shape was my tendency during the first few weeks of every ski season to push myself to make longer and longer non-stop runs. That seemed to do the trick. By Christmas, my body and my psyche were both so tuned in to skiing that it felt as though I had never put my skis away for the summer. But with passing years, the idea of getting in shape and staying in shape for skiing became an ever more important part of my life as a skier. Maybe you know what I am talking about... It happens to everyone.

The solution? Well, there is no one solution for every skier, but in general if you hope to get in shape and stay in shape for skiing, you’re better off choosing a program, a series of physical workouts that you really enjoy. If it’s work, it wont last. And I will go farther by recommending that you under-do it rather than overdo it. A little exercise every day of the week (if possible) is a lot more productive than one or two big strenuous workouts a week. But let’s say that you have made a bit of a pre-season resolution — this year I am really going to be ready when the snow flies. What are some of your options?

First figure out what areas you would like to focus on before winter: improving your balance? improving your coordination? improving your endurance? increasing your strength? Notice that I listed building strength last. This is where conventional pre-season conditioning advice starts, but I don’t think it is really so important. Skilled skiers don’t need a lot of strength. Balance and coordination are most important. Endurance is next. And extra strength is nice but not as important as you might think. Let’s look at each area.

Improving your balance.

I don’t know how much balance is innate, how much it is a learned skill but I am convinced that you can tune in to your balance, and hone it with a little practice. Young rock climbers have always tried to sharpen their balance by walking a slack-line, a climbing rope loosely tied between two trees. Don’t try this , it’s hard and potentially dangerous. But you can do something similar by finding a 2-by-4 stud (that’s an almost 8 foot long piece of 2x4 wood, the standard building material of American house construction) and placing it flat on the ground on your driveway for example. Place the 2x4 on its wide side, and then practice balancing on it, walking on it, from one end to the other, then turn around, without stepping off the board, and repeat, end to end, and back, and forth. Yes it’s a little like tightrope or slack-rope walking, but easier, and much safer. Still you will feel your hans raise and spread to either side (as in skiing). You will feel a myriad of small balance adjustments throughout your body, from the feet up (as in skiing). And your balance will improve. When this walking and balancing on the fat side of the 2x4 becomes easy, you can try setting that stud on its narrow side, and walking and balancing on it that way. Significantly harder but still so close to the ground that it shouldn’t be dangerous. (You might want to do this on a flat bit of lawn rather than a cement driveway because eventually you will make a little mistake and “fall off the two by four” even if it’s only a few inches. Your balance will continue to improve and it really is fun.

Improving your coordination.

Is coordination really any different than balance? Yes and no and sort of... They are obviously related, since most physical activities that require coordination also require balance and vice versa. Skiing certainly does. But the 2x4 balancing exercise above is designed to let you tune-in to balance alone, feel its subtleties and adjust it subtly in a slow almost static situation. Many other types of movement build coordination along with balance in more dynamic ways. Let me suggest a few.

Start with skating, any kind of skating: ice skating, roller skating or roller blading. There don’t seem to be as many ice skating rinks in American cities today as there were when I was growing up in Southern California, but if you can find one, renting a pair of skates and pushing off, however awkward it may feel at first, to join the mass of skaters stroking around the rink is probably the very best way to develop the exact kind of coordination and balance you need on skis. Continuous foot-to-foot movement, from one position of balance to another, and then another, never frozen, never stiff. That’s skating. And you don’t have to be really good. Any skating will pay big dividends on skis.

But that’s not your only option, I really want to recommend both dancing, and Tai Chi. Dancing, all dancing is simply rhythmic coordinated balanced movement through space. Good dancers are almost always good skiers. And if dancing has never been your thing, you might consider signing up for a dance class at a local recreation center or community college. And again, any kind of dance, ballroom dancing, folk dancing, latin dancing, swing, or more esoteric variants, even square dancing, will make you lighter on your feet. Don’t discount this tip if the opportunity offers itself.

Are you already familiar with Tai Chi, an oriental exercise pattern loosely derived from the martial arts? Tai Chi is very much like a form of dancing in super slow motion. In Tai Chi one learns and practices interesting routines of traditionally choreographed movements. But you can’t do it on your own, you really need to find a Tai Chi class. In Tai Chi you are always in motion, no matter how smooth and slow the motion may seem, and you are always feeling your balance, your center, and re-centering yourself, as you move through the classic Tai Chi forms. It may seem a long way from skiing but the improvement in coordination and balance that Tai Chi promises (and delivers) is remarkable...

Building endurance

I’m not talking about the endurance needed for grueling, demanding, punishing long-distance athletic events. Merely the cardiovascular fitness and minimum muscle tone needed to ski all day long without feeling shot at the end of the last run. And with today’s high speed lifts we really do spend more hours on the snow, actually skiing, than ever before. My recipe for building the kind of endurance you need to enjoy a full day on skis, to the very last turn, is simplicity itself: walking. Lots of walking.

OK, if you are cycling enthusiast, I’ll admit that bicycling does virtually the same thing. But daily walks are an incredibly easy recipe for arriving on the slopes in late November, ready to ski all day long. In my own case, what makes walking such an easy daily pleasure are my two personal trainers, my two dogs. Nothing gets me out of the house and onto the trail like a faithful dog, looking at me with big eyes, wagging her tail, guilt-tripping me to get up from the computer and go outside. I’m 67 this year, and if I’m still in shape for skiing big mountains, I have to give at least half the credit to our two dogs. Sure, I’m lucky that my wife and I live in Colorado at the foot of a series of spectacular canyons in the Sangre de Cristo range, with an abundance of great trails that make a simple half-hour or one-hour walk into a magical mini-hike through a stunning landscape. But even in the most urban areas, there are walking paths, parks, and varied locations for serious daily walking, far more interesting than block after block of concrete sidewalks. Once again, I am not suggesting epic beat-out hikes, the crux is just to get out of the house and walk, Every day.

Finally, about that strength thing.

If you have read this far, you have figured out that in my view, balance, coordination and general fitness are more important than lots of muscular strength and power. Skiing as I see it is not a grunt sport. Gravity on a snow-covered inclined plane, not your muscles, does the work and provides the power. All true, but it’s still good to be strong, pretty strong, if you are serious skier.

Paradoxically, it is easier for strong skiers to relax and ski gently trusting their skis to do the work, than for skiers who feel themselves to be weak. If you start to feel tired, if, after a long run down tough terrain you “don’t have much left,” then you will start to tense up. This extra muscle tension is counter-productive but natural, almost inevitable. So yes, it helps to be, and to feel, more-or-less strong.

But just how strong, is another question. It is a very personal thing. Some folks are natural exercise buffs; they like going to the gym and working out. I don’t, but some skiers do. And so I want to say, in terms of trying to strengthen your skiing muscles (principally your legs) just do what feels comfortable, if anything at all. A lot of daily hikes and walks seem enough for me, but maybe wouldn’t be enough for everyone. I know that with clockwork regularity, all the major ski magazines publish articles every autumn with terrific photos of specific exercises that you can try to strengthen specific skiing muscles... You may never look as fit as the young champions who typically demonstrate ski-specific exercises in these articles, but they are great models.

However, I want to leave you, and this subject, with one important caveat. If you decide that you really want to build up your leg strength for harder skiing, beware of over-developing your quads, those big muscles running up the front of your thighs that are so important in keeping us upright against the pull of gravity. A lot of skiers have gone to the gym, and started programs of leg lifts to build up their quads, and thereby exposed themselves to a higher risk of knee injury. Always work toward balanced muscle strength, exercising the opposite muscles too, the hamstring muscles that flex your legs backward, as much as the quads. Balanced muscle strength will tend to protect your legs and especially your knees and the infamous ACL (or Anterior Cruciate Ligament) from possible injury. My recommendation: if you get serious about strength training, do it right. Try to work with a good trainer to make sure you are doing it right.

But after a lifetime on skis, and recognizing a certain lazy streak in myself that has always pushed me toward graceful rather than powerful skiing, I’ve come to the conclusion that if staying in shape isn’t fun I can’t trust myself to do it. Thanks to two incredible golden dogs, I’m still in great shape. Thanks to an incredible generation of modern ski equipment, I can still ski as well — no, actually better — than I did 20 or 30 years ago. So can you. Find your own path to staying fit, but do it.

Do it today, winter is only a couple of months away.

photo above: taken by my brother-in-law, Ben Waidhofer, on a perfect autumn day in the Rockies


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