Vail health: Start building your snow legs |

Vail health: Start building your snow legs

Shauna Farnell
VAIL CO, Colorado
Two skiers resting in the snow, Whistler, BC, Canada
Getty Images/Design Pics RF | Design Pics RF

There is a chill in the air and that can only mean one thing. Winter is coming. We’re all thinking the same thing, right? That the coming season has got to be better than last year.

So in anticipation of being pummeled with early season powder, you’d better make sure your snow legs can take it. As most of you surely know by now, running, biking, hiking and summer sports don’t really cut it when it comes to conditioning your body for skiing and snowboarding.

“Nothing can really replicate skiing and snowboarding for your body, but there are things you can do to get those muscles dialed in and warmed up,” said David Gillette, who has been a regular at Aria Spa’s winter conditioning program for the last five years. “A lot of people jump out there without preparation and then they’re paying for it for a few weeks or a month after. Going into my first winter here without doing [ski conditioning] was a whole different start. I did the full ski conditioning program the next season and it did make a huge difference.”

As a massage therapist at Cascade Resort, Gillette also gets a first-hand glimpse (or groan, as the case may be) of the consequences faced by ill-prepared skiers and riders.

“The injuries and soreness areas range – it’s calves, quads, glutes, back – depending on the person’s body,” he said. “I’ve had some people who, you can’t even touch their calves because they’re on fire. I definitely see the benefit of progressive training. It’s really crucial for preventing injuries.”

Most fitness facilities in the valley offer a fall winter conditioning class and all are based on progressive training, focusing on various aspects of conditioning based on the muscles used in and energy required of skiing and snowboarding.

Honing in on the right zones

“Ski conditioning works with several zones of body – aerobic and anaerobic zones, then our muscular system, skeletal system and respiratory system,” said Billy Kuhn, who teaches the winter conditioning class at Gypsum Recreation Center and is organizing a week-long tropical conditioning program in the Caribbean in November. “We attack different systems on different days in the class. On Monday, we had more of an aerobic class, implementing muscle conditioning at the same time. As far as strength training, they’d do agility drills to get heart rates up really high, then continue into walking lunges, which prepares you really well if you’re a telemark skier.”

Some of the aerobic activities – many of which can be done at home – include jumping jacks, leaping from one foot to the other or fast-paced grapevines (running sideways and crossing one leg over the other). In his winter conditioning class at the Living at Your Peak fitness convention earlier this month, Ski and Snowboard Club Human Performance Director John Cole had participants jumping high into the air while swinging their arms upwards for extra power, then jumping sideways over a small cone. He emphasized the importance of making a concerted effort of landing softly, so as to prevent jarring impact on the knees and legs, clearly useful when making aggressive turns on the mountain.

“We now have four different areas of fitness – leg strength, core strength, agility plyometrics and dynamic stability,” said Aria Spa Director of Athletics Mike Benedict. “Every session will be a different mixture. The first two weeks are leg and core strength, then core strength and stability. We make sure to progressively load the systems of the body with a safe program designed to incorporate strength exercises, jumping, impact-associated drills and balance so we’re not overwhelming any one area or system of the body. We focus everything from the middle of the torso down, from core to lower extremities. Everything is working together with no wasted energy so you can control the body under the influence of gravity.”

Aria Spa’s six-week ski conditioning program kicked off Monday and now incorporates all of the facility’s resources, including the new fit wall and several balance and strength-enhancing apparatuses like ladders, tires and medicine balls. There is even what Benedict refers to as “ski porn” playing on a large screen for inspiration and Cascade’s Atwater restaurant providing craft beer refreshment and snacks … which comes in handy as far as conditioning for apres ski activities. The program is in its 25th year, limits sessions to 50 people or less and had 1,400 participants last year, between the ages of 14 and 70 years.

The core of it all

For individuals who want to prepare their bodies for the ski season and don’t have the time or money to join a conditioning class, there are several drills to do at home, keeping some specific isolation areas in mind.

“Core, core, core … that’s one of the major things I emphasize,” Kuhn said. “Every class, before we start, you run two laps then you do a bunch of core workouts. We’ll hang off bars doing leg lifts, straight leg dead lifts, planks … My biggest No. 1 thing for fitness and preventing injury year-round is staying consistent – doing anywhere from 20 minutes in a day of specific exercises to a full hour.”

Kuhn said aggressive skiers and riders can do three two-hour sessions per week but even three 20-minute sessions of repeated intervals of sit-ups, leg lifts, jumping exercises, push-ups and planks can do wonders in preparing one’s body for attacking the slopes.

Also, just as skiers and riders naturally push themselves harder in the winter as more terrain opens and more snow falls on the mountain, the conditioning sessions should become progressively more challenging.

“Just like in skiing when you’re coming down the mountain and you’re out of breath, you want to be developing a system where you keep going,” Kuhn said. “It all comes down to how well and how good to feel on the mountain. There’s a lot of controversy, some people say you can do interval training for 30 minutes and last forever on the mountain, but if you train more and work harder it’s obviously going to condition you for more skiing and snowboarding with less pain and injury.”

There are several exercises that condition a person for both skiing and snowboarding – squats, wall-sits, plyometrics and every type of core exercise (sit-ups, leg lifts, jackhammers, crunches, etc.) since both activities require a great amount of torso, back, butt and thigh strength.

Also, a lot of balance comes into play with a different sense of gravity for both skiing and snowboarding, so a good simulation practice for snowboarders is skateboarding or fitting an old skateboard deck with a wooden cylinder underneath and gliding one way and then the other. For skiers, you can ramp up your sense of balance by closing your eyes and standing on one foot then the other. For an extra challenge, do this on an unstable surface, such as a mattress.

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