Vail Daily column: Build strength for ski season
Autumn’s in full swing, and snow enthusiasts are eagerly anticipating the cultish endeavor of improving ski fitness. Unfortunately to my detriment, I make no apologies about my feelings regarding the subject matter. Hear this — you must be good before you’re fancy. Ski conditioning programs are often too aggressive, even for the strongest skiers and riders.
All great skiers and riders developed their precise skills by spending many hours practicing on the hill. Marcel Hirscher didn’t become great at technical skiing from golfing or trail running. He is that good from years of exceptional dedication to the game of skiing. Although fitness is a mandatory component for the success of any skier or snowboarder, skills own the driver’s seat. The challenge is understanding the demands of skiing, and how to best exploit training to develop performance.
What is muscular strength?
The vast majority of activities that we participate in during the summer months rely mostly on cardiorespiratory performance, and muscular endurance — not muscular strength and power expression. For clarity, muscular strength is the productive application of force. Power, is specifically force divided by time. Here’s where we run into problems during traditional ski conditioning programs. Why are we performing highly involved, technically advanced power exercises, when we haven’t even addressed the foundation using strength exercises firsthand? Getting stronger through traditional strength exercises such as heavy, full-squats precedes advanced plyometric power training.
Strength acquisition improves power in and of itself for all, except those who are already incredibly strong. However, exercises such as plyometric box jumps, although useful for power development, don’t improve strength. Stated differently, strength exercises will promote power, but power exercises don’t develop strength. Most fit individuals don’t have the requisite strength base — especially after spending several months playing in the mountains via muscular endurance based activities that hinder strength development.
You read that correctly — as much as cycling and running develop muscular endurance, these activities don’t at all promote the development of muscular strength; endurance based activities undermine and negatively affect strength and power. After a season of cycling, it never made sense to me that we ought to program technical plyometric exercises that could lead to injury for people who don’t have adequate strength levels firsthand. Given that most skiers who participate in ski conditioning programs are often aged 35 and much older, we must exercise caution when programming power exercises.
To rub salt into the wound, skiing, contrary to popular belief, isn’t necessarily a power sport that requires quick, dynamic muscle contractions. What? Hear me out. Even though skiing technique, especially short radius turns, are dynamic and quick, the muscle contractions are not. During a turn, the muscles of the lower extremity don’t change length in a loaded posture; the muscles perform relatively statically in isometric positions.
Let’s examine a ski turn. The downhill leg is long, resisting high forces against the snow, but the leg isn’t changing length. The uphill leg while bent aggressively, isn’t bearing much, if any load at all — this is completely contrary to plyometric, quick activities. During turn transition, even though your old downhill leg flexes and the muscles shorten drastically and quickly, in correct skiing technique, you’re mostly unweighted during the transition. Extending during transition often puts the skier out of balance, and problems will persist.
High levels of muscular power isn’t required for successful skiing. Furthermore, just because skiing is mostly anaerobic, this doesn’t qualify the sport as a high power sport. One-hundred-meter sprinting is a high power sport. The lower extremity has to move so rapidly, with tremendous loaded force for the elite sprinter to outrun his competitors. Skiing isn’t necessarily like this — even in mogul skiing. Fine, maybe elite bumpers skiing fast zippers. How many of you that participate in ski conditioning programs are qualified as this type of skier? Skiing requires ample strength to resist the forces fighting against you throughout the turn.
I’m not saying that power isn’t a factor in skiing. Power expression to some degree is necessary in all sports. I’m suggesting that the ability to resist forces throughout the turn that affect the skier are better served by possessing decent strength. In my experience, skiers need reasonable, but not tremendous strength, and exceptional work capacity — the ability to maintain postural integrity and precision of skills in the presence of cumulative fatigue. Can you hold it together run, after run as fatigue sets in? Can you ski top to bottom without gassing out, while maintaining great precision? Stay tuned, next week I will discuss how it’s done.
Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at r2hp.com and 970-401-0720.