Winter Training, Any Way You Carve It

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1995

Winter Training, Any Way You Carve It

Snow-sport dabblers, beware: The more pursuits you take up, the more varied your regimen should be
By Sara Corbett

Impressed last winter by the flocks of pirouetting telemarkers and snowboarders, I did what many lifelong downhillers are tempted to do nowadays: diversify. I shelved my alpine skis for telly equipment, pointed my new boards down the slope, and in no less than half a dozen runs felt my reasonably strong quads turn first to oatmeal and then to useless blocks of mortar. Reaching for the pain relievers that evening, I recalled how this was a downhill ski season I had actually trained for.

That, ironically, was the problem. "Jumping onto a new kind of ski isn't all that easy," says Dane Thomas, a physical therapist at the Caremark Sports Center at Vail, who skis on alpine and telemark gear and snowboards as well. "Even though alpine skiing, telemarking, snowboarding, and nordic skiing generally use the same muscle groups, they use them somewhat differently. Your quads may have been strong, but they weren't trained to move through the range of motion that a telemark turn requires."

So for the growing number of Renaissance skiers out there, variety on the slopes demands variety in training. It's unrealistic to do a full preseason regimen for more than one activity at a time--even the Deions of the world can't take on that kind of workload. But a multisport approach to your routine is entirely doable. Mix winter-sport-specific strength exercises in one workout and you'll not only gain overall fitness, but you'll have more than a fighting chance when the snow falls, come skate-skiing or snowboarding. Since most trainers recommend at least 12 weeks of dry-land muscle preparation before hitting the slopes, that means getting busy now. If you plan on taking turns at Christmas, you're already behind the eight ball.

One more hard physiological truth: Over the coming months your cardiovascular system will undoubtedly require as much attention as your muscles. Those 45-minute sessions of running, swimming, cycling, or in-line skating you've been doing several times a week since summer have helped--at least to a point. "Any stamina-building activity is good training, particularly for nordic skiing, which involves steady-state aerobic exertion," says Steve Johnson, director of sports science for U.S. Skiing. "But the short-burst, anaerobic requirements of downhill sports like alpine skiing, snowboarding, and telemarking demand interval training as well." Johnson suggests interval training at least once a week, working up to ten 60-second efforts (with 60 seconds of rest between efforts) per session. Choose any venue you like--the track, stadium steps, country roads that invite cycling--as long as you do the intervals at near all-out levels. "You can also get the same training effect by mountain biking in the hills," adds Johnson. "That's the natural interval workout."

As for building your muscles, that takes place in a decidedly less natural setting: the gym. But doing the following exercises a couple of times a week will yield benefits on the snow. With a little dedication now, you can have an ibuprofenless winter.


Work the Rib Cage-to-Hip Zone
It's the relative efficiency with which we ski downhill that makes the sport so demanding. The supportive boots and stiff skis take the onus off our ligaments and other connective tissues and put it on some of our biggest muscles (the quadriceps and hamstrings) and some of our smaller muscles--namely the erector spinae, in the lower back. Guess which ones typically give out first?

The erector spinae, cordlike muscles that run along either side of the backbone, play a crucial role in stabilizing the torso and keeping a skier's weight centered through a turn. An efficient turn also involves what's called rib compression, when your shoulder tips closer to your hip, which demands work from the abdominal obliques, quadratus lumborum, and other muscles of the lower back. Dane Thomas recommends a "rib cage to hip" program as part of any downhiller's regimen:

Back hyperextensions: These develop not only the erector spinae, but the stabilizing abdominal and gluteal muscles as well. Using a hyperextension machine (photo 1), slowly raise your torso until it's horizontal, keeping your hands behind your neck. Pause before returning at an equally slow pace. Build to three sets of ten repetitions; hold a light weight for greater resistance.

Flying nuns: To work the lower back and obliques, lie prone on a mat. Slowly lift your left leg and right arm as high as you can. Hold for three seconds before slowly lowering. Repeat with the other leg and arm, and build to 15 repetitions per side.


Get Your Flexors Involved

Climb onto telemark skis and you've lost alpine skiing's rigid equipment as well as the reassuring feeling of your joints working in relative synchronicity. "In telly skiing you're creating odd angles that make you work harder," says Brad Larson, an orthopedic surgeon who treats skiers at the Western Surgery Center in Logan, Utah. "You're constantly going down on a bent knee--and only halfway at that--which means your quadriceps has to support that weight and hold it through the turn. It's like doing 500 deep knee bends every time you go down the hill."

But the telemark turn isn't all quads; it requires your hips--specifically the abductors, adductors, flexors, and rotators--to move through their full range of motion. Since leg presses work the quads somewhat exclusively, you need to do deep-flex exercises that will prepare your legs and hips to control your body's weight:

Balance squats: Standing on one leg with your knee slightly bent (photo 2), rest the top side of your other foot on a bench or chair placed a foot or two behind you. Holding your arms out for balance, slowly lower your body three to 12 inches, and then return. Work up to three sets of 30 squats for each leg, dipping lower--and/or holding dumbbells--as you get stronger.

Lunges: Holding a barbell steady on your shoulders and keeping your back straight, take a natural stride forward with one leg and dip with your front knee until you're about one-third of your height closer to the ground. Now slowly push with your front leg and return to the starting position. Do six to ten repetitions per leg, building up to three sets. Add weight to the barbell only after you can comfortably complete the sets.


Maintain That Tiptoe

Anatomically speaking, snowboarding is a relatively subtle sport. Whereas an alpine skiing turn involves a big "heave," or weight transfer from one ski to another, snowboarding turns also require some finer movements of smaller muscles. "Those muscles are in your lower legs," says U.S. Snowboard Team coach Peter Foley. "Your turning originates from your toes and heels, and the follow-through is felt in the shins and calves. It's a lot of strain on muscles that many people forget to prepare."

Furthermore, says Foley, because you're continuously edging on the toe side, spending a day on a snowboard is not unlike spending a day on tiptoe. Add to this the potential rotational strain caused by the angled snowboarding stance--feet usually pointed about 45 degrees from the tip of the board--and you'll understand why snowboarders are prone to shinsplints, ankle sprains, foot cramps, and burning calves. Foley's recommended exercise for aspiring boarders:

Toe raises: With one hand on a chair or wall to steady you, stand on a beam or raised platform with all of your weight on the ball of one foot and slowly bend the weighted ankle and lower your body (photo 3). You should feel the effort in the tibialis anterior muscles, which run down the front of your lower leg. When that ankle is fully flexed, raise your body slowly, concentrating your weight on the contracted calf muscle. Build up to 50 repetitions per leg, and hold a dumbbell for greater resistance.


Build Power Up High
"In nordic skiing, there's a tight tie between upper-body strength and overall performance," says Ken Rundell, sports physiologist at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York. "Skiers with stronger upper bodies tend to move more efficiently, making the most of their energy."

According to Rundell, when a nordic skier goes up a hill, anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of his or her power will come from the upper body as it compresses over and pushes off the poles. "You're using your triceps, lats, delts, and biceps," says Rundell. "Abdominals are important too, because if they're not strong you'll compensate by hyperextending your back during poling, which wastes a lot of energy." In addition to the following upper-body exercises, Rundell recommends rounding out each gym workout with several high-rep sets of abdominal crunches.

Lat pulldowns: These strengthen the latissimus dorsi muscles (below your armpits) as well as the smaller supportive muscles around the shoulder. Sitting beneath the lat pulldown bar on a weight machine (photo 4), grab the handles so that your grip is wide and slowly pull down until the bar gets as far as the base of the front of your neck. Return the bar to its starting position just as slowly and smoothly. Build to three sets of 12 repetitions, adding weight only after you can do the sets comfortably.

Dumbbell rows: This exercise works the upper back as well as the obliques and biceps. With your right knee and hand resting on a weight bench, slowly lift a dumbbell in your left hand straight up. When your elbow can go no higher, hold the position for two seconds and then lower the weight slowly. Work up to three sets of 12 repetitions per side, again adding weight only after the sets become relatively easy.

Sara Corbett has been a skier for 22 years. Her profile of mountain-bike racer Juli Furtado appeared in the August issue.

Filed To: Snow Sports

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