Just Say No To Suffering: Backcountry Fitness For The Masses

As ski-touring season hits full stride, we're here to help take the edge off lung-busting climbs and quad-searing descents.

Getting after it in the mountains is great, but training away from the slopes can make your next tour far more enjoyable.     Photo: Robert Caucino/Getty Images

John Gaston, the 2013 U.S. Ski Mountaineering National champion, knows a thing or two about sliding up and down mountains quickly and efficiently. True, he puts in more time training in month than most of us spend on skis all season, but that means he can help us get into the kind of shape we need to enjoy—not just survive—spring touring. Whether you want to test yourself in an event like the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse, or just go earn a few turns away from the maddening resort crowds, this simple, accessible program can help.

Time: Dedicate a set amount of time each week to your training, including larger chunks on the weekends. “For the average person, someone who has a fulltime job and/or a family," encourages Gaston, "try to get a solid ten hours a week of training in.”

Build Your Base: Get in as much vertical in a week as you can. “There is no substitute for vertical feet. It’s a very honest indicator of the effort you’re putting in,” Gaston says. He suggests one really long, slow day of about 10,000 vertical feet at a medium to easy pace, followed by a shorter, faster interval-type day. No access to the slopes? Try a stairclimber (or a real set of stairs, even if in your office building).

Intervals: Interval training—short bursts of intense effort followed by a period of low or minimal effort—helps both racers and backcountry enthusiasts. For racers, being able to crank up hills and surge past competitors can mean the difference between winning and losing. For laymen, interval training mimics movement through mountains and will help your body respond better to when it must tackle a short, intense climb after a long, steady slog. Intervals also help with pacing by helping you know how long you can sustain a specified speed. Gaston recommends the following intervals:

• One minute on, one minute off, 20 times.

• Four intervals of 15 minutes on, 15 minutes off. “Hill repeats work great for this one. Skin up a hill, rip skins and ski down. That way you get to practice your transitions too.”

• Five-minute intervals with three minutes rest.

Technique: The more efficient you are with your movements while ski touring, the more energy you will have in the long run. “Practice kick turns and gliding. Work on setting a more appropriate skin track, which usually means lower angle. The steeper the skin track, the less you’re going to be gliding. 

Another tip? “Focus on keeping your foot on the ground when you skin. It might not feel like a lot of effort, but when you lift up your ski over a long tour or a race, that adds up to a lot of energy exerted. Focus on pushing and gliding, not stepping, and on dragging your toes on the ground.”

Off-mountain training: There’s no better training than being on the mountain in your gear, but that’s not always possible, so here are some gym exercises: 

• Single-leg squats: Find a step or a box and stand about 2-3 feet in front of it, facing away from it. Put one foot up on the box then sit back down into the squat as you would a regular squat. “These work your quads similarly to a regular squat but they require your body to completely stabilize everything and bring your hamstrings into it, which is good because typically skiers have really strong quads and weak hamstrings, which can lead to knee problems,” Gaston says.

• Jumping lunges: With or without weight, get into a lunge position, and then jump and switch your leading leg. These also build explosive power.

• Uphill treadmill: Treadmills are great for interval training. Warm up for 15 minutes, then start cranking up the incline. Start at 7, move to 10, then ramp it up to 15 degrees.

• Box steps: Step up onto a box and step back down, alternating legs. Put on ski boots and a pack for a harder workout.

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