Every year, it's the same dream. In the weeks before ski season, I spend my nights floating down infinite powder runs, accelerating effortlessly through arced turns until I'm flying off knolls and only occasionally brushing the earth. I am all-seeing and nimble, relaxed and agile. Skiing's Platonic form.
And then I go skiing. The first turn is awkward and committed halfheartedly. The second is only marginally better. This is nothing like the dream. I remember that I've spent the past eight months riding bikes, running a bit, and hiking generally going forward. Forward is my plane of motion, and I own it. But skiing exists on multiple planes. Breaking out of those ingrained movement patterns requires conscious thought. I must exert myself physically simply to move laterally. It's as if the quick-response messages are jammed up in the wiring. Days and sometimes weeks go by before the ski legs are back and I can once again move fluidly downhill.
Like an unused muscle, athleticism itself atrophies. I notice this not only on alpine skis but when I go for my first trail run in the fall or even just ice-skating with the kids. And I especially feel it during early-season nordic skate-skiing the one sport I do that seems to tap every bit of my cardiovascular system, muscle strength, and coordination. "Cross-country skiing is the repetitive application of power in undulating terrain, on a slick and unstable surface," says U.S. nordic team coach Pete Vordenberg. "There are long, steep uphills and superfast, twisting downhills. It requires agility."
Vordenberg's racers incorporate agility into their strength training by means of ladder drills (fast feet) and plyometrics (old-school box jumps and the like). But even weekend jocks can benefit from working agility training into their routines. The basic agility moves you were taught in junior-high PE like running through cones on a gym floor or lawn are fine to start with. But the problem with these routines is that they quickly become just that: routine. And even if you're getting faster or stronger, your body soon stops learning anything new from the same motions. This is why the state of the art in agility training takes a purposely chaotic approach challenging the body in new and unpredictable ways to hone reaction time, recovery, and balance.
It's like that scene in Rocky II where Mick has Balboa chase a chicken around an empty Philadelphia lot. He lumbers after it stiffly, the chicken gets away, and Rocky says he feels like a "Kentucky-fried idiot." Cut to Rocky training in sweatpants and seventies kneesocks jumping, bobbing, weaving, squatting, lifting, twisting and soon celebrating with the hen overhead. To get more agile for your sport of choice, you need to ditch the status quo and chase the chicken.