It’s fall and not a snowflake in sight.
But in the daydreams and slumber of skiers and snowboarders, the powder is softer than peach fuzz, the air fresher than newly laundered clothes, and the terrain as inviting as an untrampled beach to a child.
Suddenly, an alarm clock jolts them out of fantasy. It’s the wakeup call for their bodies to start conditioning for the rigors of their favorite snow sports.
If you like skiing and snowboarding but haven’t done anything to train specifically for these sports, now is the time to start, to boost performance and prevent injuries, exercise experts advise.
For the serious skier or snowboarder, dry-land, off-season conditioning is crucial to getting the most mileage from a lift ticket, which you measure by how long you stay on the slopes and how you conquer the moguls, Topper Hagerman said. Hagerman is the owner of Topper Sports Medicine and a consultant at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic/Foundation in Vail, Colo., specializing in snow-sports clinical research and injury rehabilitation.
But the casual skier and snowboarder have as much to gain from preparation, if only to prevent torn ligaments and other injuries, he said.
Exercises for skiing and snowboarding are designed for two reasons: to give you muscle power and endurance and prevent fatigue; and to enhance your flexibility and agility so you can twist, turn and react to changes in terrain without pain. In skiing, you should target the muscles of the thighs - front, back, inner and outer parts - lower back, abs and calves - front and back.
In snowboarding, add to the list the shoulders, arms and wrists, which snowboarders use to support and push themselves off the ground, and emphasize the obliques of the abs because there is a lot of torso twisting in this sport, said Vikki Van Hoosen, Los Angeles-based fitness trainer for seven U.S. Women’s Olympic Snowboarding Team contenders.
Although lower legs, ankles and feet are boot-encased, they need to be strengthened and stabilized because they are responsible for initiating and fine-tuning snowboarding movements and making corrective, balancing adjustments, especially to maintain balance over the front foot, Suzanne Nottingham, senior ski and snowboard instructor at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, said in a report for the American Council on Exercise.
Before beginning a snow-sports-specific program, you must already have a foundation consisting of resistance and cardiovascular workouts, said Saul Blau, exercise physiologist and partner at Health Corp. in Irvine, Calif., a company that designs heart-rate training programs for competitive athletes.
If you’ve been inactive, start with the general aspects of fitness - a basic cardiovascular exercise and weight-training program - for at least two weeks before going into the specific, Hagerman said. “Getting 15 to 20 minutes of exercise three times a week is better than nothing at all,” he said.
Some basic resistance exercises to strengthen the muscles of the lower torso and legs include squats, lunges, hamstring curls, calf raises, crunches, leg curls, leg abduction and adduction and hip abduction using a low pulley machine or ankle weights, back raises and trunk twists.
For the upper body, arms and wrists, you can combine compound exercises such as pushups and pullups with simpler exercises such as lateral and front arm raises, reverse flys using dumbbells, lat pull-downs, shoulder shrugs, rows, bicep curls, tricep push-downs and kickbacks, wrist curls and bench presses.
Choose medium weights and medium intensity for muscle strength and endurance, Blau said, breaking down exercises into three sets of 12 to 15 repetitions, two to three times a week.
Although skiing and snowboarding employ particular muscle groups, you should strive to achieve overall muscular balance as part of reducing risks of injury, Blau said. Remember that muscle groups do not operate in a vacuum - your body is a complicated network of interacting muscles.
For cardiovascular fitness, you can choose a physical activity you enjoy doing, such as working on exercise machines, cycling, running, in-line skating and aerobics.
Still, some sports are undeniably better for skiing and snowboarding than others. Surfing and skateboarding, for example, employ many moves similar to those of snowboarding and are a natural fit.
“Racquet sports are fantastic (for skiing),” Hagerman said. “Generally, it can be tennis, racquetball or squash. I like cycling - it can be stationary, road or mountain biking. Other exercises include using step machines, swimming with fins, aqua jogging, rowing, in-line skating, power-walking outside or on a treadmill.” Mix up your exercise program with cross-training to keep your body and mind challenged, he said.
It’s important to include stretching in your program - again, to prevent muscle injury. “Thirty minutes several times a week is ideal,” Hagerman said, “but most people don’t have that time, so do what you can.”
How much time you devote to exercises specific to skiing and snowboarding depends on how physically conditioned you are and what time you realistically have for a workout. Keep in mind that basic conditioning is the first order of business. Substitute some of the sports-specific drills for your regular exercises two to three times a week.
That’s what serious snowboarders and skiers do, knowing the incredible value of dry-land, off-season training.
Laguna Beach, Calif.-based Donna Vano, 44, a contender for the U.S. Women’s Olympic Snowboarding Team, said she in-line skates several times a week for exercise and competition during the off-season, maintaining her fitness level as she competes against younger snowboarders.
Vano skateboards on a half-pipe and uses her mountain bike throughout the year. She also does “extreme gardening” on the grounds of her home in Lake Tahoe. “I treat every single portion of my housework and gardening chores as a workout, from moving rocks around to putting bricks out in the garden to carrying laundry,” she said, laughing. “I try to think of each muscle group I’m using as I’m doing these.”
“It just makes me really in tune and stay focused as far as my competition level. I feel stronger every year and am not the stereotype of an older athlete who deteriorates. This is my fourth season of snowboarding.”
Triathlete Gary Biehl, 43, of Irvine skis a minimum of 15 days on the slopes as a member of the Mountain High ski patrol. A few months ago, he joined Simply Fit, a local cycling club, to beef up his riding abilities, as cross-training for skiing. This summer, he has put in 100 miles weekly on his bike. He also runs on pavement 20 to 25 miles a week. After a couple of months of cycling with the pack, Biehl underwent a second set of tests at Health Corp.
“I saw appreciable gains in my level of fitness,” Biehl said with a wry grin. “Those guys just crush me, and I’m trying to keep up.”
Biehl, who had a laminectomy and knee cartilage surgery; Vano, who is among the oldest of the female Olympic snowboarding team contenders; and other wise snow-sport enthusiasts know conditioning makes all the difference on the slopes: It transforms those dreams of carving through peach fuzz-soft powder against sapphire-blue skies into a heart-pounding and adrenaline-pumping reality.