Grand Canyon M Lanza Big Outside

Hiking to Ski

Enjoy the Outdoors, Cross-train and Reap the Benefits.

Skiers love getting outdoors. Being in the great wide open is perhaps the biggest attraction of the sport, giving us a chance to enjoy, and appreciate, all of Mother Nature’s stunning, picturesque offerings. So why prepare for ski season indoors, in a gym? Hiking is one of the best cross-training methods for skiers.

“Clearly, there are aerobic and muscular components to skiing, and the same is certainly true of hiking,” said Lafe Low, a Massachusetts-based guidebook author, including the forthcoming 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Boston, and lifelong New England powderhound. “On the way up, you’re working your legs and lungs and heart – good for a long day in tough conditions or even a backcountry excursion.

“Then on the way down, you’re building explosive power as well as training your eye to pick a line and stick it,” said Low, who counts Killington in Vermont among his favorite winter escapes. “I remember thinking that on the way down from Mount Moosilauke (New Hampshire’s 4802-foot “Gentle Giant”), there were plenty of steep sections that were like a bump run. I’d pick the rocks I was going to bounce off and tried like crazy to stick to my line.”

Michael Lanza, an Idaho-based outdoors writer – owner of TheBigOutside.com – and avid backcountry skier, agreed, saying there are three major benefits of hiking for skiers: Power, endurance, and injury avoidance.

“The steeper the terrain you hike, the more you’ll feel the large muscles of the legs, glutes, and core working – and you’ll feel it afterward,” said Lanza, the former Northwest editor for Backpacker Magazine and author of Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks. “That power will push your skis through hundreds of turns, especially in difficult snow conditions.

As for endurance, Lanza said that “hiking is a classic, ‘fat-burning zone’ exercise, where you maintain a heart rate about two-thirds of your maximum heart rate. This builds endurance, (which is) critical for long days or consecutive days on the slopes.”

“(And) nothing sets you up for injury better than jumping back into a physically demanding activity after weeks or months of relative inactivity,” he said. “That risk increases with age. Summer and fall hiking can help you maintain a base fitness level and prep your muscles and connective tissue to start the ski season strong.”

Both Low and Lanza suggested incorporating plenty of variety into your hiking to get the biggest benefit.

“Mix up the hiking, the pace and terrain,” said Lanza. “Put 10 or 15 pounds in a pack on your back to ramp up the difficulty. Hike up and down steep terrain for power and to train your legs for the repeated hammering of downhill skiing.

“Walk at a strong pace or run moderately hilly trails to build endurance and bone density,” he said. “Repeated studies have shown that running is the best exercise for both increasing bone density and for overall fitness and health benefits.”

Low borrows a training technique from Europeans that reflects Lanza’s approach, called fartlek training.

“It basically means long extended periods of exertion with brief bursts of sprinting and agility,” said Low. “So in one outing, you’re ideally working on everything – overall conditioning, endurance, explosive fast twitch muscle response, agility, refining your outlook and eye for picking a line, and maintaining the focus to stick that line.

“It’s certainly not a one-dimensional or linear thing,” he said. “You’re training for your physical capability, your mental outlook, and hopefully having some fun along the way, because that’s what it’s all about.”

Of course, whenever you’re pushing physical boundaries, you need to be concerned about potential injuries. The older you are, the more important it is to “train smart.”

“Walking is a remarkably good exercise, with multiple benefits, and it’s the one activity where we excel as a species,” said Lanza. “Humans evolved to walk long distances. It can build fitness without presenting the risk of chronic injuries – typically to connective tissue in joints – that come with our other sports, like skiing and running.

“Still, any linear activity can result in muscle imbalance,” he said. “Build variety into any exercise program with resistance exercises and cardio in the gym, a mix of outdoor activities like hiking, running, cycling, and skiing – including Nordic – and core work and balance exercises to keep joints like ankles strong. Chronic injuries that develop slowly can often result from imbalance of strength between different muscles. See a physical therapist and stick with physical-therapy exercises that help prevent the injuries to which you’re prone.”

Likewise, Low suggested that hikers “step lively, but step carefully.”

“This is especially true as the wet slippery leaves of late fall blanket the forest floor,” he said. “Wet leaves are like ice rockets waiting to take you down. Just apply the same caution you’d use skiing down something at Mad River Glen to the trail on which you’re hiking or running, and you’ll be fine.”

“Thinking back to that last trip down Moosilauke, while it was fun pretending that rock strewn slide was a bump run, I was abundantly cautious of not snapping an ankle,” said Low. “That’s the last thing you want to do when on a late fall hike or trail run. You don’t want to start the season with your leg in a brace, sipping Irish coffee in the lodge while your buddies are logging first turns.”

Lanza also said he wanted to dispel any notion that “going for hike” requires traveling to far-flung places for multi-day excursions.

“Hiking doesn’t have to involve a lot of driving and a huge time commitment,” he said. “Get out on real trails for long hikes when possible. But you can also take short, fast ‘power’ hikes on paths close to home, and simulate the activity and physical benefits of hiking on flights of stairs or in a gym.”

Finally, Low emphasized that when he encourages outdoor enthusiasts to “mix it up,” he’s talking about more than just hiking.

“I see hiking, trail running, mountain biking, kayaking, anything like that as perfectly complementary to skiing,” said Low. “True, if you held a gun to my head and said pick one activity for the rest of your life it would be skiing without hesitation.

“But all those other things are not only keeping you moving and keeping you in some sort of shape, but also keeping you outside with the woods and the mountains, which is where we all would rather be,” he said.

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