Take a Break, then Get Outside.
I’ve never “coached” skiing, unless you count a few questionable sessions with my young daughters (during which they told me, in no uncertain terms, that they preferred that I simply be “Dad,” and not a ski instructor). But I do coach hockey goaltenders, and have been doing so for more than 20 years. There are many parallels. Chief among those is an old adage: “Champions are made in the off season.”
The adage holds true across a broad spectrum of sports. While the summer may be the least likely season to be thinking about skiing, it’s the best time of year to get your body ready for the rigors of the slopes.
Few people know that better than Peter Dodge. The former professional racer is the longtime head coach of the Dartmouth College alpine ski team. And while Dodge’s squad is comprised of young men and women close to their athletic prime, his advice applies to skiers of almost any age.
“Yes, champions are made in the off season,” said the 62-year-old Dodge. “This can be off snow as well as on snow. A lot of gains can be made off snow, especially in strength and fitness.
“Improving on-snow performance, technique and tactics, can be a very long and slow process, especially for an older skier whose habit are well established,” he said. “Improvement of just a few percent is good.”
Conversely, Dodge said “big gains” can be made during the summer months. “They just require hard work and time,” he said.
There’s the rub. Skiing is fun. Ski racing, for the serious competitor, is fun. That’s why they do it. That’s why we do it. I see this with my hockey goalies all the time. No one has to convince them to play games. But training – especially off-season training – is another matter altogether.
First, though, just chill for a bit. The start of the off-season is not only a great time to assess where you are, and where you want to get to, but also to recharge your batteries. Many folks – from committed ski racers to Type A weekend warriors – hit the hill so hard during the winter and spring that they end the season wound tighter than a coiled spring.
“Skiers at all levels need to take some down time to physically and especially mentally recover,” said Dodge, adding that he suggests “a minimum off two weeks with nothing scheduled, sleep in, read a book listen to your body.
“Most athletes will have a hard time sitting still for even a few weeks, so they will be ready to go soon,” he said. “In the spring start off with fun activities, hiking, biking, surfing, games, sports, be active but keep it fun. Gradually build up your training plan.”
The key word there is “gradually.” If you’ve taken a well-deserved rest, ease back into your training. Otherwise, you risk injury, which will only set your timetable back. Weather permitting, get outside, and enjoy Mother Nature’s playground.
“Most skiers are active outdoors people who like to bike, hike, run, and play other sports,” said Dodge. “Getting out and a playing is better than hitting the treadmill at the gym. You’ll enjoy the fresh air. Working out or playing games with other people, you’ll work harder. Mix it up and work out with people who are a little better than you at different activities. Bike with the local bike group, join a tennis league, play pick-up soccer, martial arts, etcetera.
“Mountain biking is great because it gets you out in the mountains that we all love,” he said.
“It also helps you with balance, timing and finding the right line and can be a killer workout on the climbs if you don’t ride the lift. Tennis, racquetball, squash are great indoor sports for getting your feet moving, and working on your reaction skills. Soccer is great for conditioning and foot skills. I’m not much of a beach person, but surfing has to be a great way to get a feeling for the flow and freedom of skiing.”
As an avid windsurfer, I have to agree with Dodge. Same for kite boarding. Both will also work your upper body, as well as your legs and your core. All of those come into play on the slopes.
Furthermore, if you’ve ended your season with a few distinct ache and pains, there are certain precautions you can take while still keeping active.
“Skiers often suffer from bad backs and knees,” said Dodge. “You should do as many ground-based activities as possible. However, if you need to give those knees and your back a rest, all forms of biking are great. Get in the pool – or better, the lake or ocean – and swim. Try Rollerblades (or inline skates). To keep everything aligned and moving together, take a yoga class. Try a good aggressive sports massage; they can get you back in tune.”
General fitness is always a laudable goal. But strength and cardiovascular capacity are the foundation of a skier’s fitness.
“You have to have both,” said Dodge, adding that flexibility is also crucial for performance and injury prevention. “For stretching, I prefer to focus on an active warm-up. Get your body temperature up and get your muscles and joints moving. Cool down after a tough workout with easy walking or spinning. Joint and muscle mobility exercises with rollers, balls, etcetera, should follow your workouts. Active yoga classes are great.”
Finally, there’s the grunt work. It’s the rare athlete that “enjoys” weight training. Pumping iron requires commitment and discipline. But there’s no question that weight training, done correctly, pays enormous dividends.
“The Dartmouth team starts lifting in the gym about a month after the end of the season,” said Dodge. “The lifting program is part of year round progression. The spring is focused on general strength and/or recovering from those chronic seasonal injuries, three days a week. The summer program is three to four days a week of strength, alternating leg days with core/upper body days.”
The Dartmouth team, he said, concentrates on progressing from building strength to developing power.
“In the fall, we seek to maintain strength, continue to develop power and turn those gains into active more ski-related movement through agility drills and plyometrics, like jumping,” said Dodge. “Along with the strength program, we build in aerobic and anaerobic sessions and intervals. We start with building a solid base, and move to more intense intervals to simulate the loads of ski training and competitions.”
The entire time, Dodge intentionally blends in a variety of sports “to keep it fun and to build athletic reactions and competitiveness.” His favorite strength- and power-training exercises are full-body efforts that can be done in almost any gym with just a bar and squat rack, including the following:
• Legs – Squats, lunges, and Romanian deadlifts (focusing on hamstrings).
• Upper body – Pull ups and dips.
• Core – Russian Twists, and anything on a physioball or Bosu ball for stability, hitting key areas (abs and back), emphasizing stabilization and rotation.
Dodge is also a proponent of ski-specific equipment that more closely mimics movements on the racecourse or trails.
“The Skiers Edge machine is a good option to get the skiing muscles working,” he said. “We were recently able to get on one of the active video ski simulators like the ones the US Ski Team has in Park City. These are starting to pop up in some areas, and are a great way to get the skiing feeling and to work on some technical skills.”
No matter which workout regimen you choose, be consistent, said Dodge. Mix it up – variety is not only the spice of life, but also a sound fitness approach – but make working out a regular part of your week.
“Number one is to get our everyday and do something active, giving yourself a day off to recover,” said Dodge. “But don’t forget to get in the gym and put in at least two days a week on a strength program. You need to be fit to ski but you have to have the strength to perform and to be safe.”