If you’re a serious backcountry skier, you have to be in pretty good shape. Competing in skimo races and even doing regular winter dawn patrols takes months of workout preparation. You’ve probably been running, doing interval training to build up your endurance for the uphill slog, and maybe even doing some strength training for ripping the downhill portion. But are you addressing the specific demands of ski mountaineering?
Strength training is an integral part of ski training, but it’s also important to address ski-specific movements and situations. According to Hayley Krzezowski , Manager and Sports Performance Coach at the Athletic Republic performance sports training center in Park City, “In order to get the most out of your ski training, you want to focus on specific activities that translate to performance, not on simply piling on the weights and spending a ton of time in the gym.”
As an example, she cites the leg press machine. Most people will simply run through their reps, focusing on the “push,” or concentric, part of the movement. But in order to be ready for anything on downhill runs, equal attention needs to be given to the eccentric phase of the movement, when you’re lowering the weights back to the starting position. This is training the muscles that work the hardest to absorb force as you ski. So instead of just presses, be sure to work “negatives” into your workout—press up, take one foot off, and slowly go down. Overloading the leg like this gets it used to high-load situations like navigating a field of crud or cornering through a high-speed turn.
The low-budget, at-home version of this work would be to set yourself up in a lunge with your back leg up higher, balanced on a bench, chair, or stair step. Drop that back leg as far as you can, being careful to not let your front knee drive over your ankle. Do as many slow reps as you can, then repeat on the other leg.
One essential, but often overlooked, body part is the hip flexor. The uphill portion of a race, or the push to get to fresh snow before that crowd at the trailhead, places huge demands on this relatively small but hugely important muscle. There are several ways you can give it some help so it’s not holding you back on the snow. At Athletic Republic, they have a very specific training tool for the hip flexor: running on a steeply inclined treadmill with resistance bands attached at the thighs and calves.
You can get somewhat the same effect with a more low-tech approach using ankle weights; be sure to set the treadmill as steep as it will go. Also, do not strap on weights any greater than two or three pounds. A little goes a long way here.
Everyone knows that core strength is important for good skiing, but many mistakenly equate abdominal strength with core strength. The two are not synonymous. According to Krzezowski, the core includes the entire hip girdle, which is the source of most of your power and stability. So instead of doing endless crunches, focus instead on exercises that build what AR calls “functional core strength,” building strength in the way it will be called upon to function on the hill. Hip stability is a key to this and is easy to work on using an agility ladder or even just the lines painted on a basketball court.
With the agility ladder, you can hop in and out of the squares on one foot, both forward and backward or side-to-side; the standard “Ickey shuffle” is also an excellent tool. If you don’t have an agility ladder, even simply hopping back and forth over a free-throw line on a basketball court—front to back and side to side, at 45-degree angles—will do. The possibilities are endless with patterns. Just be sure to keep your hips square and stable while your feet move outside of your center of mass. These exercises, which are usually thought to be useful only for a season of football or basketball, could make a huge difference on your next rando race or five-day hut-to-hut ski trip.
Another useful tool for building hip/lower core stability and strength is a Thera-band (mini exercise band). There are two main movements that you should focus on–sidestepping and the “monster walk.” You can go back and forth across a set distance like a basketball court, or just go until it burns. “You can’t do too many of these,” says Krzezowski.
An important, but often overlooked, aspect of effective skiing is ankle dorsiflexion. This flexibility and strength in the ankle is what enables you to press against the front of stiffer boots (as many of the latest AT boots are), and to keep pressing even as you begin to tire. There are two aspects to ankle flexion: the strength of the anterior tibialis muscle, and calf flexibility. The former is surprisingly easy to address—you can do it right now. Simply lift your toes as high as they can go, and hold the position until your shins start screaming. Relax, repeat at will. Calf stretches can be as simple as standing on a stair step and dropping a heel, but to address specific tight spots Krzezowski advises using a foam roller or a trigger point roller.
If you’re hitting the gym with getting into the backcountry in mind, add some of these moves to your weekday fitness routine. Whether you’re simply getting the most out of your venture into unspoiled wilderness or getting the better of the race-day competition, it’s a relatively small investment that could pay big dividends.