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Better With Age

Better With Age

Fitness
By Moira McCarthy
posted: 08/06/2002

Carol Larson was not at the peak of her ski life. Just past 57 and recovering from knee surgery, she was ready to bag the sport for good. Then her husband presented an idea: If she were to spend the season, the whole season, living at their ski home in Stowe, Vt., skiing might just become fun for her again. "I bit," Larson says, "and I never looked back." Now 63 and completely recovered from the surgery, she's skiing more than 70 ski days per season, taking on steeps, braving bumps and feeling like "the new Suzy Chapstick."

Larson is in the minority, though. Across the nation, ski resorts are watching the number of aging skiers decline. At the four mountains that constitute Vail Resorts, skiers 55 and older made up about 12 percent of all visitors in the 1997-98 season. In the 2000-01 season, they made up just below 10 percent. When you couple this with the fact that the U.S. population over 45 is increasing, Vail Resorts Manager of Marketing Research Rachel Hancock says the ski industry has good reason to worry.

The news here isn't that we're all aging and can't ski. Rather, it's that with proper training and a bit of effort, skiers can get better as they age. Older skiers have experience, patience and, often, better judgment and more time to devote to improving. Rather than dropping out, skiers can use their experience to become better than ever.

Larson is a case in point. She's also a study in how to make it happen. Her first step was to start a good training and nutrition program immediately. "At first it was hard to connect it all to what was going to happen on the slopes," she says. But after a summer and fall of both cardio and weight training, coupled with a nutrition program, she saw benefits. "Even during the first run, I felt the difference. I could control the hill better."

Bob King, a retired physical therapist who's now a ski ambassador at Copper Mountain, Colo., knows what she means. "I am noticing that as I get older, it is more important to be physically fit to ski," says the 57-year old. The reason is physiological: As we get older, our joints get stiffer, our cardiovascular performance declines and our muscles get weaker. Studies show that between ages 25 and 50, we lose, on average, 4 percent of our muscle mass per decade, and 10 percent per decade after that. At the same time, from age 20 to 65, the average American doubles his or her body fat level. Fortunately, experts agree that regular exercise, including strength and cardio workouts, can stem this decline and keep you fit and strong as you age.

To stay on top of your skiing game, as Larson has, it's important to prepare for the hill in three ways: physical training, nutrition and equipment selection.

PHYSICAL TRAINING
Getting tuned for skiing requires more than hitting the gym two weeks before the lifts open: You need to have a preparation season, the main ski season and a cool-down season each year to make it work. Experts recommend working on four areas: cardiovascular endurance, strength, balance and flexibility. Following are suggested exercises for each.

  • Cardio
  • Aim to swim, bike, walk or run for about 30 minutes, three to four days per week. Start with 15 minutes, and increase workout times slowly, adding no more than five minutes per session.

  • Strength
  • If you haven't been weight training, don't jump in and try to lift the same weights you did in your 20s. Start small and add weight slowly, no more than five pounds per session. Work both upper and lower body, as well as your abs and back, and be sure to train opposing muscle groups (e.g., hamstrings and quads, triceps and biceps) equally. Aim to strength-train two to three nonconsecutive days per week. To get you started, here are two strength exercises that you can do without weights:

    The wall sit: An old standard, it still does the job. Standing with your back against a wall, squat as if sitting in a chair. Keep your knees aligned dectly above your ankles. Hold for 30 seconds. Every other session, add 10 seconds to this.

    The alpine bump exercise: Stand in skiing position with your knees flexed. Squat down and up for 60 seconds in the range you use while skiing. Don't let your knees go in front of your toes. Add 15 seconds to the drill each session.

  • Balance
  • A good balance exercise is to stand on one foot with your eyes closed for one minute. As you improve, try it on a less stable surface, such as a pillow.

  • Flexibility
  • King recommends stretching daily to maintain muscle elasticity, which decreases with age but is vital for skiing. Suggested stretches include:

    For the hamstring: Stand facing a staircase in your home. Put your left foot close to the bottom step as if you were going to step up with your right foot. Instead, raise your right heel and place it on whichever stair gives you the best stretch (for most beginners it is the third stair). Hold the stretch for one minute, and then switch legs and repeat.

    For the quadriceps: Again, stand facing the stairs. With your left hand, hold on to the banister. With your right hand hold on to the top of your right foot and pull it straight toward your buttocks, being careful not to kick your knee out to the side. You should feel the stretch on the front of your thigh. Hold for one minute, and repeat with your left leg.

    For more stretches and tips on proper stretching, visit www.skimag.com and type in the keyword "stretching."

    NUTRITION
    It's not news that we need to eat better as we age. But the reason why may come as a surprise to many. As we age, our bodies' ability to absorb calcium and vitamin D decreases, which takes a toll on bone health and makes fractures more likely. We also have a harder time absorbing vitamin B12, which is needed for normal nerve function. We need to eat a diet rich in these nutrients (try salmon, tuna, oysters, dairy products, barley and oatmeal), and some experts recommend taking supplements of each. The aging body also needs more water than ever, and a decreased thirst sensation is common with seniors. Skiers should drink at least eight glasses of caffeine-free fluid daily.

    EQUIPMENT
    Modern equipment, despite making the sport significantly easier, isn't always easily embraced by seniors. "Younger skiers want the latest, hottest stuff," King says. "I ski with older people all the time, and I look at them and say, 'You know, those were new and advanced skis-in about 1970!' I believe in technology. There's a reason why skis are shaped now. There's a reason why cotton is called 'death cloth.' That old gear just isn't helping you anymore. You need to update."

    Best advice? Buy clothing made with performance fabrics, and demo equipment until you find the right skis. Then buy them. As for boots, bootfitters have made the days of aching feet almost obsolete. Spend the extra cash and have your boots fitted just for you. Aging skiers need to take good care of their feet. The cost (around $150) is worth it.

    In the end, keeping your ski spark comes down to a simple change. You aren't that 20-year-old who could party all night and hit the slopes first thing with no preseason workout. You are, however, the skier who has the means and brains to set up a year-round training and nutrition program, to purchase the best equipment and to dig into a season for all it's worth. Like a fine wine, a long-savored ski run gets better with age. So can you.

    Race To The Finish

    To catch your second wind, consider racing. While freeskiing, you make turns when and where you want. Racing forces you to turn at the gates, which ultimately improves your technique. The most widespread racing option is Charles Schwab Nastar, a program created by SKI Magazine in 1968 that is available at more than 100 resorts nationwide. The Nastar ranking system is similar to a golf handicap, allowing you to gauge your improvement from one race to the next. Nastar offers age groups in five-year increments, ranging up to the 85-and-over category. For more information, visit nastar.com or call 212-779-6600. To take it to the next level, try Masters racing. The USSA Masters Program¿in which adult skiers up to 80 years old race on world-class courses¿has champion skiers who never raced until their 40s or 50s, says program coordinator Bill Skinner. For details, visit www.usskiteam.com, click on "alpine," then "masters." Or call 435-647-2633.

    Health Hit
    With strength training, a 65-year-old may be able to increase his or her strength to equal that of a 45-or-50-year-old.. Nastar offers age groups in five-year increments, ranging up to the 85-and-over category. For more information, visit nastar.com or call 212-779-6600. To take it to the next level, try Masters racing. The USSA Masters Program¿in which adult skiers up to 80 years old race on world-class courses¿has champion skiers who never raced until their 40s or 50s, says program coordinator Bill Skinner. For details, visit www.usskiteam.com, click on "alpine," then "masters." Or call 435-647-2633.

    Health Hit
    With strength training, a 65-year-old may be able to increase his or her strength to equal that of a 45-or-50-year-old.

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