As SKI's resident fitness expert, I continually trumpet the benefits of ski-specific workouts. It seems obvious: The fitter you are, the better you'll ski. But the value of fitness is hard to quantify, and keeping in shape gets harder every winter. The natural tendency-despite our best intentions-is to struggle through the season and pledge to work out harder next year.
Last fall, I traveled to Lake Tahoe for the North American Ski Training Center's dryland training camp, a weekend of ski-specific coaching that crystallized for me the connection between fitness and performance. The clinic's stroke of brilliance-what sets it apart from the pedestrian masses of ski-fit classes and workshops-is this: First, using inline skates, it takes you through the exact movements you use on the hill. Then, skilled coaches demonstrate how particular strength and stretching exercises help you better perform those specific motions. Once you feel the connection, it's hard not to be inspired.
The clinic begins on a crisp October morning in the Alpine Meadows Resort's parking lot, surrounded by towering firs and rock-ribbed peaks. I-along with 16 other avid skiers, who range from inline whizzes to never-evers-don rental skates, a helmet, kneepads, elbow pads and wrist guards. Instructors Mike Hafer and Debbie Sumner lead the group through a half-hour primer on slowing down, stopping and falling. "It's all about learning control," Debbie says. "If you don't feel like you're in control, you can't focus on your form-you're just trying to survive."
Once we're all relatively upright, Mike and Debbie set up cones and run us through drills. "Skating is the closest you can get to skiing movements," Debbie explains. "Is it exact? No, but it's darn close." The skating she's referring to isn't what you see on your average bike path. Instead of using an aggressive forward motion in which the legs work independently, we practice keeping both skates on the ground, rolling our ankles laterally to make parallel turns.
"That's looking good," Mike tells me after I've run the cone course. "Just make sure you turn with your ankles, not your upper body." I've heard that advice before, though it's usually after I've bungled my way through a mogul field. The parallels between my skating and skiing flaws are all too clear.
After lunch, we split into two groups. The novice skaters continue working on parallel turns around the cones, while the advanced group progresses to hopping and one-legged drills to improve balance and edging skills. NASTC staff members shoot video of us, which we review later that afternoon. I cringe as I watch my torso steer my body through the cones and my knees come together, creating the dreaded A-frame. Tomorrow will be different, I vow.
Day Two starts at 9 a.m., and this time we're flat on our backs in the Alpine Meadows lodge. Instructor Malcolm Ridenour is ticking off the benefits of Pilates, a strength and stretching discipline that helped him rehab a back injury. "I was skeptical at first, but it's like I have a different body now," he says. "I'm so much more flexible, and my core is solid." As we stretch our hips, glutes, hamstrings and other key muscle groups-using our stomach muscles to keep our bodies stable-synapses begin to fire.
"I get why I'm A-framing," I say to Malcolm after class. "My muscles are too tight for me to roll both ankles over and still keep a space between my knees." Pleased with his new disciple, he shows me another stretch that will help loosen my hips and make it easier to get into a strong ski position.
Next up is a Q&A and fitness session with Emily Miller, who has trained elite athletes, including Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley. Before long, it's a workout circus. First, we're up on picnic tables cranking out sets of squats and lunges. Then, in groups of three or four, we cycle through stations of plyometric jumps, rope-ladder agility drills, balance-board sessions and fitness-ball eexercises. Emily shows how each exercise ties in to what we've been doing on skates and what we will be doing on skis.
"Notice how stable my core is," she says, as she demonstrates a maneuver on the fitness ball. "I can shift my lower body to the side and my upper body stays put. That's exactly what needs to happen on the hill."
After lunch, we head out for our final skating session. Sufficiently stretched, my legs begin to look more like two L's than an A. "Nice work!" Debbie calls, as I weave through cones, keeping my stomach muscles tight and my upper body, well, at least quieter than it was yesterday. What's more, I'm leaving with confidence that the connection between fitness and ski performance is no fuzzy theory. It's a fact you can take to the hill: Train now, ski better later.
Click on the slideshow below to view the exercises.