As alpenglow warms the vacant slopes, you settle at your favorite bar to share best-run-of-the-day tales with friends. You enjoy cold beers and deep-fried pub grub, and before you know it, it's 11 p.m.
Ah yes, après-ski-the reward for a day well skied. But how can you enjoy this ski tradition without sacrificing the next day to exhaustion or a hangover? Exercise and nutrition experts recommend considering the big picture before ordering that pitcher of beer. "Think like an athlete who wants to optimize the next day," says Ed Burke, Ph.D., author of Optimal Muscle Recovery. "It may not be a training session, but skiing can be a high-intensity activity. You're spending all that money to ski; why not optimize the muscle recovery process?"
Burke says hydration is the cornerstone of muscle recovery. Cold, dry air, coupled with the effects of altitude and exertion, can lead to dehydration. If you don't replace lost fluids after skiing, you may wake up with the kind of headache that makes the idea of watching Cheers reruns in the hotel sound more attractive than schussing the slopes. You should drink at least 100 ounces of water on an average ski day (see "Liquid Math" on page 221).
Think of water and sports drinks as indispensable ski buddies that will prop you up long after double lattes and Red Bulls have fizzled out. Realistically, a couple of après-ski beers or glasses of wine with dinner aren't going to put your body in turmoil, but remember alcohol and caffeine are diuretics, which can further contribute to dehydration.
Consider carrying a water bottle in your pocket or using a back-mounted hydration pack filled with water or sports drinks while skiing. After skiing-whether you're on your way to the bar or to the car for a two-hour drive home-gulp down a sports drink that will help to replace carbohydrates, protein, electrolytes and sodium lost during exertion.
In simple terms, the body uses muscle glycogen (or carbohydrates) as its primary fuel for skiing. Therefore, carbohydrates are needed to replenish the glycogen stores at day's end. "You use a lot of glycogen during the day," explains Andrea White, Ph.D., an assistant professor at University of Utah's exercise and sports science department. "Then you have to replace it, and the sooner the better."
That replacement can come in the form of a sports drink or something more solid, such as an energy bar, banana or bagel. Try to eat or drink something healthy within 30 minutes of the end of your ski day. Delay it, and it will take your body a lot longer to refuel. "After you've started the refueling process, you're not as likely to eat and drink as much of the bad stuff when you do meet up with your friends at the bar," says Jackie Berning, Ph.D., a registered dietitian at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. In addition to a healthy snack immediately after skiing, plan to have a balanced, carbohydrate-rich meal within about two hours to complete the refueling process.
Staying hydrated and replacing carbohydrates are the one-two punch of the muscle recovery battle, but a short bout of après-ski exercise and stretching can also be beneficial. "To help your body dispose of the metabolic byproducts of muscle contraction, it's good to do some rhythmic exercise after skiing," White says. A few minutes on a stationary bike in the hotel gym or a short walk around the parking lot will help to flush out the lactic acid from the muscles and distribute it to other needy tissues. The longer the lactic acid sits in the muscles, the more sore and stiff you will feel the next day. "The muscle soreness is like a micro-injury, and the rhythmic exercise is the micro-rehab," White explains.
Stretching can also help to work out the kinks-especially in a skier's hot spots: the legs, hips and back. (For some stretching suggestions, visit www.skimag.com and search under the keywords "après-ski stretch.")
Now it's time to plop into the bubbling hot tub and reeally work out the soreness, right? Well, yes-but again-don't overdo it. Fifteen or 20 minutes can help with muscle soreness and increase the blood flow. However, stay away from the tub if you have joint problems, as the heat can cause unwanted inflammation.
The next item on your agenda should be a good night's sleep. An important growth hormone is released during sleep that helps the muscles repair and recover. This hormone accelerates the absorption of nutrients and amino acids into the cells and helps tissues heal throughout the body. Without adequate sleep, skiers will experience more soreness, muscle fatigue and clumsiness on the slopes the next day. Sleep deprivation also affects the thinking process, including safety judgments.
To keep everything in perspective, think of a day of skiing as a well-balanced meal: Attacking the slopes is the healthy entree, while après-ski is the decadent dessert that cannot be refused. Don't pass on that cold beer with friends, but consider the benefits of declining the third round, getting a good night's sleep and feeling ski-ready the next morning.
Recharge with an après-ski nap: The best nap window is from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. The best napping intervals are 15-30 minutes or a full 90 minutes.