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How Mountain Athletes Train

The mountain doesn’t care whether or not your guide is in shape, but this Jackson Hole gym does.
posted: 06/30/2014
Mountain Athlete: Skiers, Like Monica Purington, At Work - By Handman Productions

Mountain guides are the backbone of many amazing trips. They dish expert advice, display technical prowess, and must be in stellar shape. This year, the American Mountain Guides Association—a nonprofit dedicated to certifying and supporting American mountain guides—will provide a training regimen for future guides via a partnership with one of the top gyms in the country.

Mountain Athlete, a Jackson Hole gym that trains mountain professionals (skiers, climbers, and mountaineers) to be at the top of their game in the outdoors, is developing the get-fit programs for the future AMGA-certified guides.

We talked with Rob Shaul, founder of Mountain Athlete, and Jordan Smothermon, head coach, about the new partnership, what goes into being a guide, and what it will take to get our butts in shape for next season.

What does it take, fitness-wise, to be a ski guide?

Rob: Our work with AMGA is to develop a program for the initial training of ski guides. During certification courses, these guides are normally skiing at 4,500-foot elevation, so they have to be used to experiencing that pressure every day. They’re going to be stressed out because they’re running drills, they have late nights, and they have trip planning and studying for the next day’s work. It’s a combination of being able to handle the stress and being able to ski everyday. From a fitness perspective, we’re pretty intensive on skinning. We do long events on the weekends that will help develop a stronger core and stronger legs.

Do you have any tips for weekend warriors?

Rob: I read a story some place about a lot of knee injuries happening by the third or fourth day of a weeklong ski vacation, or the third weekend of a season. The first couple of days, the skiers will hit it hard. Then they get tired and injured.

So you need to make sure you prepare yourself for skiing—it is very demanding. Leg strength and core strength are important especially when you’re skiing backcountry. With that leg and core strength, you can control yourself, so these different kinds of strength are a huge focus of our training.

Do you have more tips for backcountry skiers?

Jordan: Backcountry skiers have the uphill to consider, and skinning uphill is an aerobic activity like running or biking. But when skinning uphill, the level of fitness is more specific. If a runner is training on flatland his training might not transfer to the hill. With backcountry, by the time you skin and boot pack, the risk of fatigue is very high. That’s why, for uphill skinning, we make sure to train our athletes as specifically as possible.

For dry-land training, we actually have them skin on a treadmill before the snow arrives. We put the treadmill on higher elevation and have them skin on that first. When we do treadmill skinning, we only have them skin for an hour, however, we make the most out of that hour by moderating the difficulty.

The reason people get injured on the third day of their vacation is because their body moves differently on that third day. This is due to the fact that every muscle, when you ski, moves differently. If you go into the season and hit it hard early, you may get fatigued early as well. When fatigued, you have the risk of injuring yourself. In order to prevent this, we can get a really heavy workout in an hour at high intensity. We have them do some leg and some strength work as well. That way, they feel fatigued just like when they’re skiing.

Kaki Orr at Mountain Athlete. By Handman Productions(Skier Kaki Orr. Photo Courtesy of Handman Productions.)

There's a craze in fitness right now, the CrossFit trend. How does the AMGA-specific program work differently than other programs like that?

Jordan: In general, the further away you are from whatever objective you’re training for determines what your channel of training may be. Say that you’re using CrossFit training. Right now, it’d be great for a skier. But the closer to your fitness objective you get, the more specific your training needs to be. The CrossFit trend is great and has done great things for people in terms of getting them in front of a barbell and helping people show up for training. But, at the same time, if you’re really going to train for your sport, you need to get specific to what you want to do.

When I began training, I always thought I could do squats and it would give me the workout I needed. But the type of strength that we use skiing is not the same type of strength you use to do squats.

And types of strength can differ. Longer days of skiing mean more weight and strength endurance. The goal is to get competing skiers as sport-specifically fit as they can be. But leg strength is what’s missing from these general performance programs. 

What our training really does is respect the mountain. We’re going to respect the mountain by sending our asses up there over-prepared. We do that by training specifically for our sport, by identifying the exact needs of the sport, and putting it into a targeted program. We get our freeskiers, for example, as mountain-specifically fit as they can, so they can spend as much time on the hill as possible. This is going to get them fully prepared for what they are looking for on the mountain.

What do you think the most important advances in training philosophies or principles have been during the last five years?

Jordan: I think the big breakthrough for me is understanding that the more specific you are with training, the better prepared you are. Every sport has its own specific program that we try to train with as we get closer to the season. The closer to the season we get, the smoother the transfer to the hill will be.

Our approach here at Mountain Athlete is really to respect the mountain and understand that the mountain doesn’t care if you’re unfit or not trained. You need to take responsibility for your training. The next big thing to understand is that your body is the most important piece of equipment you own.

It’s better to get six weeks of hard-ass training than a $600 pair of skis. Respect the sport and understand that skiing is demanding. But if you make sure to get ready for it, you will become a better skier and have a much better season.

Here is a sneak peek at an upcoming 10-month series by Handman Productions, a Jackson Hole-based video production company, that focuses on Mountain Athlete’s freeskier training program. The series will highlight elite professionals and talented up-and-comers as they train four days a week from June until the snow flies in November—and juggle the rest of life. Whether they’re slinging burgers and beer to pay for the next comp, putting their professional careers on the back burner, or spending lonely months recovering from injuries, these skier’s lives are about more than “pow and PBR.”

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