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How ski fitness can help you improve, avoid injury and harness 'sixth sense'

You know you're a skier when winter daydreams involve swooping down sparkling slopes on far off majestic mou...

Posted: Jan. 6, 2019 12:28 PM
Updated: Jan. 6, 2019 12:28 PM

You know you're a skier when winter daydreams involve swooping down sparkling slopes on far off majestic mountains.

So when your precious ski trip does come around, it pays to have done a bit of preparation.

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And for most of us, that means a little work on our fitness.

You don't have to be an Olympic athlete, or even a gym-obsessed fitness freak, but a bit of ski-specific exercise in the built up to your break will help you ski better, for longer. Even taking the stairs instead of the elevator can be a good start.

"A lot of people are regretful they weren't fitter ... but busy lives take over," says Tom Saxlund, founder of New Generation ski school which operates in the French, Swiss and Austrian Alps.

"I see a big difference in clients who are active and those who aren't."

READ: 18 stunning images from the world's best ski photographers

'Weekend warriors'

Some gentle "pre-hab" could also help prevent injury.

"Ultimately, it's super simple. If you don't fall over, you're not going to hurt yourself," says Chris Maher of Ski Physio, which runs chartered physiotherapy clinics in 10 resorts in the French Alps.

"Anything you can do to stop yourself falling is a good thing: so be better at skiing -- get ski instruction; use the right equipment; and be fitter for your sport.

"If you're one of those people we call a 'weekend warrior,' where they do nothing and then suddenly turn up and think they're 21 again -- they seem to have big problems. When muscles get fatigued the more chance there is of making mistakes and falling over.

"However, if people go to the gym, do a bit of running or cycling, their muscles seem to be able to cope a little bit better."

READ: How Special Forces training is speeding up US downhillers

Power sport

Having a decent cardiovascular base is a good foundation, and speeds up recovery from exercise, but the more advanced you become the more it becomes about power, according to Jeff Lackie, coach to US superstar ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin.

"Even though Mikaela makes slalom look effortless, much like a figure skater or a ballerina moving gracefully across the stage, there is a huge power component to that which makes that huge bound or series of tight turns look effortless," says Lackie.

READ: Mikaela Shiffrin: How to train an Olympic champion

READ: Mikaela Shiffrin on idolizing Roger Federer and why she won't be objectified

At the extreme end of the sport, John McBride, head coach for the US men's speed team, has taken his charges on Special Forces training camps to work on their physical and mental fitness.

Training for squad members is "very extensive" and incorporates an almost year-round cycle, with aerobic- and technique-driven training in spring, followed by a power block with strength and plyometric training, and then more sports-specific work closer to race season.

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But for the average skier McBride says "consistency" of any kind of training is key, rather than a two-week blitz before a trip.

"Most people don't recognise the loads that are demanded. The faster you ski, the fitter you need to be to handle the forces, so you need to get some good strength in the quads and hamstrings," he says.

"If the average skier can spend a little bit of time working on core and leg strength, those are two great components that will benefit their skiing. I'm a big fan of cross training in any kind of capacity."

READ: World's 12 best places to go heli-skiing

'Good at skiing badly'

Saxlund says holiday skiers should think about the movements they make while skiing and then try to replicate that in their training.

"We generally ski for about a minute before we stop so any kind of exercise for the legs such as squats or lunges -- from eight to 10 weeks out if you are really committed -- will make a big difference," says Saxlund, who even suggests calf raises to help alleviate the familiar sore calves early in a ski trip.

"A lot of our customers make the same movement pattern again and again and so they're very good at skiing badly. It's about replacing that old movement pattern with something different.

"But as a ski instructor it's harder to help people who have low levels of fitness because it's harder to learn when muscles are tired and stiff and sore."

READ: 10 of the best "hidden gem" ski resorts in Europe

'Element of magic'

Lackie is another advocate of ski-specific training.

"Our sport is done from our feet, we're carrying our body weight and carrying forces of gravity and moving it in very random and variable ways," he says.

"So we're trying to find movements that replicate the sport's movements instead of doing intervals on a bike or an ergo that don't necessarily replicate the positions you're going to be in while skiing.

"Not that everything needs to be sport specific, but when you feel the lactic acid as a by-product of hard physical work it should in some way replicate how you're going to experience those sensations in your own sport.

"There is that mind-body connection. We want to make sure that what Mikaela experiences in preparation is what she experiences in competition."

READ: How northern Norway is skiing's new frontier

But skiing isn't all about brute force, which is why input from instructors such as Saxlund is crucial.

"We have a lot of people say that once technique improves, the actual physical effort decreases because they're in balance more of the time and they're making more efficient movements," says Saxlund.

"They often say, 'I didn't think it could feel this easy.' When you make the right movements there's almost an element of magic to it."

READ: Kilian Jornet: Speed climber dances twice in Everest 'death zone'

Sixth sense

Despite the folklore of skiing being a breeding ground for injury, the statistics suggest otherwise. For every 1,000 skier days in France, there were only 2.57 injuries, according to figures compiled by its mountain doctors' association, Medecins de Montagne, in 2016-2017.

While figures have remained broadly the same for at least 10 years, Maher suggests an increase in fitness, better skis, boots and bindings, higher quality instruction and improved slope grooming have contributed to a reduction in some types of injury.

"There is an element of danger in skiing, but it's actually quite small," says Maher, who advocates warming up with ski specific movements at the start of the day rather than stretching. "It's rare we see certain fractures now."

Among skiing injuries in 2017-2017, 34% were knee injuries and of those, 18% were anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL).

According to studies into female footballers in the US, women are more than four times more likely to rupture an ACL than males, says Maher, who adds researchers think hormonal, biomechanical and bone issues could be involved.

Snowboarders made up only 12% of the eight million slope users in France, but of those injured, 28% were fractured wrists. Only seven percent of those wore wrist guards. Collisions accounted for 13 percent of accidents.

READ: 9 of the world's best private ski resorts

'Positive mental attitude'

One way of trying to reduce accidents that could lead to injuries is by improving your "sixth sense" or proprioception -- the awareness of relative positions of your body and the strength of effort needed for movement -- says Maher.

Simple exercises such as balancing on one leg for as long as you can, and then trying it with your eyes shut, for example, is a good way to train the brain for activities such as skiing.

"When you start to lose control for whatever reason, it's about how quickly you can regain control," he says. "We have definitely seen that getting the muscles to work better in unison with the brain -- this proprioception mechanism -- seems to be super helpful."

The message is clear: a little physical effort beforehand will reap big rewards when you hit the slopes. And that's before you factor in the mental approach to skiing.

"Having a positive mental attitude and remembering you're there to enjoy yourself and have fun would be a big help to a lot of people," says Saxlund.

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