Nothing outside of ski racing itself can emulate the actions and forces one encounters while slicing through slalom gates or flying down a super G course, not even the most “sports-specific” gym routine. That being said, we can do ourselves an extraordinary favor and better prepare for these circumstances through effective training methods.
I frequently tell my athletes and clients that they are like the sports car and I’m like the mechanic. My intention is not to teach them how to drive better (or in this case ski), it is to increase their horsepower and give them a better machine to operate. We are a team, and if I can build a more resilient human, they can turn around and perform at a higher level. Right now is not the time to sulk over our spring ski season being pulled out from underneath or feet, it is about bettering oneself for when it does come back around.
Recently, I wrote an article detailing an in-home workout plan for ski racers that effectively addresses their physical sporting demands. While it was well received, my email inbox was flooded the next day with questions on how to adapt, progress, regress, and change exercises depending on what equipment a person has available or their own abilities. Obviously, there will never be a one size fits all program or magic bullet for everyone, but through intelligent modifications and a realistic understanding of what each of us are capable of doing, we can scale things accordingly.
It is paramount to understand how one can build off of a training session, a training week, and a training month for continued performance gains. Repeating the same exercises, for the same number of repetitions, the same number of times per week will quickly lead to a plateau, therefore it is important to understand how you can take charge of your own training, set goals, and progress in an efficient manner. That’s right, you can still progress right now in certain ways even without a gym.
How many pistol squats can you currently do? In three weeks can you do five more? What’s your best mile time? Can you make it faster in a month? If you haven’t already, now’s the time to set some goals and an action plan on how you will come out of this whole ordeal as a higher performing version of yourself. Below I’m going to highlight some important physiological qualities specific to ski racing, as well as exercise options and training methods to address them. Rather than take you through the endless number of options with which you can change or modify the exercises in my previous article, I’m going to highlight how you can structure your training no matter what is available to you and where your focus should be.
Energy System Development
Most people are left wondering how in the world to get in shape for alpine ski racing. It requires the use of multiple energy system pathways, and the numbers vary slightly depending on what you’ve read, somewhere in the range of 35% aerobic, 40% glycolytic, and 25% phosphagenic (1,4). A relatively high VO2max, anaerobic threshold, and solid aerobic base then are what appears to be most important.
Building an aerboic base is rather easy, as steady state low intensity activity (60-65% max heart) done for 60-90 minutes a clip for multiple weeks does the trick. This is only the base, however, and most people get tripped up on how to progress from there. Continously adding more volume to aerobic base work will prove ineffective and likely lead to burnout. One method I like to use is called maximal aerobic speed training.
I would highly recommend you read Dr. Dan Bakers work if you are interested in this technique, specifically his article titled Recent trends in high intensity aerobic training for field sport (2). None the less, in order to implement this method, one must first establish a baseline to work from. The most-simple method for establishing a maximal aerobic speed is to set a timer for 5 minutes and run as far as you can. This can also be done for biking, rowing, swimming, etc., but for simplicity we will stick with running. From there you will take your distance and divide it by 300 seconds.
So, if you ran 1400 meters/300 seconds, you ran at an average speed of 4.67m/s. To find out your interval speed you should program within your workouts, which should be approximately be 120% maximal aerobic speed, you would take 4.67 x 1.2 to get 5.6m/s. As a quick side note, 120% maximal aerobic speed is the optimal speed with which to train because it allows one to spend the greatest relative time above their VO2max while still recovering before the next interval. Intensities of 130% maximal aerobic speed are too much to recover from in a sensible amount of time and 110% maximal aerobic speed does not provide enough stimulus above the VO2max. From there, you would structure your workout, with an example as shown below:
-Week 1: 20 reps of 15 seconds running 120% MAS, 15 seconds 70% MAS.
-Week 2: 22 reps of 15 seconds running 120% MAS, 15 seconds 70% MAS
-Week 3: 24 reps of 15 seconds running 120% MAS, 15 seconds 70% MAS
-Week 2: 18 reps of 15 seconds running 120% MAS, 15 seconds 70% MAS.
It is a time efficient, proven effect method with which you can ensure you are going to have a bigger, better gas tank next time you find yourself on the mountain. Best of all, it requires no gym equipment and will get you outside.
Strength and Power
Skiing requires an extraordinary amount of anaerobic endurance (or strength/power endurance, whatever term you like) in order to be successful (3). It’s in every skier’s best interest to build a solid strength foundation that allows them to withstand the high forces seen in carving and turning (5). Doing so will not only help performance, but also reduce the relative risk for injury. Similar to the energy system development section that was previously discussed, training complimentary physiological qualities in a sequential manner is the best approach to achieve the desired results. One should not simply pick up the heaviest weight they can find day after day or do lighter weights for maximum reps, week after week with no progression.
The goal is to build a sound movement foundation, followed by increasing work capacity, then maximum strength, and finally sports specific power production. Each area is extremely important, and strength is king amongst qualities that underpins any successful athletic endeavor. Improving the strength and power of a ski racing athlete is extremely important and must be done in manner that addresses their unique physical sporting demands. The core and lower body are of utmost importance in order to be successful, therefore exercise selection should be geared towards those areas.
Furthermore, the way in which the exercises are executed is also important because ski racers encounter concentric (muscle shortening), eccentric (muscle lengthening), and isometric (no change in muscle length) action through nearly each and every turn. Obviously building maximum strength and power will be a difficult task at home if one doesn’t have adequate equipment, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get the ball rolling and still work towards it or help to maintain it. A nice little ace up the sleeve that people often dismiss is isometric training, which as was previously mentioned is an important muscle contraction type in alpine ski racing. Producing at or near maximal force against an immovable object is neurally taxing but also a great way to address the force expression side of things for athletes without availability to heavy equipment (6). One of my favorite exercises for ski racers to do isometrically is a lateral skater squat into a wall.
This is an excellent option because it addresses movement through the frontal plane which is seen during carving. In order to make this movement even more effective, change the joint angle with which you push into the wall. Start low, high, or anywhere in between, but the key is to address as many joint angles as possible while doing so because consistently doing an exercise in one fixed position will be less likely to carry over to the more dynamic versions of it (6). Similar to energy system development, following a periodized plan will prove most effective when seeking strength and power gains. This 10-week sample template is a sound place to start and can be adjusted appropriately to you depending on your available equipment and current levels of fitness.
Weeks 1-4: Functional hypertrophy and work capacity focus
- Sets x Reps: 3×10-12
- Exercises: 5-6 such as single leg squats, pull ups, push-ups, single leg rdls, etc.
- Tempo: Focus on slow controlled reps with a 3-4 second count down and 2-3 second hold at the bottom position of each exercise.
Weeks 5-8: Strength Focus
- Sets x Reps: 4×6-8 (weeks 5&6), 5×1-3 (weeks 7&8)
- Exercises: 3-4 (plus accessory movements and core work) such as heavy squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, etc. **Remember to use isometric training here if you don’t have heavy enough weights
- Tempo: 1-2 second count down and as quickly as possible on the way up
Weeks 9&10: Power conversion focus
- Sets x Reps: 6×2-3
- Exercises: 4 (plus accessory movements and core work) such as broad jumps, medicine ball slams, cleans with a dumbbell or kettlebell, box jumps, etc.
- Tempo: Fast and continuous 2-3 reps in a row for each set, try to explode as quickly as possible.
Ski racing is undoubtedly a skill sport that requires one to have body awareness, balance, finesse, and a certain level of craziness. In order to training these qualities, strength and conditioning coaches like myself can sometimes easily get sucked into creating session that look more like a circus act than they do a balance and coordination one. What I mean by this is just because something “looks like skiing” doesn’t mean it is actually good for your skiing. Squatting in your Lange boots is probably a bad idea, not going to name any names.
Coaches can easily get carried away with balance or neuromuscular coordination, but I do believe it comes from a good place because they understand its value. We must remember that balance is first founded on adequate level of strength, mobility, and stability. From there we can start to incorporate more advance levels of neuromuscular coordination type training. That being said, I refuse to ever allow my athlete to jump on an upside down bosu ball stacked on a box with a barbell loaded on their back because its “so challenging” and testing their balance. Having an athlete slack line between two skyscrapers with the threat of falling off and dying is challenging too but it’s also stupid. Your balance training should be challenging but never put one at risk.
In my last article, I discussed training neuromuscular coordination through the y-balance drill, which can easily be made more difficult by standing on something unstable and repeating the drill. I like to build off of that drill by incorporating the star excursion balance drill which can virtually be done anywhere.
In this drill you can see I’ve laid down some tape and my goa is to reach as far as possible along each line while keeping my stance foot completely ground and returning my traveling leg back to the starting position after each rep.
Similar to the y-balance drill, this exercise challenges one’s single leg stability and mobility through a multi-planar fashion. Other fantastic drills that I will use with my athletes are standing on one leg with their eyes closed, standing in different positions with their eyes closed while somebody gives them some light taps in each direction, hand-stand progressions, rolling exercises, and numerous other gymnastic type movements.
One final drill that’s been popularized by coaches in the ski racing world long before myself is the OSI Indo-Board test. It has a rather steep learning curve which makes it advanced initially, but once you can get it down it becomes remarkably easy. It challenges the bilateral stability of the legs as well as the strength of the core to move through multiple ranges of motion while maintaining a good posture.
Pictured here you can see Kyle Negomir, US Ski Team, practicing this drill by placing a ball through PVC pipe while retrieving it on the opposite side and staying upright along the unstable board. You can easily create this setup at home with a trip to home depot for a good piece of wood and cut PVC pipe.
I like to think of these movements as the cherry on top to an otherwise sound strength and conditioning program for ski racers. They are certainly not first rank in the order of operations, but they add quite a nice touch and maybe just a little fun.
While it can be both daunting and or rather monotonous to think of ways to train away from the conventional gym during these times, a solid outline and a little creativity can take you a long way. Remember that you have to do the best with what you’re given, and as long as you can reassure yourself that you are doing so that’s all there is to it. We will ski again, and we will get in the gym again. As for right now, this is a great time to make sure you’re still ready when those opportunities return. Stay healthy, stay safe, and keep training!
1) Bacharach DW and von Duvillard SP. Intermediate and long-term anaerobic performance of elite Alpine skiers. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 27: 305-309, 1995.
2) Baker, D. (2011). Recent trends in high-intensity aerobic training for field sports. Prof Strength Cond, 22, 3-8.
3) Ferland P-M and Comtois AS. Athletic Profile of Alpine Ski Racers: A Systematic Review. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 32: 3574-3583, 2018.
4) Gross M, Hemund K, and Vogt M. High Intensity Training and Energy Production During 90-Second Box Jump in Junior Alpine Skiers. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 28: 1581-1587, 2014.
5) Hébert-Losier K, Supej M, and Holmberg H-C. Biomechanical Factors Influencing the Performance of Elite Alpine Ski Racers. Sports Medicine 44: 519-533, 2014.
6) Mell C. Siff, PhD, Supertraining (Denver: Supertraining Institute, 2004), 401