Ski touring is becoming increasingly popular and is a great way to get off the beaten track and explore the backcountry beyond the piste. But you have to be fit and especially for multi day, hut to hut trips. You’ll need to be aerobically fit to go uphill for extended periods but also have the strength and power to cope with the downhill, off piste and often at the end of the day. Your training plan needs to be individualised to you and include both cardiovascular and strength training. It’s also potentially dangerous and we recommend Alpine Guides (https://www.alpine-guides.com/ ). Al, Rich and their team are highly experienced and qualified, we wouldn’t go with anyone else.
What does Science tell us about getting fit for Ski Touring?
Much research has happened in North America and Europe in recent years on the demands of mountain and skiing related sports and how to get fit to optimize performance and protect against injury. The research suggests that the uphill and downhill parts of ski touring have different physical requirements and need training differently.
Skinning uphill and any mountaineering sections require well developed aerobic systems and, just like running and cycling, this can be broken down into VO2, v VO2 and economy. VO2 is the amount of oxygen you can get to your muscles per Kg of body mass. But don’t forget that there is less oxygen at altitude so having a massive VO2 at sea level will help but won’t work the same higher up the mountain. vVO2 is the pace you can keep at higher levels of VO2 and is important at sub maximal work rates like skinning uphill. Economy is the energy or oxygen cost of moving at a given speed, vital at higher altitudes with thinner air and this can be influenced by lots of factors like experience, skill, equipment, snow conditions, weather but most importantly by physical characteristics, especially lower limb reactive strength and stiffness. All of these contribute, can be developed with the right training.
VO2 and vVO2 can developed by any activities that stress the aerobic system, running, cycling, mountain biking or walking over hilly terrain are great but need to be done at the right intensity and in the right amounts. If you’ve had of training zones, you’ll know that these train different parts of the aerobic system, but they are a simplification and it’s a Goldilocks problem for many (how do I know if it’s too much, too little or just right?).
Economy is different. It’s true that improvements can be made by doing long aerobic sessions, but this requires big mileage and can take years. Science suggests that the easiest and quickest way to make improvements (6% in 6 weeks is the famous research result) is by increasing stiffness (how much your body deforms on hitting the ground) and reactive strength (ability to reuse landing forces) by resistance training – therefore you hear of elite endurance athletes lifting weights. Economy is also really impacted by poorer movement skills and using the wrong muscles and joint actions to move.
Research has also shown that elite endurance and mountain sport athletes tend to have higher levels of strength and cope with increased levels of lactate, so they sub maximally operate at lower levels of their total reserve. This is important when it comes to moving up a gear, elite athletes have reserves to use, others don’t. Strength and lactate tolerance is associated with muscle fibre types to some degree, with fast twitch Type 2 fibres being more useful than slow twitch Type 1. Unfortunately for most endurance athletes, doing nothing but long slow training builds Type 1 (which are fatigue resistant and needed for activities taking hours) and can actually switch Type 2 to Type 1…. back to the Goldilocks’ problem of having the right blend of training to get the best results.
There has been much research done on downhill skiing, in competitive environments across events from downhill to slope style, comparing elite versus recreational and especially in looking at the high injury rates in participants.
The aerobic energy system used downhill is mainly aerobic except at speed, technical difficulty and in steep gradients where the anaerobic systems become more prominent. This is especially around the removal of, and tolerance to, such by products as lactate and hydrogen ions from the muscles working hard ie. your leg and glute muscles. Training to combat this need’s high intensity work and can be helped by developing VO2. Downhill skiing also causes neuro-muscular fatigue where the muscles can’t cope with the demands being placed on them by messages from the nervous system and get overloaded, shutting down coordination and this can be building overall strength and doing plyometric exercises which increases your bodies capacities.
Better performance downhill skiing is heavily linked to strength levels, look on YouTube for elite ski racers training and you’ll see they spend a lot of pre-season in the gym, often up to 30% of their total training time. Increased lower limb strength levels mean you can absorb gravitational forces better, generate more force in a turn to control it better, fatigue less and use less of your reserves. There are different types of strength and the key one for skiing downhill is eccentric strength (when your muscles lengthen whilst they are loaded) in the quads and hamstrings which need to be trained for specifically, exercises commonly used in commercial gyms like leg presses, knee extensions and hamstring curls are useless for this as they are concentric in nature (muscles shortening under load).
Skiing also uses specific muscle actions in turns. If I was to stretch an elastic band and point it at you, you’d get out of the way as you know if I let go quickly enough it could fly at you and hurt! Our muscles and tendons operate the same way, it’s called a stretch shortening cycle (SSC) and it’s important in human movement. Skiing longer turns uses a slow SSC but faster, short radius versions use a fast SSC. They are different qualities and need to be trained differently, in the right joint angles and with the right fast twitch muscle groups. However, the basic quality they both need is adequate strength which is another reason you see elite skiers in the gym.
There has been much research done on injuries caused in skiing. Snowboarding has the highest injury rates as an activity with high levels in slope style, racing and with beginners. If you’re reading this, you are probably somewhat experienced and going to be using skis but one thing to be aware of is that most injuries happen later in a run and towards the end of a day when fatigue kicks in. Another is that most injuries are lower limb, often ACL and are 4 to 6 times more likely in females. The research suggests that skiers tend to change technique with fatigue (same happens with runners running downhill) which conflicts with the carving characteristics of modern skis, causing sudden movement changes that a tired athlete can’t cope with. Research by the Canadians has shown that ski racers have a 50% chance of an ACL injury and that the key predictors are a lack of initial strength, asymmetry in strength levels between right and left and previous knee injury. How knackered are you towards the end of a big day off piste and what are your strength and power levels like, especially Left and Right?
So, what are the best ways to get fit for a ski touring trip?
Choose the right trip for your skill, experience and fitness.
Build your skills,
Get the right equipment.
Get as fit as you can, ski touring is demanding but the rewards are immense.
Train smart. Think Goldilocks.
Train specific. Think quality not quantity. Make sure your training is individualised for you and is improving the right fitness for ski touring (not for your main sports at home!).
Train uphill and downhill differently. Goldilocks again.
Identify your weaknesses and correct them. Get professional screening and fitness testing.
Give yourself time. Research suggests you will need at least a minimum of 6 to 8 weeks of targeted training to make a real difference that lasts under fatigue and pressure.
Work towards a ‘worst needs’ scenario. Ask yourself: ‘What are the most extreme demands I will face?’ then add a bit for safety.