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James McSkimming, Matt Francisty
Guy Fattal

Offseason Training: Firing a Cannon from a Rowboat

Even for the most committed, the offseason eventually forces us to shelf our gear for a few months. But like many sports, an obligatory break provides a key opportunity to build and improve for the next season. 

Legendary cyclist Eddy Merckx’ infamous advice to budding racers was to “ride lots”, and there is significant truth in this idea applied to any sport. How do great skiers* (skiers and snowboarders) become great? Thousands of vertical meters, year after year. What’s missed in this improvement model are specificity and rest, and for a sport where we cram as much into several months as possible, the offseason provides time for both. 

Regardless of what kind of training you do, for general fitness, event preparation, or competitive sport, a few core tenets exist. 

Firstly, training breaks you down; rest makes you strong.  The fleeting nature of a local ski season drives many of us to ski as much as possible when the conditions permit, hammering out vertical travel with the goal of not having left anything on the table when the snow melts. Activity taxes the aerobic, anaerobic, or muscular systems, causing deficit and/or microdamage (i.e. why you’re sore or tired after a workout), and the rest periods are when your body repairs and rebuilds. Inadequate rest not only inhibits the overall goal of becoming stronger through repair, it impairs the ability to train more. Everyone has likely tried to work out when their body was tired from insufficient rest; was it a good workout? No, it usually feels terrible, and continually hammering your body without rest will bring any progress to a grinding halt. Now think about how your body feels in April (for Northern Hemisphere skiers) after a great season: TIRED! Legs feel less snappy, packs feel heavier, it can be harder to wake and get moving for early starts.  The offseason is here for you to rest and recharge, and rest is important on every temporal scale: between individual workouts, through longer cycles of training, and the largest, at the end of a heavy season.

Secondly, as a strength coach once explained, “you can’t fire a cannon from a rowboat”, meaning strong limbs are useless if a strong and solid core isn’t there to anchor and support them. Consider a squat: in basic terms, the legs attempt to extend, pushing the ground and a weight apart (the weight being body’s upper mass possibly with added external weights). Between the upper proximal end of the femur and the weight however is the body’s core; a weak core will simply compress and deform when trapped between the upward force of the legs and the downward force of the weight, whereas a strong core remains rigid and extends the force upward to the weight. The body’s core is always the link between two points of contact: the snow and a skier’s centre of mass when skinning, absorbing bumps, landing; the snow a rescuer’s knees or feet, and the shovel trying to move blocks of debris; the snow and a laden backpack. A strong core not only resists compression, but it stops lateral deflection and tipping, particularly when the load is not balanced… like when the load is primarily on one leg. Sound familiar?

Getting back to Eddy’s “ride ride ride” premise, yes, skiing will improve simply through volume, but at a much slower rate than when augmented with other types of specific training. If you want to start every new season not just where you left off the preceding, but even stronger and with more muscular and aerobic endurance, consider an off-season training routine. Unless you’re training for World Cup events (in which case I doubt you’re seeking my training advice) a simple set of strength and aerobic workouts will take minimal time out of your days, are easy to complete with little equipment, will build muscle, burn fat, and best of all… keep your mind on a new season approaching as quickly as the last one faded. 

A few final points to keep in mind before starting training (of any kind): 

  • This is training that has worked for me personally, and the athletes I coach; if you have something different that works for you, fantastic! If you have any persistent injuries or physical conditions, consult a physician or physiotherapist before trying new exercises. 
  • Start easy, listen to your body, and favour rest over madly smashing your muscles into oblivion. Know the difference between low-motivation and physical fatigue; a workout can be the best medicine for stress and distraction, however when your body is genuinely tired, it’s time to rest.  
  • When strength training, excellent form is above all else; strength train after a rest day or easy aerobic day- not after a hard day- and only use weights and the number of repetitions that you can perform with flawless technique. The weights might seem light if you’ve done any traditional weight training in a gym, but all the exercises engage the core for stability instead of relying on a machine. If you find yourself struggling with an exercise, consciously engage your core, pelvis, and glute muscles. For standing moves (e.g. any kind of squat), a great visualization tool that works equally well for skiing is thinking of your foot as a tripod. The outer and inner balls (under the first and fifth metatarsals) and the heel form the three points, and your weight should always be evenly distributed between all three. 
  • Lastly, keep it flexible and fun. Mix things up if you feel bored, and don’t stress if you miss a planned workout. You’re more likely to continue training if it’s fun, and we’re training for a fun sport. Personally, when the repetitions get hard, I visualize how they apply to skiing: pumping legs through bumps or rhythmically up and down through powder, landing solidly, not slouching when tired etc. 

The set up: 

These exercises require little equipment, primarily because they rely on body weight and core stability instead of fancy machines. Feel free to substitute any appropriately heavy item like a jug of laundry soap or other liquid filled containers for purpose-made weights! My set-up includes: 

  • About 2m X 3m of space with interlocking foam mats
  • Fan
  • Skipping rope
  • Broom handle 
  • 10, 15, 25, 35lb weights (two kettle bells, two dumbells)
  • Chinup bar (and/or hangboard)
  • Bosu ball
  • New: rope-pulley system with handles

Each session starts with a five-minute warm up, either jogging or skipping rope, consists of five exercises, one minute on, one minute off, three times for a total of 30 minutes, and finishes with five to ten minutes of stretching. The minute “on” consists of as many repetitions as you can properly complete, but can include short rests. For example, ten pushups, ten seconds off, ten pushups, five seconds off, five pushups, but aiming to gradually increase the number of continual pushups to 15, then 20. Performing exercises with equal rest ensures that your body has time to prepare for the next movement, as proper form is far more important than just hammering muscles into mush. As you become stronger and more experienced, reducing the “off” time to 30 seconds increases intensity, but should only be done if the next exercise is not compromised. The same premise applies to aerobic interval training: the “on” phase is more intense than could be done without intermittent rest, and insufficient rest only makes the “on” phase less effective. Rest to go harder! 

Samples: 

Sample Workouts

These workouts should be challenging, but not crushing, with some expected second-day soreness, and any acute pain should be managed with rest or advice from a physician if it persists. Mix them up in a weekly routine that also includes some form of aerobic work (running, cycling, hiking), don’t get too rigid, and don’t ever give up an outside adventure to strength train! The exercises will rapidly become easier as you gain strength, and don’t hesitate to experiment with new exercises or ways to increase the difficulty of existing ones. After an off-season comprised of rest and training specific to skiing, the gains made will be apparent within the first turns of next season. 

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