Expert Advice: Last Minute Fitness for Your Ski Vacation

When's the best time to get fit for your ski vacation? That would be now.

source: Excel Physical Therapy

Whether you'll be ski touring to alpine huts in Europe or dropping into couloirs in Colorado this winter, we guarantee you'll want to be in top shape. Yes, we know that could be a stretch for some of you: rearranging your schedule to fit in 5 workouts a week for the next two months to be perfectly prepped for your Christmas ski getaway may not be the top priority. There are, however, plenty of perks to hitting the gym (or the hiking trails) before hitting the slopes -- mostly heightened enjoyment of the actual skiing part of your ski vacation. We turned to expert Danny McAleese, Licenced Physical Therapist, PT, DPT and staff member at Excel Physical Therapy in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for advice on when, where, and how to get fit for this season's ski vacation. Keep reading for his top tips (even the ones for getting "fit" on a couple weeks notice).

How long have you been a skier? What’s your experience with skiing and fitness?

I Have been a skier/athlete for the past 25 years. I grew up skiing as a youngster and have participated in athletics for the duration of my lifetime. My father introduced me to the benefits of fitness and training at a very young age, and it is something that has remained important to me well into my adult life.

Where is home? What do you do there?

Home is currently Jackson Hole, WY. I work as an orthopedic physical therapist and in my free time I love to ski, hike, fly fish, and backpack…I really just enjoy spending time outdoors and the many benefits of living so close to the Tetons.

Why would you say it’s important to get fit before a ski vacation?

Going on a ski vacation is all about having fun. Part of that fun includes being able to endure a full day of skiing at a resort and relying on your body to withstand the demands of long days at elevation. This is why you want to be in good shape well before your vacation even starts. Maximising your fitness before your trip will not only allow you to ski longer days, but it will also keep you safer on the mountain as the effects of muscle fatigue are prolonged.

In terms of fitness preparation, does it matter if a skier is a beginner, intermediate, or expert?

Preparing for a ski vacation really doesn’t matter on your level of ability. Whether a first time skier or longtime expert, the fundamentals of preparation are equally important. Getting your body ready for a specific activity such as skiing relies on the foundations of building not only muscular strength, but also muscular endurance. These are principles that can be achieved no matter what level of skier you are.

Besides exercising, what other tips do you have for ski vacationers to prepare for getting back on the slopes? 

Aside from exercising, it’s also important to take into consideration ways to optimise the natural physiology of your body. This means taking time to adequately stretch (i.e. hamstrings, calves, quadriceps, and glute muscles). You also want to be familiar with the elevation of the resort you are visiting. Elevation can have quite the impact on the physiology of your body, so it is important to hydrate appropriately in order to maintain proper electrolyte balance at the cellular level. Nutrition and food intake is also an important adjunct to overall ski fitness. You will inevitably be burning a LOT of calories throughout the duration of a long ski day, so fuelling your body with complex carbohydrates and proteins will allow you to not only ski longer days, but also give you a quicker recovery period after a long day on the slopes.

What can someone expect after their first day back on snow? 

No matter what level of skier you are, you WILL feel the effects your first day back. At the end of the day, skiing is such a specific and demanding activity there is no adequate way to simulate it other than getting on the hill and experiencing it firsthand. Some of the byproducts of such a demanding activity include body fatigue, muscular soreness, joint stiffness, and dehydration. 

What are some key ways to recover after the first days back on snow?

You want to be sure to minimise the aforementioned effects as much as possible following a long day. A couple of key strategies to keep in mind is to maintain a good hydration level and sleep well. Your body will be fighting hard to ensure adequate electrolyte balance, so be sure to drink LOTS of water throughout the ski day as well as afterwards in order to aid this process. You also want to move and stretch following your first day back on the snow. This means giving yourself 10-15 minutes of gentle callisthenics, stretching, and moving around in order to get the blood moving through your body so that you can pass the metabolic byproducts that are produced from a demanding ski day.

Ideally, how long before hitting the slopes should one start getting fit?

Ideally one should have begun a generalised muscular strengthening and cardiovascular fitness regimen throughout the offseason and summer. The beauty of fitness training is that the positive effects begin almost immediately. As a general rule of thumb I tell my clients to give themselves 6-8 weeks of consistent training in order to appropriately build muscular strength and endurance. With that said, if you are behind on your training schedule the good news is that even just a couple of weeks of consistent focused fitness training will help your body adjust to the demands of a ski vacation.

What kinds of fitness would you recommend? 

Skiing is a sport that requires global muscular strength and flexibility. This allows one to choose from a wide variety of exercise routines, but in general it is a good idea to focus on muscular strength AND endurance training. High volume repetitions and cross training are good foundations for beginning your fitness needs. As a global musculature sport, it is important to focus not only on lower body exercises, but also the engagement of core muscles and upper body strength as well. This is why I recommend cross training, cardiovascular endurance (minimal time between sets) and mobility sessions such as yoga and pilates. You also want to allow your body a day or two to recover from these sessions so a general rule of thumb is 4-5 “work days” per week with 1-2 recovery days.

How many days (or runs!) does it take to get one’s “ski legs” back?

Remember that skiing is a very sport specific activity, and until you have gotten a few days under your belt you will inevitably feel the effects of a long day on the slopes. The good news is that your body will start to adapt to the new demands of long ski days almost immediately. The old “Ski Legs” adage is simply a byproduct of a demanding activity, so getting ones ski legs back is a process that begins on the first day of the season. Simply put, the more you ski, the easier those days will get and the less you will experience the effects of fatigue and muscular soreness.

If there’s no time to get properly “ski fit” before hitting the slopes, is something still better than nothing?

If you don’t have time to properly get “ski fit” before your vacation, remember that even just a week or two of training is better than nothing. Our bodies are very good at adjusting to new demands placed on them, so even just a little bit of training can help you in your preparation for those long days on the ski hill.

What are 3 pieces of advice you’d offer people getting fit last minute for their ski vacation?

In general, I would tell people who are scrambling to get fit to really focus on high repetitions, cardiovascular endurance, and flexibility training. Try to envision what it takes to endure a long day on the slopes. You want to make sure your legs and core can withstand those demands for several hours, so focusing your training on high repetitions and cardiovascular fitness will certainly help in the long run.

1. High repetition lower body and core exercises 4-5 times per week.

2. A solid stretching routine 6 days per week and adjuncts such as yoga, pilates, etc.

3. Proper nutrition and hydration leading up to your vacation to ensure appropriate recovery and optimal muscle physiology.

Most importantly, make sure to HAVE FUN! Cheers to great days on the ski hill!