Tips for Flatlanders training for Backcountry skiing
 and snowboarding

Ken Roberts

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Intro

A fundamental component of "backcountry" skiing is that most of the uphill part is done with your own muscles. For most people that's a lot of work -- and it's a key selector of what tours you can do and who you can do them with. If you live near enough to the mountains so you can get out on a tour every weekend, this is not a difficult problem -- most of your training for touring can be . . . progressively increasing touring. But if you can only get out once every two or three weeks (or longer) -- and you can't get consistent uphill mountain training in the off-season either -- then training gets to be more of a problem. We've been working at this problem for a few years, and we've found that some things work better than others -- at least for us. Below are some of our ideas.

Theory

Our basic theory is that physical performance in backcountry skiing and snowboarding is like other athletic activities, and that training for it will go best if it follows the same principles that have been demonstrated to work best from other athletic training.

One principle is that training must be specific.  Backcountry skiing and snowboarding has different kinds of muscular exercise, and each kind may benefit from different training.

Getting up the hill -- First of all this takes good leg strength and endurance.  Our experience is that training on the flat doesn't necessarily translate effectively and fully to getting ourselves up the hill -- fighting gravity is different. So we try hard to get some kind of uphill training, even if it's just on small hills, or stairs.  But in addition to legs, our experience is that strong poling can help a lot too, especially with consolidated snow to push against in the springtime.  So it's worth training specific arm strength.

Control and fun going down -- Our experience is that if you've got good strength for getting up the hill, that's specific and strong enough to execute most downhill techniques.  Some folks recommend also plyometric exercises. 

Making time on the flats -- Power up the hill does translate to the flats.  But two factors can get more important for speed on the flats:  (1) the weight on the feet (boots, bindings, skis) is a lot more than you're accustomed to in off-season walking and running; (2) arm assistance through poling can improve speed a lot. 

Weight training

The competitive advantage of weight training has become visible in many sports.  (We find it especially obvious in competitive women's sports).  

We're not experts on the latest techniques and tips, but we do it consistently, about two times a week.  We mostly use machines, not free weights, and we do 2-4 sets of each exercise.

We've eliminated some exercises that seem to have no relevance to skiing or climbing, e.g. bench presses.  We don't want to use precious training time to add useless bulk that just has to get hauled up the hill in the backcountry.  And we've added one arm exercise that is very specific to poling.

Fight Gravity -- Hills and Stairs

Our experience is that training on the flat doesn't translate effectively and fully to getting ourselves up the hill.  So we try hard to get some kind of uphill training, even if it's just on small hills, or stairs.  

Exploit small hills.  Usually we can find some hill of 300-400 vertical feet, so we do intervals running up that.  Each interval takes in the range of 5-10 minutes.  Sometimes we put some weights in our pack, sometimes not.  To better simulate continuous climbing, the one of us who isn't running provides a car shuttle -- to quickly take the runner back down to the bottom to start the next interval with only limited recovery time.  Even when we have access to a bigger hill, often we still break it down into intervals of 1-5 minutes, alternating between running and walking.

Stair climbing:  We used to do lots of stair climbing -- on real stairs.  Ken had a 13-story building in grad school, and used to climb up with a backpack holding weights -- heavier than he would ever carry in the backcountry.  Sharon had a job in a taller building with accessible stairs, and we both used that for a while.  We found climbing real stairs with heavy weights to be excellent training for backcountry ski uphill (also downhill, and lots of other things).  Now we've mostly switched to a stairclimbing machine -- more on this below.  But most machines do not effectively simulate the "fight gravity" aspect of real stairs.

Down the hill:  Our experience is that the biggest risk of injury when training on real hills and stairs is in going down.  The reason is that you get much higher impact forces.  We try to avoid this, in several ways:  (1) ride in a car to the bottom, (2) take the elevator to the bottom, (3) train on a bicycle (both up and down), (4) use poles to absorb some of impact. 

Refinements:  Training with ski poles is an interesting addition for building power for going up hills -- and they definitely reduce the impact of going down.  We often take them with us for trail-running.  Leg-weights are a way to get specific on simulating the rather large weight of skis, boots, bindings on our feet.

Fun in the Outdoors

We do a lot of bicycling in the summer and fall, mostly on our tandem.  We favor routes with serious hills, because we find it's good challenging training going up, and fun going down -- kind of like backcountry skiing.

We do some trail running and hiking when we get the chance, usually with ski poles, and also some running on roads (sometimes with leg weights).

Indoor Training

Stairclimbing machines

Since climbing real stairs is such good training for backcountry skiing, the idea of a machine to simulate that is excellent.  But most stairclimbers do not effectively simulate the "work to fight gravity" aspect of real stairs.  Indeed, some of them seem to be deliberately designed to provide the appearance of stairclimbing motions, while eliminating the need for most of the fight-gravity force that normally goes with those motions on real stairs. 

We think you have to be very selective in choosing a stairclimbing machine, if you want it to provide you with a good simulation of the effort of uphill climbing.  We recommend examining closely these key points about a machine:

  • When you do the exercise on this machine, does your head and upper body go up and down significantly? -- at least 6 inches, but 9 inches is even better.  Achieving this may require experimenting with different resistance settings.  (Actually moving your body weight upward is the essence of uphill backcountry travel.  Just moving your feet and knees up and down is not the same.)

  • Does the machine assist you in moving your legs up and down?  (this is bad for serious training)

  • Can the machine be adjusted to provide enough resistance so that your head and upper body still go up and down at least 6 inches (more is better), even when you are carrying a pack with heavy weights?

  • Does the machine still provide sufficient resistance, after the hydraulic fluid in the cylinders has heated up, like after 15 minutes of vigorous use? 

The key to specific training for backcountry uphill is to raise most of your body weight (plus the weight of backpack and boots and skis) upward, using only the power of your own muscles.  Typically it requires some playing with resistance settings to achieve this -- and also some playing with your own stepping technique.  Often you have push up quickly on the new high foot, so your body weight goes up before the pedal sinks down very far.  The pedal needs a lot of  resistance to give you even that little window of time to push your body upward.  But that resistance needs to be tunable, because the pedal also needs to go down, to get ready for your next step on that foot.

We haven't shopped for a machine in several years, because we've been successfully using the Tunturi C416 Variable Resistance Climber at home.  We don't know if they're still selling that specific model.  But at least we know they're still selling replacement hydraulic cylinders -- since we wear one out at least once a year.

In addition to a heavy pack, sometimes we wear leg-weights while we're on the stairclimbing machine, to simulate the weight of skis, boots, bindings on our feet.

Boredom

One of the key success factors for training is consistency -- multiple workouts, week after week.  And one of the big problems with flatland training is keeping up motivation to keep doing exercises which are just not as exciting as being out in the backcountry.

What really works for us for enduring the boredom and pain of indoor exercise:

  • Other people -- We do a lot of this together.

  • Video -- not just music.  We rent lots of videos, and own some too.

We have found an interesting payoff to doing lots of our workouts at a gym, instead of at home:  It's more time spent to travel there and back, but it's easier to be consistent in doing all our exercises.  It's like, once we've gotten there to the gym, we might as well do them all.

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