After a summer spent running endless miles training for a marathon, I decided to undergo a pre-season ski-fitness evaluation. I assumed the test would be more of a confidence-booster than anything else—like going to the dentist when you've actually been flossing.
Reality check: In under an hour, I went from feeling cocky and robust to feeling like a ski accident waiting to happen. I discovered that while my cardiovascular fitness was great, I was a weakling with the agility of a newborn basset hound. No wonder my thighs burn after half a run. After the assessment, I left with a "deficits" report, a personalized eight-week exercise program, and a slightly bruised ego.
Eight weeks of sweat later, I geared up for the true test—a powder day. While not exactly buff, I could see muscles I swore I never had before. On the warm-up cruiser, I actually skied top to bottom without my quads screaming in pain. When the snow got heavy and crusty, normally a cause for tired groaning on my part, I felt strong, energized, and even coordinated—highly unusual. As I skied late into the afternoon, I kept waiting for the drop-dead exhaustion that routinely hits me. Miraculously, it never came.
To find out if you're ready to rip (or not), take our ski-fitness self-test. It's actually a series of tests to determine overall cardiovascular fitness, strength, balance, agility, and flexibility, the five key fitness components of skiing.
"Good physical fitness doesn't necessarily mean you're ready to go skiing," says physical therapist and former ski racer Judy Burlingame. "Skiing is a dynamic sport requiring muscle balance." Skiers need good trunk strength to protect the back, and strong quadriceps and hamstrings to reduce the risk of ACL injury, she says.
We worked with Burlingame to develop this self-test, which you can do in the gym or at home with little more than a pencil and a pal. Armed with the results, you'll be inspired to stick to our customizable ski-conditioning program, which is also detailed here. (Each individual test is followed by corresponding exercises.)
Related: Complete guide to ski fitness
Ski Conditioning Program
Each of the following fitness tests is accompanied by appropriate conditioning exercises. The idea is to take all of the tests at once and then work on specific deficits over the course of eight weeks. At that point, you can retest yourself to check your progress. Or just go skiing.
The program includes several intense ski-specific plyometric drills. To avoid injury, you need a good base of cardio fitness and overall strength before attempting these explosive exercises. After three weeks of strength and cardio training, add the plyometrics. Ultimately, shoot for two days a week of strength work, two days of plyometrics, and four days of cardiovascular.
A note of caution: If you haven't been working out, it's a good idea to get checked out by a physician before testing yourself.
Aim: Determine Working heart rate
Cardiovascular fitness is the body's ability to utilize oxygen efficiently. The more aerobically fit you are, the longer and harder you can ski. A good indicator of cardio fitness is your working heart rate: how fast your heart has to pump when you exercise. After one minute of fairly vigorous exercise, your working heart rate should be no more than 80 percent of your maximum heart rate (220 minus your age).
Directions: How to find your working heart rate
- Find a 16-inch-high step and a copy of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer."
- Step up onto the step with one foot, then follow suit with the other; step down with the first foot, then down with the other. Continue to step up-up, down-down to the beat of the song. Perform for 60 sec.
- After one minute, stop and take your pulse for 15 seconds, then multiply it by four. That's your working heart rate. Divide that by your max heart rate to determine the percentage.
For example: At age 33, my max heart rate is 187 (220 minus 33). My post-stepping pulse was 120, which is 64 percent of my max (120/187). At least I tested well in one category.
Get it on Amazon: Fuel Performance Adjustable Plyometrics Box
- Walking: If you tested poorly on the Step Test, start working on your cardiovascular endurance by walking for 20 minutes three times a week, gradually increasing the distance and speed.
- Jogging: Work toward jogging for 30-40 minutes, four times a week. Train at your target aerobic heart rate (which should feel relatively slow and easy-you should be able to speak but not want to). As you become more fit, you'll be able to go farther and faster while staying within your aerobic heart rate.
Bored with running or walking? Mix it up with in-line skating, cycling, trail running, hiking, spinning, step aerobics, or swimming.
Ready to try in-line skating? Check out: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blade
Single-Leg Hop Test
Aim: Identify side-to-side deficits and muscle asymmetries
Most people have a dominant side of their body. Usually, right-handed people are also dominant on their right leg, and vise versa. While it's normal to have a dominant side, it's risky to have one side that significantly outperforms the other, especially in skiing. Deficits in one leg can lead to the other leg overcompensating and, subsequently, muscle strains and tears, while a weak leg is also more susceptible to injury.
Learn more about muscle symmetry
Directions: Single-leg Hop Test
- Standing on one leg, jump forward and land on the same leg. Have a friend measure the distance from take-off to landing; mark the landing by sticking a piece of masking tape to the floor.
- Return to starting position and perform single-leg hop on the other leg. Mark the landing spot and compare. For this test, actual distance is not as important as the difference between right and left; ideally, the measurements will be close.
- To determine your deficit ratio, divide the lower measurement by the higher one.
If the measurement for one leg is less than 90 percent of the other, you'll probably notice it in your skiing. Side-to-side deficits may be caused by muscle asymmetries.
- Hamstring Curl: If you're like most skiers, your quad muscles are disproportionately strong compared with your hams, which can leave you vulnerable to knee injury. To achieve muscle balance, strengthen your hamstrings using the hamstring curl machine at your gym.
- Pro tip: If you don't have access to the gym, strengthen your hamstrings using a fitness ball. Lie flat on your back, heels propped up on the fitness ball with legs fully extended. Engage your glutes and lift your hips off the floor towards the ceiling in a reverse plank. From this position, slowly bend your knees to bring your heels and the fitness ball to your butt. Slowly return to full extension, keeping your glutes engaged and hips off the ground. Slowly bring your heels toward your backside. If you have a strength deficit between legs, try this exercise one leg at a time.
- Leg Press: For skiers' heavily relied-upon quadriceps, the leg press machine provides a good, focused workout. Keeping your back flat, feet shoulder-width apart on the plate, lift the weight by extending your legs, but don't lock your knees. Then lower slowly. Again, if you have a deficit between legs, do one-legged sets.
Ball Toss Test
Aim: Improve upper body strength
Along with leg strength, explosive upper body power helps skiers maintain balance and react quickly to sudden changes in terrain. For this test, you'll need a 10-pound medicine ball (most gyms have them).
Directions: Ball Toss Test
- Sit with your back and shoulders against a wall, legs crossed in front.
- Making sure the coast is clear, throw the ball forward using only your arms.
- Have a friend measure and record the distance to where it lands. This will serve as your baseline. As you strengthen your upper body, perform the ball toss test to track your progress.
- Bicep Curls: With free weights in each hand, stand with legs shoulder-width apart, arms at your sides. With palms facing forward, bend arms at the elbow and bring the weight up, one arm at a time. Don't move your upper body or upper arm.
- Shoulder Press: Hold weights at shoulders and press up until arms are fully extended straight above your head. Lower to shoulders and repeat.
- Push-Ups: This no-gym-required standby is one of the best upper-body strengtheners around. Remember to keep your body completely straight from head to toe and your arms directly below your shoulders. Do as many as you can (for me, one was hard).
Get it on Amazon: IMFUN Dumbbell Rack
Four-Square Hop Test
Aim: Test and improve agility
Agility, the ability to move quickly and react to different terrain, is key for skiers.
Directions: Four-Square Hop Test
- Make a cross on the floor with tape.
- Hop on one leg from quadrant to quadrant in one direction (e.g. clockwise) for 30 seconds. Count how many times you make it cleanly around all four squares (one lap). Switch legs and try again. This tests for both basic agility and a deficit between legs.
Training Exercise: Single-leg four-square
- As you did in the test, hop from quadrant to quadrant on one leg. When you can do 15 laps in 30 seconds, progress to the next level.
- Speed up single-leg four-square; add directional change after every lap.
Assuming you prefer to remain upright on the slopes, balance is very important in skiing. What few people know is that balance is a skill that can be improved. Stand on one leg, close your eyes, and time how long it takes to lose your balance. Switch legs. (Most skiers should do better than my embarrassing 12-second score.)
Training Exercise: Single-leg squat progression
- Balance on one leg with eyes closed for 30 seconds. Single-leg 1/3 squat, eyes closed; three sets of 10.
- Perform single-leg 1/3 squat; three sets of 10.
Seated Toe Touch Test
Aim: Improve mobility
"If you don't have good mobility in your hamstrings, something's got to give," says Burlingame, "and usually it's your back."
Directions: Seated Toe Touch Test
- To test hamstring flexibility, sit on the floor with your legs in front of you.
- Keeping legs straight, reach with both hands toward feet.
- Scoring: If you can reach your feet, you're average. Beyond the toes is good. If you can't touch your toes, you need to work on your hamstring flexibility.
- Hamstring Stretch: Lie on your back. Extend one leg on the floor and raise the other in the air. Keep the raised leg straight, grasp your lower leg and hold for 15-30 seconds. Switch legs.
- Alternating lunges: For each lunge, step forward with one leg, then bend both knees, lowering yourself straight down and making sure your front knee does not extend past your front toes. Step back to the start position. Perform three sets of 10 reps.
Read next: 5 Cross Training Activities for Skiers
Conditioning Program Best Practices
- A basic strength program should work all the major muscle groups. My program used weight machines for the lower body, hand weights for the arms, and floor work for the abdominals.
- Weight train two to three times per week. For each exercise, find the weight you can just barely manage for 12 repetitions. Do three sets of 10 reps with one-minute rests between sets. Concentrate on form and take it slow.
- For a full lower-body workout, make sure to hit these machines: ham curl, leg press, calf raise, hip adduction, hip abduction. For upper body, use hand weights for triceps kickbacks, biceps curls, and shoulder presses.
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