After a summer spent running endless miles training for a marathon, I decided to undergo a preseason 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 the 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.)
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.
THE STEP TEST 1
Cardiovascular fitness is your 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).
To find your working heart rate, find a 16-inch-high step and a copy of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer." Step up-up, down-down to the beat of the song. 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.
If you tested poorly on the Step Test, start by walking for 20 minutes three times a week, gradually increasing the distance and speed. 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.
SINGLE-LEG HOP 2
Standing on one leg, jump forward and land on the same leg. Have a friend measure the distance from takeoff to landing. Switch legs 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. Scoring: If the measurement for one leg is less than 90 percent of the other, you'll probably notice it in your skiing.
VERTICAL JUMP 3
To measure explosive leg power, stand next to a wall with either a pencil or a piece of tape in your hand. Measure your standing reach. Then take one step and jump with both feet. Mark the top height and subtract your reach height to get your score.
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 hams on the ham-curl machine. Lie flat on your stomach with your ankles under the pad. Set the range of motion so your legs don't overextend. Slowly bring your heels toward your backside. If you have a strength deficit between legs, try this exercise one leg at a time.
For skiers' heavily relied-upon quadriceps, the leg press machine provides a good, focused workout. Keeping your back flat, feet on the plate shoulder-width apart, 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.
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.