Thriving, Not Surviving, on the Slopes

Writer Catharine Nicol | November 12, 2018

The world is cloaked in white, trees frosted with snow sparkling against the piercing blue sky. The mountain air is fresh and deliciously clean. Everything is hushed, serene. Pointing my skis downhill I hear the swish of the snow, feel the cold air on my face; the adrenaline kicks in as the challenge of speed, control, coordination and technique amps up. Off-piste, into the powder, I carve through the trees, my eyes scanning for bumps and troughs, trunks and branches. My body reacts, carving, ducking, weaving instinctively, too fast for thought. And finally I pop out onto the piste again, skidding to a halt, exhilarated and laughing, and full of the instinctive need to do it all over again.

An intense workout for your body, skiing demands total focus, and is joyously, even spiritually, uplifting. But so that pleasure doesn’t turn into pain, the best ski tip anyone can give you is preparation, preparation, preparation. Muscles not usually called upon in everyday life will suddenly be subject to intense physical onslaught. Investing a few months out in overall fitness and endurance, and specific strength training, will result in less strain and fatigue, fewer falls and better injury avoidance. What’s more, not only will you get the best out of every ski day, your body will be primed not just to survive on the slopes, but to thrive.

“When skiing you are spending extended amounts of time in a very dynamic, highly variable squat,” says Andrew Cox, director and owner of Joint Dynamics in Hong Kong. “The flexed, forward leaning position of skiing calls for huge input from the glutes, hamstrings, quads and core muscles, which hold you in position and react to protect your joints. Of course your inner thighs, calf muscles and arms all play a role in balance and even controlling use of your poles. Essentially the muscles of the body are working in concert together.”

And it’s more than just a workout. “Your legs reach exhaustion when skiing because when you’re having so much fun you freely go past your threshold. That’s why your legs take such a beating. Some people say that skiing is bad for the joints, but you are bad for your joints,” Cox corrects. “You sit for 11 months and then go skiing? Don’t blame the skiing. Do your preparation beforehand and you can increase your output and decrease likelihood of injury on the slopes.”

So how soon should you start? At least three months, Cox suggests. “Short-term benefits from workouts are predominantly neurological, as the nervous system responds faster than the muscular system. When you increase the forces on your body your nervous system recruits more muscle tissue, and it is a stimulus for the body to lay down more collagen and elastin in response to the stress. But it takes time and consistency for muscle, tendon and bone strength to increase.”

Giving yourself time ensures you can get stronger, faster and fitter at a pace your body can handle without injury. You’ll also lose body fat and improve your overall composition, both valuable on and off the pistes. “Training increases the amount and directions of force that the body can handle and enjoy. Force equals mass times acceleration,” Cox reminds me.

IN THE GYM

In the gym practise leg-strengthening squats, split squats and multi-directional lunges. Skiing exerts variable pressure on each leg so single leg balances, dead lift and squats are also valuable assisting in maintaining symmetry (as you shouldn’t favour one side) and developing righting reflexes and balance. Hips play a massive role in skiing, in particular the glute complex. Hip boosting and stability reinforcing banded side shuffles and side-lying clams help. Lower leg calf raises, as well as rotational exercises such as medicine ball twists and cable chop and rotation patterns are also key.

And it’s not just strength; combine strength days with cardio days using steady state cardio and interval training, Cox adds. “Interval training, done correctly, puts adaptive stress on the body and couples that with teaching the body to recover, mimicked by skiing followed by lift recovery. Build up to one minute of medium to high intensity and couple that with 90 seconds rest.”

“Skiing brings an incredible amount of variability in slopes and speeds, changing terrain and environment. It is so far from the monotone treadmill or pavement at home,” says Cox. “You need to be totally prepared, present and engaged in the process.”

And that focus also brings non-physical benefits, he says. “Skiing and being in the mountains provides that link to something ethereal for some people. It’s where you find quiescence, where the world stops.”

ON HOLIDAY

When there, you need to keep looking after yourself for maximum energy. “Every day you ski the muscle soreness decreases your muscle’s ability to react and adapt,” Cox says. “Residual fatigue is lactic acid reducing the body’s ability to respond to the mountain and its many challenges, so every day you ski your tolerance potentially decreases.”

Keep hydrated, take a good protein powder for a snack on the mountain and eat plenty of antioxidant-rich green veggies to help tissues recover. To flush the lactic acid out of your muscles, book massages or head for onsens or saunas. These strategies feel good, help the body recover and heal, and are conducive to a deeper healing sleep for overnight recovery too.

SKIING IN ASIA

Asia’s ski industry is growing fast, with a phenomenal number travelling to Japan, South Korea and China in particular to trial a ski holiday. The 2018 winter games in South Korea shone a spotlight on Pyeongchang, where Hong Kong’s first ever Winter Olympics snow sports representative Arabella Ng came 56th in the giant slalom, while China is already gearing up for the Beijing Winter Games 2022.

Chongli will be home to the Olympic village and President Xi wants it to rival European resorts. In March of this year he encouraged his 1.379 billion citizens to embrace their domestic winter sports industry, planning for 1,000 ski resorts to be operating by 2030 to host 300 million skiers annually by 2030.

Club Med is investing hugely in ski resorts in China with Yabuli and Beidahu already operating and more to come, as well as Japan’s Tomamu Hokkaido and Sahoro Hokkaido resorts and soon a ski property in South Korea. Their all-inclusive formula and western approach to service, facilities and instruction is impressing guests, and their first survey on winter sports in Asia recently revealed Japan, South Korea, Switzerland and China are the top four destinations for skiers from Asia Pacific.

In addition, the European brand is sponsoring Hong Kong’s ski team’s training. Club Med Yabuli was the venue for Hong Kong’s Ski Association to train this March, and the teenagers competing for a position in the team for Beijing 2022 also caught a glimpse of the China ski team in action, putting their feelings about the sport perfectly into words, one saying, “When I ski I’m just skiing, nothing else matters.”

Skiing brings an incredible amount of variability in slopes and speeds, changing terrain and environment. It is so far from the monotone treadmill or pavement at home, you need to be totally prepared, present and engaged in the process
~ Andrew Cox