Most of the sources that provide information on preparing for ski season focus on building physical endurance and strengthening specific muscles groups. I certainly have no arguments with a gradually increasing cardiovascular exercise program that incorporates some interval training, particularly for those in whom skiing represents a one or two week vacation. Likewise, strengthening exercises, focusing on the quadriceps (front of the thigh) muscles, hamstring (back of the thigh) muscles, and “core” muscles (abdominals, lower back, etc.) will also help with being able to perform what for most people is an infrequent and not altogether familiar activity.
As someone who averages around 60 days on various types of skis each winter, however, I would like to offer a little different perspective on how best to prepare for and enjoy a ski area vacation.
1) Prepare yourself physically. As mentioned previously, preparing yourself through physical activity, both aerobic and strength training, will help you to be able ski more proficiently and to avoid post-exercise soreness. Many articles that you read about exercises to prepare for ski season have merit. A couple of the better articles can be found here and here.
2) Respect the altitude. Particularly during the holiday season and spring break, most people at my local ski area are “flatlanders”, living thousands of feet lower than the base elevation of 10,700 ft. It is virtually impossible to travel from near sea-level to this elevation without experiencing some symptoms of altitude sickness. Not to mention the effect of altitude on physical exertion in an environment with a reduced partial pressure of oxygen. While it can take several weeks to acclimatize to a higher elevation, after just a few days, the body becomes more efficient at extracting oxygen from the air and physical performance improves. Altitude-related symptoms can include difficulty sleeping, dizziness or light-headedness, headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, rapid heart rate, and shortness of breath. Any of these can be accentuated by overexertion, dehydration or alcohol consumption. Most can be lessened by a more gradual increase in elevation or by moderating activity levels during the first few days at altitude.
3) Don’t try to squeeze every minute out of your daily ski pass. Lift tickets are usually cheaper if purchased on a multi-day basis. Many ski areas also offer a “buddy pass” program where someone with a season pass can buy a friend a discounted lift ticket. One gas station in my town even offers a coupon for a 2-for-one pass just for filling up your gas tank. When looking into lodging near ski areas, check to see if discounted passes are included. With a little work, you can almost always figure out a way to avoid paying full rate. The importance of this is that if you spend a little less for your ticket, you will be less likely to feel compelled (as I used to) to ski from the time the lifts open until after the lifts close. Six or seven hours of skiing for someone who is not used to skiing can be extremely fatiguing, leading to a higher risk of injury toward the end of the day. During the first couple of days of a skiing vacation, periodically assess how you are feeling and performing. If you start falling more often and your performance becomes sloppy, you are getting tired, and it’s time to take a break or stop for the day.
4) Learn from a professional. One of the most alarmingly entertaining activities that I observe while riding up the ski lift are friends or family members of a novice skier or boarder attempting to provide instruction. Not only can this lead to resentment between teacher and learner, some of the techniques that I see demonstrated are not only incorrect, but in some cases downright dangerous. Although it may seem incongruous, one of the most important things that a ski instructor can teach is how to fall safely. Statistics have shown that most injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) of the knee occur from improper technique, particularly during falls. Learning from a certified instructor will keep you from developing bad habits, accelerate your skiing ability, and help you to avoid injuries.
5) Plan your days to maximize enjoyment. Be sure that your equipment is ready (bindings adjusted, boots fitted, skis tuned, etc.) in advance. Study the ski area map in advance to determine the terrain that best suits your abilities. The last thing that a beginner skier wants to do is find themselves at the top of a double black diamond run with no other way down! If you aim for getting in the first wave of skiers for the day, you will enjoy less ski traffic on the slopes and often the best snow of the day. Ski for a couple of hours and then take a break. Since most people start skiing mid-morning, you should find the lodge relatively quiet at this time. Then you can be back out on the slopes before the lunch mob hits. Take another break mid-afternoon, in order to avoid fatigue toward the end of the day.
6) Eat and drink to maintain your energy and hydration. As mentioned previously, going to a higher elevation can lead to dehydration. Make a conscious effort to drink enough liquids to stay well hydrated. Keeping your urine volume high and its color clear is one way of accomplishing this. If you drink alcoholic beverages, save them for an “après ski” activity. There is absolutely nothing about alcohol that will improve your skiing technique, lower your risk of injury, or enhance your persona on the slopes. Since the price of food in ski lodges can be astronomical you may want to bring your own food or snacks. Most ski areas will have a “sack lunch” area with tables to accommodate this. You may want to also keep an energy bar or two in your pocket to eat on the lift if you need an energy boost.
7) Dress appropriately. While fashion often reigns over practicality when it comes to skiing attire, proper clothing choices will enhance your comfort on the slopes considerably. Most people know by now to dress in layers for the cold, with “wicking” fabrics next to the skin. The outermost layer (both top and bottom) should ideally be both windproof and breathable, such as Gortex fabric. A well-fitting helmet serves both as an essential piece of safety equipment and as an insulating layer for the head. Many skiers wear a balaclava under the helmet to keep the neck and ears even warmer. One of the most underappreciated articles of ski clothing is a neck gaiter. These seal the top of your jacket to keep wind out and can be pulled up over the mouth or nose when riding up the lift. Assuming an equal amount of insulation and similar fabric covering, mittens are warmer than gloves.
Most ski areas in the country are reporting excellent conditions this winter. A little preparation will go a long way to enhancing your enjoyment of your skiing vacation.