A former U.S. Ski Team coach shares the unconventional ways these athletes improve strength, reaction time and agility when they’re not in the snow
or a skier, you can’t train to win an Olympic gold medal without snow. You need steep, icy hills, powdery cross-country tracks and frosty freestyle parks. Nonetheless, some elite skiers like to take a break from the cold stuff in the off-season, and they use innovative methods to keep their body in peak physical condition. Here, we’ve outlined four unconventional exercises used by former and current Olympians to develop the core elements that all good skiers must possess, strength, balance and agility, as told to us by former U.S. Ski Team coach John McBride. Give them a try if you want to prep like a pro for this year’s ski season.
A man skis on sand dunes in Utah’s Little Sahara Recreation Area
Skiing on sand is just like it sounds: You coast down a hill of dry, hot sand instead of one covered in snow. “It’s similar [to snow skiing], but there’s so much more friction on sand,” says McBride, former head speed coach of the U.S. Ski Team and a native of Aspen, Colorado. “You have to have a pretty steep hill to be able to feel forces similar to those you would when skiing.” And because sand skiing requires more effort than skiing on snow, it can result in a better cardiovascular workout.
THE WHEELBARROW PUSH
Many of McBride’s athletes teach themselves to expect the unexpected by doing nontraditional workouts. “When you go out and ski, the canvas is always changing,” McBride says. “The weather’s changing, the terrain changes and the snow conditions change. It’s never the same track. It’s always variable.” As such, all skiers should be prepared for the unpredictable—unstable snow, slick ice or a hidden rock—if they want to avoid errors that could cost them the podium or result in a season-ending injury.
“[Skiing] is a little bit like bull riding,” McBride says. “You’re not quite sure what you’re going to have under you, and you have to react to what is thrown at you.” Consequently, he puts his skiers through a training regimen that includes activities like pushing wheelbarrows uphill, hopping from rock to rock and walking a slackline that keep them on their toes.
According to McBride, the wheelbarrow push helps the body deal with a dynamic load. This exercise conditions your torso, arms and legs to handle additional weight, thus strengthening your muscles overall. It is also a power exercise, which is not the same thing as a strength-training one. “A powerful athlete can move something quickly,” McBride says. “And ski racing is a power sport.”
The wheelbarrow push, McBride says, teaches a person to move a load a certain distance in a short amount of time. “Load up a wheelbarrow with as much weight as you want. You can push it uphill and over rough terrain.” The benefits will translate into a stronger core and quicker reaction time. If you are looking to improve endurance, push the load for a longer amount of time, says McBride.
A runner leaps from rock to rock as part of his workout
Another exercise favored by McBride’s skiers, rock hopping is a simple but effective challenge, and McBride says it can be tailored to the athletic level of the skier. First, you have to find a creek or shallow brook. Then, you traverse it by jumping from exposed rock to exposed rock without ever touching the water. The rapid-fire movements enhance agility, balance, leg strength and awareness, says McBride, but more important, they force you to look ahead and react quickly, anticipating your next move, which is “a great tool” for skiing, he says. “The farther you look down the hill, the better you can anticipate what’s coming, and it will actually slow down everything. If you look 2 feet in front of the tips of your skis, you’re going to feel like you’re going 150 mph.”
Highlining is a highly advanced version of slacklining, which involves traversing a line many feet above the ground while wearing a harness. In the photo above, a highliner walks the Elephant Buttress highline in Boulder Canyon, Colorado.
To slackline like a pro, run a rope or strap with a 1-inch width between two fixed points, like posts or trees. Slacklining kits often come with a rachet so you can adjust the tension of the rope, which determines how easy or hard it is to balance on. Then, try to walk from one side to the other without touching the ground. “What a lot of people don’t know is that balance can be trained like anything [else],” says McBride. “It’s a skill, and it can be improved upon no matter who you are.” Slacklining also improves core strength, which is essential for all athletes.
CHUCK TANNERT is a regular contributor to RL Magazine. His work also has appeared in Wired and on CNET.
Additional reporting by LAURA CHALLENDER