What skiers do during the off- season can have a big effect on their performance when the ice finally melts.
Just because the water is colder — or frozen — doesn't mean it's time to get lazy and soft. What you do during the next few months can have a big effect on how you'll do come the spring thaw.
The pros know this. That's why the majority of the world's top skiers has a dry-land plan for keeping their muscles — and their minds — engaged when they're not behind the boat. And we don't mean simply hitting the gym. We're talking cross-training, from snow skiing with Chris Rossi, to mountain biking with Terry Winter and yoga with Natalie Hamrick.
So scrape your buttocks off the couch and remove the beer IV; it's time to get busy.
When it comes to skiing, Chris Rossi has a split personality. From April through October, the Florida-based pro is swerving through as many buoys as possible when he's not teaching others how to do the same at his SkiTek school in Orlando. But come November, his mind turns to snow — and lots of it.
“About seven years ago, I finally got off the year-round water-skiing regiment and started heading west to Utah,” says Rossi, who logs as many as 80 days per season skiing the mountains around Alta Ski Area with ski buddy Jamie Beauchesne.
His winter regiment is a mix of riding the chair lift to the top for fun powder days and challenging backcountry missions that mix high-altitude hiking and radical downhill terrain. But no matter what the slope, every run is great exercise.And it's closer to home than you might think, because carving a snow ski is very similar to carving a water ski, says Rossi. “In snow skiing, if you're rotating your upper body, you're not carving, you're skidding,” he says. “With water skiing, it's the same thing.”
And with hundreds of turns linked together on a single ski run, the opportunity to practice is plentiful during his snow season, along with the workout possibilities. “Overall, it's about being dynamic in movements and developing strength through those movements” he explains. “In snow skiing, you're doing that at a really high speed and force rate, and that translates really well to water skiing. I don't think I could pick a better combination of two sports to complement each other.”
Fit to the core: With so much emphasis on the upper body, water skiers sometimes forget to train their legs. Snow skiing gives Rossi the lower body workout he's looking for, plus there are few sports more beneficial to the core. “The time that we spend snow skiing really develops a good base for the trunk,” he explains. “Your upper body essentially stays in a straight line, and your lower body is working side to side and absorbing bumps, moving up and down. You can be abdominally strong from the gym, but I don't think just doing crunches makes your core strong. That's where this comes in.”
Back break: The human back takes the brunt of punishment on the water skier's body. So giving this monster muscle mass a break during the winter while keeping the rest of the body engaged can be supremely helpful for skiers with longevity in mind. “In Florida, you can ski year-round, but this is a pretty taxing sport on your body,” Rossi says. “I want to be water skiing the rest of my life. If I'm 70 years old, I hope to be water skiing. With no break for the back, it's going to be real hard to live out that dream.”
Cardiovascular advantage: According to Rossi, simply climbing a flight of stairs can be a workout at 9,000 feet. So training the body to function at high levels of exertion with low oxygen intake during his snow ski season means he'll be way ahead of the curve when he hits the water come spring. “After a winter-long season up there, you come back to Florida and you can take in so much more oxygen because you're at sea level,” Rossi explains. “You feel this massive energy. When it's time to go — you're the Terminator. I think it's a huge advantage to be able to come back and have that little bit of extra energy and not have to work so hard with your heart.”
When he's not on the water, Terry Winter trades his single slalom ski for a pair of knobby bike tires. For this West Coast slalom proponent, mountain biking is a great method for maintaining his pro-level fitness during the off-season, with a few speed thrills thrown in to keep things interesting.
“I've been riding my bike since I was a little kid,” says Winter, who normally gets down and dirty on the off-road trails in Upper Bidwell Park, just outside his home in Chico, California. “Now I live pretty close to riding and it's a great way to train, but also have fun.”
For athletes like Winter who are used to going fast for a living, mountain biking hits on many different levels — from lung-busting climbs to thigh-burning downhills.
“It's really intense … and really hard,” he says. “It's like going out for a ski ride — it's fun and you get an awesome workout.”
And without the need for teammates, like the ball sports, Winter can hit the trails whenever he feels the need. “I've done a lot of different sports, and it seems like every one is individual,” he explains. “Mountain biking is something I can go out and do on my own terms. I can ride with other people, but at the same time, you're competing with yourself.”
And can you think of a better place to get your sweat on than in the great outdoors? Like Winter says, “I don't think I could sit in a gym all day.”
Better breathing: Few sports test the lungs like cycling. And when the terrain changes elevation, so does the workout. “The breathing part of it can be really anaerobic, where you have a super hard section and then you get a little break before another really hard section,” says Winter. “It's a lot like slalom, where you ski a hard pass and drop and ski another hard pass.” That's a side effect that suits his purpose well. “You can sort of mold your ride for whatever kind of training you want to get out of it,” he explains. “One of our favorite trails that Marcus Brown and I ride together starts with a 40-foot climb section. It's really technical and very steep, so it's a full-on sprint to try to get to the top, but then it levels off. We like that one because it takes everything out of you for a little bit and then it lets you recover for a while. And then you go again.”
Full-body workout: Mountain biking isn't all about cardio, though. Off-road riding means lots of bumps and jumps. And when you're hanging onto the handlebars for dear life, the entire body comes into play. “When you're torquing up a hill that's super steep, it's not just your legs,” says Winter. “You're using every part of your body. You're balancing, pushing on your legs and you're pulling with your arms.”
Better timing: Careening down a narrow trail mined with exposed roots, rocks and other hidden hazards requires snap decisions to ensure survival. The same goes for slalom skiers, who must react to ever-changing water conditions to get through the course. Says Winter, “You're putting everything into it that you have. You're definitely focused on what you're doing in the moment.” And that mental workout helps keep his brain sharp for slalom. “When you're doing a ride, things seem to slow down,” he explains. “By doing it right and having good form, you're able to deal with things.” Just like skiing.
For Danish ski jumper June Fladborg, what goes into her body is the key to what sort of performance comes out of it — and how long she stays aloft. “I have always been interested
in nutrition, because I have always wanted to stay in shape and be healthy,” she says. “Staying healthy relates not only to skiing but to any sport where you have to perform on a top level.”
So, when your activity level drops during the winter, it's even more important to pay close attention to your diet. “Proper nutrition is essential for any athlete,” Fladborg explains. “It has a major effect on the physical condition of the body and on the daily energy level. This will of course affect the physical performance of the skier. Therefore, it is significant what kind of food a skier intakes.”
And don't forget that “everyone has different nutritional needs, though, as a result of differing physiques and lifestyles — and goals.” So eat accordingly.
Fladborg's plan for eating to a better spring performance:
Protein: “My first advice is to increase the protein intake,” says Fladborg. Good sources of protein include low-fat meats like chicken, turkey, beef and veal, fish, low-fat cheese and milk products and lots of beans and nuts.
Produce: “My second advice is to eat lots of fruits and vegetables,” she says.
Dump the sugar: And finally, Fladborg recommends that skiers in training should, “Cut down on added sugar, especially from candy, soft drinks, cookies and other naughty things.”
For Natalie Hamrick, the yoga mat has been a magic carpet ride to the nirvana of flexibility — for the body and the mind.
“About eight years ago, I was having back problems — typical for slalom skiers,” she remembers, “and I heard a lot of people saying, 'Yoga is supposed to really help mend the back.'”
So she found a qualified teacher and fell in love — with the practice. Soon, the controlled combination of stretching, breathing and meditation did the trick. “Sure enough, it did heal my back,” she says. “So I really stuck with it.”
Since that moment of enlightenment, Hamrick has studied long enough to become an instructor of Hatha Yoga herself. And for those who might be intimidated by the human-pretzel poses commonly associated with the Indian exercise form, she says that fear is groundless: “Anybody can do yoga. There's no right or wrong way to do it. Even if you're not holding your hand in the right position, you're still doing it well.”
Once that ice is broken, Hamrick claims, the benefits are all-encompassing. “It's an overall strengthening,” she says.
“You're going to touch every single part of your body.”
And that's a great benefit for landlocked skiers. “When you have a yoga practice when you're not skiing,” Hamrick explains, “it really is an overall balancing way to stay fit in the off-season.”
No pain, big gain: Yoga is all about bending beyond the pain. And that's one big boon for skiers. “With slalom — since I was 15 — I've had issues with my back leg, my hip, the sciatic — all of that was always hurting,” Hamrick says. “With the yoga, I became much more flexible on the front side of my hip, and from that I've been able to train much more intensely because of that flexibility.” And flexibility can help nearly every aspect of your skiing, from the start to the last buoy.
Focused power: Yoga was developed to blend physical exertion with breath control and meditation. And one of the best byproducts of that equation is focus. “You're at a tournament, you see your competitors, you get nervous — this is totally normal,” advises Hamrick. “But as soon as I get on my yoga mat, it brings me into that realm. It definitely calms me down.” The serene side effect is something that worked so well for Hamrick, she worked it into her slalom routine. And with great success. “It's been about three years now that I do a small yoga practice before I ski,” she explains. “Before the Malibu Open [which she won in July], I did something that worked really well, so I'll probably use that for the next few tournaments.”
Balanced effects: Staying upright through some of the more advanced postures in yoga can be a difficult challenge to even the most advanced practitioner. But if you can become proficient, a skinny slalom ski might eventually feel like an aircraft carrier. “I do find that I'm better balanced on my ski now,” she says, “and I would like to think that it's the result of having a better mind-body connection because of how much yoga I'm doing.” Because balance is all in the brain, and perception is half the battle. Says Hamrick, “I would like to think that because my mind is connected to do the minute adjustments of yoga, when it comes to skiing, if there is something off, my body makes the adjustments for me.”
According to über-coach Mike Ferraro, “If you're not using video, you might as well give up.” And he should know. Ferraro works with world champions in slalom, jumping and wakeboarding, and he's been watching his pupils through the viewfinder for more than 20 years.
Per his plan, creating a library of videos downloaded from the Internet can help dry-docked skiers study the fundamentals in detail and on demand.
“Watch it in slow motion. Watch it at regular speed. Stop it and look at different movements,” he says. “See if you can identify the movements that you just read about in the article. That trains you to have a better eye for this sort of stuff. And then you can use that trained eye when you watch yourself.”
Ferraro's tips for shooting your own videos:
Consistency: “Always try to capture from the exact same location because angles change when you're moving the boat,” says Ferraro. “I try to put my knee against the tow bar and my elbow on my knee. Then I'm always shooting from the same spot.”
Zoom: “Don't play with the zooms. Try to keep it the same, because if you want to compare different sets, the figure will be a different size.”
Timing: “You've got to get it before he makes his initial move to set up to pull out — that's the key. If a guy is standing there, start it, because sometimes the movement that they make into the pull out is one of the keys to them getting up on the rope.”