It’s not Rocket Science.
When an untrained person starts any exercise program, he or she gets fitter, almost no matter what the program is (as long as they do not get injured). Anyone can get out of breath, get muscles sore and get sweating with a bit of effort (and many people can make it fun). Anything done that’s physically a bit more than what has been done previously constitutes a new stress and an adaptation will occur (positively if recovery is appropriate). Hence, all gym schedules initially work with varying degrees of efficiency. This is why everybody thinks their fitness programme works, why you find testimonials for every short term and generic programme, and everyone knows about getting fit. Although all exercise has some effect, training actually produces a specific adaptation to the imposed demand.
Fit for what? It’s great to be ‘fit’, to feel fit, but snowsports involve using muscle patterns that are not common in everyday activity or fitness exercises. There are many components to fitness, including aerobic, anaerobic, speed, agility, strength, power, strength endurance, suppleness, balance and `core` stability but there is little hope of transfer of performance benefit from (fitness) activities that are not stressing the body in the demands of the sport. Even endurance and strength have multiple types. Alpine skiing and riding uses muscles and joints in ways that are not matched or well developed by generic fitness strategies and fitness cannot be stored (but it can be maintained). The more motor control you have and the more skilful you are the less physical fitness you need for the same performance, especially less aerobic fitness.
Snowsports, especially at high performance, can put a great deal of stress on the knees and lumbar spine and their control in particular. In fact the most common injury sites are the knee and lumbar spine. Injuries or weaknesses, in the knee and lumbar spine are particularly debilitating to even normal everyday movement: your knees and spine are key joints for lifelong freedom of movement. Tendon and ligament injuries are long lasting problems too. Consider that ACL and back injuries are both serious and a ubiquitous problem in ski racers, snowboarders, skiers and ski instructors. So give your movement machine an ‘MOT’ in relation to the demands you are inflicting on it with your performance and performance aspirations.
Then bear in mind that knee and back problems can be significantly reduced by special, specific conditioning including regular practice of high quality dynamic, neuromuscular control activities. Moreover, the same (effective) resisted coordination practices for your joints are performance enhancing. Sports science and sports medicine (in particular applied biomechanics) can tell us a great deal about how to prepare and protect the weakest links, and control their movements to best performance effect.
The nature of snowsports holidays and of skiers and boarders, regularly results in complaints of muscle stiffness and soreness, particularly with beginners or learners. Typically after the first morning on skis, muscles unused to such activity become stiff and sore; and the soreness can last a full week, which unfortunately, happens to be the length of the average ski holiday. Any unaccustomed exercise usually results in muscle soreness; calf and quadriceps muscle groups are particular areas that the nervous can find overused and the limited flex and stiffness of ski boots can exacerbate the problem. The key factor in the cause of muscle soreness is the level of specific exercise in relation to the performer’s fitness for the exercise, and it is avoidable (but not by your typical 6 weeks pre-season programme). Once you know the performance demands of your sport and your goals, you can evaluate your current status in relation to these demands. Then you can take into account your commitments, age, development, physique, past injuries, personality, motivation etc. and plan to progress by going beyond your comfort zone: What do you want? Where are you now? What could you do? And moreover, what intelligent training will you do…?
Do the most effective (& then efficient) training to support your objective(s), enjoy the process (and how it enriches your life). ‘Fit for purpose’ is dependent on the overlapping components of; skill (including techniques, coordination and balance), psychology, tactics, and the 4 broad physical aspects of strength, endurance, suppleness and speed (beware though of overemphasising the performance benefit of extra generic training for flexibility or speed of limb movements per se).
Snowsports do not produce the same demands on the body as swimming, running, cycling, or tennis for example. A power lifter’s fitness is not really relevant, nor a marathon runner’s. While all activity has an aerobic component (if only for recovery) and the body has a need for basic cardiovascular fitness for health and daily activity; most riding and skiing, even at altitude, places limited demand on your aerobic capacity. Similarly, if you have bad flexibility it can impair your movement potential, and make you feel old, but snowsports do not require high levels of flexibility per se. If your day job is sedentary or you spend a lot of time at home sitting, you probably do need to improve your aerobic fitness and your mobility but there is more to it than that. If you do not have a specific (asymmetric) deficiency then to benefit your on snow time it is not stretching, nor walking, or aerobics that is going to transfer a significant difference to your performance, safety or enjoyment.
Generally what produces fatigue in snowsports is your local muscular endurance and anaerobic limits. You are looking to create and control speed & direction, steering the equipment, effective riding (dynamic posture & balance), resistance to G forces and injury plus coping with nerves, altitude and cold. The demands are largely anaerobic, in multiple bursts over a lengthy period of time with good coordination, structural integrity, leg power and spinal isometric endurance. You use specific muscle groups in more intense ways, through different ranges and movement patterns and with more significant use of eccentric muscle contraction than found in everyday activity, and moreover in common fitness programmes. You slide for 30 seconds to a few minutes, take a short stop, set off again, have 5 times and more rest time on the lift before repeating the process for a couple of hours then take a break, and do it again, maybe all day, all week. Think decelerations, think rotation, think relatively short, repeated bursts on the stepper or running downhill; all with great postural control and alignment.
It’s not about how fit you are, but how you are fit that counts.
It’s not rocket science:
You are far more complex, far more fragile and far more adaptable, than a rocket.
Dave Murrie, (PhM Mechanical Engineering, MEd Physical Education & Mathematics, BSc (Hon) Sports Science, ISIA (AMSI, ISIA & BASI), IVSI) is a lecturer in sport & exercise sciences, specialising in performance analysis and conditioning for high level sports, and is the author of ‘Fitness and Motor Control for Skiers their Knees and Backs’