Fitness for Backcountry Skiing – The Basics

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Want to race up those hills and pound down like your heart is pumping gorilla blood? You can do yoga till your tendons scream like wounded eels, or thrust weight stacks like you just jacked a squirt of Durabolin. But if you really truly want to fly though the mountains it is cardio that powers your wings.

We humans love to complicate things. Own a quiver of skis instead of two pair. Research goggle lenses till every one you see on the hill is better than yours. Buy fancy heartrate monitors and extended gym memberships.

But you know(personal trainers groan in unison) that you don’t need the complicated, the fancy, the gimmicks. All is quite simple. Do something nearly every day of the week that raises your heart rate noticeably, for an hour or more. Along with that, do a few moderate core strength floor exercises and stretches three or four days a week. If you combine that stuff with going skiing once in a while (one or two days a week at the least), you’ll feel great.

Extending above, you can satisfy your inner geek by figuring out your target heart rate, and keeping an exercise journal recording your heart speeds (resting, exercise) That’s how I got fit for the big Denali trip we did in 2010. I lost some of that cardio during the long drive up to AK, but my base was still good and got me up the peak and back home alive.

What if you live where you can’t ski? While only a few of you might admit to that shameful existence, I know you’re out there.

In the land of noski (or during summer), you’ll have to add a few things that mimic skiing (both up and down). First, don’t be shy about using a workout vid such as the one we reviewed recently. But you need more cardio than that for backcountry skiing fitness, and you don’t want to do the intense strength training more than three days a week or so. Instead, for the climb, rig up something like a Nordic Track, treadmill set to an angle or a Stairmaster (yeah, perhaps at the gym, but you can find those things used and set up at home). Training for the down is tougher. For that, I recommend a combo of rollerblading, cycling, and a small but consistent amount of weight work for the legs. In the latter case, don’t neglect the ultimate in ski training exercises, the wall sit. Enhance with an exercise ball behind you and your feet on a balance board.

One other thing. Sorry to bring up the sore subject of diet, but body weight is key to how you do in most human powered sports (including backcountry skiing). Unless you’re performing major carb burns nearly every day, watch that caloric consumption (including the brews). If you need to cut consumption, one thing that works well is bulking out snacks and meals with lower calorie stuff like salads. Eating a good breakfast and lunch but a minimal dinner is an effective technique as well.

Any other tips you guys?


42 Responses to “Fitness for Backcountry Skiing – The Basics”

  1. Zeb October 20th, 2011 9:39 am

    I can’t resist promoting the best breakfast for keeping you away from overeating at lunch: oatmeal mixed with peanut butter (plus raisins and flax).

  2. Scott October 20th, 2011 9:53 am

    I like to do interval training at least one day a week. One of my favorites is hiking a local trail at a moderate clip. Every five minutes, run at a fast clip for 1-1.5 minutes. Repeat.

    On those days, the total volume should be lower (maybe 6 intervals) and the intervals should be hard enough so you can taste the lactic acid. You can play with the intensity, duration, frequency, and number of intervals to suite you and your fitness level that week. Use a heart rate monitor and if your heart rate drops abnormally slowly after an interval, you may be overdoing it.

  3. Lou October 20th, 2011 9:53 am

    Ok, I’ll admit, oatmeal with raisins and a few walnuts is my usual, with eggs a few mornings a week. Obligatory pastries are in there for mid-morning snacks as well, but not to excess. Too much snacking is my weakness, but so long as I’m on my regular exercise program it doesn’t seem to be a big problem.

  4. Carl October 20th, 2011 9:54 am

    I find skiing and mountain biking to be the perfect compliments. They both involve slogging uphill for extended periods for downhill thrills. They both use similar muscles, and keep your high speed reactions working. They both get you far into the backcountry mountains, and everyone thinks both are crazy.

  5. Bill October 20th, 2011 10:31 am

    Here’s one if wall sits don’t fit into your A-D-D nature: If you’re a TV watcher, get that bongo/balance board out and hold a tuck with your hands far out in front of you every commercial break during your favorite show. Get really deep in that tuck with your hands far out in front of you like you’re racing your buddies down the Mountain Run at Squaw during the busiest part of the day. Its harder on the balance board than it seems. That gets you in 4 or 5 bouts per 30 minute program, lasting 90 seconds, each give or take. The balance board really brings in all your stabilizers more than just a straight wall sit. We used to make it through a lot of episodes of the Simpsons this way in our house in Minturn. However, the Corona’s consumed during the times the program was on may have counter-acted any gains from the balance board tucks. Who am I to say.

  6. Chuck October 20th, 2011 11:08 am


  7. Matt Kinney October 20th, 2011 11:14 am

    5-6 days a weeks I go at it. 2 days minimum skiing (up and down) and swimming laps the other 2-3 days for 45 minutes non-stop mixed with interval laps. Vegetarian since 1986 pretty much tags my diet. I avoid all the “corporate” processed food as much as possible. Nuts, nuts and more nuts with fruit, fruit and more fruit. I religiously eat two apples everyday and have not been sick or had the flu in nearly 15 years. I don’t get flu shots either. Worse than not being in shape, is getting sick from poor diets and thus missing powder days.

    During the summer I trade skiing for cycling.

    I add some yoga sessions a few times a week at home with the woman who lets me live with her, thus insuring my flexibility needs are not ignored.

  8. Scott October 20th, 2011 2:27 pm

    I’m lucky to live in the mountains, so mostly trail running for me with lots of vertical gain. Varying distances, varying intensities. I’m not that fast, but I do it regularly, like, 4-5x a week or so. Every once in a while I’ll go for a PR on a certain run to measure progress. If I’m tired, I back off, and if I’m feeling good I push harder. I definetly gain a lot of cardio endurance and leg strength from trail running.

    I also roller skate ski (2-3x a week), which I think promotes good balance and strengthens those finer areas of the legs that running does not do so good at, such as all the supporting ligaments, tendons and muscles of the ankles, knees, and hips. Also, it can be a great upper body and core workout. I’m really glad I started doing this.

    Used to cycle a lot, but have barely touched my bike this year. But in the past its been really useful for strengthening and endurance, especially climbing.

    I’ll also start doing leg lunges in the fall, like maybe work up to 3-4 sets of 25 per leg. Push ups, pull ups and a few core specific exercises 2x a week.

    Nothing really complicated. No real set training plan. Just trying to keep it simple, somewhat fun and consistent. Consistent being the key word, as Lou stated.

    Rarely use any sort of device to monitor my performance, except a regular watch. Maybe use a GPS watch to check a distance once in a while and to get an elevation profile of a certain run. Used to wear a heart rate monitor religiously, now I just go by feel or perceived effort and adjust accordingly.

    Winters and Springs are all skate skiing, skinning resort laps and lest we forget what we’re really here for, backcountry skiing.

    Diet? What’s that? Does that include gulping down a Coke at the end of most workouts? (my weakness…)

  9. Glenn Sliva October 20th, 2011 2:52 pm

    I like to start out slow and back off. No seriously.

    You need intensity and frequency especially when we age. A minimum of 30 minutes a day four days and a 1 hour workout including intervals.

    Fueling is even more important. Oatmeal with some protein such as egg whites is critical to your fitness improvement.

    Nutrition for Endurance Athletes is a great book for fueling. As for workouts Joe Friel has a tremendous blog with priceless information.

    Great topic Lou and this has encouraged me to get going after all we are basically in the season now above 10,500 feet.

    Try doing squats while watching TV. After 5 t0 10 minutes you are sweating like crazy.

  10. Nic October 20th, 2011 3:07 pm


    first time responder to a posting, and as always, thanks for your insite!

    I’ve found that doing combo lifts that incorpoate multiple body parts really helped build my strength and stamina. Lifts such as overhead squats, sumo dead lifts w/ a high pull and the classic burpee. 2 sets doing reps of 27, 21, 15, 9,6,3 quickly and safely as possible. Yeah, its a bit more geared for the down, but i noticed great gains in stamina for the up [and down when in yo-yo mode] after added the weight routine to my cardio [which mainly consists of riding my bike to work daily and some trail running].

    As for a diet – heavier on the protein, easier on the carbs. But I do love some oatmeal with peanut butter, casien protein, milk and cinnamon [helps regulate my blood sugar].

    @ the other posters – I love hearing what others do to get into or keep in shape for the rides up and down!

    Thanks! Nic-

  11. Rob Coppolillo October 20th, 2011 4:05 pm

    Good stuff, all. Though I live in Boulder, my time in the hills has been limited these past two years, as my wife and I had twins. Cool little dudes, but they take a bite out of play time! (For now!)

    Anyway, I’ve been hitting the Alpine Training Center ( and it’s a functional fitness gym, much like CrossFit, but way higher intensity and volume. If I get 2-3 sessions a week, I’m psyched. They’re one hour each and I honestly feel I’m in the best overall shape of my life. I got out touring once every 10 days last year, and about the same climbing this summer. It’s a great program and super efficient. It’s along the lines of Gym Jones or Mountain Athlete…

    Give it a look if you’re down. It’s a lot of “thug strength” stuff like sandbag get-ups, plyometrics, rope climbing, mega-core…works for me, so consider it.

    Best winter to all!

  12. Scott October 20th, 2011 4:28 pm

    Is oatmeal really that good?

  13. John October 20th, 2011 5:30 pm

    As a ski mountaineer I find that the biggest deal is good cardio. I trail run 5-6 mornings per week with distances in the 10-15km range. Then 2-3x per week I hit a very long set of stairs in our river valley (I don’t live in the mountains) and I wear a 30kg pack for sessions lasting 1-2 hours. I mountain bike as I feel, but should do more to add variety. A couple times a week I hit the upper body with dips, pull ups, and some other stuff, separating sets with 1000M stints on the Concept2 rowing machine. Does it work? Seems to. I’m coming hard on 50 and can keep up with most anyone on trips regardless of age.

  14. Kyle October 20th, 2011 5:58 pm

    Riding my bike to work mostly year round seems to keep me going pretty good. and then the first month or so of early season skiing gets me going.

    But I gotta say the most drastic change i saw was from ditching granola, oatmeal, or cereal at breakfast in favour of bacon and eggs, or an omlette, plain yogurt with berries, and a tiny bit of coffee with my cup of cream.

  15. Omr October 20th, 2011 7:39 pm

    Trail running. Nothing mimics bc skiing better. And I’m talking significant elev. gain/loss, none of this mall walking crap. Your quads, knees and ankles will thank you once the skiing starts. And I know what your saying, “running downhill is bad for your knees”, but it’s simply not true. Like anything foreign, it just takes patience and conditioning before the pain disappears and the pounding becomes joyful. Ok, don’t believe me, but I’m now 50, been running off road for decades and NO surgeries. Plus it’s fun to run uphill past bikers.

    Biking is great, but alone it is a poor bc ski conditioner. The first day on skis will leave you be crippled with poorly conditioned quads, guaranteed.

  16. Rob Coppolillo October 20th, 2011 8:37 pm

    Someone has pushed the “down” button.


  17. Bar Barrique October 20th, 2011 9:01 pm

    The real secret is; move to the mountains. Then you can hike, bike, and, ski (yes in the summer). I am an oatmeal guy for breakfast, but I am not into boring exercise. The one thing that is essential for me, as I am close to Lou in age is stretching.

  18. Oscar October 21st, 2011 1:44 am

    About the diet I have found it to be really effective just to skip breakfast on “normal” days of work. Keeps you burning that fat all until lunch, especially effective if combined with a fast walk or light cycling to work/school/whatever-you-do.

    Most dietist would probably rip my guts out and devour them if they knew I was writing this, but I figured that since it works great for both me and my father it can’t be all out the window!

    Though this method requires quite a lot of discipline not to binge at lunch, but after some time it’s no problem. And while I’m on skiing/climbing trips I do eat breakfast, a lot of it. But during those wonderful times I’m not that concerned about not spending all the energy I’m pressing in to my body ;)

  19. Chris October 21st, 2011 4:50 am

    Crossfit and the paleo diet. Read up on it, The Paleo Solution, suggests to a diet out ancestors had, meat veggies, nuts and seeds, with a little fruit to reduce carbs/sugars. In the last 6 weeks I’ve lost 10 lbs and 2 inches around my waist, and I’m not THAT strict on the diet. Crank more power out of my workouts and can’t wait to see what the winter has in store!

  20. Jim October 21st, 2011 12:11 pm

    A good way to measure food intake and for back country food planning is pppd, pounds per person per day. This can be used at home by weighing exactly how much food you eat at meals. Your eye is inaccurate at estimating amounts. Calorie counting tends to be inaccurate. I’ve found about a kilo of prepared food a day, not counting drinks is good to maintain weight. Drinks can add weight so careful with juice and soda and alcohol.

  21. Ross October 21st, 2011 12:47 pm

    Two years ago I skipped buying a pass for the hill due to an El Nino winter. I wanted to focus on getting more back country days in and spent the money on hockey gear instead, which turned out to be the best conditioning for skiing that I’ve done. My first day on the hill felt like I had already been skiing for a month. Zero burn in the legs, charging hard and taking no breaks. Felt as fresh on the last run of the day as the first.

  22. Ross October 21st, 2011 12:56 pm

    @ Oscar

    I wouldn’t suggest that diet to everyone. It may work for you, but in general it won’t for everyone else. The reason many dieters gain back their weight is because they limited their caloric intake for some time, and to compensate for it, their metabolism slowed down so their body wouldn’t begin eating itself for energy. So when they go to normal calorie intake, the body isn’t expecting it and stores more as fat. The non-sexy diet of eat less crap and exercise does the trick as long as there are no glandular issues.

  23. stevenjo October 21st, 2011 3:28 pm

    Unfortunately in the land of noski, we get rain only while our brothern up the mountain get snow, so weekday exercise is always a challenge. This year I fixed up a singlespeed mountain bike in hopes that it will provide a little of everything. So far so good. I get a nice cardio workout on the flats going out to the hill, while the hills give a great anaerobic/strength training workout. Plus it gets me outside, even if you have to deal with the rain, which is a nice change of pace.

  24. Steve October 21st, 2011 3:29 pm

    Lot of love for the cardio here, which is certainly great for the uphill, but I have to voice the viewpoint that my skiing never got better, quicker, than when I started to do the big heavy compound movements. Squatting and deadlifting will build the essential strength components needed for skiing faster that just about anything else. For those of us who can’t devote the time to skiing 5-6 days a week, 2 or 3 hours in the gym under heavy weights make those weekend days that much sweeter.

  25. thomas October 21st, 2011 5:27 pm

    Paleo and Crossfit will help you make some gains in your fitness “holes” but for endurance neither work that well. The food quality that a paleo diet promotes is great but unless you add a ton of tubers your real endurance will take a dive. Be warned. ( endurance meaning a 4 to 96 hr day, not the Crossfit definition of 20 minutes….)

  26. Ern October 21st, 2011 6:37 pm

    Core stability for most should for most come before core strengthening. The core is a dynamic complex of bones, muscles and tendons and if it’s out of balance strengthening will just give you short term pain and long term issues.

  27. Drew October 22nd, 2011 1:23 pm

    Skiing 10 months a year keeps you in good ski shape. In the interim smoke Drum, listen to electronic music and ride a bike.

    For the diet I balance my coffee consumption with green tea.

  28. PETE ANZALONE October 23rd, 2011 10:45 pm

    If you need to cut carbs, choose bourbon over beer.

  29. Ptor October 24th, 2011 12:19 am

    Beer yoga!!!! ;-)

  30. Dave October 24th, 2011 6:53 am

    Anybody have ski conditioning experience with rowing or ergs, like the Concept II? It’s an amazing machine for HITS workouts.

  31. Joe October 24th, 2011 9:16 am

    I like the effect martial arts practice has on the downhill part of my skiing. Pretty much any variety will help flexibility and core stability, but a discipline incorporating lots of throws and dynamic movement will really help with balance and proprioception. As an added bonus, getting thrown around teaches you to manage the forces involved in a fall really well, helping avoid injury.

    Uphill is all about cardio, and maybe some lunges and squats with high reps/low weight.

  32. Don October 25th, 2011 2:28 pm

    +1 on Crossfit. Particularly if you supplement it with some trail running or mtb riding. Strength + stamina == more fun in the mountains (and life in general).

  33. Mike T October 25th, 2011 5:58 pm

    Ice Hockey….But I am not sure how many more times I can chip my teeth! Mountain biking, turns all year…..commuting on the bike…variations of the above mentioned!

  34. Ryan October 25th, 2011 8:48 pm

    Rugby is good for touring. You must be able to rest while you are still moving and have energy reserves ready in small bursts. Its also good for body awareness and in tricky situations prepares you for contact with terrian and the ground if you must bail. I mix the off days with hill climbs in the foothills. 1000 ft vert 3\4 mile. Fifteen minutes up. Four minutes down. The uphill benefit is obvious the down hill gets your shock absorbers ready real quick. Those are the money bones. Come to SLC and ill take you on my circuit. Anytime.

  35. ty October 31st, 2011 11:10 pm

    in the rockies, i have to go with mt biking! push/ride up the hill fast for a cardio blast, and then flash the downhill for a balance/strength workout

  36. ty October 31st, 2011 11:12 pm

    also, you can scout ski lines off the bike :-)

  37. Simply Piste November 3rd, 2011 10:09 am

    Agree with Ern’s comment, you need to focus on correcting core stability first before improving core strength. There are some good corrective exercise stretches you can do that help improve posture and balance. Yoga can be great for this.

    P.S Oatmeal all the way :D

  38. Hatch November 3rd, 2011 3:23 pm


  39. Cross Country Ski Fan November 10th, 2011 2:42 pm

    A lot of backcountry skiers are also taking up cross country skiing, particularly skate skiing, for a great cardiovasular workout. Skate skiing definately works the whole body and will keep you in great shape.

  40. Matthew Bennett January 19th, 2012 3:35 pm

    Most of my skiing patients do very little exercise in the weeks before a ski trip. Then they think it is too late to do it and don’t get active in the last week or two. But the biggest changes in fitness occur in the first two weeks so I tell to get exercising – even if it just the gentle stuff – it is better than nothing. Here are my further thoughts on it

  41. Chelston February 4th, 2012 7:36 am

    Skate skiing is great for whole body fitness

  42. Scott Nelson February 4th, 2012 7:57 am

    Yeah, its amazing how many muscle groups skate skiing involves. Full body workout for sure. Cardio, endurance, strength, balance… all gets worked. I would say the same for classic as well, but skating is just more fun for me.

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