Pre-Season Fitness Training for Ski Touring & Mountaineering

Post by blogger | October 16, 2014      

(Editor’s note: We published this last season. It’s still current so rather than doing another fitness post with the same stuff we figured we’d just polish it up and place it next to Lisa’s rando race schedule.)

Putting those hip flexors to work preseason in the Elk Mountains.

Working those hip flexors, preseason in the Elk Mountains.

We study them like lab rats until they divulge their secrets for gear, nutrition, training and recovery. How do the elite men and women go beyond the norm?

One such man-rat is Bryan Wickenhauser, 2x Grand Traverse winner, 3x US Ski Mountaineering Team member, 2x Power of Four winner, 2009 Five Peaks Team winner, plus a familiar face at nearly every skimo race here in Colorado. Simply stated “Wick” is no stranger to overcoming the pain cave torturefest.

To ease my suffering when I start ski touring this season, I sought him out for training advice.

In addition to training for his own skimo races with Team Crested Butte, Wick instructs ski conditioning at Colorado Western State University in Gunnison, Colorado. His workouts focus on aerobic and plyometric conditioning to get the entire body in shape for the demands of ski touring.

For a backcountry skiing (endurance) athlete, the training strategy is low weight/high reps, with an emphasis on increasing the reps throughout a long term program. There can be a higher weight/low rep phase built in, but that should be worked out with the help of a professional coach or trainer.

Disclaimer: When starting a weight lifting program, it is best to ALWAYS seek guidance on proper technique. Please don’t jump into a weight lifting routine on your own based solely on what you’ve learned in this article.


-The following backcountry skiing specific workouts are all done in a circuit.
There are a total of nine exercises.

    Double Poling
    Kick ‘n’ Glide
    Quad Resistance
    Classic Box Jump With Poles
    Rope Poling
    Weighted Core Twist
    Bench Press

It takes 35 minutes of lifting to complete three circuits of nine exercises per circuit (not much pause between any given exercise within a circuit; one to two minutes of rest between circuits). This does not include any warm up/cool down time.

Progressions can incorporate increasing the number of reps and number of circuits.

If exercises become too difficult, lower the weight or number of circuits. You are encouraged, for a number of reasons, to work out with a partner when using a weight lifting routine (similar to skiing in the backcountry).

Upper Body Double Poling

Mimic the double poling motion when you are skating out from a ski or skiing in on an approach. The movement here is overextended, but works the entire poling motion.

Mimic the double poling motion like when you are skating out from a ski or skiing in to an approach. The movement here is overextended but works the entire poling motion.

Kick ‘n’ Glide

Movement here builds strength in the kick n glide phase of ski touring. Builds strong hip flexors!

Movement here builds strength in the kick and glide phase of ski touring, developing strong hip flexors.

Quad Resistance

Here's the same machine just utilizing resistance against the quad assimilating a skier's ski touring motion as they go uphill. Strong focus again on the hip flexor.

Here's the same machine just utilizing resistance against the quad, simulating uphill ski touring motion. Strong focus is again on the hip flexor.

Classic Box Jump With Poles

Classic box jump with feet hips width apart. Using PVC poles to keep the hands quiet and steady while performing the exercise. Ski specific as possible!

Classic box jump with feet hips width apart. Using PVC poles keeps the hands quiet and steady while performing the exercise. Ski specific as possible.

Rope Poling

Ski specific poling action exercise with a rope. Over emphasize the movement it is done to help with your poling action in real ski situations where you might be skating on a mellow approach or skating back to the car on a snowmobile road. Exercise is performed on your knees to elongate the poling movement on this machine and completing the exercise with my fictional poles on the follow through.

Ski specific poling action exercise with a rope. Over emphasize the movement. It is done to help with your poling action in real ski situations where you might be skating on a mellow approach or skating back to the car on a snowmobile road. Exercise is performed on your knees to elongate the poling movement on this machine and completing the exercise with fictional poles on the follow through.

Weighted Core Twist

Stability ball with 25 to 35 lbs plate weight twisting motion. Equal reps on each side and focus on the twisting movement while keeping feet planted.

Stability ball with 25 to 35 lbs plate weight twisting motion. Equal reps on each side and focus on the twisting movement while keeping feet planted.

The final three exercises in the circuit are:

Bench Press

With the focus on more reps, less weight versus channeling your inner Schwarzenegger.

A weight lifting routine should always be supplemented with a warm up phase for 10+ minutes of cardio on a treadmill, stationary bike, etc. A cool down phase (10-30 minutes of cardio) can help relieve post lifting tightness. If you can’t do the cool down phase immediately after lifting, get out that day for stretching or cardio.

Use a weight lifting circuit twice a week, i.e.: Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday, build in plyometrics/cardio routines on the alternate days of the week, and start skiing AS SOON AS POSSIBLE IN THE SEASON!!!!!

Bryan clearly enjoys the fruits of labor outside the gym.

Bryan clearly enjoys the fruits of labor outside the gym.


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


36 Responses to “Pre-Season Fitness Training for Ski Touring & Mountaineering”

  1. Hank November 12th, 2013 11:41 am

    Good info! For those of us who swear off the gym I am wondering if one could substitute pull ups and lunges for the exercises that use the machines? Or other substitutes that would target the same muscles?

  2. Joe Risi November 12th, 2013 1:03 pm

    @Hank Self-admittedly not the biggest fan of gyms either. Most certainly lunges can be incorporated for two of the exercises.

    Or you can make 2 into 1 by combining the “kick n’ glide” and quad resistance to perform a cross-over lunge.

    These can be weighted or unweighted. Grab 2 logs, heating pellet bags, etc. of equal weight. Do a lunge, while crossing your right foot in front of your right knee, in-line with your right shoulder, a FULL lunge, with your quad parallel to the ground Making sure your knee doesn’t bend past your foot. Keep your chest up and look ahead.

    Equal lunges for each leg. For more pain, up the reps not weight. Skimo specific 😉

  3. Water November 12th, 2013 1:25 pm

    thanks for providing this. I pay for a gym and get plenty of exercise there but sometimes have felt lacking in my routine, wondering if my efforts while good for health, are not as focused as they could be for my activities (basically this). But this lines up a decent amount with a lot of what I focus on–and try to do–not always going for weight but for reps—core exercises, shoulder/delts/chest for poling–and quad and hip flexor exercises.

    I don’t do any box jumps.. does that basically take care of the calfs?

    One thing I’ve found very valuable, I spend lots of time doing squats and balancing on one of these:

    I am a relatively new skier and have considered good balance to be my saving grace

  4. Mike Marolt November 12th, 2013 1:25 pm

    Good info. I also add a power endurance element that adds greatly to progress very quickly this late in the season, but also over all power. The “sprinter’s workout”. It’s why sprinters are so powerful. I refer to it as the “20 minute workout” and got it out of a magazine article by a coach at UCLA.

    6 minutes warm up.

    Then, starting on minute 7,
    30 seconds as HARD as you can go followed by 90 seconds walking pace.

    Do 7 of those and follow up with warm down. You will barely be able to walk afterward for a few minutes if you do it right. It increases natural growth hormone production which increases strength throughout. My brother and I do this once or twice a week in the months before an expedition because it trains your body to go totally anaerobic, which we have found greatly increases your ability to deal with altitude more efficiently, and generates sustainable power and endurance for when you are on your last leg(s). I always do it on a machine because they have meters and readouts that can push you (but it can be done running, biking, whatever). At max you may be at XXX watts and by looking at the numbers, for 30 seconds you can try to hold various levels and not think about the pain. But work up to 7reps. And be careful. If you are honest about this, you will be right on the edge of needing a trash can which if you end up using is not beneficial or healthy. Over time, you can also see your max numbers increase which is very inspirational. But it builds incredible leg power for skiing which as you get older is very difficult to maintain. At the end of a massive multi hour climb, you will need that power to ski off the peak. The workout has been a game changer for me personally for all endurance sports and over all strength.

  5. Christi Cline November 12th, 2013 2:14 pm

    As someone who is currently cooling her heels (well, more correctly, my hip flexors, with icy-hot)– here’s a word of warning, particularly for those (like me) who are in the “used to be in shape but now not so much” club: For the first couple-three weeks, take it easy with the FORCE/POWER part of the exercises. Use lower weights, start with a reasonable number of reps, and focus more on clean form. Don’t “horse it” to get that last rep at that 5 lbs more than you did day before yesterday. Hip flexors and backs can be strained by many of these exercises, and if you do strain one, pretty much every movement you make contributes to an over-use injury. Frequent stretching (including taking a day OFF when all you do is some relaxed stretching- vs pushing for the length stretching) and a massage every now and then will help, too. (note, I’m a 53-yr old “ex-athlete”– 23 year old young bucks & buckettes can feel free to ignore the rantings of the old lady 🙂

    I am saying this from week 4 (well actually, week 3 but for the 2nd time) of a 12-week program. I’m not going to be in killer shape when I hit the slopes, but I guarantee I’ll be in better shape at the end of the season than I will be at the beginning, and (bonus), I’ll still be skiing! It IS too late to “BE” in shape for skiing (if you’re not already), but it’s never too late to start getting in shape and getting in better shape throughout the season.

  6. Joe Risi November 12th, 2013 2:59 pm

    Mike, I agree those “sprinter” workouts really do leave you with your head in the bucket sometimes.

    Christi thanks for bringing this up. It’s true these next few weeks before the snow pack begins to really stabilize is a great time to focus on overall fitness. It can make or break your season because you went out too hard and failed to prepare.

  7. David Dornian November 12th, 2013 3:50 pm

    Good to see Wick sweating for you folks. Tell him I said “hi”, and let him know that Andrew McNab, Canadian skimo team member for several years and winner of several European and North American races, is presently closeted in my spare bedroom in Calgary and secretly training for the coming season by putting up Christmas lights under contract six days a week and eating ice cream before bed every night. We should check their match play a little further into the season to see which program is most effective.

  8. Hacksaw November 12th, 2013 5:18 pm

    What, no 16 oz. curls????

  9. Louie November 12th, 2013 5:36 pm

    awesome! Really well done. After skiing this weekend I’m feeling the need to get in better shape for ski season, that’s for sure.

  10. frisco November 12th, 2013 6:21 pm

    My 2 cents. for years I had relied on aerobic exercises to get ready for the mountains. Running miles and miles per week, cycling in the summer etc.
    Last year I switched to strictly strength training. Squats, pushups, step ups. very few reps, but done to exhaustion with pretty heavy weights. So far this year I feel a lot stronger and the couple of times I have been skiing I feel as good if not a lot better than when I based my workouts on aerobic stuff exclusively.
    The nice thing about strength training is that only with 3-4 hrs per week seem to do the trick, as opposed to 10+ hrs per week I used to do running etc.
    I have gained a few pounds (prob. muscle?) but feel fresher in the mountains and seem to recover quicker from long efforts.
    I know everybody is different, but this is my experience.

  11. Tom Gos November 12th, 2013 6:38 pm

    What Marolt said.

  12. Dave November 12th, 2013 8:14 pm

    Query for the assembled experts:
    I am a mountain biker, backcountry skier, and skate skier; in more or less that order, 45 years young. I have been doing endurance bike races this year, and would like to do some long nordic and potentially rando races this winter to keep up the momentum. I want to be back on the bike for a solo 24 hour race in May. Any ideas for training exercises, schedules or resources for this sort of year?

  13. SR November 13th, 2013 7:57 am


    It sounds like you’re prioritizing your MTB, and, within that, endurance MTB. So, you’ve effectively got a half-year off-season to build a good aerobic base and work in a few smaller training cycles as well. For me, one key is tracking what I actually do over the course of a week and month. For instance, if I want three fairly low intensity efforts in a week, that can include ski touring if I keep my heart rate and perceived exertion low enough for most of my effort, and can include lift-served skiing with my kids. Nordic and rando should fit that kind of program well, with race days basically being some version of threshold work most of the time in quick and dirty terms.

  14. Rod November 13th, 2013 8:14 am

    For me, aerobic training (8 hours a week mountain biking) works, but when combined with heavy weight lifting for quads, hamstrings and but once a week in the ssummer and three times a week in the fall
    Plus core, pushups, pullups year around.
    I ski 100 days a year,60 resort at squaw, 40 backcountry.
    Since I’m 64, strength training if the only way to maintain muscle mass. During mountain biking or ski season, I lose strength.

  15. OMR November 13th, 2013 9:52 am

    All great advice! My golden ticket is trail-running – with much elevation gain and loss. Nothing preps your legs for B.C. skiing better. Do it in all seasons, even mid-winter when the trails are snowy and your time is limited, go run those icey trails. I’m 51 and started B.C. in the mid ’70’s, and trail-running is by far the best prep I’ve found. Incidentally, my old knees are still rock solid and pain-free. Once one stops weight bearing exercise, such as trail running, generally that is when the knee pain amplifies. The worst prep for bc skiing? I’d have to say cycling. Sorry bikers, but it’s true. Yes, it builds endurance, but my cycling friends are in total pain the first few ski days/weeks until their weight bearing muscles catch up. For the most part cycling is a non-weight bearing exercise and it allows your quads and glutes to atrophy. It’s the reason why long-term cyclist have a high rate if osteoporosis. The bottom line is balance those workouts. Too much of anything has a downside.

  16. Jack November 13th, 2013 1:17 pm

    Rod you are my new hero. I’m 59 and *used to be* a reasonable cyclist, just really getting started on a serious fitness reboot. I’m jealous about the 100 days/season.

  17. Carla Smith November 13th, 2013 8:07 pm

    Hey Joe,

    Great post. As a sport physiotherapist and backcountry, downhill, cross-country skier and boarder I love the emphasis on more reps and lower resistance AND working some higher resistance/lower reps cycles into the longer program. A couple of things:

    1. Maybe it’s just the photo but I believe the kick n’ glide works the glutes and proximal hams in extension concentrically; perhaps the hip flexors if they work ‘controlling’ the return movement. A great exercise at the end range, particularly for those office types who sit in a contracted hip flexors state all day, to stretch them out dynamically.

    2.The ‘Quad’ Resistance is technically a hip flexor resistance and a fabulous exercise for one of the most overlooked muscles strengthened. Weak hip flexors are huge contributors to back injury. Again, important with this one to not start with too much weight.

    Loved all the exercises… important that squats are done correctly with weight through the heels and in a 90 degree sit, with the knees not going forward over the foot.

    Lunges ARE a fabulous exercise provided again they are done correctly with 90 degrees at the hip, knee and foot. I do 60 on each leg with ten pound weight doing various shoulder exercises with each lunge, always careful to be in true posture balanced through the bones as much as possible, particularly with head over shoulders.

    Here’s one more suggestion: (to be used with discretion for those with strong knees and ankles. Go slow and do them right.

    Find a long set of stairs… up a hillside. There are 110 stairs on my set. Alternate doing them:
    1. by two,
    2. leap, by three (for the long-legged among us)
    3. side-ways keeping hips/knees/feet square to the railing, crossing over…
    4. face the other side, lead up with the other leg
    5. doing a speed-skate jump: jump from one end of one step on one leg to the other end of the next step on the other leg, and landing/balancing on a soft bent knee, hold and then jump again,
    6. doing a sprinters warm-up toe bounce/hip to chest flex with strong alternating arms,
    7. doing one set as fast as possible,
    8. do one set (and this is the toughest – double feet jump up two steps at a time landing on soft knees)

    Don’t forget to use the descent to work eccentrically:

    1. do one set hopping down on one foot, landing at a 45 degree angle to the step 8-10 stairs per foot, then switch. Use the railing for support until you feel comfortable but for those with strong knees and ankles it works the large working and small balance muscles at the distal end. It’s a steep learning curve…give it a few times and it will become a favourite confidence builder in your core lower leg workout.

    2. Going down sideways, doing careful cross-overs, square again to the railing, is another great stability exercise.

    I find this stair workout illuminates my weaknesses and is a great mimic for the climb for backcountry skiers. It also utilizes all your core muscles in a very functional manner.

    Thanks again for the gym exercises… really liked the bounding one!

  18. DP November 14th, 2013 11:28 am

    For me it’s trail running, or laps on a big hill next to my house for 40 minutes: then 5 reps of leg blasters with a 25 lb pack on my back (10 minutes).

    Cardio and strength for the legs.

    Then I stretch and do 50 sit ups and 30 push ups at the end. But looking for better upper body stuff.

  19. Joe Risi November 14th, 2013 12:10 pm


    Awesome breakdown!

    The stair exercise is going to be put to test this afternoon.

  20. Nick November 18th, 2013 2:45 pm

    Some great tips here. Alas there is no ‘one size fits all golden ticket’ as everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. My experience is different from OMR’s above – mountain running is great for endurance but I find it doesn’t build power and after decades of doing it, the wear and tear on my joints from other injuries means it’s now joint pain rather than muscular fatigue that slows me down. Thus it’s harder to get stronger. Instead a structured cycling program using a power meter has been tremendous for raising lactic threshold and getting my glutes and quads in shape. I’ve often found my entry into the ski season has been easiest in those year when I’ve done a lot of sprint cycling in the fall. Osteoporosis may be an issue for many long-term hard-core cyclists, I’m not sure it’s a problem if you combine it throughout the year with other mountain activities like running, hiking, alpine climbing and ski-touring.

  21. George November 19th, 2013 2:38 pm

    Great stuff and super posts.
    How about a follow-up on weekly aerobic training for SkiMo? I would like to see what Wick does on a weekly basis. How many hard days, long days and rest days. Does Wick mix in skate or classic XC skiing with skinning?
    Perhaps Mike Marolt will share his aerobic training program?

  22. SR November 20th, 2013 8:01 am

    The discussion of trail running as it relates to power highlights an interesting specificity issue. Trail running without a lot of up and down isn’t as specific as effort that does have the up and down. If you do have the up and down, you then have an issue (as you do on a bike) of thinking about where you are in your training cycle in terms of whether you blast through steep sections while going heavily anaerobic, or whether you back off and even hike steep sections to keep things below LT. Maybe a tangent, but even alpine racers do a lot of their endurance work at or below LT. But, for both disciplines anaerobic endurance is also going to be important.

    Nordic walking and running do add even more specificity along with a certain charming coordination problem when I do them.

    On a tangent, I agree with Nick that osteoporosis likely isn’t a big issue for those with diverse mountain activities.

    I agree some sort of weekly aerobic training segment would be great. I’d also love to hear some things like, in Europe where roller skiing is much more prevalent, if more of the Euros in this discipline have a significant roller ski component to their summer training.

  23. Ty Sorensen November 21st, 2013 9:24 am

    Great information. At Alpine Vertical we are huge advocates of staying in peak physical fitness as well as sport specific workouts. The above workout is a great example. I hate to say it but we have found that Crossfit is a great workout for ski mountaineering. Plus it is very team oriented and very encouraging…but…it ain’t easy! Another area that we tend to focus on is diet. The key here is to remember that different diets work for different body types. For example, I personally eat mainly a plant based diet consisting of as many whole (unprocessed) foods as possible with consumption of fish maybe once a month. It works great for me, but doesn’t work for everyone. Different strokes for different folks! Your body will tell you what it needs, so listen. Build a strong healthy body through exercise and healthy eating habits and a strong mind and your goals will be so much more gratifying when you reach them. Great article!

  24. ShailCaesar! November 25th, 2013 10:56 am

    Good article! What’s with the site? Everybody outta town?

  25. Herb Jones November 30th, 2013 12:52 pm

    For the old farts out there [I’m 65+} my experience is that form is not a rigid fixed position or movement but rather the best approximation to “ideal” form depending on what YOUR body will allow. When doing lunges I go only as low as I can without pain in my old knees and try to stay just below the pain point. After a number of reps I usually find I can go a bit lower without pain and often end the exercise session in or close to ideal form. Pushing through the pain in a joint causes a soreness which only rest will cure and you can’t make gains while resting. Icing helps prevent the day-after knee pain for me, but I know some guys who won’t even try it.
    I totally agree with the weight bearing approach, but the bike is a good warm up device and low impact exercise machine as is the Skiers Edge device which combines low impact and weight bearing with the ability to do killer interval sessions, cardio, balance, and box jumping type movements. And, yeah, it’s expensive so Craigs list, E-bay,…?
    Just-trying-to-stay-in-the-game- Herb

  26. kate Brown October 16th, 2014 9:55 am

    for those without access to a gym try: fresh out of chamonix- the home hardcore skiing.
    A little different from some ‘get fit for skiing’ stuff out there. They have a free 25min taster session which should convince most people that they need to spend more time on 1 leg pre-season.

  27. John S October 16th, 2014 12:11 pm

    Steve House’s new training book is superb. Peer reviewed research combined with a focus on climbing and similar sports makes it the best read on the subject in a LONG time.

  28. Alan Watson October 18th, 2014 9:48 am

    John S is right, the book is an outstanding resource for anybody with a serious interest in the mountains: Training for the New Alpinism, by Steve House and Scott Johnston.

  29. Fredrik October 20th, 2014 5:18 am


    For all of you that like to exercise out doors!

    The guys Sverre and Kaj are quite fit, so this should do it for you guys.


  30. hairymountainbeast October 20th, 2014 2:34 pm

    Mountain Athlete, out of Jackson, WY has affiliate gyms around the country, and they have great mountain sport specific programming. It’s a little pricey, but worth it if you can swing it.

  31. Scott Swallow October 21st, 2014 10:36 am

    I still would not discount lifting heavy weight. Squat, dead-lift, and bench press can do wonders for needed explosive power late in the day/race. I try to implement heavy lifting into my training on a weekly basis.

  32. Rod October 21st, 2014 5:30 pm

    +1 on heavy weights.

  33. Christa April 19th, 2015 10:16 am

    Admittedly, I only skimmed lightly though the comments, so I may have missed this if it was previously mentioned, but the kick n’ glide is a hip EXTENSION movement, not a hip flexor movement. It should primarily engage the hamstrings and most importantly, gluts for extension of the hip joint. Hip flexors are on the front (anterior side) of the hip joint and will be loaded most through bringing the leg up and in front for climbing, that is through the “quad resistance” exercise shown here, although psoas is not a quadriceps muscle, but is a huge part of hip flexion as well.

  34. Lou Dawson 2 April 19th, 2015 10:30 am

    Christa, I’m sure you’re correct. Thanks for visiting! Lou

  35. Gary September 18th, 2015 7:39 pm

    Agree with the above comments on Steve House book, Training for the new Alpinism. I do wish he would ad a section for ski touring/ski mountaineering.

  36. Mark Vosburgh November 26th, 2015 1:31 pm

    I agree with the recommendations for the Scott Johnson book. I heard him speak last November at the West Yellowstone Ski camp. His take away message was that many athletes, including competitive Nordic skiers, have not spent the time exercising at a low intensity aerobic level to condition their bodies to effectively train at higher intensity. He likened effective training for ski mountaineering to be closely related to training for Nordic ski racing,including strength training and anaerobic interval training in addition to a huge aerobic base. His book strongly recommends following a year long training program, and goes into detail on how to create one for yourself. I had some difficulty with this section of the book, but it did give me incentive to follow the training program for Nordic skiing that I use from I have been following the intermediate level training program for several years, and have found huge benefits restructuring my training for both backcountry and Nordic skiing over the course of a year. Here is an articlemi wrote:

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