USSMA Coach Joe Howdyshell tells how to start the ski touring season strong
We’ve all been there: halfway up the skin track on day one of ski touring season, breath chugging, heart beating like butterfly wings, legs screaming ‘really? You want me to go up there?!’. Call it the warm-up tour, the dusting of the cobwebs, whatever you will, it’s rarely fun.
But, what if that day didn’t need to happen? What if you could just come out the ski touring start gate skinning like you were born for it?
Turns out, with a little bit of early season time and effort, you could do just that.
I’m not the kind of skier who cruises on roller skis to get through the hot months and I would not categorically place myself even close to an endurance athlete. But, I also don’t like eating my partners’ snow dust in the skin track. Now that it’s August and winter is one month closer, I’ve been thinking about things I could do to avoid those initial ski tours of sluggish climbs and burning legs.
So, for this week’s Tuesday Tech Tips, I called up Joe Howdyshell, U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association Team Head Coach and founder of Summit Endurance Academy, for insights into how to not tank at the start of the season. Joe coaches a wide range of athletes and he offered tangible tips for the recreational ski tourer to the seasoned racer. Here are his top tips.
Editor’s note: we get a little nerdy here, but try to keep it casual, too. What do you do to get ready for ski season? Let us know in the comments.
Build your transmission
WildSnow: What are the benefits of starting ski conditioning early?
Joe Howdyshell: I typically break performance down into two buckets. You have your engine and you have your transmission. Your engine is your cardiovascular system and your metabolism. So it takes food and oxygen and turns it into energy. And then your transmission is your muscles which turns that energy into movement.
One of the things that happens with athletes who do two sports a year is that the engine transfers pretty nicely from sport to sport. If you can breathe hard in the summer, you can breathe hard in the winter. But every time the season changes, your transmission changes ever so slightly. You may think ski touring and running/hiking uphill are pretty close, but they aren’t close enough. So the earlier you can start working on that sport specific transition, the more likely that you are going to get a lot more out of your season.
What typically happens is if you run or ride right up until the first snowfall, it’s probably going to take two or three months of trying to feel decent. You’re going to have little aches and pains and muscles are going to get really tired before you actually get in a good workout. You end up limiting your volume in the winter which means you limit your progress because you have to take so long to build your transmission. Or you could do that in the fall or in the summer.
Incorporate ski-specific movement
WS: It’s August now. How should people go about starting this?
JH: It depends on a couple different factors including when you start and what you’ve been doing previously.
If you are starting earlier, you are probably still in the bulk of your summer season and your intensity workouts are probably summer specific. You maybe have a couple races coming up and you’re still interested in being fast in that particular sport. In that case I would add either some hiking and or running with poles or some roller skiing. But keep the intensity very mellow. You’re still doing your intensity sessions in your summer sport but you’re adding a little volume in the kind of sport specific movements that you’re working towards.
If you’re starting in September, your summer sports have probably already been done. I would think about the intensity sessions being in ski touring specific stuff. By and large, intensity sessions are more muscular, so they’re going to stimulate that transmission and those muscles to change faster. So it makes sense that you want to have a fair bit of intensity on foot in the fall.
And if you haven’t been training at all, you should not worry as much about the intensity and just get out and do the thing. Whereas if you’re super fit, you can absolutely do some intensity in there.
Vary your efforts
WS: Speed aside, how is this beneficial for recreational ski tourers?
JH: We adapt to what we adapt to. If we go out at roughly the same speed and the same length every day, we will get a certain amount of adaptation to it the first time and less adaptation to it every time we do it again. Importantly, this doesn’t just mean speed. It also means efficiency and endurance.
Between somebody who wants to go really fast for an hour, somebody who wants to go from being able to skin from four hours to five hours, or somebody who wants to just make everything feel easy, the training looks fairly similar. The reason is that the dominant system in all of those is your aerobic system. In order to get the most out of your aerobic system–and your aerobic system is what helps you be more efficient and helps you go longer and faster–then we need a variety of stimuli. If you go out at the same speed everyday, your aerobic system isn’t going to change a whole lot. But if you go shorter and easier some days, and then medium-hard and medium-long some days, and really short and really hard some days, you’re going to get the fastest progress toward your goal no matter what that goal is.
Pump some iron
WS: Are there any precautions people should keep in mind as they start building a ski fitness base?
JH: Oftentimes when we switch from one sport to another, we move from a sport where we only move forward to another sport where we only move forward. So we end up with lateral movement weaknesses and posture issues because we’re all hunched over from riding or running or any of these things.
When you’re really working on this new transmission, it can bring some of those weaknesses to light and end up in injury. If there is any question what-so-ever about whether or not all of you is strong enough to move to a new sport, you should be spending two to three days in the gym working on very basic core, agility and lateral movement exercises. If you do that and start working on the base fitness at the same time, everything should come together really nicely.
Drink beer (really!)
WS: Final question, and this one is serious. How does beer fit into a training plan?
JH: Beer is usually best at about the halfway point of a Sunday adventure run (chuckle).
For more tips on early season training, including specific exercises, check out Pre-Season Fitness Training For Ski Touring and Mountaineering from the archives.
Manasseh Franklin is a writer, editor and big fan of walking uphill. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction and environment and natural resources from the University of Wyoming and especially enjoys writing about glaciers. Find her other work in Alpinist, Adventure Journal, Rock and Ice, Aspen Sojourner, AFAR, Trail Runner and Western Confluence.
I am turning 73 this September and make it a priority to be in shape for touring and bc skiing each season. I swim a kilometer every day of the summer and fall and when football season starts I cycle on a stationary bike and watch the game usually three times a week and cycle about 10 miles each time.
I also do a nautilus circuit on the days I don’t cycle and swim only three or four days a week. I played soccer most of my adult life and always lifted weights to get strong for the seasons, but one year I decided to ocean swim instead of the weights and when I went to the gym just before the season started I was amazed at the strength I had when I put the usual work out weights on the bar. I was very strong from the swimming.
I have been bc skiing for nearly 30 years and this routine has always made my first days touring feel like I had been doing it all year long.
Swimming. It’s a blessing!
Hell yeah! So much better to have same fitness coming in. I like to think about a “Badass Couch.” You weren’t skiing, so skiing is kind of “off the couch,” but since you’ve been doing a lot of other thing, you have a pretty badass couch!
Awesome, Phillip. It sounds like we could all learn a thing or two from you!
Hip rotators. I think If I ever made it to a gym I’d want to get my hip rotators going before a touring season. Other sports don’t seem to mimic the heavy drag on these guys when breaking trail here in Utah.
Absolutely! I’m a fan of a few things:
1. In the gym, reverse lunge + knee drive. Step your right foot back into a lunge, touch your right knee cap down (gently), and then come back up, bringing your right knee to your chest. Repeat on both sides.
2. Ankle weights while hiking! It’s SUUUPER dorky, but you can put them on when you hike up, and then put them in a backpack on the way down.
3. Band resisted leg drives. Use a band anchored to something behind you and around your ankle to resist stepping the resisted foot forward. This one is awesome because you get a lot of resistance while the ankle is way behind you, which is very similar to the end of a stride.
What sort of movements would be recommended to include in a gym routine to prepare the transmission for ski touring?
Hey Jeff, check out my reply to Dave H. above for the hip flexors.
I”m also a big fan of single leg weighted calf raises, single leg dead lifts, and weighted side bends (alternating dropping toward the heel and toe). And importantly, if you’re on heavy gear, use heavy weights!
I found bike touring pretty good cuz you are moving a lot of weight on your feet slowly,
once you get on skis speed work was recommended to me by a fairly famous rando guy
so that was going as fast as you can for 1hr
Yep, bike touring is a greta way to build that engine for the winter! And then using different intensity levels once you’re on snow is a greta way to build transmission and engine at the same time. I like to alternate few different fast workouts. 30-60 minutes in a single push is good, so is 3X10-20, 4X5, etc.
I’m in the Wildsnow to GreySnow transition where I am training for aging and skiing, not just skiing. Workouts are not as intense as in the past but consistency is the ticket. I don’t feel guilty if I pause a bit longer between stations or miss a day to go do something else. I’m done with heart monitors, but not a timer or tracking reps. With age in mind I started my preseason a month ago with 3-4 times a week, 70 minute of efforts with some light weights, forward and reverse lunges, push-up, and planks but most my effort is with my lovely weighted jump-rope which is great for heart and lower legs. Every two weeks I boost times and reps a notch til things are skiable. This is my minimum. It’s boring. Not a whole lot of fun. If I also get a long hike or MTB in during the week that’s fun exercise.
Anyone else doing the SUP thing? I started this year and my balance/core strength went way up after a few weeks. I also noticed that the bottom of my feet would be in a lot of pain after an hour or so (I go for 3 hours) on the first few trips.. Just like the beginning of ski season.. It’s probably not the greatest cross training for the ascent, but there has to be some overlap in the muscles being used (especially for poling) _________ <— insert joke here..
Inline skating is a great cross training activity for skiing. Hammers the hamstrings , obliques, and lower back. 3 times a week after weight lifting.
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