Key Areas for Ski Fitness


Written by Gareth Shelbourne – New Generation Ski Instructor Training Centre Coach

In my last post, I outlined a checklist to follow for when you are planning your fitness program so you are fighting fit leading into the winter. In this post and the next and final one I aim to dig deeper into the stages of the checklist.

Where to Begin

Stage 1 of the checklist involved identifying the key fitness performance areas for your sport. This is so you know which areas you should be focusing on in your training program. It might seem pretty obvious, but in my experience many trainee instructors that fail to do this correctly.

Luckily science can come to the rescue and do all the work for us. If you have some spare time I would recommend reading a scientific review by Turnbull et al (2009) titled, Physiology of Alpine Skiing. It is a relatively recent review of the scientific literature (100% free of bootroom chat), regarding the key physiological demands on elite ski racers during skiing. It looks at all Alpine disciplines (Slalom, Giant Slalom, Super Giant Slalom and Downhill).


Now, I know there might be slightly different demands for us as ski instructors and during BASI exams compared to alpine ski racers. We also ski moguls, powder, snowploughing, pick up kids etc, but if we focus on the research for the slower (more technical) alpine disciplines (Slalom and Giant Slalom), rather than the speed disciplines, we can create a good basic template, which can be applied to what we do.

The Turnbull et al (2009) article is very science-y, so in an effort to keep things simple in this post I will highlight some of the key points and a few things that interested me, which should help you understand more about the key physiological demands of skiing…..hopefully.


Anaerobic Systems are GO!

When looking at the key fitness performance areas for a sport, one of the most important things to look at first is the percentage split of how the body is producing energy for muscle contraction during performance. At the end of the day it always boils down to no energy = contraction and therefore, no movement.


In many of the studies reviewed by Turnbull et al (2009), it was found that energy production during high performance skiing was mainly coming from from anaerobic (without oxygen) energy systems during slalom and GS performances. Indeed a couple of studies indicated that 65% of all energy production was via anaerobic pathways.

That being said, some studies did indicate aerobic (with oxygen) power to be a performance indicator, meaning the best skiers had the highest aerobic fitness levels. However this was considered to simply be a side-effect of the large training loads the ski teams were exposed to. It was concluded that aerobic pathways are more likely to help recovery between runs rather than within a one off performance. Mo Farah can keep his running shoes on for now.


H.I.I.T 2 birds with 1 Stone….(sorry for the word play)

Based on the recovery benefits provided by the aerobic system, it would be wise to not completely ignore your aerobic fitness. As instructors we are sometimes required to perform for longer periods, perhaps more often than elite alpine racers. This places greater demand on our ability to recover, although our performances are generally much less demanding, unless you have to carry a really heavy kid(!).

So am I saying you should be running marathons as well a performing painful short High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) sessions? … No, luckily science comes to the rescue once more!

It has been found that as a result of high intensity anaerobic training or HIIT, aerobic capacity can be maintained or improved. A fascinated Mr SpockA study by Gaitanos et al (1993) on the affects of interval anaerobic training found that aerobic capacity was maintained and improved along with anaerobic capacity. This was found to be related to the recovery periods in-between sprints. This put extra strain on the aerobic energy system to replenish energy stores, so the body is ready for the next bout of pain. For all you nerds out there, these aerobic improvements were the result of an increase in aerobic enzymal activity……fascinating.

So all this means that you can have you cake and eat it, or HIIT 2 birds with 1 stone…get it? As HIIT can also help to maintain and improve aerobic capacity – thank you science!

Strength Counts, but….

Obviously, it’s probably not a surprise to you that the wider population deems balance, muscular strength and explosive power (specifically leg and core strength) important to ski performance. What you might not realise though is that studies by Berg and Eiken in 1999 and later Neumayr et al (2003) found no correlation between strength and World Cup rankings in elite alpine skiers.

Now this doesn’t mean the athletes are weaklings, just that strength does not determined performance amongst elite skiers. This serves to highlight the importance of getting on the skis and improving technique. It was also found that alpine skiers demonstrated high leg strength, when compared to other high level sports, but interestingly only during slower movements. Additionally, during slalom ski racing athletes showed slower angular knee velocities (how fast knee changes angle), compared to other sports. This lends support to the findings that in skiers, the highest leg strength is found during slower movements.

It has also been found that eccentric (muscles lengthens under tension, eg – downward phase of bicep curl) contractions were the most dominant contractive force during performance (Berg et al, 1995. Berg and Eiken, 1999). Such a high dominance of eccentric force production has not been found in many other sports. This has been related to the continuous downward movements needed in skiing, compared to the typical concentric action involved in sports with high amounts of running and jumping actions. So there you have it – we’re special.

So what is science telling us about how we should structure our strength training? Well, due to the reportedly slower angular knee velocities, we should be potentially avoiding high speed resistance training movements and aiming for more eccentric activity in our training exercises. This means when we are performing our dynamic exercises in the gym, that we should be focusing more on the downward eccentric phases of movements, rather than the fast explosive upward concentric movements. The only problem with this is that eccentric loading can cause more damage to your muscle and hurt way way more so be careful, ouch.


Still reading? So to summarise, what does science tell us about the key fitness performance areas we should be focusing on?

  1. Perform Anaerobic Training Using HIIT – To keep things simple exercise using rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of 1-20, 6 being about 20% of your maximum effort and 20 being 100%. Try to work for 30 sec-1 min within a range of 15-18 RPE (80-90% max effort). Use a work rest ratio range of 1:2-1:4. Sessions can last 20-30 mins (including time resting).rpe-table
  1. Aerobic Training – Do not neglect your cardio as it has been found to help in recovery between runs. Just remember that you will be maintaining things if you are doing your HIIT training well.
  2. Strength Training – Focus a little more on eccentric movements. Do not forget to spend time on slower movements, rather than always focusing on fast explosive upwards movements. Watch out for sore legs with those negative eccentric movements, don’t over do it.