Pre-Season Ski Conditioning

BY Jason Amrich

You have all new ski equipment -- shaped skis, bindings with riser plates, and the latest boots.  You feel totally ready to hit the slopes.  But are you? 

You have all new ski equipment — shaped skis, bindings with riser plates, and the latest boots.  You feel totally ready to hit the slopes.  But are you?  Make sure you aren’t forgetting about the most important piece in preventing ski injuries and increasing your skiing enjoyment:  your physical condition.  Being physically ready for the demands of skiing will decrease your risk of being injured and improve your skiing ability and enjoyment.  By engaging in a pre-season ski conditioning program, you can take your skiing to new heights while avoiding the injury pitfalls.

Fortunately, alpine skiing injuries have decreased about fifty percent since the 1970’s thanks to advances in equipment and improvements in ski area management.  If you are injured, you are two times more likely to injure a lower extremity than an upper extremity.  In fact, one third of all ski injuries occur to the knee joint, and a sprain of the  medial collateral ligament on the inside of the knee is the most common ski injury.  Other areas commonly injured are the shoulders, thumbs and head.

What’s the best way to prepare your body for the rigors of skiing so that you don’t become an injury statistic?  How do you know if the program outlined in your favorite ski magazine covers all the important aspects of ski conditioning to take your skiing to the next level?  A comprehensive pre-season ski conditioning program should contain the following components: development of the cardiovascular system, strength training, flexibility work, balance and agility exercises, and explosive/coordination training.

Cardiovascular System

The first step in developing the cardiovascular system is to build an aerobic base.  This can be achieved through endurance workouts of thirty to sixty minutes, three to five times per week, for six to twelve weeks.  These workouts should be done at a pace where you work up a sweat, but are still able to carry on a conversation with your workout partner.  Running, hiking, rowing, bicycling, inline skating, swimming, stair climbing and elliptical machines are all appropriate for building an aerobic base.  This type of training boosts your body’s ability to consume and deliver oxygen to your muscles and will decrease the fatigue factor while skiing.  Once you’ve established an aerobic base you can add anaerobic training to your regimen.  Anaerobic means “without oxygen” and refers to your muscles ability to function in a state of oxygen deprivation.  When you ski continuously for two minutes your body uses the aerobic and anaerobic systems about equally.  Lactic acid is a byproduct of anaerobic function and is responsible for the burn you feel in your thighs at the bottom of a ski run.  By training your anaerobic system you improve your body’s ability to process lactic acid so that you can ski at a higher intensity for longer periods of time.  Anaerobic training is often done by performing intervals of hard work for thirty seconds to three minutes followed by a rest period of equal time.  An example would be inline skating hard for one minute, coasting for one minute, then repeating 5 more times.  You could then take a five to ten minute break and do another set.  The total amount of time that you are working hard should be ten to 24 minutes a session.  Doing one or two anaerobic training sessions per week for one to two months, while decreasing your endurance workouts to two to three times per week, will insure that your engine can actually handle a full day on the slopes.

Strength Training

Strength training is the next key component and can be started two to three times per week at the same time that you begin building your aerobic base.  You need to have the strength to move and stabilize your joints as you power through the different snow conditions.  There are many great strengthening exercises that you can choose from.  The majority of your time should be spent working on the two pistons that are attached to your skis, but it is important to also incorporate development of upper body muscle groups, i.e. chest, back, shoulders.  Take your pick of lower extremity skiing-specific exercises: squats, front and side lunges, hamstring curls, bridging on the physioball, the standard wall sit, and the leg press are just a few.  Good lifting technique is imperative and when possible you are better off using free weights since they require more balance and coordination than machines.  If you can’t make it to the gym, many strengthening exercises can be performed at home with your bodyweight, dumbbells, theraband or sport-cords for resistance.  While most skiers know that they need strong legs, it is also crucial that you strengthen the core muscles that surround your midsection.  The abdominals, obliques, and low back musculature coordinate the movements of your upper and lower body and need to be strengthened in the frontal (side-to-side), sagittal (front-to back) and transverse (rotational) planes.  There are a myriad of exercises that train the core using the physioball or BOSU, which is essentially half a physioball.


The next component of a good program is maintaining or improving your flexibility.  Major muscle groups to be targeted are the hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors, calves, gluteals, and trunk musculature.  Stretching exercises should be performed after a warm-up period and not at rest.  Do not crawl out of bed or off the couch and expect to achieve an effective or safe flexibility session.  Think long, slow, controlled stretching repetitions holding for 20-30 seconds two to three times each muscle group.

Balance and Agility

The next component of a ski conditioning program, balance and agility training, will greatly enhance the connection between your muscles and your brain, and will help keep you upright when you get into a precarious position on your two planks.  Great exercise options include balance board squats, BOSU single leg squats, physio-ball kneeling, functional grid reaching/cone touches, ski simulation machines, and agility ladders.  It is easy to make many of these exercises more difficult by decreasing your contact points with the ground, increasing the instability of the supporting surface, or simply closing your eyes.  Just make sure you have plenty of space around you and a forgiving surface to land on.

Explosiveness and Coordination

The final component is explosiveness/coordination training.  This component can be developed through one to two sessions per week of plyometrics, which are jumping and bounding exercises that incorporate controlled landings with quick and powerful takeoffs.  Plyometrics should not be performed until you’ve done a basic strength training program for at least six weeks.  Plyometric training is designed to improve reaction time and increase explosive power, eccentric muscle control, and coordination of fast movements.  For more advanced skiers, this type of training simulates on-slope conditions, reactions, and explosiveness.  Box jumps, scissor or tele-jumps, and hurdle bounds are a small sample of the many different types of plyometric exercises.

Armed with the knowledge of the fundamentals, what do you do now?  Your first job is to find out how much time you have before the start of your ski season and how much time you can devote a week to training.  If you are relatively de-conditioned, consider starting off by building an aerobic base and beginning a simple strength training program.  These two components alone, done for 4 to 12 weeks will vastly improve your physical condition when you hit the slopes.  For those who are in decent aerobic shape, maintain your aerobic fitness while you start a strength training program and then gradually phase in the other components.  An important point to remember is that as you add more parts of the program make sure that you don’t do more than a total of two to three sessions per week of anaerobic, strength training, and plyometric workouts combined.

Consult with a knowledgeable physical therapist or athletic trainer if you need help designing a personal program.  A pre-season ski fitness screen can help identify your deficits so that you know which areas you need to focus on.  A ski conditioning class from a reputable instructor is another option and can provide you with the motivation and know-how needed to perform the more difficult exercises.  A comprehensive pre-season ski conditioning  program incorporates many facets and skills that, when added together, will make you a more effective and hopefully less-injured skier.

About Jason Amrich

Jason Amrich is a physical therapist and the Administrative Director at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine (BCSM).