If you are anything like me, a hardcore winter sports enthusiast, you’ve probably had a fairly lazy summer. You know the thing, a beach, a deckchair, the latest best seller and a bottle of Bandol on ice. I’ve got an excuse though, the latest addition to the PisteHors team, little Jules-Gaspard and as any parent knows babies can eat into your time. Still, whatever the excuse now is the time to get fit for the winter. Carpe Diem and all that.
If you don’t have a handy glacier near you (mine is 90 minutes drive away at les Deux Alpes) or don’t like mixing it with the race teams on a surface that turns from concrete to slush in the blink of an eye there are some alternatives to real snow. The British and Benelux countries have an affinity for skiing on mats of upturned tooth brushes and have even constructed some warehouse sized deep freezes (snowdomes) with snow canons to recreate the real thing. While these may be a good idea to get the ski legs back just before a winter holiday they require a local slope and do not come free. As the author can testify dry slopes are very unforgiving, thumbs, wrists and butts are all in grave danger if appropriate protection isn’t worn, not always fun on a hot summer’s day.
Snowboarders have pioneered the way with cross-training. The second the weather is dry enough they get out on their skate and longboards. These are fine for gaining muscle strength and improving balance especially in the park. However skateboards ride differently from snowboards so are less useful to practise technique. Single and multi-wheeled designs as well as super wide trucks strive to simulate the feel of real snowboard. The obvious analogue for skiers are inline skates. It is possible to build muscle mass, especially skating up hill which is ideal for touring and long descents and to practise carving. Again the characteristics are different from skis. Moving from one edge to another is simple given the rounded nature of the single inline wheel. You can buy ‘carving wheels’ and special double and wide wheeled models exist which are said to simulate the edging characteristics of skis with the downside that they are much more difficult to use as a general skate. The length of inlines also give them a very different feel to skis, although this has the advantage of improving fore-and-aft balance and a feeling for body weight over the foot. Slalom can be practised using gates of coke tins or Ikea plastic cups. Rubber ended walking poles are ideal to practise planting. The ideal slope is between 15 to 20 degrees with a smooth surface and not too many pedestrians… or cars! Don’t forget write guards and other protection.
Having skated for 5 years the cross benefit in terms of technique is limited but gains in leg strength and balance make a difference to the enjoyment of skiing. Don’t expect miracles, skates and boards won’t make up for entirely for time on snow.
Off road versions of skates and boards exist for holidays in the hills and mountains. This has the advantage that there are often lifts to get up to the top of slopes. You may even try grass skiing. This is possibly as close as you can get to the real thing without snow and is popular in many parts of the alps. Competitions are very serious affairs and many grass skiers make the transition to skiing at top levels.
A lot of people have good technique but arrive at the slopes just too unfit. This can ruin the pleasure of the trip and may be dangerous. Weak muscles offer less support to joints and ligaments and the result are more injuries. Anyone planning more than a couple of hundred meters climbing on skins or snowshoes, especially with a rucksack, should consider swimming, cycling or running during the off season. As many people lead busy lives cycling into the office is often the best solution. There are still a couple of months to get fit before we move over to winter time and more dangerous, dark winter evenings although with modern, high power lighting systems even this needn’t be a hinderance.
We’ve already touched on balance. Dominique Perret, one of the world’s best freeriders, told me that he thought balance was one of the most important things to improve in order to cope with the vagaries of backcountry terrain and snow conditions. Perret is a great fan of mountain biking during the closed-season, belting down gnarly single tracks is great for stamina, balance and reactions and makes a change from skiing and is much more interesting than the gym.
If you don’t fancy mountain biking, skateboarding or inline-skating, balance boards are an alternative. These can be bought but are relatively easy to make. You need a piece of ply big enough for you feet. Glue a piece of carpet tile or rubber underlay to this to add grip and make it comfortable. Underneath you need a block of hardwood, this should be rounded, the greater the curve the harder it will to balance. If you can find a hemisphere in a hardware store even better, they sometime have them for decorating staircases. There are many exercises. To get started try balancing with both feet, next try one foot. Adopt the position you would on your skis and board, knees bent and eyes looking straight-ahead, not at the ground. Don’t use furniture or the wall as a crutch. To increase the difficult try balancing on toes and flexing the knees. Shutting eyes means that you have to rely entirely on your balance and not visual clues.