Have you ever been stuck in knee-deep powder and had to wade yourself out? Or had to waddle more than 100m with your skis or snowboard on, and ended up completely out of breath? Left stood there thinking to yourself, “surely I can’t be this unfit!”

Skiing in high mountains at sunny day
The good news is, the chances are it’s not your level of fitness causing it, but actually the altitude. With the majority of European ski resorts sitting at altitudes of 2000-2500m, and the lifts taking you to 3000m and beyond, it comes as no surprise that we feel like we’ve just run a marathon after exerting ourselves for less than a fraction of what we are capable of at sea level. So why does altitude have that effect on us?

Altitude causes the amount of oxygen in your blood (spO2) to drop. To compensate, and maintain the supply of oxygen to your muscles and brain, your heart will increase. For a given level of effort, your heart rate could even be 20 beats per minute higher than it would be at sea level!

At sea level we would expect your SPO2 to be between 95-100%. At an altitude of 2500m the reduced availability of oxygen in the air, will mean that your spO2 is going to decrease possibly as low as 90%, and that can negatively affect your performance. Why, I hear you asking?

It’s this decrease that makes working at altitude feel that much harder as your body is now trying to work with less available oxygen, causing increased breathlessness and that leg burning fatigue. You are essentially trying to exert yourself (often more than you may do at sea level), but without the same oxygen provision which is crucial for your muscles to produce energy on those long runs.

Not to worry though, your body is capable of adapting to function efficiently at altitude. Some of us may need a little more time than others, and often you may find yourself feeling a little slow and lethargic on those early runs, perhaps even with a few headaches creeping in (and that’s before the hangover!).

So how can you combat that to make the most of every day on the slopes, and hit the first chair with a spring in your step?

Altitude Acclimatisation

The nice thing about altitude is that your body is capable of learning to cope with it fairly quickly. As soon as you arrive at altitude your body is sent into a physiological state of shock as all your cells are now trying to do their job with less oxygen. Therefore, after the initial increase in ventilation and heart rate, cellular changes begin to occur in almost every cell of the body. Normally the body needs a couple of days to fully acclimatize to the new altitude. With pre-acclimatisation this process can be kick- started so the change in altitude takes less of a physiological toll. A nice way to think about pre-acclimatisation is altitude school for your cells. Using an IHE setup (hyperlink) for 1 hour, 2-3 times per week for 6-weeks prior to your trip teaches them how to function at altitude, even causing changes in cellular respiration and mitochondria count. With these new changes, your body is able to maintain a higher spO2, equaling greater oxygen availability, ultimately leading to exercise being easier. Acclimatisation isn’t the only thing to think about when heading into the mountains. Improving lower limb and core strength will allow you to push a little harder and work a little longer throughout the day.

Ski School

Strength and Endurance

Sometimes it’s hard to get a grasp of how ‘Ski-fit’ you are before heading into the snowy months. Common areas of weakness that can hinder being able to hold those long carves and lean back for long enough on the off-piste are lower limb and core strength. Professional skiers and snowboarders of all disciplines go through rigorous pre-seasons to target these areas and minimize injury risk.

The life of a ski-bum can be hard come the beginning of winter as the build up to it was spent watching X-Games and ‘The Art of Flight’. If all of a sudden you realize your quads, glutes and core aren’t up to scratch before your trip then you might want to try our ‘Pre-Skeason’ Circuit that we’ll be running through December. Coming Tuesday and Thursday lunch time (13.15) for the 4-weeks will give a serious boost to all your ski muscles and focus on single leg strength to even out any discrepancies. If you can’t make it in for the classes then try incorporating some of the following exercises into your gym/running routines to target unilateral strength: Single leg Bosu ball lunges, Single leg Romanian deadlifts, and Pistol squats.

Back Country

Balance and Flexibility

Working on single leg strength can often highlight poor balance and flexibility. As a large portion of skiing is spent with the majority of bodyweight on one foot, having good balance is paramount. Flexibility is linked to injury prevention and works hand-in-hand with balance. Poor flexibility hinders balance, as you are unable to place yourself in a stable position. A couple of balance exercises particularly useful for skiing are: Single leg stars, Single leg lateral hops, and Bosu ball hops.

Ankle flexibility is a crucial in order to get yourself into carving positions on a snowboard and skis. Perhaps the most important aspect of ankle flexibility is movement across the sagittal plane (bringing the knee over the front of the foot). You’ll find that most advanced skiers can bring their knee well pas the front of their foot. Lack of mobility here is most likely due to a tight Achilles or muscles of the front lower leg.

Alongside your strength and cardio work, take 5-10 minutes to do the following stretches stretching before and after your workout: Knee to wall stretch, ankle circles, and a variety of Achilles tendon stretches. If you feel you lack structure with this, try the Pilates class that goes on from 7.35-8.30 every Thursday.

Ski Fun

Wrap Up1

So this winter, whether you’re going ski touring in Chamonix, racing down the Lauberhorn, or taking it easy in Val Thorens it’s time to reap the benefits of training and get the most out of your trip. Before you break out the board and bindings this season, swap them out for a pair of shorts and trainers and join us for a couple of sessions at 2700m.

Remember, the fun is a lot more fun if you’ve put the work in before!