Fitness & Nutrition For Off-Piste Skiers

Article by Barry Roberts
Sunday 17th January 2010

Good fitness and proper nutrition are essential ingredients to successful off-piste skiing, whether you're planning a short backcountry tour or a multi-day ski mountaineering adventure. If a skier can maintain high levels of fitness and a well balanced diet, their athletic performance and endurance will be far higher than someone with the same ability who has not prepared themselves through the correct training and diet.

Matt Helliker takes the fall-line through the trees below the Toule Glacier, Mont Blanc. High performance off piste skiing is impossible without good fitness and adequate nutrition. Image: copyright David Pickford /


Essential Fitness For Off-Piste Skiing

Like any other piece of equipment it needs to be maintained to ensure it will function to the best of its ability. There are four major aspects to fitness that will ensure that you will be able to compete and enjoy the task ahead:

  1. Endurance: (aerobic capacity): Most intermediate off-piste skiers will already have a fairly high level of fitness due to the nature of skiing and general high altitude sports. However, before any trip you should ensure that your fitness levels will not limit your capabilities and performance. You should be doing 2-3 aerobic activities per week 2-3 months in advance at 50-70% of your maximum heart rate (see here for details).
  2. Flexibility: To ensure quality range of movement. This will allow for greater reach and control, in extreme positions. Stretching should ideally take place at the end of the day (muscles are more pliable). This will also lead to a reduction in injuries and greater efficiency of any articulating joint.
  3. Strength: At certain times a great deal of strength may be required whether it be assisting in an emergency or moving in heavy snow. There are certain body weight exercises that will prime the body for the task ahead and give you the confidence necessary to be able to react to almost any situation. These need to be done at least once per week.
  4. Co-ordination: More than most sports, it requires co-ordination and balance. This can be improved at any age and has a great effect on performance and confidence of ability.

Essential Foods and Fluids 

Proteins, fats and carbohydrates all provide energy for the body. Protein’s main functions are growth, maintenance and repair of body tissues. Using protein as a main energy source is inefficient and may lead to kidney and liver problems in later life. Carbohydrates and fats should be the energy sources to fuel the human body in all types of activity. Carbohydrate rich foods are the best source of fuel for athletes. Complex carbohydrates such as starches (Breads, cereals, pastas, potatoes, dried beans as well as fruits.) should make up the majority of carbohydrate fuel.

Matt Perrier riding some classic backcountry terrain off the Col de Balme, Argentiere. For long days out in powder or a major tour, your body must be well nourished and hydrated if you wish to perform well. Image: copyright David Pickford /

Pre- Trip Nutrition

It is important that pre- event, even a day trip, that the off-piste skier or snowboarder prepares themselves adequately for the task ahead. Ensure that fluid levels are high (see recommended fluid intake), not just through fluid intake but high water based foods (fruits, vegetables) and also carbohydrate stores are high within the diet (carbohydrate loading need only take place 3 days before the event. You should consume 525-555 grams of carbohydrates which should amount to about 65% of total calories. This final push will enhance glycogen storage within the body, increasing energy reserves. Anything above 600 grams will not contribute significantly to performance. 2 meals a day need to be carbohydrate rich to ensure that these levels can be reached. Anyone on the Dr Atkins diet should attempt this trip at their own peril!! (Low carbohydrate levels within the body will mean fat stores being utilised and if already low, protein utilisation which will result in muscle depletion, therefore you will experience less strength etc.)

Carbohydrate Goals (@65% of calories)

Average female intake

  • At an intake of 1500 cal per day, you should be consuming 240g of carbohydrate.
  • At 2000 cal: 320g of cabohydrate.

Average male intake:

  • 3000 cal : 490g
  • 3500 cal : 570g
  • 4000 cal : 650g

Approximate carbohydrate levels:

  • Bread/ Cereal (1 slice bread,3/4 cup of cereal) 15 grams
  • Starchy Vegetable ( 1/2 cup of rice, pasta) 15 grams
  • Fruit serving (1x piece of fruit) 10-15 grams
  • Vegetable serving (1/2 cup of vegetables) 5 grams
  • Milk serving (1 cup) 12 grams
  • Sports drink (8oz) 10-15 grams

Nutrition During The Skiing Day

Again water intake is imperative to ensure safety and the ability to finish the task without causing harm physiologically to the body. Food wise, introduce snacks during the day:

  • Dried fruit and nuts
  • Granary bars
  • Chocolate (do not rely on chocolate alone as this has a high glyceamic level and will only result in a quick release of energy, not a longer term of sugar being released into the blood stream.)
  • If the trip is an overnight, again it is imperative to consume a high carbohydrate meal during the evening, to restore levels in the body. The amount of energy available from glycogen (carbohydrate) storage is 1800-2000 calories. When stores run low, athletes will become fatigued and their performance will suffer.

Mike Mavroleon getting away from it all and finding the best of the spring snow at Meribel: with good fitness and the correct intake of food and fluid before and during the day, you can make the most of conditions like this from the first to the last lift. Image: copyright David Pickford /


Post-Trip Refuelling

This is the most important time for the body to restore lost nutrients and fluid levels - before any alcohol is consumed! Drink 1-2 pints of fluid and 2 x pieces of fruit if possible. Again, a high carbohydrate meal is important for fueling the repair of muscle tissue.

Fluid intake

Water intake will be the most important factor influencing your performance during a trip. A drop of 1-5% in hydration will cause thirst, vagueness, increased pulse and nausea. Severe dehydration, when more that ½ to 2 litres of fluid are lost, can be life threatening.

Recommended fluid intake during non-physical activity:

  • 60kg person 3 pints per day
  • 70kg person 3½ pints per day
  • 80kg person 4 pints per day
  • 90kg person 4½ pints per day
  • 100kg person 5 pints per day

During vigorous exercise you should be drinking roughly every 20-30 minutes and an increase of 1-1½ pints a day should be taken on top of the RDA. In terms of carbohydrate drinks and isotonic drinks, I feel these are expensive and not necessary, as long as food is being eaten pre- event, throughout the day and post- event. If there are bouts of continuous exercise for more than 2-3hours (when carbohydrate stores are depleted in the muscle and the liver) then carbohydrate gels are very useful to ensure levels of carbohydrates and long term energy are maintained in the system (do not substitute water for gels, but introduce them with water, as water will allow faster chemical digestion of the gels into the system.)


Fitness: The test

There are a number of fitness tests that require space and equipment, the simplest is to test the resting heart rate. (The heart rate gives a true indication of the cardiovascular system, the lower the heart rate; the more blood pumped around the body per stroke and the faster the recovery to that individual.) There are a number of tests such as the beep test, the rowing ergo, the treadmill test and the bike test. I will assume however that there is no equipment available.

All that is required is enough space for you to lie down and be able to find your pulse (remember not to use your thumb, it has its own pulse and can confuse the issue). Lie still for at least 4-5 minutes, then take your pulse for 30 secs and compare it to the table below.

  • <25 beats Excellent
  • 25-30 Good
  • 30-35 Fair
  • 35-40 Poor

Balance: The test

Being one of the most important factors to any alpinist, balance like any other aspect of fitness can be improved with practice. Most mountaineers will already have a good sense of balance; however this can become affected with age and also joint and soft tissue injuries as the pro-preaception of the muscle degenerates.

A simple test to gauge your balance is as follows: standing on one leg (barefoot) slightly flexed, raise the other knee until parallel and hold that position for as long as possible with eyes closed.

  • >30 secs Excellent
  • 20-30 secs Good
  • 10-20 secs Fair
  • <10 secs Poor

Flexibility: the test

Sit with back and buttocks flat against a wall and legs out straight. Slowly reach forward with arms outstretched, and ensure that your legs remain in the locked position. Measure the point at which the finger tips will reach.

  • Fingertips to above knee cap - Poor
  • Fingertips to below knee cap - Fair
  • Fingertips to ½ way down shin - Good
  • Fingertips to ankle/toes - Excellent


All the factors attributed to health and fitness mentioned will have an effect on your performance. Like your equipment, where preparation and planning is key, so is your health! If you find that one of your disciplines afore mentioned in the tests are low, introduce the required work early into your programme. It will mean hard work and planning in terms of time and effort, but the results will be longer and better days off-piste before fatigue sets in, along with the risk of injury.

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