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 / www.davidpickford.com
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:
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 / www.davidpickford.com
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
Average male intake:
Approximate carbohydrate levels:
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:
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 / www.davidpickford.com
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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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