Returning to Snow

A few weeks ago I worked with two 60-something skiers, who came to class with dramatically different needs. Both had been away from the sport for a few years – “Andy” because he’d smashed an ankle in a mountain biking, and “Bill” because his business demanded all his time. Now they both wanted to resume skiing often – as in 30 days or so each winter.

Despite the weak and deformed ankle, Andy was in good shape. In rehabbing after surgery, he got used to cycling about 15 miles a day, all week long. Bill had turned into an office drone, carrying more weight than was healthy for him. And he enjoyed his cocktails. On the first day of class, Bill had to quit after lunch, while Andy was eager to ski until the lifts closed. That night, Bill downed a couple of tequilas and didn’t get much sleep. On the second day, Bill quit skiing before lunch; Andy and I went on to ski moguls until 3:15pm. The third day we had powder. Bill floundered, and quit after two hours. Andy got in 30,000 vertical feet and went home confident that he could safely ski any terrain on the mountain.

The difference was preparation. If you contemplate a return to snow, a little forethought will make the transition much smoother.

First, make a physical assessment. What kind of shape are you in? Some of us are in better shape now than when we worked 40 hours a week, because we spend more time now on the bicycle, or hiking in the hills.  But many of us deal with new challenges – old injuries, less muscle mass, conditions affecting our lungs or circulatory systems.

Even if your health is great, thin air can be punishing. If you live at sea level, don’t expect to vacation at high elevation without experiencing shortness of breath. So prepare for skiing some months ahead of time with a training program. Cycling is an ideal exercise for skiing – it improves aerobic capacity and leg strength, but it also reacquaints us with certain balance skills and comfort with speed. If you’ve spent your days staring at a computer screen, cycling can even improve your depth perception and peripheral vision.

Plan to stay hydrated, and eat bananas. Your muscles need water and potassium to process oxygen in the thin air. Lay off the alcohol. A glass of wine with dinner is fine, but remember that at 8,000 feet elevation, beer, wine and liquor have two or three times their sea-level effect.

Buy new boots. The boots sitting in the back of the closet for 20 years no longer fit properly simply because your feet have changed. And if they are comfortable, the foam padding has stiffened or turned to dust. The shell plastic and rubbery water seals have grown brittle; if the shell doesn’t crack, the toe dam will certainly leak.

Find a good bootfitter and spend the time necessary to get the fit just right, including attention to alignment. That means the boot cuff and insole should be adjusted so that when you assume a relaxed athletic stance, pressure under the boot soles is distributed evenly side-to-side. Good alignment is a key element in balance, timing and edge control on skis. Tell your bootfitter about any old injuries or other health issues.

Plan to rent skis for your first few days back on the snow. Ski design has changed profoundly over the past 25 years, and continues to improve. Because your first runs will involve practicing on groomed terrain, rent skis designed for groomers and firm snow – skis the shop clerk might call “front-side” skis (as opposed to “back bowl” skis). This means skis with a waist width of 80mm or less – wider skis work better in powder but require more strength when edging on groomed snow. I recommend starting with a traditional-camber ski (as opposed to “early rise” or “rocker” designs). The time to experiment with wider skis and reverse camber will be after you have your timing and balance back.

Take a lesson. Call ahead and ask the ski school to place you with an instructor who understands your needs – someone used to working with older skiers who arrive with ancient skills.

And have fun!

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