For national teams, collegiate programs, private teams, and racing academies all over the world, November means the ski racing season is finally here. The last few months probably consisted of some blend of equipment tweaks, technical adjustments, planning and preparation, and tens (if not hundreds) of hours spent in and out of the gym getting ready physically and mentally for what ski racing will demand of you. As you get back on snow to iron out the last details before racing beings, the focus shifts one hundred percent to your racing.

You’re back where it all began, however many years ago. Back where you fell in love with the sport. In your boots, in your skis, absolutely flying down the mountain. Balanced, poised, precise. This is what it’s all about – the training, the racing, the community, the fun. Continuous improvement, growing as a person and an athlete, striving for something greater. Perhaps it’s that first FIS race, a NorAm start, a podium, a title, an Olympic medal, or your first World Cup points; or maybe it’s just the thrill of stepping into the gate, embracing the butterflies in your stomach, and feeling the rush as you kick out of the start.

Ben Ritchie, of the U.S. Ski Team, works out after skiing at Copper Mountain last week. Photo by Michael Bingaman

You got into this sport because you love it. You didn’t get into this sport because you love lifting weights. As an Athletic Development coach whose main responsibility is to prepare athletes physically and mentally for the demands skiing places on an athlete, that simple truth is my jumping off point – no one I will ever work with will enjoy the physical preparation pieces as much as I do because that’s simply not why you’re here. At the end of the day, you prepare physically for the sole purpose of setting yourself up to be more successful in the sport that you love. And now that the season’s here, you’re done with that physical training stuff for another six months, right?

For a few different reasons, the best answer is no. The first thing to consider is what exactly happens to you when you stop training. A 2010 study on world-class kayakers found that pausing training for just five weeks lead to an 11.3% loss in maximal aerobic power and an 8.35% loss in strength. A 2015 study following elite cyclists who had trained for 25 weeks leading into their season showed a near complete loss of gains after 8 weeks of training cessation once the season had begun. The body adheres closely to the “use-it-or-lose-it” principle: if we don’t continue training – if the body isn’t stressed in a way to keep the gains it has made – it will shed them and return to where it once was.

Before I continue, this brings up an interesting point that should be addressed: Doesn’t ski racing itself stress the body enough to maintain strength and power gains? In some instances, in some athletes, in some muscle groups, the answer is yes. For example, ski racing is a quad-dominant sport, meaning it stresses the quadriceps far more than any other muscle groups in the body. So maybe the quads are getting enough push to maintain strength, but what about the hamstrings or the glutes? And maybe the core is getting enough dynamic movement, but is it getting enough stress to keep strong and stable? This leads to the first in-season training recommendation: train the muscle groups that aren’t getting stressed enough.

George Steffey trains at Copper after an on snow session. Photo by Michael Bingaman

There are follow-up points to this as well – it’s important to stress antagonist muscles (those opposite of the muscle being trained regularly by the sport) both to maintain health and to maintain balance across the joint, and it’s critical to continue working to maintain symmetry in your movement, especially if you’ve had asymmetry in the past. There are specific ways to best go about this training in order to maximize gains, and minimize soreness, time spent in the gym, and strength loss over the season, but all those specifics and more will come in a later article written specifically to address this topic.

In-season training isn’t all about strength and power work, however, and I feel like a meathead when that’s all I talk about. Physical training can do far more for you than what’s been mentioned. If we shift our perspective and zoom out a bit, we’ll recognize that recovery sessions, warmups, and priming (or “pre-race”) sessions are all under the umbrella of athletic development training as well, and all have a time, a place, and a specific purpose. As such, each of these will also get its own article, which will dig deeper into the “why, when, and how?” 

Winter is for racing, I certainly won’t dispute that, and “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” As such, we want our time in the gym to be something of a minimum effective dose, answering the questions, “What is absolutely necessary, and when is it best to do that?” In the articles that follow, I will address all these questions and more in hopes of helping keep you strong, fit, healthy, and performing optimally as the 2020 season begins.