Getting Fit for Backcountry Snowboarding
Many of us search for some peace and tranquillity beyond the often crowded slopes of the big ski and snowboard resorts in the European Alps. Back country skiing and snowboarding has become ever more popular over the past 10 years in many alpine regions, especially with locals who are trying to get away from the crowds and enjoy their home mountains off the beaten track.
Sitting outside your alpine home on a sunny day you will not even need a good pair of binoculars to spot all the ski- and snowboard- enthusiasts swarming all over the mountains around you like ants, treading big zigzag lines into the fields on their way up and carving sexy wide S-turns or rhythmically tight turns on their way back down into the valley. This is back country skiing and snowboarding, a most magical experience with a small group of good friends, the true connection with the mountain and nature and a real addiction for most who have tried it once. This kind of mountain enjoyment is almost exclusively enjoyed by locals in many parts of the Alps as they have one distinct advantage – the leg power and stamina necessary to enjoy such an exhausting experience.
Imagine yourself standing at the summit on a sunny but crisp winter day above a huge, wide and steep field of fresh and un-touched powder. Your friends are throwing themselves down into the field, carving huge turns into the face of the mountain tailed by a 6ft tall powder fountain like a power boat – in short every snowboarders dream. You have worked hard to get up there and at the moment where it is time to reap the reward for all that hard work your legs are too heavy, numbed by lactic acid and exhaustion. Instead of the perfect ride of a lifetime, the way back to the car is going to be hell!
The secret to an enjoyable day in the back country is training and preparation. Even snowboarding every day will not prepare you adequately for a 4h ascent in knee-deep snow and if you are not prepared physically and mentally, you better stick to the slopes. So here is a little round-up of how I have prepared for the hiking during summer when I lived in the mountains, a preparation which still does the trick now when I go back for a week’s holiday. Living in the mountains you tend to spend a lot of time hiking up and down steep and long mountain faces and hilly fields for most of the year so it is no big surprise that come winter, you almost have the strength and stamina necessary to make a 4 hour ascent to the summit of a remote peak and still have enough power left in their legs to actually enjoy the ride back down rather than suffering from butter legs after the second turn. Being able to produce the explosive power needed for a hard and fast ride after an exhausting climb is what you are preparing for.
While living in the alpine village of Berchtesgaden in the German Alps I tried a great number of different training methods to prepare myself for winter. We would spend a lot of time outside in summer mountain biking and hiking, rock climbing, skate boarding, wake boarding and surfing but none of it frequently enough to prepare my legs for winter. Whilst all these sports work the correct muscles, unless you do them at least twice a week and every week they will not have the desired effect on your body.
I noticed during summer that many of the local hard-core skiers (the Olympic team was training in Berchtesgaden that summer) would spend a lot of time on the cross trainer at my local gym. Once I had got used to the slightly odd movement of the elliptical cross trainer I started increasing the resistance rather than the speed I was moving at and instead of a dynamic ‘almost running’ movement I got into a routine of doing 60min at walking speed but the highest resistance level on the machine. The high resistance level means that you really need to use your arms and your entire body as well to keep the momentum of the machine up. Doing this for a full hour is next to impossible at the beginning but once the body gets used to the rhythm, it will keep going for a long time. And that is the secret on the ascent as well, to get your body into a stepping rhythm and to keep going at a comfortable speed. The cross trainer session would be followed by a weight session of jumping squats holding medium sized dumbbells or skipping with a rope.
I now live in the UK and make it into the mountains once a year if I am lucky which makes it even more important to be well prepared to enjoy the few days on board… But the way I prepare for those trips is still all the same. I will start getting on the cross trainer about two months before the trip and start off on a medium resistance for about 20-30 min, 2-3 times a week. By week 5 I will have steadily increased that to 45min and will look at bringing the resistance level up. For the last two weeks before I go I will be on 60min and max resistance every other day. This preparation has never failed me and means that when I am out there, on top of that mountain on the perfect day, I can still keep up with my local friends who are out all winter and get the most out of the day.
Until today I still have not found a gym equipment machine suitable to train the paddling movement in your arms, back and shoulders in preparation for my surfing holiday. So far, the only good training for paddling seems to be paddling which is not a particularly attractive option if you live on the English Channel! I would love to hear about any gym-based exercises or machines for this purpose..
Julian spent most of his life in the alpine region of Berchtesgaden and the surrounding Austrian Alps working as a Snowboard Instructor during winter and training hard on his JTX Strider cross trainer during summer.