We often perceive skiing more as a pastime than a sport, especially in this region where the slopes are short and almost always groomed to perfection. Skiing, though, involves many muscle groups, some of which never get properly exercised under normal circumstances. It requires strong legs and core, range of motion, balance, flexibility, and coordination. Run-of-the-mill cardio workouts (cycling, jogging, treadmill, etc) will not enhance all these muscles and other attributes. For that, you need a more comprehensive work-out.
Since March of last year, I have been working with personal trainers at Washington Sports Club (WSC) to increase strength, and build muscle tone. I am doing this not for vanity or even skiing but to improve my overall health and physical fitness. Through it all, however, I learned that a side-benefit of strength training is a marked improvement in my skiing ability and endurance. Not only am I not sore after skiing these days, but I fall less because of my strengthened core, improved balance, and greater range of motion. As I get older, I have become more risk averse on the slopes, but after 9 months of training, I now find myself yearning more for a steeper, narrower, bumpier ride down the mountain.
When I first joined WSC, I had no idea what to expect. Would I be entering a world of fitness freaks and body builders and feel like an absolute loser and weakling? 6-pack abs was definitely not on my list of reasons for joining. What I discovered is that yes, there are strong athletes who work-out at WSC but also many people in less stellar shape. I also generally see more women than men in the gym, and these women are not just on the elliptical machines but working hard with trainers and in the weight rooms as well.
For anyone new to gyms and work-outs, a personal trainer can be your personal Yoda -; a guide, teacher, friend, and Jedi master all in one. I had the very good fortune of working with Lori Lindsey, the former master trainer at WSC’s downtown DC location and a professional soccer player (at the time with Washington Freedom but now playing midfield for Philadelphia Independence). Knowing that I would be coached by a woman soccer player intimidated me initially. I had seen Bend it with Beckham (2002) and watched the United States women’s soccer team win the World Cup in 1999, so I knew how tough these players could be. Meeting her immediately put me at ease. She spent the first session assessing my rather lame physical condition and then tailored a program that allowed me to progress at a reasonable but rational clip. She had great interpersonal skills, and more importantly, was a natural coach and instructor.
What I liked about Lori was how focused she was on me and my routine. She also did not allow my inner wimp self to get the best of me. “How does it feel,” she would say for a given routine such as a forward lunge. “Ok,” I would say. And she would respond, “great let’s add 5 pounds to each dumbbell,” but then if she saw my form fall apart, she would call a time-out, let me rest, grab a drink of water, regain my composure, and then step down the weight to a level I could handle. In short, she tried to push me without pushing me over the edge.
After seeing Lori every week for the first month, I would see her every 2-3 weeks for a program revision, and an evaluation. In training, you can be your own worst enemy. Having bad form can render a work-out next to useless or worse, cause an injury. A good trainer constantly focuses on your form and makes sure you develop good habits early in the course of your fitness odyssey. Just like a U.S. Marine Corps drill instructor can teach anyone to shoot a rifle, a good personal trainer can help any motivated individual progress physically, but a trainer should not be a drill instructor. She’s not there to whip you into shape. A client must come to the gym willing to work hard, and expect to do a lot of exercise outside of trainer-supervised sessions.
And don’t expect to get ripped in a hurry. Generally speaking, the older you are, the longer it will take to build tone. A doctor told me that a 43-year-old male should not to expect even modest tone for 6-12 months. Another gym myth is that you only progress by increasing weight. Both Lori and my new trainer emphasize that it’s not about how much you can bench press, but about working all the muscle groups in appropriate manner, with or without weight, and constantly altering your routine. Again, that’s where the trainer comes into play -; she’s there to change your routine so you keep progressing and do not get too comfortable.
There are many excuses people have for not going the gym or working with a trainer. The one I hear most often is: “it’s too expensive.” If anyone thinks training is expensive, just compare it to the cost of a medical condition or an injury. Before training, I would often trip on the rugged hiking trails around the Canaan Valley, but with some balance training and core strengthening, I am rock solid, even carrying a heavy pack. Shoveling snow, the bane of Washington these days, has also become easier, and I am proud to report that after four days of not doing much else, I am no worse for wear.
In addition to the physical benefits of training, there are some intangible mental payoffs. Being challenged physically builds self-confidence, and toughens you mentally. Also, no matter how bad my day goes, I always find the gym to be a transformative place. There, I must erase all thoughts from my mind and focus exclusively on my work-out. After a good work-out, I am tired physically but refreshed mentally, ready to go back to work, or better yet, go home, crack open a cold bottle of my favorite sports drink, and watch the Washington Capitals win another battle on the ice. I’ll never achieve even a fraction of the level of fitness that the boys in red, but strength training has made me understand why someone like Alexander Ovechkin can take multiple body blows every other night and still function. Strength training will prepare you well for your next fall, whether it be on an icy slope or simply crossing the Connecticut avenue.
John Sherwood is a columnist for DCSki. When he's not hiking, biking, or skiing, he works as an author of books on military history.