How to train for skiing and climbing at the same time (and be a badass at both)
A couple of years back when I was still in school, a good friend who had just moved to Jackson Hole sent me a frantic text. Ahead of my upcoming trip to the world-renowned (and famously steep) resort, she warned me “Start working out your legs or you won’t be ready!”
Aware that Jackson Hole was a gnarly place and that my Ohio-based cardiovascular system was not yet prepared for the upcoming trip, I set to work finding a preseason ski training plan that would work with a climbing schedule (and still leave me free time to do my engineering homework and go to the bar with my friends).
Although this sounds pretty far-fetched, there is an effective preseason ski training plan presented by Backcountry.com that provides exactly what I describe above. Enter the leg blaster.
However if you’ve read anything about climbing training and you enjoy skiing, you can spot a pretty obvious issue. These sports demand your body to be conditioned for diverse physical outputs. The only things that overlap in these two sports are the necessity of some cardiovascular stamina, really intense core strength, and a healthy command of your mental game.
Fear not, though. For all you two sport enthusiasts, there are ways to optimize for both. I’ve been following this program for two ski seasons now. I have showed up to resorts from Jackson Hole to Revelstoke to Snowbird ready to slay without noticing significant impact to my climbing.
Geographically speaking, climbing season and ski season are not really concurrent for me. The outdoor climbing areas in the Northeast become mostly too cold, and ski season starts in Mid-November to December. After the end of the fall climbing season, I transition to indoor training for climbing and prepping my legs to hit the powder in the coming winter months.
There are myriad ways to prep for ski season. For my purposes, I adhere to a training plan that is simple, requires minimal time commitment, and is effective. Let’s go into some more details regarding the pre-season conditioning program described by backcountry.
What is a leg blaster?
Certainly refer to Backcountry for more details, but a leg blaster is essentially a series of eccentric body weight leg movements targeting the lower half. Below is an explanation of concentric vs. eccentric strength for skiing from Rob Shaul, who runs the Mountain Tactical Institute in Jackson, Wyoming (he is also the author of the Backcountry Article/the mastermind behind the leg blasting training protocol).
Alpine skiing demands eccentric leg strength. Think of concentric strength as “positive’ strength. This is the strength you use to stand up from the bottom of a squat, or hike up a steep hill. Eccentric strength is “negative’ strength. You use eccentric strength to lower yourself into the bottom of the squat, and hike down a steep hill. Eccentric strength absorbs force. Alpine skiing primarily demands eccentric strength.
So there you have it. Train your ability to absorb impact and get better at skiing. See below for an explanation of both “mini” and a “full” leg blaster.
Mini Leg Blaster
10 bodyweight squats
5 lunges each side (10 total)
5 jump lunges each side (10 total)
5 jump squats
Full Leg Blaster
20 bodyweight squats
10 lunges each side (20 total)
10 jump lunges each side (20 total)
10 jump squats
As you work through the program, you improve from 10 mini leg blasters to 5 full ones. The exercises should be done as quickly as possible without compromising form, 30s rest in between. I recommend keeping a stop watch on your phone and tallying on a piece of paper as you go.
Train for Skiing After Climbing
So how do you work in leg blasters on a daily/weekly basis?
It’s pretty simple actually. It takes about 15 minutes to complete your leg blasting workout and no equipment is required. I tack it onto the end of a climbing session 2-3 times a week with 1-2 days of rest in between.
Note that I don’t do leg blasters before training/climbing. I only do them at the end of a session. I love both sports, but I’m not compromising a limit bouldering session because I just wrecked myself doing 50 jump squats.
For obvious reasons, excess leg muscle is sub-optimal for high performance climbing. According to the Anderson Brothers in The Rock Climber’s Training Manual,
“[Leg] Muscles ‘in training’ can store up to 5 lbs of useless (to climbing) glucose and water alone.”
Doing the volume of low weight high rep leg exercise as prescribed for pre-season ski conditioning (and skiing itself) is likely going to lead to some hypertrophy; however, I like to think this is advantageous in the outdoor climbing off-season.
Think of this additional leg muscle is “training weight”. As you train for climbing you’ll be training with the weight of your beefy, shred-ready thighs, preparing your upper body and your fingers to climb at a heavier weight (and then you will presumably drop this excess weight at the start of climbing season.
According to the Anderson Brothers, “At the end of each season’s peak, it is acceptable (and even desirable), to relax dietary restrictions and bulk up five to ten pounds…It is very difficult to add muscle and effectively build strength with restricted caloric intake.”
So eat well, get comfortable with putting on some training weight. It takes time to completely lose muscle gained during the ski season, so don’t expect your legs to shrink overnight. Muscle will begin receding after about one month. Once three months of not skiing in the summer have passed, your legs should be nice and scrawny for fall send season. If you want to read all about the effects of detraining on your muscle, I found an extremely well-researched article on muscleforlife.com. Check out an excerpt from the article below:
“At the 4-week mark, chances are good that you’ll gradually lose muscle until you start lifting weights again. Once you start working out, though, you’ll likely regain muscle faster than when you first started training.”
Sure, in a perfect world you never have to climb with excess leg muscle weighing you down. But to be a two sport athlete, sacrifices must be made. Personally, I love skiing waist-deep powder. So let the gains begin.
Training Cardio for Ski Season
Another physical adaptation that may need to be increased for ski season is your cardiovascular capacity. As someone that does not live at a high altitude, I am not naturally prepared to be hiking uphill with skis on my back at 10,000 ft.
So cardio for ski season is necessary, for me at least.
Last year was the first year I included cardio training in my pre-season program. I am pretty cardio averse so I had to enlist the help of the good people of Orange Theory to get myself to do it. I personally do not enjoy cardio so going to a class where I was forced to run and row (all out sprints included) was a good choice for me.
This year, in order to save my sweet sweet moola for a new pair of skis, I’m forgoing the Orange Theory membership and trading it in for some quality time on the rower and the treadmill.
Although it would be nice to have the time for a long run a few times a week, I am opting to train my cardio systems with High Intensity Interval Training twice per week instead. This is a less time consuming cardio regimen and has been proven to be very effective as well.
This article on HIIT from BodyBuilding.com explains the concept pretty simply. I will either do my HIIT training on the rower or the treadmill and I won’t do HIIT more than twice a week. Leg blasters are pretty intense cardio anyway, and honestly I don’t have the time to do more than two HIIT sessions per week in addition to climbing training.
Weekly Training Overview
So what does this look like on a weekly basis?
Monday: Limit bouldering
Tuesday: Strength, HIIT
Wednesday: Rest day
Thursday: Power Endurance, leg blasters
Friday: Endurance, HIIT
Saturday: Climb indoors/ski outside/rest (depends on the weather/life obligations)
Sunday: Leg blasters
Things to keep in mind
1. Intense cardio can wreck your climbing recovery. If possible, it’s best to give yourself full and complete rest days instead of doing some sort of training everyday.
2. Leg blasters can and will destroy your legs, especially if you haven’t worked out the old gams in a while. When I get back to doing them each season I take it easy, starting with 7-8 mini leg blasters and working my way up (although 10 minis is the recommended starting point). As soon as my thighs start feeling “pumped” I call it quits and cool down. Being sore and walking like you have a stick up your ass for 3 days straight sucks (and it will make climbing suck too). Don’t overdo it.
3. Make sure you have good form for these exercises! Don’t hurt your knees before ski season even starts.
4. Warm up before leg blasting. You probably will be warmed up from climbing, but make sure you at least do some walking/dynamic warmups before you start your leg blasting/HIIT workouts.
With that, happy skiing and happy climbing. Shoot me an email if you have any questions!
If you’d like to gain some insight into your strengths and weaknesses as a climber, check out my climbing theme song quiz! While it’s definitely a good time, it shines a light onto the aspects of your training and climbing that might be holding you back and keeping you in a plateau. And once you get your result, I’ll also send you some tips and tricks to help your training and climbing more effective and efficient!