Thursday, 30 May 2013

Resorts Opening in June - Or Not

Since the lifts closed here in Chamonix three weeks ago it has been snowing - a lot. Normally May brings summer weather and the snow retreats. Sometimes there is sun, sometimes rain. Snow is not unheard of at the valley floor level but this many snowfalls is pretty unusual. The ski conditions high up must be pretty good right now.

Just over the Swiss border, Verbier got some publicity by suggesting they would open for skiing this weekend (1st - 2nd June) if they got 1000 Facebook likes. Well they did get the likes, and they did consider opening, but in the end said the weather forecast was too bad to make it worthwhile.

Meanwhile in the French Pyrenees, Porté-Puymorens which closed for the winter back on April 1st is reopening for the weekend because of the amount of snow they still have. And unlike upmarket Verbier, the Pyrenean resort say they are definitely going to open for two days.

Dryland Training

Last week I talked about the many reasons why winter is not the best time to improve your skiing. I discussed the reasons why out of season skiing can be better for improving your technique. The other side of this equation is that the off-season is also the best time to improve fitness. Whilst skiing every day in the winter is undoubtedly good for you, it is not likely to be as good as a serious fitness programme. Living in a ski resort it can be hard to keep fit. Gym facilities may be limited or expensive and it is often difficult to get motivated to run or cycle when there is snow on the ground. Plus there is always the temptation to go for an apres-ski drink straight after skiing.

Spring, summer and autumn give you a good seven or eight months to get ready for next winter. There are many approaches, several of which I have written about before. The ideal combination would be a balance of strength and power training, aerobic training, balance and flexibility training. It is best to begin with building an aerobic base at the start of the off season, then gradually introducing weights work to build up strength particularly in the legs and core, before adding speed/power training at the end of the winter. Balance training can be added into the mix at any point.

I have mentioned slackline before - it is great for balance and core strength and you can make up exercises or tricks to train particular muscles. I like to try one legged squats on it for example.

Another unusual training aid is the unicycle - great for balance and working legs and core.

Gym work is also important for that strength training. I wrote a series of posts on ski fitness a while back which are still relevant.

Being creative and imaginative can really help. There are many exercises using different equipment, or none, such as swiss ball exercises, plyometrics, balance boards, jumping or hopping over a ski pole or line. Search YouTube for some top skiers' training routines if you need inspiration.

Finally I will leave you with Jonny Mosely dryland training bumps. The video is a little old now but it is still awesome to watch, and demonstrates how a good training session can use the same movements as skiing.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Why winter is not the best time to get better at skiing

Glacier training in the sun
If you are serious about getting better at skiing - for its own sake, to pass instructor exams or to do better at competitions of any sort, then doing some training over the summer period is vital. For those readers that only manage a week or two of skiing each year then I am not going to suggest that you spend those in the summer. Winter is undoubtedly the most fun time to go skiing, with the best snow conditions.

I am really speaking here to the people who live in ski resorts all winter, or who take extensive winter holidays. Working and living in a ski area is a fantastic lifestyle, lots of fun and will improve your skiing to an extent just by doing it. But ask yourself how much do you really work on your skiing in a winter? Be honest with yourself. There will be some people who are really dedicated to their skiing but most find it hard to train when there is so much else to do. Cruising around the mountains with friends, fun skiing, mountain lunches, and nights out drinking - it's easy to have a great time on the slopes. Then there is work - daytime work gets in the way of skiing and night-time work makes it hard to get up early and perform. Ski jobs (instructor, ski patrol, ski host, video-cameraman, photographer) keep you on your skis all day but you are rarely going to be pushing yourself. The only people who will make really significant improvements over a winter are those who are super motivated or those in an ongoing training programme several days per week. Perhaps a third exception is those who are beginners, or doing their first few full winters, so that they are getting far more practice time on the skis than they have ever had before.

The other problem in winter is that most resorts are not focussed on developing skiers so much as delivering a fun time to holidaymakers. This is natural as holidaymakers bring in the money but it can be frustrating for those trying to train. The spaces to set gates are limited, the pistes may be crowded and the park will be full. In the other three seasons of the year the ski areas that are open know that they are catering mainly to competitors, instructors and others who are serious about developing their performance. The main business for resorts in this period comes from training camps of various types: race camps, freestyle camps, performance courses or instructor training. Because of this, large parts of the skiable terrain are set aside for race courses and snowparks, and these areas are well maintained. There can often be the added bonus of training alongside national teams from all the Alpine nations which is pretty inspiring.

To relate my personal experience; in 2012 I spent three weeks taking instructor courses in Hintertux April/May after my resort had closed, two weeks race training in Les 2 Alpes in June, a weekend in July, six weeks  autumn race training in Tignes in November/December and a final week of Race training in Alpe D'Huez. After all that I finally passed the Eurotest, but not by much. In those twelve weeks of training, even though some of the days were quite short, I made far bigger improvements to my skiing that I could have done in several seasons of teaching every day.

It is possible to practise alpine ski racing, piste skiing, bumps and nordic skiing on glaciers in spring, summer and autumn in Europe. Off-piste skiing is harder to work on in summer, although the spring is the best time to do many descents and I have done some great ski touring in August in France such as my ascent of Mont Blanc in this post.

The other side of summer training is dryland training - gym and fitness sessions - which are essential if you want to achieve your winter potential. More on that in the next post

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Do you REALLY want to be a ski instructor

The ski season has just finished and so I have a little more time to write on my blog. I have been asked many times how to go about becoming a ski instructor, and I have gone into detail about the 'hows' over several previous posts and a little bit about the 'whys' as well. See previous posts about a career as a ski instructor.

Big snowplough, looking back to count the kids and a tasteful uniform - all part of the job
If you are thinking of qualifying as a ski instructor then I would be the first to say go for it. It will improve your skiing and open the door to many opportunities. There are great part time jobs available ranging from evenings at a dry slope or snowdome to weeks in the Swiss or Italian Alps. If you want to work full time there are amazing experiences to be had all over the world, from Australia to Japan, Chile to Canada, New Zealand to Norway.

However, if have plans to make a long term career out of teaching skiing then it is worth thinking long and hard before you start. If you want to get qualified to the top level in Europe and you are not already a very competent ski racer then be prepared to spend several years and many thousands of Euros getting there. You may well find yourself putting every penny (or cent) you can get your hands on into your ski career. There is always equipment to buy, exams to take, training to pay for etc. Unfortunately there is no allowance for age either, so it can be even more difficult if you start later in life.

If you don't reach the top European level then it is still possible to make a living as an instructor, but it can be harder to make ends meet. When considering where to work there is always a balance between wages, hours and cost of living. In some countries (particularly in North America) making a viable career means building up a base of regular clients, and this takes time. In others, instructors move up the priority list with years of service, languages spoken or qualifications. There is almost always a priority list in a ski school, and those at the top will make money whilst those at the bottom may struggle in lean years. In other words, to do well in a ski school often means being there for several years.

If you have a well paid job you can do in the summer months, or another source of income then things will be easier. If your current or previous employment is something that is hard to do on a six monthly basis then it will be a good idea to look for an alternative summer career. Doing back to back seasons (i.e. Northern hemisphere winter then Southern hemisphere winter) sounds like a great way to spend the whole year teaching but until you get well established as an instructor it can be hard to break even every season. Especially when you include the cost of flights and the inevitable time not working as you find your feet in a new place.

I don't want to sound to negative, as I have had so many good times and met so many fantastic people over the last few years. I love teaching skiing and plan to do it for the rest of my life. On the other hand I have spent around 30 000 Euros on ski exams, training and equipment, and I still haven't finished. At the moment I have just one exam left to pass to reach Level 4. When I finished my Level 3 I had no idea just how far away Level 4 was, nor just how tough the Eurotest would prove.

My favourite author, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, was asked what piece of advice he would give to aspiring writers. His reply: "I'd tell them that you should only become a writer if the possibility of not becoming one would kill you. Otherwise, you'd be better off doing something else." This is pretty close to how I feel about ski teaching. Getting to the top level in this profession has been a rollercoaster ride with great rewards but also big sacrifices. With one exam to go, I hope that the ride is nearly over.

If teaching skiing is your dream then don't let me put you off. Good luck and enjoy the ride.