Travel: Downhill all the way

If your skiing is stuck on a mediocre plateau, fear not, says Tania Alexander, there are ways to get real results quickly
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Learning to ski can be both rewarding and frustrating. Given the right tuition and snow conditions, the first week usually goes quite smoothly so that you may return home feeling ever so pleased with yourself that you skied all the way down a blue run with only a few falls. The next couple of holidays too usually see good progression so that now you're doing red runs and beginning to learn to ski parallel. It's here that it starts to become frustrating. Unless you take the right tuition your progress will gradually slide to a slippery halt and you may find you're not skiing any better after 10 weeks than after five. One characteristic of this intermediate plateau is being able to ski confidently when the conditions are good but when they're not, you tense up so that any technique disappears, leaving you skiing like a novice again.

One of the problems is doing it only once a year. Ski instructor Andi McCann refers to the Body Adjustment Period - those annoying first couple of days of any ski holiday when you struggle to get back to your standard of the previous season. "Skiing is a totally unnatural activity," he explains. "We are used to walking with a heel to toe action. When you ski, your feet are flat but your body still travels forward. It takes two to three days for your body to adjust to this, regardless of whether you are a novice or an Olympic racer.''

instead of fighting this adjustment period, McCann recommends accepting it with the knowledge that by the fourth day you should start to improve again. Unfortunately, two days later you will probably be heading back to the airport. Speak to the skiers who look as though they were born on skis and you'll undoubtedly discover that they've skied for at least one full season. It's obviously not feasible for us all to go into work and declare we need the winter off to put our skiing into order, but there is plenty you can do to make the most of the time available.

You may argue that you're quite happy with the way you ski. But unless you get beyond a certain level it's rather like driving a Porsche but never in top gear. "When you are truly at one with the sport of skiing it is as if you are floating," explains Andi. "There's a big difference between being able to get down a run and skiing."

"The biggest mistake that people do is not taking enough lessons," says ski instructor Tessa Coker from the Ski Club of Great Britain. "You have to keep taking tuition if you want to improve." Although there are some excellent ski schools in Alpine resorts, finding the right instructor, who speaks good English and has time to give your problems individual attention, can be a hard task.

"Alpine ski schools often make the mistake of asking people to ski like their instructor," says Andi who runs the Alpine McCannix Ski Performance Clinics in Crested Butte, Colorado and in Soldeu El Tartar, Andorra. "You can ski with the same instructor for 20 years but you will never ski like him or her. Teaching someone to ski has to be an individual matter. If you look at a million skiers, there should be a million different types of technique."

In order provide this individual attention, there are specialist ski courses for all standards of skier from the three-week novice intermediate to more advanced skiers who want to fine tune their technique. Most courses last four or five days and cost from approximately pounds 140-pounds 410 on top of the cost of the holiday. Numbers are normally limited to a maximum of eight skiers per instructor and tuition is intensive either for the full day or half a day, leaving the other half for practice. In addition there are often evening seminars.

PLAY BACK

Video analysis plays an important part in most of these courses, but it's vital that it's used constructively. It should show you how to improve, rather than destroy confidence. "You can tell someone a hundred times that they are flexing at the knees rather than at the ankles without it really sinking in, but the minute they see it on video the penny drops," says Jane McGarry, who, with her husband Ian, runs a wide range of courses in Chatel, France. One of the differences in approach with McGarry The Ski System courses is that they rotate their instructors. "People try an instructor on the first day and then are dismayed that they are not going to be with him or her on the next day - but they soon discover how useful it is to be introduced to fresh approaches and different personalities." The McGarrys also run ladies only courses. "There is a different mental approach between men and women. Many female skiers find that men hog the instructor, which doesn't give them the chance to say what they want to work on. There are also anatomical differences which can be both advantageous and disadvantageous. We teach female skiers how best to deal with this," explains Jane. The Ski Company, run by Sally Chapman and Phil Smith, also organises ladies only courses, as does Alpine McCannix.

PARALLELITIS

One obsession, regardless of sex, is learning to ski parallel. The well- known Scottish ski instructor Ali Ross runs ski clinics in Tignes, France, and for the first time, this season in Breckenridge in the US. He refers to this intermediate obsession of skiing parallel as "parallelitis" because of its short-sighted and limiting effects. Although good skiers may look as if their feet are glued together they are in fact using their legs independently, transferring weight from one ski to the other. Specialist ski courses should show you how you cannot just force your skis together and how you need to work at many factors such as balance and speed in order to ski parallel.

THE RIGHT TOOLS

Learning to ski may be one of the few cases when it is legitimate to blame your tools. According to Andi McCann: "Improving your skiing is 50 per cent technique and 50 per cent equipment." Equipment analysis is included as part of the Alpine McCannix course. "Wearing the wrong boots can actively put you out of balance," he explains. "Comfort is only part of the issue. You have to look at other factors such as the angle of the boot, the alignment and footbeds. Wearing inappropriate boots can make the difference of trying to stride down a hill in stilettos rather than trainers. Another common mistake with intermediates is opting for skis that are too short which means they lack the stability to make proper turns at speed."

"Poor equipment, and, of course, body alignment, can put you out of balance, making all your best efforts futile," says Jane McGarry. To rectify this, McGarry The Ski System course includes a special "balance clinic" with chiropractor and applied kinesiologist Matthew Bennet, during the week of 15 February, when he will take a look at body alignment and boot filling and canting.

RACE TRAINING

An alternative type of course which may help you get beyond the intermediate plateau is race training. Although it sounds as though it's just for experts, race training is actually a good discipline as it teaches you to turn with precision and at speed in order to get round the poles. Companies that offer race training courses include The Ski Company, Optimum Ski Courses, Alpine McCannix and McGarry The Ski System.

SOFTLY SOFTLY

Probably the most unusual course of all is taught by American instructor Margaret McIntyre in Vail and Beaver Creek. Her integrated skiing courses are based on the Feldenkrais method of neuromuscular re-education. This works on the principle that you have to know what you're doing before you can do what you want. The seminars (which last from between two to five days) incorporate work both indoors and outdoors. You start by learning to ski lying on the floor, being taught how to focus on exactly what happens when you move in particular ways. The aim is to learn to move more effectively and efficiently by concentrating on ski specific movements without the distractions of being outside. Only then does Margaret take her classes outside to apply all on the slopes. "People are often amazed to find that they are now edging better just from doing the sessions indoors."

FIT TO IMPROVE

Finally, if you're really determined that this is the year you're going to progress into a brilliant skier, make sure you get fit for it before you go. The courses highlighted here are all intensive and so you will need stamina and strength to keep up. Try to join a special ski fitness class for at least six weeks before your holiday or speak to your local gym instructor for advice on what sort of training you need to do. "Stamina and strength are important but it's often a lack of flexibility that holds the intermediate skier back," advises ski fitness expert Tessa Coker.

Choosing a resort

There are two main things that an intermediate skier should look for when choosing a resort. Try to pick destinations that have plenty of blue and red runs to improve your confidence and watch out for resorts such as St Anton and Val d'Isere where the reds are more like blacks and the blacks like double blacks.

Cervinia in Italy is ideal for intermediates as 65 per cent of the runs are geared towards them, with lots of long wide open pistes. Courmayeur is another Italian resort with loads of good intermediate skiing, including the ego-boosting opportunity to ski the unpisted Vallee Blache glacier run from the shoulder of Mont Blanc down to Chamonix - but make sure you do this with a guide. Resorts that are linked into large ski circuits such as the Portes du Soleil and the Trois Vallees in France, Saalbach/Hinterglemm in Austria, and Super Dolomiti in Italy are good as they provide plenty of mileage.

But make sure you don't overpay for the privilege of skiing in too prestigious a resort such as Zermatt in Switzerland and St Anton in Austria, as most intermediates will find plenty to keep themselves occupied in a less glitzy destination such as Andorra, which has excellent English-speaking ski schools and much cheaper prices. Most American resorts such as the aptly named Heavenly in California and Vail and Beaver Creek are paradise for intermediates as the pistes are so well groomed and the level of instruction high.

DIRECTORY

Integrated Movement Systems (00 1 970 949 5529 fax 970 949 6124) Five- day seminar in Beaver Creek costs $1,450 and includes indoor and outdoor instruction, lift pass, personalised equipment consultation, breakfast, lunch, dinner. Accommodation and flights cost extra. Two, three and four- day seminars are also available. Ski Club of Great Britain (0171 245 1033) A range of instruction holiday courses for its members (membership is less than half-price if you book a course). For example, pounds 545 for a week's half board in Soldeu, Andorra (23-30 March) including five days intensive tuition in small groups with top British instructor, Joe Beer, from the Soldeu Ski School. Kevin Dent Skiing Improvement Programmes Accommodation, flight and tuition package bookable through Made to Measure Holidays (01243 533333), pounds 240 for six days tuition, pounds 460 for 12 days tuition. Alpine McCannix Ski Clinics with Andi McCann (0171 731 2232) pounds 195 for Andorra or pounds 225 in Colorado - five half days. Accommodation and travel packages can be arranged. Ali Ross Skiing Clinics (book through Ski Solutions 0171 602 9900). Scottish ski guru who has helped many intermediates off the plateau. Courses from pounds 185-pounds 413 for five days' tuition. Accommodation and flights cost extra. Optimum Ski Courses (01992 561085) pounds 160 for ski development course. Race training is also available, pounds 385 for a week's half-board in the chalet, travel costs extra. The Ski Company (01279 653746) Personal performance courses with Sally Chapman. From pounds 489 for a week's half-board in Tignes or Courchevel on a Personal Performance Clinic including lift pass and course but not travel. McGarry The Ski System (00 353 1 285 9139 or 00 33 45 07 32 021) Ian and Jane McGarry. From pounds 399 for a week's half board chalet accommodation in Chatel including a five-day course but not flights. Clinics include ladies only, active balance, race and kiddy clinics for youngsters from four to 14 years old. !

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