The nights are drawing in, the mercury is falling as steadily as the rain, and, let's face it, the idea of dusting off those running shoes or digging out that forgotten gym-membership card is enough to bring even the keenest pavement-pounder into a cold sweat. But for those of us heading to the mountains this winter, hitting the snooze button is not an option.
"Skiing and boarding can be incredibly demanding and, physically, they're all-encompassing," says Chris Haworth, a ski-racing coach and fitness expert at Ski+board magazine. "It's crucial to head out with a decent level of fitness." The former British skiing champion Graham Bell agrees, saying that it isn't "rocket science": "Most people are going from sitting behind a desk and doing half an hour of exercise a day, at most, to then going out and doing more than five hours a day on the mountain. The more you do to prepare, the more fun you are going to have, and the less likely you are to come back on a stretcher!"
Bell recommends starting a fitness regime at least six weeks before you go. Here, he and Haworth offer their top tips for preparing for a week on the slopes.
If you're skiing and you're not out of breath, you're probably not pushing yourself (or you've got your face in a fondue). It's a demanding sport, and when it comes to improving the state of your heart and lungs, any preparation is useful. "Just do what you enjoy," Bell says. "Cycling, running, swimming or even walking – anything that gets you out of breath will work your cardiovascular system."
There are also some more specific exercises. In Bell's previous life as performance director of the British skiing team, he got his crop of speed demons training on a machine called Skier's Edge. Footplates facing forwards, representing skis, slide left and right, replicating the movement required to link turns on the snow. "It's skiing's answer to the rowing machine," says Bell, who now sells the machines to gyms and private customers. "Unlike cycling or running, it provides the side-to-side push required for skiing."
Whatever you do, Bell suggests that you work sprints into your routine – or hill climbs for runners. "Skiers tend to have two-minute periods of intense activity, and then downtime on the lift going back up. So sprints will prepare you best for the sudden outbursts."
"Doing weights can be useful," Haworth says, "but there are vain ways of doing them and effective ways. It's no good going to the gym and working on your biceps or developing huge bulk." He suggests targeting legs, back and core instead. If you're a fan of the gym, one of the best ways to work the thighs (which are always the first to burn while skiing) is a squat machine. "Do three sets of 12, and then work up to three sets of 15 a few weeks before you go," Haworth says.
Experienced gym-goers, or those with personal trainers, can try squatting with free weights on their shoulders.
A classic home exercise for the thighs is the wall sit, which involves placing your back against a wall, bending your knees to 90 degrees, and holding the position. "People might do this for two minutes every day, but it's not great because you're stationary," Bell says. "It's much better to balance on one leg and bend that knee slowly down to 90 degrees. Do 20 of these and then stand on the same leg and close your eyes while trying to balance for 20 seconds. This is better because your muscles are constantly having to adjust as you try to stay steady – just like skiing."
If you do stick to wall sits, Haworth recommends placing a Swiss ball between you and the wall to increase the need to stay balanced.
Skiing pulls on your limbs in a way few other sports do, and being supple will not only improve your technique but reduce the chance of injury (anyone who has seen the wipeouts on Ski Sunday, from which racers invariably walk away having cartwheeled like a rag doll at 80mph, will appreciate this).
"Even a good skier going at it in powder can expect to fall regularly," Bell says. "To increase flexibility, I tend to do a lot of stretching to increase the range of movement.
Bell also recommends yoga, despite being sceptical about it. "It's effectively stretching into funny animal positions, isn't it? But it does give you a really good stretch – when I was on the skiing team, we had a coach who got us doing yoga and it certainly helped."
It doesn't matter how fit you get, if you don't have good technique, all the sweat will have been wasted. "It's about allowing your body to work naturally with the skis," Haworth says. "Equipment manufacturers are making skis and boots that work in harmony with the human body, but you have to have the right technique in order to get the benefit. Even a couple of hours of lessons at the beginning of a week's holiday will help."
And the fitter you get, the easier it is to improve. "It's especially important for beginners because, apart from anything, you'll spend a lot of time in the early days just picking yourself up," Bell says. "When you do improve your technique, fitness is less crucial – I know guys who aren't in great shape but can out-ski anyone because they're more efficient."
Bell says that those who are used to being taught will progress faster. "When I was skiing, they coached us by teaching us other sports such as windsurfing or canoeing. When I trained the athlete Colin Jackson for his race on Ski Sunday last year, he was amazing – he just understood exactly what you were saying."
If day two leaves you barely able to walk, never mind ski, then you're probably not warming up properly. "It's very important to limber up before you get started," Haworth says. "I quite like lateral lunges with one leg outstretched and the other bent to work the upper legs. Anything that loosens the hips is also good. I get my junior racers to spell their names with their pelvises, which can lead to some unusual positions, but is also quite entertaining."
Bell warns that you can take stretching too far. "I sometimes see people on the top of the mountain really stretching their hamstrings and I think, hold on, you've just been pulling on your hamstring, so if it gets strained in a fall, it's going to tighten up and rip. Don't overdo it."
Skiing can be the best way to warm up. "I tend to get people to do a gentle first run on a green or blue, getting them to be balanced over the centre of their skis, then slowly build up a range of movement. You can do a few stretches on the lift on the way back up, and by the second run, you're flying."
Eating and drinking
Mainlining mulled wine and eating vast quantities of cheese, bread and chocolate is all part of the pleasure of skiing. "It's not the time to be eating salad," says Bell. "You're out in the cold at altitude doing physical activity every day for a week. You need carbohydrates like pasta, although it's probably best to go easy on the cheese."
Haworth also advises moderation when it comes to consumption of alcohol. "A lot of people go up to altitude and forget. They drink like fishes and get dehydrated." Staying hydrated, agrees Bell, is crucial. "Always take water out on the mountain – don't wait until lunch. When you're dehydrated, your sense of balance is affected and your joints don't work as well. You're also more susceptible to injury."
He also suggests carrying snacks to keep your energy levels up. "I like to take nuts and raisins and, of course, chocolate."