On a recent evening, a group of roughly 15 skiers ranging in age from 20-somethings to 50-somethings marched through the small treatment room at Therapeutic Associates in Boise, pulling their knees tight to their chests before locking their hands behind their heads and dipping down into deep lunges.
It was the final night of the first session of ski fitness offered by the physical therapy clinic, and therapist Jessica Smith-Blockley was putting the group members through their paces. While some members have had ski injuries in the past, many are just trying to avoid them in the future by facing those two little words that can strike more fear in the hearts of skiers and snowboarders than any black diamond run: "squats" and "lunges."
In the world of snow sports, squats and lunges are unpleasant necessities, at least among those willing to do what it takes to have as long and as painless a season as possible.
Pre-season conditioning, or ski fitness, is becoming a yearly rite of passage as skiers and snowboarders amp up for the coming season by trying to beat their bodies back in shape. And while several regional ski areas have already opened, it's never too late to remind your muscles just what's going to be required of them.
Gyms across the country have joined physical and sports therapy clinics and ski clubs in offering programs designed specifically with snow sports in mind.
Skiing and boarding require that muscles work in ways unlike any other sport, with explosive action, side-to-side weight shifts and instant balance changes.
"That's part of the reason pre-season conditioning is so important," Smith-Blockley said. "We don't do a lot of that at other times of the year."
The key to being able to do that without injury is to develop leg muscles while strengthening hip and core muscles, Smith-Blockley said, adding that everything ties together: Strong hips lead to a straight femur, which allows for proper knee alignment, and it's all rooted in the strength of the core.
"The core is the base of support your whole lower body works off of," she said. "Your core is like the foundation of your house."
Skier Liz Fitzgerald was a ski-fitness convert the first time she took Smith-Blockley's class after hearing about it from other skiers. That year, the ease of her first day on the hill convinced her the work paid off.
"I work out all the time, but you really, truly cannot have your first day on the ski hill and depend on the workout you do all year," Fitzgerald said.
The athletes of the Bogus Basin Ski Education Foundation do dry-land training through the summer but amp up the training schedule in the fall, alternating days of cardio and plyometrics with days of strength training. For coach Colin Connor, the best ski fitness program starts simple.
"One of the best things to do is to basically get out and start getting active, and do so with a lower body focus," he said.
That includes those squats and lunges.
The Downtown YMCA has been offering a ski fitness class for several years and is roughly half-way through its current six-week class. Angie Gribble, health and fitness assistant director, said the class is a circuit-training program, working on core strength, balance, stability, leg strength and cardio, while being adaptable for different abilities.
Gribble has seen more interest earlier each year. A Nordic skiing conditioning class offered in late August was packed.
And while the hard-core skiers have been working toward the season for months, Smith-Blockley, Connor and Gribble all agree that it's never too late to start.
"Just a couple of weeks before you get on the snow ... can make a difference," Smith-Blockley said.
But if you don't have the time to dedicate to a structured program, there are still some things you can do at home.
Connor suggests some one-leg squats by putting one foot up on the couch and eventually adding some weight.
Smith-Blockley suggests a series of six exercises to hit target areas:
First, for hip and knee strength, do a deep squat, standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and keeping your head up. Do two to three sets of 10 a few times per week.
Also, try a walking side-lunge by stepping to the side with one leg, your hips back and head and chest up. Keep your weight on your heels as you stand up. Do three sets of 10 on each side a couple of times a week.
For your legs and glutes, go for old-fashioned lunges with your legs hip-width apart and your head up. Step forward and drop straight down until your thigh is parallel to the floor, then repeat. Do three sets of 10.
With the addition of the small investment of an elastic resistance band, try the side-step as well. Put the band around your ankles and side step across the room without dragging the back leg, then head back with the other leg in the lead. Do two to three laps with about 20 steps in each direction.
For core strength, try a bridge with a straight leg raise. Lie on the floor and put your feet flat on the floor. Set your abdomen and raise your hips to keep a straight line, then extend one leg at a time. Do three sets of 10.
Finally, get down on all fours and, with a tight stomach, raise one leg and the opposite arm and repeat on the other side. Do three sets of 10.
If you want a little help, the Downtown YMCA offers a half-price deal to jump in the last portion of the ski fitness class, which runs through Dec. 10. Smith-Blockley is also offering a second session on Tuesdays beginning Dec. 1 through the end of the month for $40 for the entire session.
However you choose to do it, there's no way to get around those squats. Just remind yourself that apres ski will be so much more enjoyable with a little preparation.