After standing in the Single Whip posture for two minutes, your right thigh starts to ache. After five minutes, it’s starting to tremble, as sweat trickles down your back. After 15, the rest of your body is relaxed, but your leg is shaking violently; “burning in,” your tai chi teacher calls it. This is good for your skiing.
So are other Asian arts like yoga and aikido, exercise systems that, for many people, smack of tofu and crystals more than bumps and steeps. “They all offer increased flexibility and balance,” says John Atkins, rehab director and athletic trainer at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Vail. “Martial arts help tremendously in sports like skiing that place a high premium on single-leg balance.”
In the States, we’ve got two images of martial arts. One is kick-ass, kungfu cool. Jackie Chan — style. The other is dumb-ass lame: A deluded dork makes Bruce Lee noises and then gets punched out by, say, Dirty Harry. But martial arts and yoga can also be awe-some cross-training regimens. As the head conditioning coach and trainer for the U.S. Ski Team during the glory years (`78-’84), Atkins taught ski racers like Tamara McKinney and the Mahre brothers tae kwon do, which he’d studied while serving in Vietnam. And PSIA, the instructors’ organization, has hired fitness consultant Adrian Crook, whose workouts are based on traditional Chinese exercises, to help train the nation’s ski teachers.
Atkins and others say these practices help develop not only balance and flexibility but also strength, body awareness, and aerobic capacity. In other words, just what skiers need. Here, then, is a look at the different Asian disciplines worth considering for ski fitness. Leave the crystals at home, though — you’re going to sweat.
In yoga, which originated in India, practitioners go through a long progression of stretches, moving smoothly from posture to posture and breathing deeply throughout. “I believe yoga keeps me in the mental and physical state necessary for my work,” says Gary Ashurst, 42, a ski guide and climber in La Grave, France. Besides the mental benefits, like being able to stay focused in precarious situations, Ashurst says yoga has helped prevent injuries: “With greater flexibility in the hips, the knees are not asked to do something they are not designed for.” Namely, twist. Ashurst says yoga gives him a healthy way to warm up before a day of skiing and builds endurance. Others agree. “I go out snowboarding on a powder day from 9 to 4, and I’m still ready for more, when other people are dropping,” says Jill Barr-Laggis, 4, a snowboard instructor who teaches Ashtanga, a dynamic, strength-building form of yoga, in Crested Butte.
“Balance in movement,” says Aspen ski instructor Tom Crum when asked how aikido helps skiers. “Skiing requires balance within action, spontaneously responding to a patch of ice or a bump field, and so does aikido.” At 51, Crum has been teaching this Japanese martial art for 25 years, and teaching skiing since the early `80s. Aikido has an overtly spiritual side, but what you see at a dojo, or practice hall, might look more like people getting slammed into mats and pinned. In fact, they are. Then again, learning to fall safely could benefit skiers. Practice aikido, says Crum, and you’ll end up with a “heightened sensitivity from foot to ski, and ski to snow.”
“Tai chi trains you to relax in the heat of the moment,” says Bruce Carlson, 44, a dentist and telemarker who lives in Lansing, Iowa. The ability to stay balanced and relaxed while moving is key to skiing, but not much you do at the gym works on the skill.
Tai chi usually sparks an image of senior citizens performing slow moves in the park at dawn. But this Chinese martial art includes moves that can build incredible leg strength. Tai chi demands smooth weight shifts from one foot to the other while the upper body remains quiet. Sound familiar, skiers? Carlson says it even makes his transition to altitude easier: “I go to the Rockies every winter, and I don’t gasp like I used to. I ski longer days and really hit it hard.