ULTRAFIT MAGAZINE, January 2004, page 100
Thinking about trying out one of today's extreme action sports - or maybe going back to a long-time favorite that still holds a challenge for you? If so, you may also need to ensure that you're just as ready in body as you are in spirit.
From adventure that takes you all the way to a high mountain top, down to the ocean floor, deep into a jungle or way out on a wave - there's probably something useful you can learn about fine-tuning yourself for action from an expert with the knowledge to get you into optimum condition. Wherever you may live or travel to nowadays, there are likely to be opportunities accessible that take advantage of local geography and conditions to provide a high-action sport experience.. But even if it looks easy, the pros or instructors will tell you that sports with an extra edge can also put extreme demands on you; stamina, strength, flexibility and reflexes.
Action that takes you to new heights or depths can be exhilarating, but enjoying it to the maximum requires some pre-arrival preparation that will help you perform better and safer as well. That's why nowadays the facilities and operators for both old and new high-intensity sports like these will provide you the chance to do just that.
Heli-skiing: air ascent to breathtaking descent on deep powder
Untrammeled mountain slopes where you can still ski for miles without seeing thousands of other skiers? In fact, not seeing anyone else at all other than your fellow skiers and the pilot who helicopters you up to the extreme heights of a large mountain range is definitely the norm in heli-skiing, where participants take to the snow at levels far away from the lines and crowds that usually fill up ski resorts each season. But even with the latest equipment, heli-skiing is not for the beginning skier or the occasional athlete who has been away from the slopes for some years. To get novice heli-skiers schussing with an adequate degree of skills, several of the larger operations around the globe now offer pre-heli-skiing instruction. Take for example veteran operator Canadian Mountain Holidays, which has operated a cluster of sites on the mountain ranges of western Canada's Purcells since the Eighties. CMH nowadays offers such "pre-heli-skiing" and "powder performance camps" - two or three day small group clinics where world-class ski instructors teach improved stability and confidence on high performance skis.
So what are the key differences between the conventional mountainside ski session and these high altitude, deep snow downhill marathons that are specifically dealt with in such classes? Dave Hay, 3-time member of the Canadian Demonstration Ski Team, and World Pro Racer with 30 years of teaching experience, conducts his two-day Powder Performance Camps for prospective CMH attendees with a focus on developing better stability and confidence. In a nutshell, however, to fully enjoy this high performance sport you too need to be in very good physical shape. Ideally, that means having engaged beforehand in some kind of exercise program for eight to ten weeks prior to your ski trip. It stands to reason that the fitter you are, the better you will be able to take the skiing challenges, and the less likely that you will injure yourself. Pre-season and maintenance conditioning for heli-skiing can also be found at regional area health clubs: "This should involve strength, agility, mobility and stability (S.A.M.S.) along with cardio-vascular training," points out fitness trainer and Alberta's Northern Athletic Club owner Todd Schumlick. His tips for including all these elements in one heli-ski intensive program:
- Develop core strength and mobility with the use of a Swiss/exercise
ball, focusing on spinal flexion, extension, and lateral/rotation work.
- Increase hip abduction/adduction and external/internal rotation
strength and mobility. Most lateral and medial (sides) knee injuries
could be prevented through proper strengthening.
- Strengthen and increase flexibility of the hamstrings. With the use of a
Swiss/exercise ball, the reverse squat/ball leg curl/roll is very effective.
- Increase both agility and stability through a variety of exercises that
challenge the lower body and core. Squats on the Swiss/exercise ball
can do this, plus increase strength, coordination, and confidence.
Single leg squats and split squats are also other great exercise choices.
s. Increase mobility through proper stretching. Stretch muscle bellies and
not tendons (Stretch warmed-up and as often as possible).
- Split your cardiovascular training into two types of sessions (complete
on opposite days of S.A.M.S. work):
- Distance - Duration: Work at a conversational pace (60% - 70% heart
rate maximum (220 minus your age) for 40 - 60 minutes.
- Intervals: Work at two levels - one that is a maximum effort for 60 - 90
seconds and another that is approximately 40% less in intensity for the
same duration and go back and forth for 15-20 minutes total. This is
at 75% - 90% heart rate maximum.
Schumlick advises to complete steps one through four every other day. If you are a strong intermediate skier in a regular ski area, you should be able to adapt to deep powder snow skiing. Heli-skiing has also been revolutionized since its inception by the advent of the so-called "fat boys" skis, which have made it much easier for first timers as well as seasoned powder enthusiasts. The wider surface and shorter length of these high performance skis makes for easier floatation and easier and more effortless turning in all conditions. Heli-skiing is expensive and not for the unprepared, but it has taken off in popularity from North American peaks to high range locations afar as Italy, Switzerland, New Zealand, the Himalayas and South America. And those who have remained with it through its evolution continue to savor it: as Ray Lamb, an American banking executive who has heli-skiied with CMH for 18 years, puts it: "It's just skiing in the deep powder and being able to cut through it and down some terrain. After you get to the bottom and look up, you can't believe that you skied through the trees and over the rocks-the rocks are all covered with snow but the snow's so deep that you've skied over huge boulders. It's really a great sport."
Tech diving: for the detail-minded - at amazing depths
Potentially dangerous, usually expensive, technical diving still draws a wide following among those ready to go way beyond the limitations of the usual recreational scuba. While the term has become broadly used to describe just about everything beyond straightforward recreational dives, technical diving-as Jeff Gourley, a lifelong diver tech diving instructor and editor-in-chief at Divers Magazine - summarizes it as "a dive in which you cannot return directly to the surface. It would require - either because of an overhead environment or because of decompression risk - that you'd have to do staged stops at various depths to douse out the nitrogen that's collected in your system." From his well-rounded perspective, Gourley points out that where tech divers live is actually not so important: "Even if you lived in Hawaii and were a technical diver, you'd pretty quickly get tired of diving in your own backyard, so to speak," he observes. "So part of tech diving is the travel and the new challenges of doing different wrecks or different caves or what have you, all over the world. The key ingredient for a tech diver is a good airport - essentially going out there and exploring the deeper wrecks and the deeper walls of the world."
Before you buy your air ticket to any faraway destination, however, there are some preparatory aspects to this extreme version of diving not to be overlooked. Having an aptitude for tech diving is essential before instructors like Gourley will take you on. "You have to be comfortable with your gear, and you have to be level-headed under stress - there's no room for panic, so to speak," he emphasizes. "Most people come to the class expecting it to be just another level of training similar to the recreational stuff, and in recreational diving accidents essentially don't happen." Gourley himself teaches only some of the advanced levels of tech-nical diving at present - techniques with names like Trimix Diving and Rebreather Diving, and these only to those he assesses can become good, safe technical divers. He typically takes novices to dive local wrecks at locations like San Diego, California before they head off for more distant and challenging locations on the other side of the Pacific in the Philippines or Thailand. As to what he advises newcomers to undertake for developing their swimming stamina at greater depths and extended periods of time, he observes: "When you undertake tech diving you are going to strap quite a bit of equipment on, increasing your drag immensely as well as your center of gravity. My recommendation is to don every piece of equipment that you would need on the most technical dive you can imagine and get to your local pool. Swim laps totaling 1 mile in the style of kick you prefer--Frog, flutter, etc...Gradually trim a few minutes off the time until you can basically sprint it. Not only will this increase your stamina, but it will increase your gear familiarity and pinpoint your buoyancy and airway control."
As with many sports, simulating the motor movements and conditions provides a well targeted pre-sport regimen. In the case of tech diving, this means not only doing plenty of swimming for a solid overall cardio workout, but also doing some weight training as a necessary component of any routine. "It is important to be strong enough to handle your gear. You will be carrying your twins down ramps, lifting onto boats, in and out of vehicles, donning in rough seas and so on," Gourley emphasizes. "Get to the gym. Get to the water. Remember your life and the life of you buddies can depend on you fitness."
An adequate diving specific workout for tech divers that would build rapid strength without becoming too muscle bulked would ideally include the following - performed just 3 times a week, and doing four sets of 5 to 6 repetitions:
- Flat bench
- Incline dumbbell bench
- Tri extensions (cable)
- Lat pulldowns
- Seated rows
- Preacher curls
- Seated dumbbell curl
- Ab crunches (machine)
- Ab twists (machine)
What are the typical reactions of your average novice to the conditions and overall experience usually involved in this detail and equipment oriented sport? Something of a mixture of exhilaration and sober reflection, according to Gourley: They're typically blown away by the seriousness of it. The second you go into decompression--which means you can no longer return to the surface--any problem needs to be taken care of underwater. After we clear the decompressive stuff and get back on the boat, they typically say things like: "Wow--no matter what we were not going to the surface. It was a strange feeling that everything had to be taken care of underwater!"
Adventure racing: the challenge of all the elements
If there has been one new multi-sport which has received enormous media attention in the past several years, it would probably have to be adventure racing. Like the other newer hybrid sports, AR can be taxing on your finances but the real crunch to be faced is achieving the level of multi-sport strength, speed, and stamina required for undertaking a team event that encompasses several disciplines. Once you have completed your first few day-long race events, you may start to think about the much longer regional events and perhaps even taking on a titan like Raid Gauloises, the progenitor of AR itself. Not surprisingly, this is a full-blown lifestyle for many of the top competitors and teams: you need to be that passionate to stay focused on the core necessities of your physical preparation and not become sidetracked by the lesser concerns. Getting ready for a major race is rigorous: Eco-Challenge's course, for instance, remains secret to all competitors until approximately 24 hours prior to the start of the race. Teams are told only the disciplines and skill requirements they must possess in order to compete. All competitors must pass a series of skills tests before they are allowed on the course. The race takes between 6 and 12 days to complete. The concept is simple: teams leave the starting line and navigate through numerous mandatory passport control points to the finish line as quickly as they can. To be officially ranked, all team members must cross the finish line together. Often several different routes may be taken; the teams choose their own course as long as each passport control point is passed in order. Therefore, strategy and intelligence are as important as physical endurance.
Day or weekend-long clinics, training camps, and schools--a major resource for both the novice and intermediate AR athlete--is an opportunity to develop or hone various racing skills. These events will also usually allow the newcomer to gain plenty of first-hand insight-not only on the technical, physical and logistical levels, but also from the more subjective experiences encountered by many of the instructors who are also seasoned pros from the international circuit. Danny Moy, who operates southern California's Conquer Adventures camps, defines his client attendance as falling into two distinct groups: "One wants the experience in adventure racing, and then the other wants to improve on their racing because they have a race coming up. But they're new to adventure racing. More specifically what they ask to be trained on are the three items that we chose to emphasize in the one day - mountain biking, kayaking and especially navigation: a lot of people want to do these races. They're intimidated by the navigation - but that usually isn't too tough," he notes. As for inner preparedness, however: "The most common thing that they're not prepared for is what takes most teams out of an adventure race, which is just team dynamics, even more so than an injury. It's the mental thing -being able to be compassionate is the most important thing, and also you've got to let pride go out the window, you've got to let yourself be helped."
Of course, there are specific types of bodywork that can serve as an effective blueprint for the aspiring adventure racer. Ideally, you want to approximate some of the rigors and conditions of actual racing by including regular outdoor training sessions, but there are also useful supplemental indoor workouts that can be part of your regimen, with the focus on equipment that gets the strength and endurance you need to build for key muscle groups: stationary bikes, indoor climbing walls, swimming pools, rowing machines are few of the standard tune-up options here. Natural body weight is another training asset to utilize in any strength conditioning program: do push-ups, pull-ups, and dips with regularity. Above all, vary the intensity and length of your workouts. And never neglect listening to your body's reactions as you progress: there's an edge you want to maintain, but also a balance to adhere to in order to avoid the pitfall of overtraining. Author and Director of Odyssey Adventure Racing, Don Mann, in his book Complete Guide to Adventure Racing details a year-round regimen that attends to both general and sport-specific training in their various phases in both pre- and race seasons. In the area of general fitness, his aerobidanaerobic recommendations include maintaining an aerobic base and minimizing high-impact activity during the off-season. For strength/flexibility, Mann recommends increasing the strength of opposing muscle groups to enhance performance, along with yoga or some flexibility training, and strength conditioning sessions for all the major muscle groups using a light weight/high rep format. In the much closer time period of the pre-season, for general fitness in aerobidanaerobic areas he envisions improving your lactate threshold and aerobic power, incorporating regular tempo workouts into your regimen, and adapting your aerobic capacity to specific length, duration and terrain of competition. For strength/flexibility, now is the time to bring in compound weight-bearing exercises (pull-ups, push-ups, dips, lunges and squats) performing 3 - 5 sets at strength capacity, three to four times a week. Perform plyometrics, emphasizing form at the time, and one to two weeks before a race, taper down to allow for complete recovery. For sports specificity, Mann advises to fine tune balance and agility on land, although there are a variety of tools nowadays to assist the would-be surfer with these skills. Paul Frediani, top trainer and fitness advisor to the U.S. Surf Team, has developed an innovative series of exercises and stretches tailored to surfing that integrates balance work with Swiss (flex) balls, yoga moves, plus strength training and cardiovascular endurance. Frediani has observed everyone from amateur to elite level surfer over the years, and his program addresses the particular demands put on the novice surfer: Upper body strength, ability, and skill to paddle a surfboard are most noticeable for first timers, he points out. In fact, it is essential to brush up on your swimming skills and increase stamina before launching yourself on a board of any kind. "No matter what other sport one is conditioned in, paddling a surfboard through the impact zone is physically demanding. A surfer that is better conditioned will spend more time actually riding waves, thus having a better chance of improving their skill level," Frediani explains. To achieve that, he recommends a program that includes cardio (running, biking, swimming, stairmaster, paddling your surfboard), strength training (free weights, pull-ups, push up, lunges) and flexibility (stretching, yoga).
There are also some specific preventative steps that can be taken which help a lot in avoiding injuries "The highest rate of injuries (cuts, contusions) comes from unwanted contact from the fin, ' Frediani notes. "Quite simple to avoid, just use a fin developed by a brand like Surfco, which have soft edges. Last summer I went to the emergency room twice in one day. In the morning one of my students stepped on his fin, resulting in five stitches on his foot. In the afternoon of the very same day another of my students got tangled up in with his board, resulting in 15 stitches to his thigh. The other injury of orthopedic concern is the shoulders--most definitely the most overused and abused joint for surfer." With quite a few such potential risks both internal and external facing the unwary new surfer, taking part in a surf camp or clinic under the formal instruction of a seasoned professional is more than advisable for this seemingly free-wheeling sport. Not surprisingly, the California coast is one long-time surfing mecca that has also become home to some excellent surfing camps nowadays. One such outfit based in Manhattan Beach, just south of Los Angeles, is former lifeguard and world-class surfer Jim Miller's Pairs Surfing Experience. Miller has had to deal with a wide variety of fitness and athletic backgrounds, but invariably finds that the ocean is a great equalizer: "Some of the teaching is basically the same for anybody - which is, respecting the power of the ocean and learning how to handle yourself in it, which really no amount of training in the gym is really going to get you. This is one of the neat things about teaching surfing: it doesn't matter if a guy can bench press 250 lbs. or a hundred pounds, the ocean is going to treat that person the same, so they're all going to have to learn to respect it. As far as like fitness, though, yes it's good to have people who are in shape and have good flexibility and good upper body strength-at that point it helps for surfing."
For acquiring flexibility, Miller is also keen on the types of yoga routines that Frediani has outlined in his book, Surf Flex. "I think yoga's great because it pushes your body to stretch and get into flexible positions which really help students," he says, "and I've noticed it's really helped me handle when the ocean contorts you and puts you in a position your body's not used to." Maintaining flexibility becomes even more critical with age and for the male surfer: "Having your hips be open and flexible, it really helps in your get-up. Just being loose is really important when you're surfing." Using natural body strength exercise like push-ups is another important drill, perhaps more for the female audience who are less developed: "A lot of women are real surprised by how tired they get, so doing some push-ups and being strong in the upper body is key." For the sense of balance that men and women alike must attain, he also seconds the balance board equipment that can be found in surf and sport shops: "It just really gets your balance down and s a good way to practice on land. Also, the flex ball is great surf training right there in flexibility and balance. And the other thing is actually a skateboard - I've got one from a company that really can kind of simulate surfing on the beach. Another board I have is called a carve board, which is almost the size of a snowboard and has big wheels, and that's a great surfing tool. So they're making a lot of boards that let you practice surfing on the land now." Having surfed most of the world's premier locations from South Africa to Central America to the South Pacific and Australia, Miller underlines the need to learn the sport first-hand if you can where the waters will give you maximum preparation. "It is kind of challenging here in Los Angeles where we teach--the waves are as rolling as some of the best places up and downy the coast. There's a lot of waves here, and a lot of currents and rip currents, so the people that come to our school get to learn a lot about how to handle themselves in those conditions because it's what we have to learn with. It's a good training ground for a surfer."