WHITEFISH – About halfway through the wall-sit, Holly Stevenson tried to distract us from the intense burning sensation in our thighs by asking the class’s participants to think about their favorite part of skiing – be it the perfect powder day or simply walking into the Bierstube to down a cold one.
Stevenson – a personal trainer, former ski racer and instructor of the ski conditioning classes currently offered at The Wave fitness center in Whitefish – could see some of us beginning to quiver, and gently chided those of us pushing our hands down onto our knees to relieve some of the stress.
The wall-sit is exactly what it sounds like: With your back against the wall, you take a sitting position, thighs parallel to the ground, and you simply hold that position while the seconds tick interminably by, your body begins to shake, and the lactic acid builds up in your quadriceps. I think about ski season, just a few months away, finding it a welcome and motivating factor at such times, because I sure as heck am not doing this for my health.
Stevenson, who holds a degree in exercise science, explains that she offers the class as a way for skiers and snowboarders of all abilities and fitness levels to get stronger in the pre-season, so those first few weeks of skiing or riding are more fun and less painful.
“You can think about technical stuff instead of if your legs are burning or back is sore or you’re just thinking ‘Man, is it time to go to the bar yet?’” she said. “I think of the specific demands of skiing, and try to replicate those in class.”
Her exercises focus on building core strength by working abdominals, obliques and the lower back. She also targets leg strength and shoulders. “If you think about skiing, it’s really intense for a couple of minutes and then you kind of take a rest,” Stevenson said. So she structures her class in the same way.
At the evening session I attended last week, the bulk of the hour-long workout consisted of rotating participants in the 16-person class through a series of stations set up at different corners of the gymnasium that work different muscles for different lengths of time. The participants in the class ranged from fit 20-somethings to gray-haired folks who looked as though their mogul-bouncing and cliff-hucking days have long since past.
The rotating station system nicely accommodated the varying fitness levels: The really ripped folks worked through all the stations five or six times, while others did fewer rotations. Since it was my first class and everyone else’s second, I can’t say how many rotations I did because I quickly grew disoriented and stumbled from station to station in no particular order, sweating and gasping, while everyone else seemed to know what was going on. The activities varied from jumping rope to crunches to lunges to squats while tossing a medicine ball up in the air to frog hops to more wall-sits.
Alarmingly, no one except me was cheating on any of the exercises. There was a general atmosphere of earnest effort and camaraderie, without much talking or egocentric preening. As people cycle through the different stations, Stevenson observes, adjusting someone’s form and offering encouragement, or in my case, staring with a tight-lipped smile until I reluctantly stop standing around and begin my next exercise.
Stevenson estimates nearly half the class suffers from common ski injuries: blown knees, bad lower backs and shoulder problems. For those recovering from injuries, Stevenson offers low-impact substitutes for some of the tougher exercises. And that will continue as the class goes on.
“As I get to know everybody in the class, I’ll get to know what bothers them,” she said. “I really want to work with everybody to modify (their workout).”
Fred Dietrich, 48, runs Valhalla Adventures, a backcountry cat skiing business. While doing crunches, Dietrich moans that as difficult as the class might be, it will be worth it when the skiing begins. “I have to get in shape; I’m a guide,” Dietrich says. “I’ve got no choice.” He says he weighs about 240 pounds, but is usually down to 215 by January – and the ski conditioning class goes a long way toward dropping that weight: “This gets me going.”
Jeanne Riechers and her husband Garry are taking the class to keep up with their five grandchildren and to get in shape for cross-country skiing this winter. “It’s very challenging, challenging but good,” Jeanne says. “I tease my husband, I say ‘I feel like I’m on The Biggest Loser.’”
Toward the end of class, Stevenson guides everyone through more crunches, leg lifts and, eventually, long stretches and yoga positions. As the class ends, she urges participants to do “homework” in the form of yoga, cycling or pilates, while I lay on the mat, staring at the ceiling and feeling worked over. But I also knew if I stuck with it, I’ll have a much better ski season than I would otherwise. And despite my embarrassing performance, Stevenson remains encouraging.
“It’s important for me that people from all fitness levels feel comfortable to take it,” Stevenson said. “It’s all about building a strong foundation to prevent injuries on the hill.”
The Wave offers the 4-week class Monday and Wednesday evenings 5:30 p.m. -6:30 p.m., and Tuesday and Thursday mornings 9 a.m. – 10 a.m. The second session begins October 29, with rates at $69 per session for members, and $89 for non-members.