Once I even pushed a helicopter pilot to drop me off at the highest permissible point in Europe—4500m on the Margherita Refuge terrace on Monte Rosa, to ski the highest vertical off piste down to Champoluc, through a sea of frozen waves of almost un-skiable snow, crust, and steep chutes followed by some rewarding fresh snow, to be greeted by more crust and slush later.
Back then, the adventure was non-stop, from incredible heli skiing in Chile and Canada to probably the scariest run, the Marbrèe off the Giant’s tooth in Courmayeur. One wrong turn and I’d be sliding for 2,000 metres.
I always remember asking my guide whether that was considered a Ski Extreme—a term born from legends such as Patrick Vallencant, Jean-Marc Boivin and Sylvain Saudan who were all busy doing the “first” descents on skis off the Mont Blanc chain and other faces. My guide’s response to me was: “This is not quite ski extreme, but it’s certainly ski dangereuse!”
And then what happened?
After the birth of my first child I stood on top of another couloir and this time I got a bit scared. I launched myself off piste and found myself asking “What on earth am I doing skiing here in the middle of nowhere, scaring myself silly?”
I used to push myself down a GS course, or do the Inferno Downhill in Mürren, with no fear of injury and try to improve my time each year. And now? I still do it, as I love ski racing, but I never push myself any more, for fear of injury and not being able to work and ski with our clients.
I know too many friends who have blown their knees and ACLs down a mogul run. Yet bump skiing is still my favourite thing.
But as the years ticked by, the good life kicked in. After all, the Alps come with some great food and wines.
What with early starts and late finishes on our ski events, a few pounds start to pile on with so much dining out. (I am not complaining as I have had some incredible dining experiences which were as memorable as a steep chute—and a lot less dangerous!)
So as the years rolled by the ski pattern became more of a quality couple of hours’ skiing followed by a long lunch. Often a very long lunch!
But alarm bells rang last Easter when I went skiing with my 16 year-old-daughter Emilia for a proper seven-day ski holiday. After the second full day my legs were getting tired. From experience I know if your legs are tired then you need to stop, as most injuries happen either first thing—or in this case, last thing.
I am now 55 and have a five-year-old son Max who is beyond active and will doubtless be demanding more of my time with sports as time goes by. My perception used to be that the older you get the more you have to be careful in terms of pushing yourself and not putting your heart under too much pressure. Hence the guidelines on all these machines where you punch in your weight, height and age and it gives you your heartbeat (in my case 145 bpm). Yet on the odd occasion not only would I get pins and needles in my arms, but I wasn’t very good company at dinner that night as I felt so knackered!
The long and short of it was that I had no idea how to take care of myself, how to get fit pre ski season. It was always something of a last-minute panic, jumping on a bike two months before the ski season.
What I have never thought about until now is how to get fitter and stop the muscle loss as I get older; and what my limits are so I can go back to racing without fear of injury and put away the fear of getting tired if I am going to ski off piste.
I want to carry on doing what I love so that one day I can share my experiences not only with my children but also my grandchildren.
So what did I do next?
SKIP A GENERATION?
“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”: The World Health Organisation.
I went to meet Mike Davison the MD of Isokinetic in Harley Street. They are also partners in the annual City Ski Championships, an exciting, classic event we’ve organised for the last 20 years.
So no doubt you’ll be thinking to yourselves that I had an “in” there, and probably the next thing that comes to mind is “expensive” and only affordable if it’s an insurance job being as it’s Harley Street!
Isokinetic Medical Group are a little different. Specialists in all things Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, they hail originally from the gastronomic capital that is Bologna and have a deep history in managing winter sports injuries from the northern Italian Alps.
Treating sports stars such as Alberto Tomba, Buffon and Baggio, through to those like me, their focus is getting people back to what they love doing. Five years on after arriving in London, they have a 11,000 sq ft world class facility on the doorstep of Oxford Circus and are clinically led by Dr Phil Batty, former Manchester City and England Rugby chief medic.
Despite the address, one thing they are not is expensive. For as little as £275 you can have a full Sports Medicine consultation, musculoskeletal screening and fitness test known as a Threshold Test.
What is a threshold test?
A threshold test measures a person’s heart rate and lactic acid levels during stress to identify their aerobic and anaerobic thresholds.
When oxygen is delivered to the muscles, chemical reactions take place that help convert glucose to energy. The muscles need this energy to work properly.
When demand for energy happens at a rate greater than the rate of supply, the far quicker but also far less efficient anaerobic metabolism takes place. Oxygen is not required here but it leads to the byproduct, lactic acid being produced.
With continuous exercise (carried out by the working muscles) at a level and intensity greater than the rate and supply of oxygen and glucose, then anaerobic metabolism really takes over and a sharp rise in lactic acid will occur. Power drops and fatigue sets it in.
Peripheral fatigue can be occurring without you being necessarily aware, or it it could be limited to one or two muscle groups only.
Fatigue is noticed in two ways
1- Peripheral = muscles
2- Central = this is governed by the brain.
You are not aware of your peripheral fatigue. While your muscle is getting tired there is a high risk of injury caused by a sudden movement.
So how do you become aware of this and how do you prevent this from happening?
How to improve your anaerobic threshold
Prevention, or greater resistance to fatigue can be achieved by becoming fitter, or more precisely, improving your aerobic threshold.
After meeting Mike I went to see Dr Matthew Stride who is a consultant in sport and exercise medicine.
The long and short of it is that most football clubs send their players to get examined by Dr Stride before they write a cheque for £6 million quid.
My conversation with him was looking at the bigger picture in life, health and the benefits of skiing and all the sport that I love, such as tennis and yes, golf.
Initially, I had a musculoskeletal screening.
So what’s that?
MSK screening looks at general skeletal posture and alignment, along with ROM (range of movement) and stability of individual joints. I was deemed to be of a low risk of injury from this perspective – it’s not pass/fail, more a risk stratification of low to high.
High risk may be a joint or joints that feel particularly unstable and loose, with poor supportive musculature, together with a skeletal alignment and pattern of movement that places added forces through the joint(s). The screening will help identify areas of the body where specific exercises and a training regimen can help reduce this risk.
Luckily I passed the test and was declared ok. For some people the check-up might show a dodgy joint that you should be aware of and therefore exercise to make it stronger.
In another scenario, you may have already been injured and want to get back into skiing. In this case they give you specific exercises to increase your fitness to pursue the lifestyle and sport you always used to enjoy.
I then had a “threshold” test on one of the clinic bikes—both aerobic and anaerobic. The resulting information helps put together a plan to improve fitness.
I had a heart monitor fitted which is basically the same as wearing a FitBit watch. Then I pedalled, with Dr Matthew taking blood from me regularly (a tiny pinch on my ear lobes) to measure my lactic acid. You now know what lactic acid is and why he was studying mine!
The pedalling was set at 50 watts (power generated by my legs) and incrementally increased speed by approximately 30 watts every three minutes until I passed my anaerobic threshold.
The result was that at 70 watts with a heart rate of 108 bpm my lactic acid level was at 2 mM which is aerobic—whereas at 110 watts and at a heart rate of 128 bpm my lactic acid measured at 4 mmol/L.
What does that mean?
Well in their charts it wasn’t a great result. Quite shocking actually as I was in the red. And I’m not talking bank accounts!
I was told that a good way to start would be to spend 30 minutes cycling each day. It works well for me as I hate gyms, and I can listen to music or read my iPad while pedalling.
By cycling at my aerobic threshold heart rate my body will become fitter i.e. more efficient and therefore I would be capable of producing more work (wattage). Down the line my heart rate would stay around the same but when I go back for a re-test in three months my wattage should increase and move up the fitness colour charge into the orange zone or even yellow.
By regular and correct exercise some people can even come off blood-pressure medicine and statins designed to reduce cholesterol.
As I said earlier, I am 55, my son is five-years old and I know he is going to be even more demanding in the years to come with football, tennis and of course, skiing. With the above simple plan I hope that in 20 years’ time I can still take him skiing, share my experiences and maybe even impress his friends by still clocking a decent race time or show them my bumps skills!
Even better, skip a generation and ,if I am still around, how amazing would it be to introduce my grandchildren to skiing?
Now you’re talking! That’s my kind of language!
Most people probably know all of this but I never did—and until now most advice has been almost too much hard work and takes time. But in this case it doesn’t—it’s realistic and an amazingly achievable goal!
Come on England!
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