Photo: Steve Markusen on Triple Direct, Teton Pass, WY, 2019. Photo Credit: Max Markusen

I peel the climbing skins off my skis, reset the bindings to downhill mode, don hat, gloves and goggles. I am alone at the top of Edelweiss Bowl, just south of Teton Pass, Wyoming. My son Charlie left two days earlier to go back to school and my other son, Max, was working. Over the last seven days, we skied 21,000 vertical feet of unassisted backcountry powder skiing. At age sixty four, I could not have done this without a training program. Every day was physically demanding. It was all I could do to keep up with Max and Charlie.

As a personal trainer, I use periodization training programs to achieve health and fitness goals for my clients and myself. Periodization is based on four principles: individualizing a training plan, progressing that plan over time, adapting physically and mentally to increased workloads, and utilizing training that is specific to the goal or sport. The concept has been around since the late 1940s. Today it is a widely used training guide for both amateur and elite world class athletes.

Each athlete and every sport is unique, subject to different physical, psychological, and environmental demands. While this article is specific to skiing, the same progressions work for endurance sports and competitive cycling; multi-day mountain and desert hiking trips; ice climbing and alpine climbing. My clients are generally over fifty years old, but these programs can be adapted to any age.  

Fitness programming works. Decide who you want to be and become that identity. Be a realist. Identify your problems and barriers to success, then confront them. Create a plan to achieve your goals and measure your progress. Execution is the key. Practice good work habits. Don’t worry about your goal, focus on the process of achieving your goal. See my article Creatures of Habit:

Building a Base

The first phase of my training is base building. Generally, I work with clients who are coming off an extended recovery period or deconditioned. In this phase, strength training adapts muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints and for increasing loads. Aerobic/anaerobic endurance training improves the body’s ability to burn fat.  Combining the two in progressive workouts builds endurance and prepares your body to handle the increased workload in the strength building phase.

I use free weight and body weight exercises for training. The process is to build strength in existing muscles, not increase muscle mass. Correcting muscle imbalances and addressing old injuries are the key to safe progressions. Yoga and stretching exercises are added to improve flexibility and mobility.

Aerobic workouts train your body to preferentially burn fat as a fuel. This is accomplished by doing interval training at moderate intensity. Weather permitting, we are outside cycling or rucking at the local ski area. Rucking, carrying a loaded pack, serves a dual purpose. Indoors we use a treadmill, spin cycle or a step mill.

Your workouts should progress with heavier weights, faster pace, and longer duration. The goal is to enjoy yourself skiing a full day at the resort, prevent injuries, and travel safely in avalanche terrain.

Active Recovery

Achieving athletic goals requires a capacity and affinity for hard work. Successful athletes train hard, but smart. As workload or age increases, the need for rest and recovery accumulates. Continuously hard workouts reach a point of diminishing returns. When you hit that tipping point you need to step back and let your body and mind recover. Recovery is one of the most difficult aspects of training to get right. In planning recovery periods, you need to answer the questions how, when, and how long. The sooner you recover, the quicker you can get back to training hard.

During recovery, the body realizes changes in form. These changes include improved fat burning and decreases in body fat; stronger and more resilient muscles and tendons; greater heart stroke volume; increased lung capacity; increase in muscular capillary density; and enhanced glycogen storage. Allowing this adaptation sets the stage for an increase in workload in the next training stage

Building Strength

In sports like skiing, you are generally training for long duration events, but with short periods of intense activity. Strength workouts are characterized by higher weights and lower reps. Workouts might focus solely on legs, upper body, or core. On other days we hit all three.  We target triceps, core with particular focus on lower back and obliques; quads, glutes and hamstrings.

Aerobic workouts are dominated by interval training; shifting the focus from fat burn, to improving cardio vascular capacity. I use different duration, high intensity intervals to build VO2 max, speed, and acceleration. 

The purpose of Phase 2 training is to improve your mental and physical ability to handle stress. Training research shows that subjecting the body to stress at all age levels, improves fitness, overall health, and slows the aging process. Subjecting the body to stress prepares you for real time winter adventures. Not only can you do more and recover faster, but you make better decisions when you are mentally confident and physically fit.

Progress Check

Time to reduce you workload and consolidate your gains. Are you making progress? After five weeks of training, my clients achieve twenty to fifty percent gains in strength.  Aerobic capacity measured by VO2 max improves five to ten percent. Weight loss is zero to ten pounds, and we reduce body fat by 2 percentage points.

Power and Sport Specific Training

In this phase, we move from strength training to hard endurance and power training: lighter weights, twenty or more reps, and three to five sets. An example is doing a four exercise circuit with the anchor leg being 4 sets of 25 light weight squats. I add power workouts: kettle bell swings, Olympic lifts, box jumps, and medicine ball slams. The exercises mimic the repetitive movement of skiing. These exercises are designed to push you to develop your fast twitch muscles. Power is important in endurance sports. It gives you a reserve to call upon in times of stress.

Indoor aerobic workouts are longer duration, high intensity intervals. Match your duration to a non-stop ski run. Outdoors we add in sport specific exercises like laps on the ski hill: climb up, ski down.

The Taper

Whether you are training for a competition or adventure trip, it is important to spend the last week in recovery mode. I recommend short duration light weight all body strength workouts, low intensity aerobic workouts; stretching and yoga. Stay hydrated and cut back on your calorie intake. Get psyched!

The Payoff

Photo: Max and Charlie Markusen in epic conditions. Twenty Five Short, Grand Teton National Park, WY, 2019.

Skiing with my sons was a special experience. On the second day, it started to snow. The two day storm dropped 24 inches of fresh light powder. On some days we climbed four to five hours for a single 3000 foot descent. On other days, we did multiple runs, switching from climbing mode to downhill mode as many as four times. For up to seven hours a day, I never sat down.

We dealt with avalanche conditions rated Considerable and High. Travelling in suspect and uncontrolled terrain, we had to constantly assess the risk of avalanches and terrain traps. Traversing an open slope during a storm, I remotely triggered a slide below me that was sixteen inches deep, 200 feet wide and ran 300 feet down into a gully. Training for strength and endurance allowed a clear head to make good decisions.

My last run of the trip. Clouds shroud the high peaks. Openings between clouds allow glimpses of blue sky and circles of sunshine to race across the snow. I watch two skiers descend carving turn after turn in the fresh snow. I pause to enjoy the serenity of the moment; my mind flooded with 45 years of memories skiing Teton Pass. Gratitude. I clip into my bindings, grab my poles, point my skis downhill, and push off.

Steve Markusen is a personal trainer, nutrition coach, adventure athlete, and writer. For information on training, send him an email at

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