The Secrets to Still Ruling the Ski Slopes at 100

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By Jen Murphy WSJ

A dedicated class of old-time skiers keep having fun in the mountains while staying safe—using training tools that could help athletes of all ages

           

 

 

 

 

 

Balance, strength and body control decline as we age. Older skiers can counteract the effects with two hard and fast rules: Be willing to train and know your limits on the slopes.

At 104, Klaus Obermeyer can still schuss down a mountain on skis. He no longer cares about going fast or skiing first chair to last. He says he’s pleased if he can get out for a single run once or twice a season.

“It takes a lot of work to prepare, because as you get older, your body slows down and weakens,” says the founder of Aspen, Colo., clothing company Sport Obermeyer.

Obermeyer proudly contends that he skied better in his 80s than most people in their 60s. He credits that athleticism to a dedicated routine of swimming, push-ups and a martial art, aikido.

That kind of commitment to exercising is crucial to anyone who wants to ski later in life. Mountain sports aren’t safe for everyone at those ages. But for those who can handle the training and risk, research shows that skiing and snowboarding may protect against age-related proprioception decline. Proprioception is your body’s ability to sense movement, action and location.

Society tends to limit what we can do as we get older, says Maurice Williams, a National Academy of Sports Medicine senior-fitness specialist based in Hendersonville, Tenn. When his clients want to embrace a new activity, he considers their biological age—a measure of health that factors in fitness.

“I have clients who play tennis at 90,” he says. “If they wanted to take up skiing, I’d support that and add sport-specific exercises to their routine.”

Charlie Hauser, 88, is still skiing and likes to go fast. At 72, he joined the Rocky Mountain Masters ski racing league and started training, competing and winning.

“I used to lolly dolly down the mountain, but ski racing teaches you to perfect each turn,” Hauser says. “Our coaches video our practices and critique our technique.” The Eagle, Colo., resident says he doesn’t let a day go by without exercise.

 

The mental and social benefits of skiing can outweigh the physical benefits. Participating in activities that are physical, outdoors and allow us to engage with others has a positive effect on our cognitive processes, mood and overall happiness, says Dr. Dana Jeffrey Plude. He is deputy director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Research with the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Md.

Many U.S. ski resorts entice seniors with steeply discounted or free ski passes and senior groups. Jan Brunvand, a 90-year-old living in Salt Lake City, skis free at Alta Ski Area. He is a member of the Wild old Bunch, a group of around 100 senior skiers ranging from 60 to 102.

“It’s tough to find people to ski with as you get up there,” he says. “They are my ski support group.” He says his winter routine involves skiing four to five runs, then heading to the lodge to meet club members for coffee. Then he skis to the parking lot to get home in time for a late lunch and nap.

Ski smarter

The dynamic environments of sports like skiing can be hazardous if we aren’t careful.

“A helmet is essential at any age,” Plude says. A skier at age 69, he has learned to embrace a different mindset on the slopes. “I’m not hitting jumps anymore and am more mindful of my speed.”

Brian Allaway, 77, is a member of the Ski Atlantic Seniors’ Club in Nova Scotia. He can still follow his adult children down black diamond runs, but no longer seeks out the steeps.

“I prefer the cruisey trails,” he says. He also avoids icy conditions.

Brian Allaway, 77, at Whistler Blackcomb ski resort in British Columbia. PHOTO: CARA ALLAWAY

Unloading from a crowded chair lift is Brunvand’s biggest nemesis. “It takes a good, strong lunge forward to get off the seat,” he says. He tries to ride on the outside to avoid collisions or spills. He also carries a whistle in case he is skiing alone and needs help. He has yet to use it.

Any kind of fall is a worry for many seniors. But senior skiers say they are more concerned with being able to get back up once they fall. Obermeyer’s mantra is, “As long as you can get up easily when you fall, you can ski.”

Training to ski at any age

Rob Shaul is founder of Mountain Tactical Institute, a training facility in Jackson, Wyo. He recommends skiers of all ages start training six to eight weeks ahead of their first ski of the season.

And the exercises should be sport-specific. “Running won’t help you on the slopes,” he says.

Skiers should incorporate eccentric strength training, where the lowering phase of an exercise is slowed down to keep the muscles under tension for a longer period.

“Skiing is essentially like doing eccentric squats down the mountain,” he says. “As gravity takes you downhill, your legs have to absorb the impact.”

Rather than focus on how much weight you can lift, focus on the number of reps, he says, because skiing also requires endurance: “Without endurance, our legs fatigue, and that affects technique and that leads to a crash.”

​​Williams emphasizes that a base level of fitness should come first before progressing to sport-specific training. Cross-training by hiking, walking and biking is invaluable as we age. And as we get older, he says it’s important to incorporate exercises that train balance and power.

Warming up is always a good idea before getting on the ski hill, he adds.

 

 

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