6 tips to get you ready for your first ski mountaineering race

Backcountry skiing is great fun. It is one of the best ways to spend time with your friends, to relax and to do what makes you happy. But from time to time we all like to try something different, to have a new challenge.

crystal-race-bootpack-2007You can challenge yourself many ways. For me, ski mountaineering racing is one of the ways I like to challenge myself during winter months.

Skimo racing makes my life more interesting in couple of ways:

  • Gives me an athletic goal, which I always like to have.
  • Teaches me efficiency, which helps with equipment skills.
  • Forces me to reach for my limits, which helps in moving them.
  • Makes me participate in a community that by definition is very friendly.
  • Introduces me to one of the nicest people I have ever known.

Whether you feel like trying something new or just wanting to improve in your next race here is a list of tips I consider essential (and in that order) to get the best out of your experience:

  1. Gear – check what you have and act accordingly
  2. Conditioning – your overall fitness
  3. Technique – practice the right moves
  4. Fuel and rest – quality makes or breaks your days
  5. Transitions – gaini time for free
  6. Speed – the icing on the cake

Gear – check what you have and act accordingly

I am starting with gear because without it we cannot backcountry ski. But since it is a whole another topic I am not going into much detail here.

I assume that you have either AT gear, telemark ski gear or a split-board for touring. The level of the gear (high-end, cheap, light, heavy…) doesn’t really matter if there is a will to try new things.

You don’t have to run into the store right away but a fact is that AT gear is the most efficient for skimo racing. You can learn about this from a personal experience of a current Canada Skimo Team member here – From tele to Team Canada: A telemark skier’s switch to AT race gear.

As with anything that involves going uphill lighter is better because it means faster climbing. And skinning up is the majority of the time spent when skimo racing (just like touring).

Besides that you should make sure your skis are in good condition, that your bindings work as they should, or that your ski poles ain’t going to collapse on you.

Simply check all your gear at least couple of days before a race and make necessary repairs or replacements.

Conditioning – your overall fitness

For skimo racing you don’t have to be super fit. Of course, the fitter you are the easier it feels but you don’t have to be able tour 5000 feet days in order to race. There are usually two categories at any event and you can sign up for the one you feel like doing.

The key with conditioning for ski mountaineering racing is to be active. You don’t have to be active racing or speed wise, just be used to spending time outdoors doing things you like – climbing, biking, hiking…

And just because you are getting ready for a race don’t panic about speed or interval training. Speed is only the icing on the cake. To get to a point where you should worry about speed training you need good overall conditioning.

So be consistent with your sport activities for at least couple of weeks before you even think about pushing the pace.

As strange as it sounds, you need to go slow in order to go fast. Everything that is very beneficial for health or racing purposes that happens in your body is a product of low paced activities (or workouts). The amounts of slow paced activities will determine your progress from year to year way more that any interval workouts.

Technique – practice the right moves

Even though good technique is very important for skimo racing, it will not save you if your basic conditioning is poor. Also, your gear will determine your technique efficiency as well.


Since the most time during ski mountaineering races is spent skinning up you should focus on developing an efficient stride. Don’t force yourself for the longest stride. Rather try to pick your frequency which some times means shortening your stride if your original one is too long.

Make sure to practice skinning on hard snow, up steep uphills and traversing.

One of the most important climbing skills for skimo racing are making efficient switch backs. There are switch backs sections on many race courses. On those you can loose minutes and lots of energy if you are struggling due to your technique. On the other hand you can effortlessly drop less skilled racers even if you are not as fit as they are.


Skiing with seized up legs and burning lungs is hard and some times dangerous but fun. The key for solid downhills is to practice skiing right after you climb a hill and rip your skins off. You need to get used to wobbly legs if you want to ski without stopping in races.

To make the skiing less taxing on your legs practice doing turns with big radius (20+ meters) rather than short and aggressive. Use “traversing sections” between turns to control your speed as oppose to pushing on your edges with your quads. On a 2-3min downhill the difference is only about 10sec but the energy spending is over the roof compared to a more mellow style.

Fuel and rest – quality makes or breaks your days

We all read many times one of these: “you are what you eat” or “your body works only as good as the fuel you put in it”. Of course, there are individuals that defy this. Heck, even I had some great races after downing few beers and eating a big sausage a day before an event ;)

The point is that your eating habits and the quality of food you consume greatly determines your short term as well as your long term body functioning. The same goes for rest. You can find plenty of advice in sport and health nutrition books.

No meat

Based on my experience, for skimo racing, I will recommend not to eat meat starting the day before the race. Few slices of ham on a sandwich are OK but a steak is not very useful.


The night before the race have simple dinner – some veggies and lots of pasta or rice. Veggies will give you some variety in taste and pasta or rice will load your body with the desirable carbohydrates.

Race fuel

During the race drink a sports drink rather than just plain water, and you can consume an energy bar or a gel if you feel you are running low on your reserves.


If you are not getting enough sleep on regular basis, try to get in at least three 8h nights before your race. No engine is good if your brain is tired.

Transitions – gain time for free

Transitions between uphill and downhill modes (and vice versa) are parts of skimo races where you can gain lots of free time. If you are more efficient with your gear than a guy next to you, you will consistently drop him at every transition and he will be expanding lots of energy trying to catch up to you.

If not sure about your technique ask more experienced/skilled skimo skiers what works for them. Try it out and if it seems alright practice the moves. Once at the race you can observe the fastest racers how they transition in few seconds.

To give you something to shoot for I am going to give you some average times for transitions:

  • Fairly efficient racer with no special AT racing gear needs about 1.5-2 min to go from uphill mode to be skiing ready. And it takes him about 2-3 min to put his skins on, and adjust his boots and bindings before he can march uphill.
  • The fastest racers transition from climbing to skiing in about 20-30 sec, and are ready to hammer up after skiing in about 40-50 sec.

Technique, practice and gear makes the difference in transition areas.

Speed – the icing on the cake

Speed factor is last on this list because I don’t feel it is a necessary element to have a blast at your first race but we can discuss it a bit.


World class ski mountaineering athletes train smart and a lot, yet even they spend majority of their training at low paced intensities.

Your downhill times are mostly determined by your technique but climbing speed is mostly determined by your conditioning.

Climbing like a mountain goat is desired but not the most important thing at this stage.

However, if you really want to challenge for skimo podiums then you will need to put in some real hurting miles.

You need to teach your brain and body to push more for longer. This is achieved either by simply hammering every hill in your way or by very specific workouts.

Hammering based only on your gut feelings can take you only part of the way. Usually, it has a faster effect than the more “scientific” approach but is short-term lived as it is a very inefficient training method. And if practiced over long time with high frequency you are headed for injuries and illnesses.

For serious speed (fast) training talk to an experienced athlete or a coach and read some books from reputable people. Also, you need to understand that speed training without great overall fitness has very low success rate as you will never reach your full potential.

How are you going to challenge yourself this winter?

So are you going to challenge yourself differently this winter than your usual weekend powder hunting?

I challenge you to make your first race the Tiki Torch Dash in Golden on Dec 6. It is specifically made for those that just want a little taste of skimo racing. Nothing too hard, mostly a fun event where you can learn some tricks and meet new friends.

Ask, share and discuss in the comments below.

Training Plans for Skimo Racing

Skimo Racing Manual


  1. Hi Stano!

    My name is Karoly Peter. I moved to Canada in nov 2007 from Romania, Europe.
    Starting a family life and having 2 young kids,i couldn’t get out yet for raceing.
    I have some history in this sport…part of the national team for 6-7 years,doing many world and europe cup,world champs last in 2004,spain.
    From next year i would like to start again the racing here.
    how the trials are working? What is the role of the Alpine Club of Canada?
    I am 37 ,but still ok :-)
    Can you contact me by email?
    I leave in Quesnel, BC but planning the moving down more south soon,closer to the mountains…
    Thank you karcsi

  2. Deal :) !

  3. John and James,

    Good questions and good answers. James explained it pretty much all.

    To give you an example with Grouse Grind is tough because I believe GG is too steep of a climb to be doing a low paced workout on, you almost cannot unless you are very fit, and then it is too short even if you keep going up to the peak or something like that.

    We should go skiing together some time and I can have you wear my heart monitor, and after few uphills at various paces I would be able to tell you what your low paced speed would be with both your heart rate and vertical speed. Deal? :)

  4. John,
    Stano is very knowledgeable in this regard and will have plenty of great feedback for you. In the meantime, if you have a heart rate monitor this is easy. Determine your max heart rate (MHR) and train at about 60% of this value for longer sessions of 1 hour plus. If no monitor, like Stano says, this training level is guilt producingly easy. You should be able to talk, sing to yourself, and really feel like you can go forever. Believe it or not, this is great for engine building and, in my opinion, takes way more discipline than going out and hammering every time you train. After a long 90min – 4hr session you will be plenty tired and building a base in this way, over time, will prime your body for a great response to high intensity intervals and speed work closer to races. What say you Stan?

  5. Good questions John. I am on the road currently but will reply over the weekend with more specs.

    Just to give you an idea, the low pace that is great for general conditioning is a pace many people would find surprisingly easy, almost too easy. More later – I think I could address this in an article on its own ;)

  6. Stan you refer to low paced workouts several times. Could you give some examples of what you mean by low paced. For example how would a low paced ascent of the Grouse Grind compare with a race pace, or on skis what would a typical low paced ascent rate (m/hr) be compared to race pace? I realize it depends on your heart rate and conditioning etc and will be different for different individuals but I’d like to get a feel for the kind of difference you are talking about. Thanks.

  7. Stan, don’t be modest. You’re a Canadian Skimo guru. For those of you who have raced in the Fernie Mountain Storm over the past couple of years, you have Stan to thank for that fair bit o’ punishment. Plus he’s pretty fast in his own right. Don’t get in a long race against him cause he’ll probably reel you in near the end somewhere!

  8. Dave, thank you for the credits.

    We are all pioneers, only some of us started a little sooner than the others.

  9. David Dornian says:

    You should add a little author bio…

    “Stano Faban is a founding organizer of the Canadian Ski Mountaineering Cup events and one of the few internationally certified skimo race officials in Canada. For the winter of 2010 he is focusing on his own athletic development by training and racing with our national team. Oddly enough, he lives in Coquitlam”

  10. Thanks for the comment but hence the title “6 tips to get you ready for your first ski mountaineering race”, especially the “your first” part :)

    Skimo racing is physically demanding for sure but I am speaking mostly towards people that already tour and might be thinking of trying to race a bit, so I assume they are already in a shape that is sufficient to complete at least the shorter courses.

  11. Quote, “For skimo racing you don’t have to be super fit”. I beg to differ Stan. Elite skimo racers are some of the fittest people I have ever seen. In fact, no other endurance sport tests fitness to the degree that skimo does when you take into account the fact that you not only need to be an endurance freak but also possess the power of an accomplished alpine skier.
    I assume you mean that in order to get into racing at an entry level you don’t have to be super fit? This is true to a degree. Besides, anyone who owns touring gear probably gets out on it at least from time to time so they probably possess the fitness needed to at least finish a race.
    One thing is for sure, skimo racing is a great way to test yourself. The community is great like you said and the events are truly a lot of fun. I think there is some notion that racing takes away from the purity and spirit of ski-mountaineering. Racing takes ski-mountaineering and boils it down to an athletic test of will. Things like avalanche awareness and route finding are mitigated to a large degree so that true athleticism can be tested and pushed. Anyone who has been contemplating one of these racing, please come out this year. I have never met anyone who didn’t have a blast……even while punishing themselves!


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