Strength and conditioning class helps Breckenridge Ski Patrol prep for grueling on-mountain gig
Fitness class focused on muscular endurance taught by Breck local Nikki LaRochelle
BRECKENRIDGE — Eight years ago, Breckenridge Ski Resort director of ski patrol Kevin Ahern went to fellow Breckenridge local Nikki LaRochelle with an idea. LaRochelle, a competitive elite mountain endurance athlete, taught a ski-specific strength and conditioning class at Breckenridge Recreation Center, so he asked her if she’d be able to teach a class specific for his ski patrollers.
Ahern had been part of the resort’s ski patrol since 1976 and served as director for several decades. He said patrollers would get ready for the grueling tasks of ski season how you’d expect: by staying active in the spring, summer and fall when they’d hit the trails and bike paths in the mountains. But Ahern and LaRochelle felt there was better preparation patrollers could be doing, namely for injury prevention and the challenge of maintaining muscular endurance and strength while undertaking tasks that put patroller’s bodies in awkward positions.
“What you learn is postural strength,” LaRochelle said. “Ski patrollers, they are having to carry a patient down the ski slope, this huge amount of load behind them as they are wedging down. That’s a lot of force. So we’re trying to pay attention to their real needs.”
On Tuesday, LaRochelle completed the final class of this year’s ski patrol strength and conditioning. Since August, Breckenridge ski patrollers have been invited to voluntarily join the group’s effective veteran team captain, Ahern, and LaRochelle each Tuesday night at the Breckenridge Recreation Center. There, LaRochelle has gradually increased the difficulty of workouts and circuits to address the dynamic strength patrollers need when working individually and as a team across the resort’s nearly 3,000 skiable acres. Patrollers’ responsibilities take them all over the resort’s varying Rocky Mountain terrain, from Peaks 6 through 10 of the iconic Tenmile Range. That includes the 40% of the resort’s terrain that is high Alpine, or above tree line.
No one knows the fitness challenges these peaks present to an athlete better than Ahern. And if you ask LaRochelle, there certainly is an athletic element of being a patroller. Heck, she says most of these individuals become patrollers because of their penchant to rise to the challenge of grinding out hard work.
“It’s part of their ethos,” LaRochelle said.
Which brings us to Tuesday. About halfway through the week’s hourlong workout, LaRochelle demonstrated the capstone circuit of this ski patrol conditioning master class. The final 30-seconds-on, 15-seconds-off circuit was the ultimate example of how she has improved the class over the past eight years. In the early days, LaRochelle said she led more static workouts that had much the same difficulty from August’s first class to November’s final class.
These days, LaRochelle keeps most everything dynamic and ratchets up the difficulty from week to week. The strength and conditioning crescendo culminated with exercises that asked patrollers to do the following: execute single-leg deadlifts while balancing a kettle bell in hand at each side; deep squats complete with a vertical medicine ball throw and catch; deep squat holds while clasping a medicine ball out in front; two-foot jump to one-foot landing box jumps; alternating body-weight lunges, or “tele jumps,” in place; and a pair of body-weight core exercises, one on the floor and one balancing your toes on an exercise ball.
“I don’t know how hard that circuit felt,” LaRochelle said, “but on paper it’s the hardest one I’ve got.”
That psychological element of enduring difficulty together wasn’t the initial focus of the class, LaRochelle and Ahern said. Over time, though, they said the class has served as an ideal setting for patrollers, especially newbies, to feel a part of the team.
Sure, in many cases patrollers might be undertaking tasks individually, communicating by radio. But when it’s you who is tasked with ensuring the safety of thousands upon thousands of members of the public in all kinds of winter conditions, there has to be a uniting energy among teammates.
“You just get to the point,” Ahern said. “It’s kind of funny. We’ll do things at work, and you can kind of communicate without talking. … From working enough together, you get to know the cues from each other. It’s a cool thing. Sometimes it’s hard to explain. But it’s that team element of, ‘You are all in it together, and you succeed together.’”
It’s not only the patrollers who succeed together. LaRochelle said she’s learned things from patrollers that she can add to the class as well as incorporate into her own life as an athlete. She said she’s learned from patroller feedback how crucial upper body and core strength is to their duties, as overall postural strength to help patrollers’ bodies move under tension is paramount.
“A lot of the time, you’re carrying rope, bamboo, a rig, a heavy pack,” Ahern said, “and it just gives you that strength to be able to ski in lousy conditions.”
On the mental side, LaRochelle said she feeds off the class’ energy. There is a certain verve to each group, she said. And this year’s class was another that inspired LaRochelle to get out and get things done, no matter how she’s feeling.
“They are making it happen in their lives,” LaRochelle said. “Everyone’s lives are busy. It’s so easy to not make time for things, and these people make it happen. It makes me reflect on not making excuses when it’s easy to do so.”
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