Whether you’re strapping on ski boots for the very first time or embarking on your tenth mogul run, getting a few tips can really help you step up your skiing or snowboarding skills. We talked with former Olympic speed skier and Breckenridge resident John “CJ” Mueller for some of his finest nuggets of wisdom for skiers and riders of all levels. Mueller still gets in at least 130 days on the slopes every winter and has provided pivotal learning tips to countless friends, family, and visitors over the years. Here are some of his best tips. (Note: the topics are in bold and Mueller’s response follows each.)
1. Spend some time walking around in your boots. When visitors would get into town, we wouldn’t ski the first day. We’d rent gear that afternoon and go somewhere, whether just outside the house or on the flat snow at the base of the mountain and get them used to walking around and standing on the skis.
2. Practice getting in and out of your equipment and sliding around on flat snow surfaces. When we went out onto the snow, we’d practice sliding around and balancing, even sidestepping up the hill. We’d work on not standing on your heels. The next day they were much more ready to go out and get after it.
3. Practice a forward stance with shins pressing the front of your boots. Sliding is not a natural thing. You’re used to putting your foot down and having it stay there, so when you’re sliding, your instinct is to lean back. An important thing to work on, even when you’re standing still is putting your weight on the middle to the balls of your feet and get used to your shins pressing into the fronts of the boots. As you start sliding, you don’t want to lean back, you want to anticipate the sliding on the balls of your feet and go with it.
Writer’s Note: This tip also holds true for intermediate to expert skiers and riders venturing onto a super steep run. The instinct to lean back and put your weight on your heels returns, so to successfully make turns, even advanced levels must remember to keep their stance forward and shins pressing the fronts of their boots.
4. Get familiar with your edges. Instead of standing on your skis like saucer sleds and just sliding around sideways, you have to get used to using that edge like an ice skate. Eventually, that’s where you get your control. You need to think and practice this when you make your turn and you’re going across the hill. As you’re going across, try to exaggerate getting your edges into the hill, tipping that knee in, so that downhill ski gets onto its inside edge [or you feel the one edge of a snowboard cutting into the slope]. Get used to the feeling of that edge holding.
5. Continue to practice using your edges on steeper terrain. Even intermediate skiers and riders fall into the habit of skidding into turns rather than carving with their edges. Remembering the metal on your boards is still key as you venture onto more challenging trails.
Now with the way skis are shaped, when you get your confidence on a beginner run, you can rock your knees side to side to cut a nice line when the slope gets steeper, too.
6. Practice drills with yourself When you get comfortable making turns down the hill, don’t spend your whole day doing the same thing – making your snowplow turns down the hill or taking the same line and turning in the same places. Do some drills, go across the hill and use your edge to carve, push yourself to make as many turns as you can over a certain distance.
7. Take baby steps. Challenge yourself in small increments. Don’t go from a blue to the steepest bowl. Go from a steeper, groomed blue run to a groomed black. Work your way up in angle. When you get on a steeper run, work on staying in control. Then you’ll be ready to go for a little steeper run after that. There are several runs with grooming on one side and bumps on the other, so you can practice a few bump turns, then go back to the groomed. Baby steps are better than all of a sudden deciding to take on extreme terrain.
8. Work on balance. Every day I go up, I don’t go do the same thing. I’ll do little drills to improve my balance and work on things, particularly early in the year. I like to practice making as many turns as possible, no matter what kind of run I’m on. When I’m lifting one ski off the snow, I’m starting on a flatter area, standing on one ski to work on balance. Going on a steeper run, you want to stand on the inside ski and feeling the bite of the edge in the snow as you’re carving across.
9. Keep your hands driving forward. Hands are important. When I wasn’t racing competitively, I’d go set open slalom courses and tell myself ‘hands and hips.’ I thought about pushing my hips more forward to get more aggressive on the skis and I’d keep my hands forward to keep myself balanced so they’re not waving around. As soon as you get back with your hips or wild with your hands, you’re fighting the turns. When you watch the pro skiers on a GS course, the ones doing the best are driving their hands forward with every turn.
For All Levels
10. Ramp up your fitness routine before your ski vacation. If you’re coming to ski, don’t be lazy at home. Do some specific exercises for conditioning and balance, even if it’s just going out and jogging a little or doing some lunges or sit-ups. Do a little more than you normally would to get yourself physically fit. Because when you come here and you’re not fit enough, you tense your muscles more and get really tired. Work on balance and strength before you come. It will make a difference in how much you enjoy your day.
11. Get your own boots. If you’re coming in one or two weeks a year, get your own boots. It’s a pain in the neck bringing them on the plane, but not as much as skis. Boots are really important. Finding ones that are comfortable and that work for you is time-consuming and complicated. Getting your boots dialed in is the biggest breakthrough for success on any equipment.
12. Improve your technique by watching yourself make turns. Have your friends video you when you’re skiing. Pull your phone out and have them video a few turns so you can see what you really look like instead of what you think you look like.
13. Faster does not mean better. Speed is the same thing as other baby steps, you should work your way up. Do it in a way that you challenge yourself and prove to yourself that you’re in control. Go a little faster and stop or turn, so you don’t crash and get hurt. People ask how I learned to ski so fast and it was always by challenging myself but practicing control.