“Each line has its own aspect that gets me pretty stoked up,” says Townsend.
“Each line has its own aspect that gets me pretty stoked up,” says Townsend. (Photo: Courtesy Bjarne Salen)
Mountain Fit

Cody Townsend’s Ski Project Almost Broke Him Last Year

Here's what he learned from it

“Each line has its own aspect that gets me pretty stoked up,” says Townsend.

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When professional skier Cody Townsend embarked on his quest last year to climb and descend all of the lines in the iconic book Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America, he knew he was signing up for his most ambitious mission to date. His project, dubbed the Fifty, is taking him from Denali in Alaska to the remote backcountry of Nevada’s Ruby Mountains and up to British Columbia, with lots of lonely road in between. “Each line has its own aspect that gets me pretty stoked: physical challenges, mental challenges, or incredible aesthetics,” says Townsend. “Every line is a stepping stone. You have to adapt throughout the year, continue to evolve.”

In his first year of what he hopes will be a three-year endeavor, the Lake Tahoe skier climbed nearly 200,000 vertical feet and drove 11,500 miles. He’s learned how essential it is to keep his body and mind sharp while facing fickle ski conditions, physical exhaustion, and limited downtime. We caught up with Townsend to see what he’s learned about taking care of himself after year one of the Fifty and how he’s preparing for his next epic North American winter.   

Preseason Training Matters 

Townsend skiing the iconic Sphinx line, in Alaska’s Chugach Range
Townsend skiing the iconic Sphinx line, in Alaska’s Chugach Range (Courtesy Ming Poon)

“Last year I thought I would use the project to get into shape. That worked well to a point, but I was going so hard that, at the end of the season, I fell off a physical cliff. I couldn’t get off the couch for three days. I tried to ski three more lines, but it took me about two months to fully recover.”

“It happened because I was focused on cardio and aerobic fitness, which I figured I would just naturally develop as I skinned, boot-packed, and bushwhacked at altitude. But midway through the season, I realized I really needed to have some baseline strength to carry me through this project. Right now I’m spending two to three days in the gym and two to three days hiking each week.” 

Don’t Max Out Your Heart Rate

“Since early summer, I’ve been training my body to work hard at a low heart rate, so I’ll do a steep hike with a very heavy pack, but I’ll do it slowly, keeping my heart rate between 50 and 80 percent of its max output. The goal here is to build strength without building up too much lactic acid, which lets me train more. After high-intensity exercise, you have to rest and recover. Anaerobic training lets me work out more and build more muscle but without the long recovery time. It also increases heart efficiency, which means getting your heart to pump more oxygen to your muscles so you don’t build up lactic acid.”

Hit the Gym for Long-Term Gains

“I’ve been very active in the gym for most of my career, and I’ve learned that strength training is the most important part of injury prevention. Strong muscles are what prevent your tendons and ligaments from tearing. I don’t see the gym as a place for performance but for prevention. I don’t necessarily need to lift more than the guy next to me, I just want to build the strength I need to stay healthy all season long.”

“Olympic-style lifting, which refers to overhead lifts involving a full range of motion, is the single best thing I’ve done for my ski career. Moves like the power clean to front squat use so many different muscles in unison. You’re guaranteed to get an efficient full-body workout that creates power and explosiveness, which is especially good when I need to push through a turn in variable conditions or hold onto an edge above serious exposure.”

Down Days Don’t Mean Off Days

Recovery ​​​​and rest are the most essential pieces of this project, and last year, I don’t think I focused on it well enough. This year I’ll make sure that in between big days I perform recovery movements—stretching, doing yoga, or going for very light ski tours, walks, or bike rides. Rather than letting my muscles tighten up, I need to get some blood flowing to keep my muscles loose, help them flush lactic acid, and rebuild more efficiently.”

“As much as ski touring is about strength, it’s also about natural movement. It puts lots of pressure on your glutes and hip flexors, and if you don’t keep those loose and well stretched, you can lose efficiency and develop overuse injuries. For me, one of the biggest challenges of the project is skiing a huge day, then driving eight to twelve hours. I usually try and power through the drive and then spend an hour in the back of the truck stretching and foam rolling, but there’s really not much you can do to recover when you are driving.”

Eat What Makes You Feel Good

Jimmy Chin and Townsend climbing the Grand Teton
Jimmy Chin and Townsend climbing the Grand Teton (Courtesy Bjarne Salen)

“After a long day, my body is tired and usually craving immediately satisfying foods, like fatty meats and processed sugar. But I’ve learned that something like a big steak is tough for my stomach to process and leaves me feeling weighed down. A hearty meal centered on grains and veggies gives me more energy.” 

“And even when I’m burning up thousands of calories a day, I do try to stay away from processed sugar. Instead, I look for natural sugars, like fruits, that come packed with other nutrients. It’s a constant battle to stay away from the junk and focus on food that fuels. When it comes to the road, I stay away from anything at the gas station and load up on sparkling water, strong black coffee, kale chips, mixed nuts, and salads.”

Keep Your Mind Light

“Mentally, there’s no way to prepare for a project like this other than just going for it and adapting along the way. In the moment, I need to focus completely on the line I’m skiing. I can’t think about the project being bigger than that—it stresses me out and can affect my decision-making.”

Jimmy Chin taught me the importance of active mental recovery, which for me means not staring at a computer all day and doing my best to not stress. I do whatever I can to relax when I’m not skiing: read, walk, meet some friends. Learning helps me unwind the most, so I listen to a lot of podcasts. Lately, I’ve also been reading books about the American West, like Empire of the Summer Moon, Angle of Repose, and Downriver.”

“Last season my mind was working full throttle: lots of endorphins, lots of adrenaline. I was constantly somewhere between totally psyched and completely burned out. That won’t be any different this year, but now I can at least anticipate what I’m going to feel like at the end of the day.”

Lead Photo: Courtesy Bjarne Salen

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