The downhill racer competed for Britain at five Winter Olympics, and has also raced in the London Triathlon and Marathon des Sables
Grahem Bell one of the greatest downhill skiers that this country has ever produced, crowned Ski Champion of Britain eight times during his career.
Since retiring from racing, he has competed in triathlons and swapped snow for sand in the grueling seven-day Marathon des Sables in Morocco. He’s also presents Ski Sunday, which returns on the BBC on 10 January.
1) As a downhill skier there were two training regimes, on snow and off snow. We would do a lot of training at high altitude on glaciers, trying to get as many runs in during the day. We’d get up at first light to get the best snow, and catch the first lift up with all the workers, warming up in the semi-dark, and be ready to go when it got light.
Skiing is a power sport, so it would be 90 seconds of hard effort, doing six to eight runs in one day. It doesn’t sound like much but it was pretty knackering. If we had an early start, we’d come off the mountain, have some food, a sleep in the afternoon and get up at 4pm and do dry land training, which would mostly be coordination and balance work.
We would play games – we used to ride unicycles a lot and play unicycle polo, or set up a tight rope. Now, slacklines are really popular. That would be a week or two-week training camp.
2) It’s bizarre, but you lose fitness as the season goes on. You may get ski fit, and you get very strong, but your aerobic capacity drops off over the winter, and you need that to be able to do the on-snow training.
So in April-May time there would be a lot of getting your aerobic fitness levels back. Aerobic sessions would be long sessions out on a bike, not too high intensity, occasionally running, hill walking or hill running.I’d also do lots of anaerobic work, like box jumps, later replaced by a lateral cross-training machine, which is low impact.
3) I did a lot of weight training… perhaps four times a week. I would start with weights towards the middle of the summer, and there would be loads of lifting, squats, deadlifts, squats on a wobble board, standing on a Swiss ball doing light weights.
I could line up Swiss balls and jump from one ball to another, which was good for the core and balance. We’d always include balance work in the heavy weight sessions.
4) The ideal physique for a downhill skier is like a rugby player’s. I was constantly trying to put on as much bulk as I possible could because of the pure physics of it. The bigger you are, the faster you will go downhill if you can get into a decent aerodynamic position.
5) In training my heart rate would be close to maximum; more than 200 beats per minute when I was younger, and I remember getting up to 186bpm when I was a bit older.
6) My racing career spanned the introduction of sports science. At the beginning we felt like guinea pigs; there was some information coming back, but more information going to the sport scientists. We’d spend a lot of time doing tests and I’d wonder what we were testing because it wasn’t benefiting us very much. That has changed around now, but we would be tested to exhaustion and then be completely knackered for two days.
They very rarely do VO2max tests these days because it takes too much out of your training regime.
7) I quit Alpine racing in 1998 after my fifth Olympics and had a summer off. Then I got invited to a 24-hour downhill ski race in Aspen, aiming to do 80 runs as a team. That got me back into training, and the following summer I got a letter through – well, actually, my brother Martin was over in the US and I was getting his mail – and a letter for him came through for the London Triathlon, so I asked Martin if I could take his place, and that’s how I got into triathlon.
Muscle doesn’t turn to fat, but it feels like it. When you get really big and you have a lot of muscle mass and you stop training, your appetite is still there and you start to lose that muscle and it gets replaced by fat.
I was quite happy losing the muscle mass but I needed to do something to keep active and fit, and switched to doing more endurance stuff. In the 10 years after retiring from competition, I still have not lost my muscle mass, but a lot of that is down to the fact that I still ski pretty much all winter. After a season of Alpine skiing you end up with big strong legs.
8) When I’m cycling I very rarely get overtaken on a descent. I have ridden the Etape du Tour (the annual stage of the Tour de France open to amateur riders) a few times. A lot of endurance sport lacks the thrill of downhill skiing, which is why I enjoyed the Etape – you slog up the mountain for an hour, but it’s followed by 15 minutes of thrill.
I do like the descending and 106km/h is the fastest I’ve ever been on a road bike. Downhill mountain biking I enjoy and is as close as you can get to ski racing.
9) The Marathon des Sables was as far away from my comfort zone as I could get. I’m not a great runner and I don’t like the heat, so it was playing to my two great weaknesses.
I’d met the guys from Walking with the Wounded before they did their trip to the North Pole, and I tried to get involved but it was the wrong time of year. Then I tried to get involved in their South Pole trip, but it was at the wrong time of year again. And then they came back to me with something really hot and unpleasant!
The Marathon des Sables is something I’m glad I did, but I’m not rushing back to do it again. Morocco is an incredibly beautiful place and the atmosphere among the runners and helpers was brilliant, but I was knackered most of the time and too tired to enjoy it from day one.
10) With Ski Sunday I get to ski down the course with a camera in one hand. It’s not full speed, but I’m still doing 75mph with just one pole.
For all inquiries about BBC Ski Sunday presenter Graham Bell please contact Champions Celebrity on 08453 313031