If you’re toying with the idea of snowboarding but aren’t sure it’s for you (raises hand), Olympic snowboarder Julia Marino gets it.
When the six-time X Games medalist first tried the sport, she wasn’t a fan—at all.
“I didn’t really like it that much,” Marino, a 21-year-old Westport, Connecticut native, tells SELF. Instead, she much preferred skiing, first tackling the slopes at age 3 and a half, and only making the switch to boarding around age 12 as a result of circumstance, not choice. During a fateful family ski trip to Beaver Creek, Colorado, Marino’s ski broke on the mountain. Rather than rent a new pair, Marino’s dad insisted that she use a snowboard he already had on hand. Begrudgingly, Marino strapped on the board, and by end of the week, “actually had fun with it,” she says.
From there, her passion and talent for snowboarding grew quickly. At age 15, she moved to Colorado to train full-time, and at age 18, she emerged on the elite scene, entering her first World Prix event as a last-minute alternate—and shocked the competition by beating everyone.
Nowadays, the slopestyle and big air specialist, who in 2016 became the first female rider to ever land a double flip in a slopestyle competition, is on the snow “every day at least” during the season. She recently competed in two high-profile elite events—the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, Colorado, where she nabbed second place in both slopestyle portions, and the LAXX Open in Switzerland.
In advance of her next big-name pro event, the X Games Aspen 2019 beginning this Thursday, January 24, we chatted with Marino to learn her tips to help never-before boarders (like me) make that first-time experience as enjoyable and safe as possible.
[Note: Because snowboarding is a technical and nuanced sport with important safety precautions, first-timers should get lessons from a certified instructor before hitting the slopes solo. The following tips are intended to supplement, not replace, that.]
1. Prep yourself with core stability and balance work at the gym.
When Marino is at home in Westport, she regularly works with a personal trainer who creates custom workouts designed to make her a better boarder. And many of those sessions focus on two key skills: core stability and balance.
In addition to weighted, single-leg balance exercises and drills with the battle ropes, Marino does exercises atop an Indo board, which is essentially a balance board with wheels. She’ll stand on the board and perform medicine ball throws on it, or sometimes, throw in a fun twist: “A few times with my dad I would do something where he would throw credit cards at me and I would try to catch them,” says Marino.
Because core stability and balance play such an important role in the sport, doing exercises that specifically build these skills before you hit the slopes can help you ride more comfortably and confidently. Here are some ideas for building core stability with the help of a BOSU ball, plus some great moves for working on your balance.
2. Please consider a butt pad. No, seriously.
Beginning boarders should expect to spend a lot of time on their butts, both voluntarily (when you sit down to strap yourself in and out of your snowboard), and involuntarily (when you lose your balance on the slopes, which will happen regularly as you learn the sport). While there is no magic trick to avoid falling down—it’s pretty much a requisite, if unfortunate, aspect of the sport—you can minimize the impact by padding your behind appropriately, Marino says. This padding comes in the form of butt pads, which Marino wears every single time she rides.
Though Marino’s primary reason for donning these safety buffers is to protect her tailbone, which she describes as “super sensitive” ever since she injured it as a kid, she recommends butt pads for all new snowboarders “just to be safe so you’re not sore the next days.”
You can find them on Amazon, where top-selling brands include Soared 3D Protection Hip Butt EVA Paded Short Pants and KUYOU Protection Hip, 3D Padded Shorts.
3. Layer, layer, layer…and then layer some more.
One of the more uncomfortable aspects of snowboarding is braving the cold, sometimes frigid, conditions. It’s something that elites and amateurs alike must face.
“I’m probably the coldest snowboarder of all of them,” says Marino. “I’m always freezing.” Yet the elements, of course, don’t stop her from hitting the slopes, and that’s because she knows how to layer. “I just try to fit as many shirts on myself as I can without feeling like a freakin’ Michelin Man,” says Marino, whose upper body and face are most prone to feeling chilled. She also pulls a neck gaiter above her ears to protect them from biting wind. Of course what gear you’ll need depends on the specific conditions you’ll be riding in—mid-February snowboarding in Quebec is very different than late April snowboarding in Tahoe, for example. Check out SELF’s best skiing and snowboarding gear of 2018 for ideas to get started.
4. Draw from any experience you have skateboarding or surfing.
Marino’s main form of cross-training is snowboarding’s dry land cousin: skateboarding. “I really like to skate,” says Marino. A couple summers ago, she and her dad built a mini ramp in the backyard, where she spends significant time in the warmer months. In general, board sports, like surfing and skateboarding, translate well to snowboarding, says Marino. “All the snowboarders that I know are really good at surfing and skateboarding,” she says. “I think those three sports are very much connected.”
So if you’re hesitant to just start by hauling yourself up a mountain—whether that be due to a fear of heights, the cold, or another reason—you can build up helpful skills in what you may consider less intimidating environments by skateboarding or surfing.
5. Hit the slopes with friends to help manage your fear.
“Snowboarding is a huge mental sport,” says Marino. “You may have the physical talent, but if your mind is not there, it can derail your entire [experience].”
The primary fear Marino struggles with is that she’ll hurt herself. “Some of the jumps in competitions are really, really big and it’s terrifying to hit them,” she says. “It’s not like basketball or soccer where you’re standing on the ground. There’s a lot more at risk.”
And while new snowboarders won’t be attempting the high-flying tricks that Marino and other pros land, the sport in general can still induce understandable anxiety. You are, after all, barreling down a mountain with two feet strapped together. Not exactly a serene scenario. To manage any fear you may experience during your first, second, or 100th time on the mountain, “I think it’s important to surround yourself with people and not just stay alone and stay in your thoughts and start to overthink things, which is what I do all the time,” says Marino, who occasionally talks with a sports psychologist and also calms pre-race nerves by joking with friends, playing music, and filming videos. This helps “take your mind off what you’re about to do” and “lowers your stress,” she says.
Of course, safety should always be your priority when snowboarding, which is why, as mentioned, it’s super helpful for first-time boarders to hit the mountain with a trained instructor. Also know that if a certain run or attempting a specific skill makes you uncomfortable, it’s more than OK to sit it out.
6. Focus on having fun.
“These days I’ve been trying to think about [what I love about snowboarding] because I lost sight of that a bit when I was competing a bunch,” says Marino, reflecting on the grueling schedule she managed during last year’s Olympic season. “I was starting to be really stressed and over the top thinking about my performance.”
That’s why this year, Marino is approaching the season with a fun-first mindset. “I’m not doing as many [competitions] for that reason, so I can go on trips where I’m just snowboarding for fun with my friends,” she says. What she loves about boarding, she says, is simply being on the mountain, no rules or guidelines, and riding for the fun of it.
The same philosophy can, and should, apply to novice boarders. Though there can be a learning curve with snowboarding that’s marked with uncomfortable and/or otherwise challenging moments, once you master the basic skills of the sport, it can be an extremely fun form of fitness and a special way to spend time in the great outdoors. And that pure enjoyment is something pros, like Marino, and novices, like you and I, can share.