Brian Sutton MS, MA, NASM-CPT, CES, PES
The first Olympic Games can be traced back to 776 BC on the plains of Olympia (1). This year some of the world’s greatest athletes will gather to compete for winter gold. While much has changed since the ancient games, athletes must still display all the traits of a true champion: strength, endurance, power, and most of all determination and undeniable willpower. Elite winter athletes are some of the most skilled and coordinated people who display athletic prowess and an amazing work ethic. If you’re looking to train like these athletes, you’ll need to adopt an integrated (all-inclusive) approach versus focusing solely on speed, strength, and power. While speed, strength, and power are extremely important elements of a conditioning program, it is incomplete. No matter if an individual is competing in figure skating, luge, or speed skating, a sports performance training program must be designed to help achieve optimal function. This article will discuss some of the key elements to consider when designing a conditioning program for a winter athlete and methods for achieving optimal function.
According to Clark et al., “Function is an integrated, multiplanar movement that involves acceleration, deceleration, and stabilization” (2). In order to achieve optimum function athletes need to develop functional strength and neuromuscular efficiency. Functional strength is the body’s ability to effectively produce force (concentric acceleration), reduce force (eccentric deceleration), and dynamically (isometric) stabilize the entire kinetic chain during all movement patterns (2). Neuromuscular efficiency is the ability of the nervous system to enable all muscles (agonists, antagonists, synergists, and stabilizers) to work interdependently during dynamic activities (2-4). In other words, neuromuscular efficiency is coordinated movement due to enhanced communication between the nervous and muscular systems enabling muscles to work together as groups (rather than in isolation).
Traditional conditioning programs tend to focus on maximum strength gains in single planes of motion (2). For example, if an athlete’s gluteus maximus is weak, why not simply perform squats or deadlifts? It is important to understand that all athletic activities are multiplanar and require acceleration, deceleration, and joint/spinal stabilization (2). Only performing squats and deadlifts (which occur primarily in the sagittal plane) is not sufficient enough to develop optimal neuromuscular coordination.
Bobsledders, as another example, must sprint in a linear fashion which appears to be single-plane dominant (sagittal plane). However, they require dynamic stabilization in other planes (such as avoiding medial knee displacement- frontal plane) for optimal sprint mechanics, performance, and injury prevention (2-10). If a bobsled athlete cannot adequately control their femur (and prevent knee valgus) while sprinting, this individual is less likely to produce maximal force and may develop an overuse injury (i.e., patellofemoral pain). It is imperative to understand that all winter sports mentioned previously occur in all planes of motion, thus requiring a highly complex and multifaceted training system to achieve optimal function.
As previously discussed the human body is designed to move in all three planes of motion at various speeds, amplitudes, and intensities. Therefore isolated (single-joint, uniplanar) training does little to improve overall athletic performance. Instead the athlete should focus on improving movement patterns versus training individual muscles in an isolated fashion. The athlete who applies an integrated approach to training will develop higher levels of core stability, neuromuscular coordination, power, agility, and strength (2,11). An integrated training program includes the following forms of exercise: flexibility training, core training, balance training, plyometric training, speed, agility, and quickness (SAQ) training, cardiorespiratory training, and resistance training.
All athletes, from speed skaters, to figure skaters, to ice hockey players should perform a comprehensive warm-up prior to exercise or competition. A comprehensive warm-up strategy should include self-myofascial release (foam rolling), static stretching (only if athlete has any identified muscle imbalances- tight muscles), and active-isolated or dynamic stretching. The warm-up portion usually takes 10-15 minutes to complete depending on the number of exercises performed. A warm-up has many benefits including increased heart and respiration rate, increased tissue temperature, and psychologically prepares the athlete for physical activity. In addition, the warm-up should address any altered length-tension relationships (tight muscles) to increase muscle extensibility and joint range of motion. Research shows joint restriction (such as limited ankle dorsiflexion) may lead to injury (7,8). It is during the warm-up that joint restriction and muscle tightness can be addressed prior to engaging in more intense activity.
Core and Balance Training
Many traditional strength and conditioning programs skip core and/or balance training. If core exercises are performed, they usually involve some crunches or back extensions performed near the end of the workout without any real sense of purpose. However, the objective of core training is to simultaneously activate and strengthen the deep and superficial muscles that stabilize, align, and move the trunk of the body, such as the transverse abdominis, pelvic floor, multifidus, erector spinae, rectus abdominis, and obliques (12). A properly designed core training program helps an athlete gain neuromuscular control, stability, and transfer power to their extremities (13). In addition, core strength is critical for controlling high impact jump landings which is imperative in figure skating and similar athletic activities (14).
A key to all functional movements, whether walking downstairs or speed skating across the ice is the ability to maintain balance and postural control. Balance training programs have been shown effective for enhancing neuromuscular control for winter athletes (i.e., figure skaters, downhill skiers), which may reduce injury risk (15,16). Thus it is important to understand that gaining and maintaining proper balance is vital for all winter athletes.
Plyometric and SAQ Training
Plyometric training uses explosive movements such as bounding, hopping, and jumping to develop muscular power (12). The nervous system recruits muscles only at speeds at which it has been trained to do so. If an athlete is not trained to recruit muscles quickly, he or she will not be able to react and move explosively when the time calls. The ultimate goal of plyometric training is to decrease the reaction time of the muscle action spectrum (eccentric deceleration, isometric stabilization, and concentric acceleration) (17). This is also what results in increased speed of movement in the athlete. Plyometric training is a common practice used by NHL strength coaches to help improve player performance (18).
Speed, agility, and quickness (SAQ) training is similar to plyometric training in which the athlete uses ground reaction forces to project the body with greater velocity (12). SAQ training enables athletes to enhance their ability to accelerate, decelerate, change direction, and react to various stimuli (such as making slight body adjustments while carving a turn during downhill slalom) at maximum velocities. Similar to plyometric training, SAQ training is another common practice used by NHL strength coaches (18) and involves the inclusion of exercises such as sprinting drills, agility ladders, and cone drills.
A systematic cardiorespiratory training plan progresses athletes to achieve optimal levels of physiological adaptations by placing stress on the cardiorespiratory system. Cardiorespiratory training, as with any other form of exercise, falls under the SAID principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands). According to the SAID principle, the body will adapt to the level of stress placed on it, and will then require more or varied amounts of stress to produce a higher level of adaptation (12). The use of cardiorespiratory exercise can increase an athlete’s maximal aerobic capacity, muscular endurance, stroke volume, and cardiac output. All of the performance adaptations can help prevent fatigue during competition and subsequently improve performance. In fact, research suggests the inclusion of cardiorespiratory exercise throughout the hockey season to maintain aerobic fitness as games and practices may not be sufficient for hockey players (19).
The final step in any winter sports training program is resistance training. When resistance training is performed in a systematic fashion it can produce many desirable effects such as increased joint stability, muscular endurance, muscular hypertrophy, strength, and power. All winter athletes should include resistance training in their overall conditioning program. An athlete’s resistance training program must factor in many variables such as the recruitment of all muscle fiber types (Type I and Type II), strengthening connective tissue (tendons, ligaments), while also enhancing core and spinal stability, prime mover strength, and rate of force production (power). Numerous research studies demonstrate the effectiveness of a strength training program for winter athletes such as skiers, figure skaters, and ice hockey players (20-22).
Example Exercise Program
Below is an example of a Phase 2 Strength Endurance program from NASM’s Optimum Performance Training™ (OPT™) model. This program is designed to improve joint stability, local muscular endurance, prime mover strength, and overall athletic ability. It involves exercises performed in all planes of motion and at varying speeds. As fitness improves the inclusion of power training should also be incorporated.
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