Photo: United States Ski Team
The common refrain in alpine skiing is something like: “Norway does this, Norway does that. It has become the norm in the world of ski racing to covet everything about the Norwegians, from their team culture and Vikings attacking spirit to their results in all disciplines and their unfettered Olympic success.
The USSS Sports Science team even has a term for it. “We call it the Norwegian crush,” says Per Lundstam, US Alpine Sports Science Director. Ironically, one of Norway’s signature programs, the physical testing challenge known as Norwegian Iron Man, has its roots in Park City.
From test medals to marketing gold
Robert Reid, director of sports science for the Norwegian Ski Federation, worked in the sports science department of US Skiing from 1993 to 1997 before moving to Norway. Lundstam, who worked with Reid and describes him as brilliant, laughs: “He took our old concept of medal testing and re-marketed it in Norway. The Norwegian version capitalized on the motivating factor by creating a point system, awarding T-shirts and prestige at different point levels, and publicizing record-breaking efforts at all levels to build positive momentum. It also included minimum criteria by age and competition categories, which were achievable but firm. Finally, the testing created a community, with European Cup-level national team athletes testing with younger athletes in the spring as part of a development project, then with the World Cup team in July. This reinforced a tangible next step for athletes throughout the development system. The concept turned physical testing into a national competition and was a huge success, creating a culture that celebrated physical training and also connected the grassroots to the elite level.
Lundstam sees Skills Quest – the evolution of those medal tests – as an even better platform than Iron Man. “It’s more conducive to more layers in our community,” says Lundstam, who calls Skills Quest an ingredient in a whole system that everyone can participate in and unite around. Skills Quest testing can be taken virtually anywhere locally – including clubs, schools, camps and events – while high performance centers across the country can take testing to the next level with a more sophisticated equipment and technology. All test data can be aggregated, analyzed and used to form information that improves our national training. “When we have a higher level of quality in what we do and more unifying ingredients that permeate through our whole system, club coaches, regional coaches, athletes, they feel like they’re part of everything we are trying to move forward.”
Why testing is important
Why do NGBs like USSS and Norway care so much about testing at all levels? The benefits are quite evident at the elite level, where athletes are looking for the benefits that will put them on the safe side of this high performance razor. Lundstam recites a common saying in the world of sports science: “What you don’t measure, you can’t manage.” The tests allow for physiological mapping that helps guide the direction and programming of each athlete. It also shows how the body physiologically adapts to skiing throughout a season. “Many times, for example, we see athletes becoming more explosive and jumping higher and higher and getting faster through skiing,” says Lundstam, who says it all comes down to better decision-making. “The more relevant the tests we can do, the more informed decisions we can make.”
But testing isn’t just important at the elite level. This is particularly important for young athletes and especially for ski racing. To understand why, a quick lesson in the unique physiology of skiing.
The force is truly with you
Skiing is different from other sports in the type and degree of forces it exerts on the body. Instead of pushing against weight or jumping off the ground, skiers constantly resist the extreme centripetal forces imposed on them. It’s an eccentric loadout, and skiers have to do a lot of it. As Lundstam points out, Olympic lifters are about 4-5% stronger eccentrically than concentrically, while top skiers are 25% stronger eccentrically than concentrically.
These forces also come from many directions, from actual changes in direction, as well as accelerations and micro-vibrations to which the body is constantly adapting. While the ski seems quite sluggish at the macro level, at the micro level it’s a different story. “There’s a lot of vibration and with that changes in the angle of the joint, and then also in the direction of the muscles. So it’s eccentric/concentric/eccentric/concentric at a very rapid pace,” says Lundstam. “We think that’s why we’re seeing these changes in physiology, where our athletes are becoming more explosive and faster when they’re skiing. It’s such a high neurological input into the system.”
One word, children: Plasticity!
The tests help identify the unique loads involved in ski racing and can be used to create training programs that incorporate them from an early age. “We need to understand how we expose young athletes to this environment to prepare them for it when they are more plastic in their tissues and in their neurological system.” Before a certain age, athletes have more plasticity, which means they can still change the way their body works and ultimately their maximum potential. These changes in muscle architecture become much more difficult later on. (Research more on this, as well as the most important skills and training to develop in young skiers in an upcoming article). Another major benefit of using testing to assess and address specific needs, for sport and for individual athletes, is injury prevention.
On a purely individual level, Lundstam calls testing “an opportunity for each individual to enhance their developmental trajectory.” By understanding and exploiting the opportunities of each athlete’s physiology, coaches can create appropriate programs. As a nation, however, we are also able to reap great benefits from high-quality, widespread testing, from the familiar and easily administered tests of Skills Quest to higher-level testing at high-performance centers. This includes Force Plate testing and hopefully soon the new SEGER leg press for testing and training eccentric strength.
“Suddenly we start to be quite connected,” says Lundstam. We hope this gives everyone the impression that we are really in this together, that we want to understand how our athletes are developing and how we can better develop them.
Look for the upcoming article on essential skills in elite skiers and what type of training is most important for young athletes.