The Elite Edge for Alpine Skiing
For the past 5 years, Elite Edge has been at the forefront of athletic development for alpine skiers in the Ottawa region. We're going to highlight the training advantages the alpine skiers at Elite Edge have, along with introducing a few techniques you may not be familiar with that we employ in the offseason to continue helping these athletes reach the next level. Even if you don't get a chance to work with us, we hope that you can take some of these concepts and apply them to your summer dry-land program.
In a sport where it's been estimated that by the age of 19, every single alpine skier is nearly 100% guaranteed to have had a knee injury requiring surgery. The prevention of knee injuries has been has always been priority number 1 at Elite Edge. What many don't realize, is that, if done properly, building bulletproof knees also establishes a foundation for accelerated athletic and strength development.
An ACL tear costs both a skier and their family a lot. Conservative recovery times from ACL surgery range from 9 to 12 months (at Elite Edge, our proprietary rehab system has been able to get athletes who've had surgery back within 3-4 months), which is a significant amount of time on snow lost. ACL surgery will also set you back financially. Let's break down some of the associated costs:
Expedited MRI: $350
Knee Brace: $1400
Surrendered Ski Club Fees: $5000 (more or less depending on time of the season)
Total: approximately $9150.
Clearly, a judicious approach to preventing ACL and knee injuries is a smart investment. Over the past 5 years of working with over 70 athletes in alpine skiing, where local clubs have averaged 2.5 traumatic knee injuries per season; only one our athletes has had an ACL injury. We must add though: this athlete's knee was so stable that he skied on it for a full week after injuring it, manual stability testing by the doctor came back negative, and it was until he had an MRI that it was able to be confirmed that the ACL was torn.
There are 2 critical strategies in significantly reducing knee injury rates in skiers as developed by the coaches at Elite Edge: 1. Ensuring optimal activation and strength of the vastus medialis oblique (VMO) and 2. Ensuring proper strength balance between the hamstrings and quadriceps.
To develop optimal knee health, our first priority is in training a muscle called the VMO. The VMO is the tear drop shaped muscle located within the quadriceps and is unique in that it is the only quadricep muscle that can pull the knee-cap laterally, while all other quadriceps muscles pull upward. As a result, the VMO the key muscle in preventing valgus collapse or caving inward of the knee, an all too common position of knee injury (especially ACL).
Through a variety of key exercises, once proper activation and basic strength of the VMO has been restored, it is absolutely critical to integrate this new found activation and translate it into strength. In our experience, there is only one sure-fire way of doing this: full squats. If you take one thing away from this article make it this: to ensure health of the lower body AND to improve athletic development have athletes squat deep - I'm talking ass-to-heels, leave a stain on the floor deep - yes it is challenging and many will take time to be able to reach this type of mobility.
If you want to quickly assess the quality strength and conditioning program it can be done by watching athletes squat. Partial or half squats exacerbate imbalances within the lower body musculature and expose the knee joint to uneven tension. Many understand the necessity of using full range of motion for upper body exercises, but fail to apply this approach to the lower body. Partial range of motion training is a lot like not brushing your teeth: do it once, not much will happen - do it all the time and you'll end up with a cavity (or an imbalance that leads to injury).
One particular well-done study compared full squats to half squats and measured their effects on knee stability. The result? Full squats improved 8 out 9 measures of knee stability; while half squats only improved 2 out of 9, while weakening other parameters. Why does this occur? Current literature suggests that full squatting offers optimal co-activation of the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes; whereas half squatting is a predominantly quadriceps dominant exercise. As we'll discuss next, the vast majority of skiers will already have quads that are too strong and half squatting will exacerbate this imbalance.
The second half to developing knee health involves ensuring optimal balance between the hamstrings and quadriceps muscle groups. The nature of alpine skiing leads itself to overuse and over development of the quadriceps. As a result, 99 times out of 100, the quadriceps of skiers dwarf the hamstrings in terms of strength - resulting in improper tension and stability at the knee joint. The scientific literature is quite clear: an 85% ratio of quadriceps to hamstring strength is critical for knee health. All knee injuries, in all sports drop significantly when this ratio is reached and maintained. While researchers in these studies used a $30,000 device to accurately assess the ratio of quad:hamstring strength, at Elite Edge we've been able to develop proprietary formulas to measure these ratios indirectly using an athlete's performance in the gym and ensure optimal strength ratios. Though the strength of the quadriceps is key in ski performance, by strengthening the hamstrings, we also set a foundation for future strength improvements of the quadriceps. Through a mechanism known as reciprocal inhibition, when you bring muscles into balance, you can avoid plateaus in strength and explosiveness. This strategy works so well that our skiers tend to get better as the season goes on, because their quadriceps safely continue to get stronger due to the majority of hamstring work we do in the offseason.
What separates the strength and conditioning program at Elite Edge our devotion to improving and refining our craft. We're relentlessly learning and getting better and what we're adding this year is targeted neck training.
Why is neck training so important? Concussions are the second most traumatic injury seen in alpine skiing (behind traumatic knee injuries). Scientific research in this area, although new, is offers valuable insight, namely that both strength and hypertrophy of the neck musculature can significantly reduce concussion rates and recovery time. One study even found that concussions were reduced by 96% when the neck musculature had hypertrophied by 2cm.
Proper neck training also offers another benefit: accelerated strength gains in the upper body. As the muscle of the upper body are innervated by nerves originating from the cervical spine, by improving neck strength and posture, we've seen rapid improvement in the rate of strength development of the upper body. While skiing is a predominantly lower body sport, upper body training is very important. The contralateral upper body is used to absorb and stabilize force from the lower body. Simply put, strong legs but a weak upper body makes an athlete incredibly inefficient at absorbing and controlling the forces involved in skiing.
As such, Elite Edge has dedicated and invested in offering a comprehensive approach to training the neck. We are the only fitness centre in Ottawa to offer a specialized 4 way neck machine, along with other key methods of quickly improving neck strength and postural alignment.
While preventing injuries is incredibly important, ultimately athlete's utilize a strength and conditioning program to enhance their athleticism. Let's take a look at some often over looked scientifically validated training methods to make skiers stronger, faster, more agile and explosive.
Skiing is a unique in that it is a sport that demands a significant amount of eccentric strength. What is eccentric strength? Simply put, eccentric strength is your ability to yield or absorb force (read more about types of muscle contraction here). This is inherently due to the high G forces experienced by skiers as they travel down the hill. Multiple studies have confirmed that eccentric contractions are the prevailing type of muscular action seen in skiing and that elite skiers possess high levels of eccentric strength. From a strength and conditioning perspective, eccentric focused training is critical for the development of all athletes - and it is rarely prescribed correctly, if at all.
Eccentric training has been shown to be an effective way of breaking through concentric strength plateaus (thus making athletes more explosive). Furthermore, eccentric training is one of our secrets for strengthening connective tissue (such as bones, tendons and ligaments), along with being highly efficient method of improving flexibility.
Late Norwegian strength expert, scientist and coach Per Egil (Pella) Refsnes held eccentric training as the single best method for improving strength in elite athletes. At Elite Edge, we have 12 different methods of eccentric training that can cater to athletes at any level: beginner or elite. Below is just one example of these techniques, the use of eccentric hooks. So to summarize: perhaps the best method to make skiers better athletes isn't to have them lift big weights, but to have them control them down instead.
Vertical Jump and Explosiveness
Multiple studies have been conducted to assess what physical tests are the best predictors of performance within alpine skiing. Over and over again, researchers find performance for skiers is best predicted by the vertical jump test, beating out a number of common tests such as the box jump, hexagon test, and Leger-Bouche (beep) test. These findings have been corroborated at all levels of skiing: club, provincial and national. Why? Vertical jump is a measure of both peak power and relative strength (how strong one is in relation to their bodyweight). As such, the higher an athlete's vertical jump the better that they can both absorb force AND generate force. Vertical jump proficiency translates well to other important athletic traits: agility, speed, explosiveness and anaerobic power. While we can't divulge all of our secrets as to how we improve vertical jump, but the two strategies that offer the most bang for your buck, have already mentioned: eccentric training and full squatting. Without getting into an extended diatribe, both of these methods are incredibly effective in improving peak power. Once study assessed full squatting vs. half squatting and vertical jump. The result: full squat strength levels had a strong correlation with vertical jump (82%), while half squat strength had little correlation (39%). Once again, emphasis on proper full squatting beats out half squats.
The question we're asked most often: "when should the skiers do cardio?". As coaches, we can't think of a greater misconception in skiing than the need for an aerobic base. Although the concepts of energy systems physiology can be quite complicated, we'll do our best to simplify things here. Alpine skiing is a predominantly anaerobic sport, utilizing primarily the lactic acid energy system. Researchers have long tried to determine the energy systems contribution and conditioning needs for alpine skiers. Early research from the 70s and 80s suggested the need for a strong aerobic base, based on the fact that some of the best skiers tested as possessing a relatively high VO2Max (aerobic capacity) compared to other skiers. However, as the cliche goes: correlation does not equal causation. These VO2Max tests were performed through running, cycling and swimming. However, here is where we unfortunately run into a problem: aerobic capacity is very sport specific. For example, a high VO2Max in running does not mean you'll be well conditioned for cycling, swimming or even skiing. The other problem we run into: it's impossible to perform a VO2Max test on a mountain. Better research later showed that by measuring lactate levels in the blood of elite skiers immediately after a race, one could determine the energy systems contribution to the sport. What was found was that skiing was highly dependent on the lactic acid system for energy demands. This finding falls in line with the current knowledge of the physiology of energy system production - the lactic acid energy system takes predominance in sports lasting from 40 - 120 seconds.
By understanding what happens physiologically, we can become more efficient with our training. Skiing mainly relies on the lactic acid system for energy production during the sport, and we know that the aerobic system does not reach maximal utilization until about 2 minutes of sport activity - which alpine skiing rarely, if ever, enters. As such, if we want the most out of our training, the majority of our conditioning should be spent working in the lactic acid zone. How do we do that? There are a number of methods, but one of our favourites is modified strongman training. Yes the classic competitions you saw on Saturday morning TV have been modified to produce a huge lactic acid response in our athletes, while also having the added benefit of allowing our athletes to improve their overall and develop true core strength (there's no way you can push a 400lb sled with a weak core!).
So should skiers still do traditional slow, long distance cardio? In our experience, no. Firstly, to pay any coach to supervise a monotonous cardio session is a great way waste of money - cardio can be done on an athlete's own time, if necessary. Secondly, excessive aerobic conditioning can be detrimental to an athlete's performance. In fact, the higher a VO2Max of an athlete, the lower the power capabilities. Several studies have shown that VO2Max is inversely correlated with vertical jump (perhaps the best athletic predictor of skiing success). Interval training such as strongman will not only target the specific energy system required for skiing, but it will also help improve aerobic capacity by improving lactate threshold (energy systems do not work in isolation). And don't be confused: modified strongman training will challenge an athlete's cardiovascular system; they will be breathing and sweating HARD.
So when should a skier focus on their aerobic endurance? From experience, the aerobic system is the easiest to improve and a skier will reach the aerobic capacity they need to be successful within the first 3 weeks of training on snow. Remember that aerobic conditioning is specific to the exercise chosen. This is the exact approach we've taken with the University of Ottawa Men's Basketball team. Since they've cut ALL aerobic conditioning from their program, they've finished within the top 3 in Canada each year - along with beating multi-million dollar powerhouse colleges from the US (please note that this approach would not work for aerobic-dominant sports). Along with that, the athletes are much happier now that they no longer have go on mind-numblingly boring long runs.
There is a growing trend in the industry: the worse the trainer the greater the reliance of gimmick exercises. What type of exercises fit here? Nearly anything done on a swiss ball or bosu ball, balance training, kettlebells, TRX, agility ladders, and a whole host of other random toys that seem to pop up and then fade into obscurity. While it's impossible to go in depth about all these types of training, I will quickly touch on "balance" training with bosu and swiss balls. You may have seen athletes squatting on a Swiss ball - which is a completely moronic decision. Neurophysiology dictates that any exercise that increases the need for balance, detracts neural drive from muscles intended to be trained during the exercise. For example within the squat, the main muscle groups used are the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes. As greater neural activation is required to maintain balance (a variety of muscles are involved here), an athlete can no longer fire the intended muscles with intensity. As such, receive little, if any training effect is acheived. Essentially, you end up wasting your time. To add to this, squatting on a balance ball puts undue stress on the knees - essentially, you have to squat bowlegged. Squatting in such a manner puts the ACL under a significant strain and risk. In my earlier years in the weight room, I've even had the pleasure of seeing a gym clown tear his ACL using one of these gimmick exercises - obviously after I burst my spleen from laughter, I called for medical assistance. Some exercises, such as these, offer far too much risk for any potential benefit.
One may then ask: "How then, do you improve balance?". The literature is quite clear here: past the age of 12, balance can only be regained, not taught. Traditional balance training has some merit after an injury in order to re-teach proprioception (the body's awareness of where it is in space), but this sort of training completely plateaus after about 2 weeks. Furthermore, these proprioception and balance exercises are something that can be easily done anywhere. Once again, if you're paying someone to take you through these exercises, very simply, you're wasting valuable time and money.
A proper strength and conditioning program for skiers will first focus on injury prevention. Doing so ensures that as an athlete gets stronger, they will be able to express this strength safely as they ski. Skiers require a significant amount of eccentric strength in their sport and need to have a focus on full squatting to progress effectively. Aerobic training is not the most effective way for skiers to reach high levels of conditioning, and in fact, too much aerobic training may compromise performance. Instead focus on high intensity intervals that create a large lactic acid response. Lastly, don't fall for gimmick exercises. No Olympian ever made it by focusing on agility ladders and swiss ball squats. Full squats, dead lifts and Olympic lifting have been the mainstay of successful athletes and skiers.
The Elite Edge Alpine Ski Dryland Program begins May 7th. If you're interested in taking your ski performance to the next level, please contact us.
Chandler T, Wilson G, Stone M. The effect of the squat exercise on knee stability. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 21(3). Pp 299-303. 1989
Tesch, P. A. "Aspects on muscle properties and use in competitive Alpine skiing." Medicine and science in sports and exercise 27.3 (1995): 310-314.
Ferguson, Richard A. "Limitations to performance during alpine skiing." Experimental physiology 95.3 (2010): 404-410.
Berg, HANS E., and Ola Eiken. "Muscle control in elite alpine skiing." Medicine and science in sports and exercise 31.7 (1999): 1065-1067.
Turnbull, J. R., A. E. Kilding, and J. W. L. Keogh. "Physiology of alpine skiing." Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports 19.2 (2009): 146-155.
O'Sullivan, Kieran, Sean McAuliffe, and Neasa DeBurca. "The effects of eccentric training on lower limb flexibility: a systematic review." British journal of sports medicine (2012)
White, A. T., and S. C. Johnson. "Physiological comparison of international, national and regional alpine skiers." International journal of sports medicine 12.4 (1991): 374-378.
Brown, STEPHEN L., and JOHN G. Wilkinson. "Characteristics of national, divisional, and club male alpine ski racers." Medicine and science in sports and exercise 15.6 (1982): 491-495.
Turnbull, J. R., A. E. Kilding, and J. W. L. Keogh. "Physiology of alpine skiing." Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports 19.2 (2009): 146-155.
Andersen, Ross E., D. L. Montgomery, and R. A. Turcotte. "An on-site test battery to evaluate giant slalom skiing performance." The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness 30.3 (1990): 276-282.
Hartmann, Hagen, et al. "Influence of squatting depth on jumping performance." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 26.12 (2012): 3243-3261.