Ready for Rio

April 7, 2016

Athletes from Team USA Beach Volleyball, Canoe and Kayak, and Synchronized Swimming have spent countless hours training for the 2016 Olympics. This three-part article details how they are preparing to
go for the gold.

This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of Training and Conditioning.

By Tim Pelot

Tim Pelot, MS, RSCC*D, is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for several USA Beach Volleyball and USA Indoor Volleyball athletes, including the duo of Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson. He can be reached at: Timothy.Pelot@usoc.org or follow him on Twitter @tpelot7.

Naturally, the goal for any Team USA athlete is to qualify for the Olympic Games. But not all are willing to put in the necessary hard work to get to this elite stage. USA Beach Volleyball duo Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson don’t fit in that category.

Over the past four years, they have invested a lot of heart, energy, and intensity into their off-the-court physical preparations. Although the official qualifiers for the 2016 Olympic Games won’t be determined until early June, Gibb and Patterson—currently the number-one ranked duo for Team USA—are ready.

Training during an Olympic year is fun because we look back at all the work that brought us to this point. We’ve kept track of Gibb and Patterson’s weightroom and playing histories over the past quad (four-year Olympic cycle), so we can hone in on the strategies that correlated to their best performances. If all goes according to plan, the next few months will be icing on the cake.

By reflecting, we have determined that preparing for the Olympics must be:

• Fun: It has to get the athletes excited.

• Strategic: Everything we do has to correspond to performance.

• Confidence Building: The athletes need to know their training is making them better.

• Efficient: We must ensure the highest return from our time, effort, and intensity.

• Individualized: Training needs to accommodate each athlete’s body type, past injuries, role on the court, response to workouts, and life outside the sport.

• Process Focused: We maximize every day, and we don’t compare ourselves to others.

• Team Focused: Coaches, families, and players all play a major part in the team’s success. We meet frequently as a group to reaffirm our commitment to the mission.

All of these elements come together in a detailed strength and conditioning plan that is composed of four- to six-week training blocks. Each has a specific focus, which determines the movements, loads, and volumes we use. Gibb and Patterson lift four times a week, and strength sessions can last up to two-and-a-half hours.

Over the past four years, we have integrated hundreds of exercises, each one with a very strategic intention. Our primary focus is always enhancing performance, not just lifting for lifting’s sake. This philosophy helps us explore movements that will produce the desired adaptations.

We also take into account the needs of each individual when selecting exercises. There is no blanket answer to which specific movements are best—it all depends on the athlete.

Our exercise library is broken into categories based on planes of motion (upper or lower, anterior or posterior, and unilateral or bilateral), type of muscle action (isometric, concentric, or eccentric), how fast we execute each movement, and whether it is a pull or press. On the platform, we perform high-force power movements, such as clean pulls, power cleans, and split jerks. Our heavier, axial-loaded lower-body exercises include back squats, front squats, hex bar squats, dead lifts, and leg presses.

In beach volleyball, two of the most crucial elements in developing strong, explosive players are structural and postural integrity, so we incorporate overhead squats at low to moderate loads. For trunk-specific work, we spend as much, if not more, time on the posterior side as the anterior side, and we integrate dynamic and isometric movements in all planes.

A final piece to our strength training puzzle is band work. Research shows the benefit of adding variable resistance to strength movements, which we do by incorporating bands in two ways. The first is to assist Gibb and Patterson in completing movements, and the second is to increase load. The intensity of the bands and how we use them depends on where we are in the training year.

While most of our attention is directed toward strength, we don’t overlook conditioning. We split our time between the sand and hard surfaces. Some of our sample activities include spin bikes and shuttle runs, and we play a lot of games to have some fun and break up the monotony of constant training.

Beyond our strength and conditioning work, a big focus during an Olympic year is keeping Gibb and Patterson healthy. At the ages of 40 and 35, respectively, they are one of the oldest tandems in international beach volleyball. As they get older, it’s harder for them to gain and maintain strength, and once it’s lost, they’re more susceptible to injury. We do our best to keep them feeling fresh—they’re called the “Benjamin Buttons of beach volleyball” due to their vitality—but their age is undoubtedly a factor in our training.

The biggest accommodation is shifting our focus away from the court. Both Gibb and Patterson have played beach volleyball for more than 10 years. Although skill work is still important, they must spend more time in the weightroom to keep their bodies stable and strong enough to handle the demands of high-intensity competition.

The challenge is keeping Gibb and Patterson from becoming overworked, which we do by monitoring their training volume. They both value the need to train hard and push through tough sessions when they are tired. However, when fatigue, irritability, and loss of focus increase over three to four sessions, we know it’s time to slow down. When this occurs, it is not uncommon for us to change the focus from hard training to hard regeneration. We still lift, but we target lower-threshold moves instead.

Another overuse prevention strategy we’ve employed is measuring training stress. We track every rep and the speeds at which the athletes move specific resistances.

Since any deviation could be the result of overwork, we also assess Gibb and Patterson’s movement quality every day. The key to monitoring athletes is knowing their natural movement signatures. I’ve accrued this knowledge over several years of working with Gibb and Patterson. By having a visual baseline for their tendencies, I can recognize when something isn’t right. When I do spot an issue, I talk with the athlete about it and complete further physical investigation.

To evaluate bodyweight, vertical jump, and body composition, Gibb and Patterson go through a battery of basic assessments once or twice a quarter. Years ago, our testing protocols were much more elaborate, measuring force output via force plates and bilateral and unilateral motion analysis during linear and multidirectional maneuvers. However, we found that complex testing put a greater strain on the athletes, which interfered with their training and made it harder for them to perform the tests consistently. With a simplified approach, testing is quicker and buy-in is greater.

Although we have many ways to monitor training stress, the most important component is old-fashioned communication. I talk with Gibb and Patterson every day, and we communicate in-depth about their physical and mental states. No matter how elaborate our analyses become, nothing can tell me how an athlete is feeling quite like the athlete can.

As the Games get closer, we will continue to stick to our Olympic-year plan. Our intense training approach and emphasis on health will ensure Gibb and Patterson are primed to face the world’s best in Rio.

STAY THE COURSE

By Dr. Brad DeWeese

Brad DeWeese, EdD, CSCS*D, is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the USA Canoe and Kayak National Slalom Team. He’s also an Assistant Professor in the Physical Education, Exercise, and Sport Department at East Tennessee State University, which serves as a U.S. Olympic Training Site. He can be reached at: deweese@mail.etsu.edu.

We have all heard the saying, “You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe.” Newtonian physics state that when the cannon imposes a force upon the cannonball, an equal and opposite force is exerted on the cannon, which would push the canoe backward. Not only does this expression reflect water’s lack of stability when trying to produce force, it also serves as the foundation for how we develop strength in Olympic slalom paddlers.

I became the strength coach for the USA Canoe and Kayak National Slalom Team in 2009. At the time, the coaching staff was looking to build a comprehensive training program for a group of young athletes who would become the future of American slalom. My background in track and field piqued their interest, as I could draw comparisons between the training I did with sprint and middle distance runners and slalom paddlers. Since 2013, I’ve been working with the team at East Tennessee State University’s Olympic Training Site as we turned our focus to the 2016 Olympic Games.

Before we delve into the squad’s training for Rio, let’s cover the basics of slalom canoe/kayak. Athletes can compete individually in the K1 (kayak) and C1 (canoe) disciplines and as pairs in the C2 event (currently for males only). All disciplines use the same whitewater course at competitions, with gates strategically placed to make the race more complex. When an athlete touches or misses a gate, a time penalty is added to their finish time. Since the goal is to get the fastest time, any penalty can be a deathblow, especially during elite international competitions when fractions of a second mean the difference between a gold medal and fourth place.

Slalom athletes need to generate force to accelerate their boats as fast as possible. However, the instability of water limits how much force can be applied to the paddle, thus preventing the athlete from utilizing their “maximal strength” with each stroke.

Considering these sport-specific limitations, our goal leading up to the 2016 Games was to increase athletes’ strength and the ability to call upon it quickly in the water. These gains would promote greater rates of force development, which would allow athletes to accelerate and respond to the water. In short, our theory was all paddlers face the same compromised opportunity to call upon their maximal strength, so we wanted American slalom athletes to have the largest inventory of strength to pull from.

In order to concurrently develop their strength reserves and rates of force development, I emphasized complex, multi-joint, free weight exercises in the weightroom. Specifically, we utilized the back squat, front squat, overhead press, and bench press, while also relying heavily on the power clean, power snatch, and their derivatives.

These exercises have the added benefit of developing the midsection, as their overall load and speed of movement require tension and stabilization in the trunk. This helps slalom athletes maintain optimal posture in the boat, which is especially important during the bracing and acceleration phases of the paddle.

To prepare our racers for the 2016 Olympics, I blended these exercises into a programming model called Seamless Sequential Integration (SSI). It’s made up of four-week blocks of concentrated loads dedicated to a specific objective (e.g., maximal-strength or strength-speed). The blocks are bridged by functional overreaches, typically defined as a week of increased workload. This brief exposure to higher volume maintains the work capacity developed in earlier phases of training and sets the athletes up for greater power outputs in future sessions.

Our prescription of training blocks and exercises over the past few years has been largely determined by the athletes’ competition schedules. They typically lift three days a week most of the year and two days during competition weeks. However, the training volume is reduced heading into races to prevent fatigue, and we compensate with a slightly higher intensity. Continued exposure to maximal and explosive strength training ensures the athletes maintain the fitness necessary for success.

SSI also allows for a fluid transition between exercises used in different blocks of training. For instance, the slalom athletes perform power cleans from the mid-thigh and clean pulls during strength-speed blocks in order to improve the technical proficiency and rate of force development required to complete the power clean during subsequent speed-strength blocks.

To ensure our training was producing the desired results, we utilized a battery of tests throughout the SSI model. These often coincided with slalom-specific assessments (usually time trials) to ensure our programming in the weightroom transferred to performance in the water.

For example, we collected body composition and girth measurements every four weeks to assess whether athletes were maintaining the necessary body shape for competitive success. Unnecessary body mass, especially in the lower limbs, leads to a “sinking boat,” which adds drag and forces athletes to expend more energy when accelerating.

Strength gains and the ability to quickly call upon that strength were regularly measured through the isometric mid-thigh pull (IMTP). This test requires athletes to assume the second pull position in the power clean. From there, they pull against an immovable barbell while “pushing” down on force plates beneath their feet.

The IMTP not only allows us to determine a paddler’s maximal strength, but it also lets us track changes in rate of force development at key points. For instance, we record data at 50 milliseconds and 200 milliseconds, as they are similar to the “time to strike” and “time to pull.” “Time to strike” describes the initial moment an athlete dynamically engages the water with the paddle, while “time to pull” refers to the early portion of the stroke when the highest forces are being placed on the paddle.

Finally, paddlers performed a series of static and countermovement push-ups on a dual force plate to assess their reactive ability and power output. Specifically, each testing session included two push-ups from both static and countermovement conditions at loads of zero, five kilograms, and 10 kilograms, for a total of 12 efforts.

To determine what type of training to prescribe in upcoming SSI blocks, we calculated a percent fall-off in the flight time recorded between varying push-up loads. So if athletes demonstrated increases in peak force but lacked similar improvements in rate of force development, we would recommend a block focused on more ballistic movements and retained strength levels.

As a result of our training, the USA Canoe and Kayak National Slalom Team has consistently shown improvements during key international competitions leading up to the 2016 Olympics. Specifically, the squad won three gold medals at the 2015 Pan American Games and a bronze at the 2015 World Championships. These performances, coupled with the progress we continue to see in the weightroom, suggest that American slalom is trending toward a strong showing in Rio.

IN SYNCH

By Mark Wine

Mark Wine, CSCS, USAW, PT, PES, CES, is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Team USA Synchronized Swimming. He’s also the founder and Director of Operations at Functional Muscle Fitness, LLC, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., and Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Team Haiti Polo. Wine can be reached at: fmfmark@gmail.com.

When I first started working with Team USA Synchronized Swimming in January 2015, I was shocked to discover that the athletes had never lifted before. As a result, although they were elegant and graceful in the water, they lacked total body coordination. Tasked with getting them ready for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, I knew we had a long road ahead. But by honing in on the sport’s demands and integrating a variety of training methods, the athletes are ready to compete at the highest level.

Don’t be confused by the makeup and flashy costumes—synchronized swimmers are high-level athletes who require a dedicated strength and conditioning program. The sport is unlike any other because of the myriad skills it demands of its athletes. A combination of swimming, gymnastics, and ballet, its athletes must repeatedly accelerate through the water, elevate from the surface, and perform complex poses that require great endurance, flexibility, and precision. On top of that, they must also have strong breath control, as some routines require them to stay underwater for up to a minute.

Since Team USA Synchro didn’t have an established strength program when I began my tenure, we started from scratch. Our overall focus was simple at first: balance and strengthen the body. I had the athletes complete a number of unilateral exercises and paired them with counter movements to ensure muscle symmetry and prevent overuse injuries. For example, we often did ankle-attached adduction along with abduction.

Once we developed a general training base, we started to incorporate traditional strength movements. We emphasized strengthening athletes’ lumbo-pelvic hip complexes (LBPHC) through compound exercises like squats, split squats, and Bulgarian squats, as well as isolation exercises such as medicine ball squeeze holds, band bridges, and clamshells.

I focused on the LBPHC because many athletes were experiencing shifted hips as a result of inactive gluteal muscles or one side being stronger than the other. The glutes are essential during the eggbeater motion—a form of treading water where the swimmers’ legs alternate one-legged breaststroke kicks. If the glutes do not keep the hips aligned, the adductor might take on more of a role, leading to possible strain.

Upon completion of a three-month strength-building phase, I added power movements to the swimmers’ regimens to develop the total body coordination, body awareness, and fine-tuned motor skills demanded by the sport. Since the USA Synchro athletes had never completed Olympic lifts before, my first step was teaching them how to properly transfer power through their quads, glutes, and lats using platform jumps and muscle pulls.

Next, we developed positional awareness with barbell movements. Anytime an Olympic lift called for a barbell, we had athletes start the motion with the bar at their hips. Then, we implemented snatch/clean retractions in the beginning of each lift, which required athletes to move the bar from their hips to directly below their knees. This taught them how to use their lats to reposition the bar at the hip line. Getting them comfortable with these movements early on allowed us to eventually implement full snatches and cleans.

Weightlifting is not the only form of power training we implemented. We also completed battle ropes to train total body coordination and upper-body power transfer.

In addition, resisted sprinting developed the swimmers’ fast-twitch fibers. However, we had to be careful when running because water-based athletes typically have looseness in their ankles and improper sprinting technique. Resisted sprints prevent them from striking through their heels, which forces them to stay on the ball of the foot. The load keeps their motion controlled, so even though they are moving as fast as possible, they are impacting the ground correctly.

Beyond building strength and power, it was important to make sure the USA Synchro athletes could handle the cardiovascular demands of the sport. Synchronized swimming requires both aerobic and anaerobic muscular processes. To train both, we included sprints with active recovery in the pool, high-intensity intervals on the bike, and high-intensity cross-training circuits. The latter often involved movements like battle rope slams, walking lunges, and 30-second sprints on the bike.

With a base in strength, power, and conditioning established, we will continue to follow this framework until the Olympics. As the Games draw closer, however, I find myself keeping a closer eye on the swimmers’ health. I usually have three workouts with them per week, and they undergo two or three additional training sessions a day, which consist of Pilates, dance, swim, synchronized swimming, and flexibility work. This schedule puts them on the brink of overtraining each week and can lead to burnout or injury.

We’ve tried to keep the athletes fresh by implementing extensive warm-ups, injury prevention, and recovery tools. The team’s warm-ups include jumps and movements with moderate resistance, such as spider lunges, push-up arm extensions, sky reaches, medicine ball slams, skips, overhead squats, and overhead split squats. The primary aim is to dynamically stretch the body, raise their core temperature, and prepare their muscles for lifting.

During weightroom work, we incorporate injury prevention techniques to correct each athlete’s specific movement imbalances and asymmetries. For example, clamshells are a staple in our training to ensure proper glute medius activation. Finally, once athletes are done with each lifting session, they break down their myofascial tissue via foam rolling or a massage.

Since I began training the USA Synchro athletes, I have seen a reduction in overuse injuries, as well as increased strength and power production. The athletes say they can feel the difference from our program and report it has improved their performance in the pool.

As a result of our work together over the past 15 months, the USA Synchro team is ready to succeed in Rio. Now that the athletes are strong, powerful, and well-conditioned, we’re hoping the United States can be a dominant force on the synchronized swimming world stage.

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