Jan 29, 2015First to the Finish
The University of Denver ski team’s off-mountain cross training program makes all the difference when the skiers hit the racing slopes.
By Jason Sanchez
Jason Sanchez, USAW, is Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Denver, where he designs and implements performance programs for the alpine and nordic ski teams, as well as swimming and diving, women’s soccer, and tennis. He can be reached at: [email protected].
Over the past decade, alpine skiers have seen tougher course designs and rougher terrain than ever before as race organizers strive to continually challenge racers. Giant slalom races, for example, are being skied in “straighter” lines, giving racers less transition time between turns.
But the skiers aren’t the only ones who have had to adapt to the tougher conditions. Strength and conditioning coaches have had to step up to the plate, too. Never before has there been such an emphasis on developing sound, year-round training programs for skiers.
Here at the University of Denver, I think it’s safe to say we’ve met the challenge. The team is fresh off capturing the 2010 NCAA Skiing Championship–its third consecutive NCAA title and its seventh since 2000–and is raring to go again in 2011. In this article, I share my approach to putting together the team’s strength and conditioning program, the importance of guarding against injury through strength training, and how cross training has been a major key to our success.
I focus on three key points in training a championship caliber ski team: mobility, movement preparation, and power endurance. I believe these are the most important goals to keep in mind when working with skiers.
Mobility is often an overlooked aspect of training alpine skiers. These athletes race down hills on an unstable surface–snow–which can be extremely bumpy and/or icy on a given race day. Though skiers’ ankles are encased in a hard boot that allows for little flexibility, the ankle becomes a high point of stress in a slalom or giant slalom event. An athlete who lacks mobility in the ankle has a recipe for injury.
To target this issue, we take a few specific steps. As soon as a skier walks into the training center for a session, they are required to use the wobble board to complete single-leg, 360-degree rotations. In this exercise, the athlete supports their weight by bracing themselves against the wall, steps one leg onto the wobble board, and tracks the edge of the board in a complete circle–in both directions.
After the wobble board, our skiers’ dynamic warmup consists of sagittal, frontal, and transverse dynamic movements. Many of my warmup exercises come from Gray Cook, and the goal is to engage mobility in the ankle, stability in the knee, and mobility in the hips. (See “Dynamic Warmup” below for examples.)
We also want to activate the thoracic spine and stabilize the lumbar spine. Mobility in the thoracic spine and stability in the lumbar spine are key to reducing pain in the lower back, shoulders, and neck during the upcoming workout session. Warmup exercises such as deep squat reaches, single-leg supermans, and single-leg bridges are great for this.
Next, we move to a turf surface to continue mobilizing the ankles and hips, and begin activating the hamstrings, quadriceps, and glutes with knee hugs, arched-back lunges, and single-leg squats with a low reach. Finally, we finish our warmup work with a series of hops, bounds, and sprints to prepare the athletes for plyometric work.
With mobility taken care of, movement preparation is tackled next. I develop a ski-specific plyometrics program because skiing asks muscles to reach maximal force in the shortest amount of time possible. Plyometrics are a fundamental part of the ski team’s program and are performed during each workout.
The team begins with a simple set of plyos such as single-response ankle flips or rocket jumps. We progress to single-leg rocket jumps, tuck jumps, bounding, and skaters, then move to lateral hops combined with a broad jump progression. After this plyo progression, the team moves on to box work.
A basic box work progression throughout the season includes starting with a forward step up and step down on a high box (at least 29 inches) with an emphasis on safely accelerating and decelerating. Next, we move to a 24-inch box for lateral step-ups. The goal here is to improve lateral technique and agility. Then the athletes perform a box forward step up into a depth jump or a lateral step up into a depth jump (we use depth jumps to excite the stretch-shortening cycle). Finally, the athletes do depth jumps while working on sticking their landings and lateral hops to both sides.
During the off-season, the athletes do 100 to 160 foot touches per week at low to medium intensity. During the preseason, we kick it up a notch to no more than 450 foot touches per week at moderate to high intensity. I consider the in-season a maintenance period, and the athletes only do plyos as a light warmup once a week–40 to 60 foot touches at moderate intensity. During the championship season, we back off even more and only complete 20 to 40 foot touches per week at moderate to high intensity.
Finally, not everyone realizes that alpine skiing demands power endurance. A racer needs to be able to produce a massive amount of power in order to stay in control while turning. They also need to be strong enough to stabilize themselves and hold the desired line of travel until the next turn–and be able to seamlessly shift their weight and power from one side to the other.
We develop muscle strength by creating an overload on elite skiers’ legs eccentrically, isometrically, and concentrically. Overloading muscles gives us the explosive power needed in the giant slalom and slalom. Over time, the muscles respond by adapting to the work imposed. Then, once the muscle has reached the overload threshold, a systematic approach that involves progressive increases is necessary to continue producing great results.
One of the ways I do this is through the neutral squat and the front squat. When performed correctly, full squats strengthen the muscles, ligaments, and tendons surrounding the knee. Because this movement is so important, I perform a movement analysis of the body weight squat on all of our skiers. Starting from the ground up, I watch the motor pattern of the ankles, knees, and hips. I want to see them avoid posterior rotation in the pelvis, and I make sure their pelvic rotation is in a slight anterior position. The hamstrings should also lengthen during the descent when the move is being performed correctly.
Most of our skiers have no issues reaching the correct depth of the squat. As the athlete ascends, I watch for red flags such as a valgus movement in the knees (caving in toward each other), a knee dominant squat, and rounding of the back. Characteristics of a quality squat that I look for include knees tracking over the toes, shoulders over the knees, head in a neutral position, and the knees and hips moving at the same pace.
A lack of mobility in the squat can create lower back pain and thoracic spine limitations. Some exercises to assist an athlete who cannot perform a neutral squat correctly are DB single-leg squats, DB squats with a physio ball positioned on the thoracic spine, DB lunges, and barbell lunges.
The first step to evaluating how to reduce injuries is to determine the specific characteristics of alpine skiing that could put athletes at risk for injury–immobility in the ankle as I mentioned above, for example. Analyzing the nature of the sport allows me to design a sophisticated program that builds strength and power in the right areas and at the same time creates an environment where injuries are minimized as much as possible.
My goal with the DU ski team is to implement prehabilitation consciousness. It’s also essential to understand why an injury or soreness is present. Once I know why there is pain, I can determine which muscle or joint is being overworked or is not activating properly.
Direct communication with the athlete is the best way I know to address soreness, fatigue issues, and injuries affecting the team. It can be as simple as asking questions like, “How are you feeling? What hurts? Are you getting enough sleep? Do you have enough calories on board to perform today’s training session?”
All of our athletes are aware of my rule that says if pain is present, stop! If a muscle or joint hurts at any point during an exercise’s range of motion, they stop doing it. We can find another exercise to tackle the same area, so there is no need to execute movement that creates pain.
Incorrect technique is a major injury risk and a big red flag in the weightroom. When I see something that looks “off,” it leads me to take a good look at the athlete’s mechanics. For example, in a squat, do the ankles provide mobility to the full range of motion? Is there stability in the knee to prevent a valgus motion? Is there mobility in the hips?
As strength and conditioning coaches, we must also provide enough recovery for our athletes, as sufficient recovery time is a large factor in injury reduction. Direct communication with the head ski coach, our sports medicine staff, and the athletes themselves provides me with an accurate timeline of how much rest the team may need.
It’s also important to understand that as strength and conditioning coaches, we cannot prevent all injuries–athletes will get hurt. However, what I can influence is the rate athletes sustain injuries and how fast they can return to the mountain. Each DU alpine skier has different needs and goals to sustain his or her elite level of skiing, but all of the skiers share the common goal to prevent, decrease, and overcome injuries as much as possible.
Because of our location, the DU ski team is one of the first in the country to begin training on the slopes each season, but even with this advantage, it is paramount that we are training off the slopes as well as on them. A cornerstone of our off-slope work is the use of other sports in our cross training regimen.
Ice hockey is the team’s favorite sport, so we play every Tuesday evening. We may look like a rag tag bunch–some will suit up in complete pads, and the rest of us wear whatever we can get our hands on for safety protection–but it’s a lot of fun and a great workout.
Skiers stand to gain a lot from playing hockey. They get a great workout for lateral leg strength, anaerobic endurance, developing force applications for explosive speed, and developing turns and transitions for multidirectional movements. Our training and conditioning goals through hockey are flexibility, endurance, strength, power, quickness, and agility.
Beyond the physical benefits of these other sports, the skiers get a big mental boost as well. The games encourage a sense of camaraderie among the athletes while at the same time creating a competitive environment. I think it helps that for these games, the head ski coach, assistant ski coach, and myself play, too. It puts us all on an even playing field, and lets us see our athletes’ competitiveness at a more intimate level.
Cross training is definitely the final piece to the puzzle for skiers. Due to weather and time constraints, it’s essential for success on the slopes. Luckily, skiers like to be outside no matter the season, which makes my job that much easier as I strive to keep up with the demands of this ever-evolving sport.
Sidebar: DYNAMIC WARMUP
The proper warmup is essential for our athletes. Here are three examples of warmup progressions I use. I try to do a different warmup workout each day of the week so it’s not a monotonous task for our athletes.
Warmup Workout I Mountain climber Stride, twist, and reach High-knee run Lateral hip swing T-shoulder rotation Inch worm Body weight squat Pressing snatch balance
Warmup Workout II Half-kneeling dowel twist Single-leg bridge Lean, rock, and reach Lateral lunge Spiderman crawl Dynamic hip swing Backward long reach
Warmup Workout III Leg-lowering progression Dynamic hurdle stretch Hip open lunge twist X-behind Dyno walk Duck walk High-knee step over
Sidebar: NO OFF-SEASON
For strength coaches, the off-season is when the season really begins. Workouts are voluntary, which means it’s a time the athletes must commit to their teammates, coaches, and support staff to make gains. Lucky for them, the University of Denver is an ideal place for any athlete to train during the summer. The weather is perfect, and we have a one year-old 12,000 square-foot weightroom. However, the ski team’s six-week off-season program is very intense and a great test of the athletes’ self-motivation.
The following are lists of the exercises athletes complete during their six-week off-season. I set them up as stations, and the athletes rotate around the circuit five times, decreasing the amount of time they spend at each station each time around, with a constant work-to-rest ratio of one-to-three.
Exercises we use in weeks one through three: Plyometric box work Squats (overhead and front) Lat pulldowns Clean technique work DB walking lunges Cleans DB lunge matrix (anterior, lateral, posterior) DB pullovers Squat technique work (body weight and DB single-leg variations) Trunk stability work Cable chops (low, medium, high) Dead lifts Body weight exercises 30 minutes on the bike, treadmill, or ARC trainer
Exercises we add during weeks four through six: Clean variations (clean dead lift, clean jump shrug, clean and jerk) DB lateral split squats DB bench presses DB Arnold presses Medicine ball mountain climbers Sprints Medicine ball overhead throw downs Sledge hammers Kettlebell swings