Wow!

They sure dazzle, but are extreme sports really sports? Definitely. And their popularity is exploding. So, how do you train these athletes?

By Scott Higgins

As a staff team physiologist with the United States Ski and Snowboard Association’s Department of Sport Science, Scott Higgins designs the conditioning programs for ’98 Olympians Evan Dybvig and Alex Wilson, ’94 Olympian Garth Hager, and ’98 World Cup Rookie of the Year and third in the world, Caleb Martin. He presents nationally on topics related to athletic development.

Training & Conditioning, 10.9, December 2000, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1009/wow.htm

Most performance coaches understand the almost nauseous excitement an athlete feels when breaking multiple tackles and suddenly finding himself downfield unopposed. And, as onlookers, most have experienced the anxiety that arises during the brief pause before a blocked shot wins a volleyball game. Performance coaches, after all, recognize and share the big moments in their athlete’s sports.

But, what feelings arise when watching a gnarly nosegrab followed by a boardslide and run up the opposite wall into a 520 airwalk? Sound a little strange? What if taking the middle line to perform a huge heli-iron cross, 360 mute grab, or doing a daffy double twister spread followed by an air-floating 720 is your athlete’s signature move? Some of these big air skiing maneuvers may win gold in 2002. But, more importantly, they are skills strength coaches and athletic trainers will need to understand in developing a conditioning or rehabilitation program for a new breed of athlete.

In recent years, “extreme sports”—everything from freestyle mogul skiing to street luge, freestyle BMX, and skateboarding—have received ever-increasing attention. Networks like ESPN2 are regularly highlighting, and television events such as the Gravity Games, X-Games, and Big Air contests are devoted to, these truly fascinating sports. But their popularity doesn’t just extend to the growing audiences—as the ranks of athletes eager to participate in these exciting sports grow, don’t be surprised to see some of them in your own gym or clinic.

How would you train, say, a freestyle mogul skiier? How do you design a program for a sport you may never have seen before? The answer is the same for all sports: by becoming thoroughly acquainted with the demands of the sport and carefully breaking the elements down. But in the case of these extreme sports, that means creating some new and unique exercises and combinations.

Even if a freestyle mogul skiier never enters your gym, in due time, an athlete whose sport you’ve never heard of will no doubt come seeking your help. Until then, the same creative process will enrich any training program—be it for a setter or a center.

Developing a System
Developing a training program for an extreme athlete starts with an understanding of athleticism. Everyone talks about it, but what is athleticism, really? I think Vern Gambetta sums it up best: “Athleticism is the ability to execute athletic movements at optimum speed with precision, style, and grace.”

Often, extreme athletes are not taken seriously, yet the demands of their sports require some of the greatest athleticism of any sport—and thus some of the most advanced, most integrated types of physical conditioning and preparation. While a quick burst from a tackle, or a 360 windmill dunk may be impressive, try landing a full 720-degree rotation (two full 360-degree rotations of the body with skis horizontal to the snow), or performing Canadian Jean Luc Bressard’s famous Ironhorse Backscratcher Cossack (a big air maneuver in which the tails of the skis are pulled up to “scratch” the back, then form a cross before the athlete brings them back underneath the body to a cossack position, where the legs are abducted out to maximum length, then returns the skis parallel and horizontal to the snow before landing).

Let’s look specifically at freestyle mogul skiing, which has been likened to motocross on snow. As I started training mogul skiers at the Olympic and World Cup levels, I realized the physiological and conditioning factors were rooted deep in various traditional components of athleticism: balance, coordination, agility, core strength, and various types of strength specific to each sport. To condition or rehabilitate these athletes requires a system based on developing total athleticism—the goal is not to produce a better freestyle skier but to produce a better freestyle skiing athlete. We don’t teach them the skills or tricks that will win them events, we develop the athleticism that will help them execute those movements perfectly (and thus help them win events).

As with any sport, we set about developing the components of athleticism and integrating them in a synergistic fashion throughout the training year. Cardiorespiratory development was also addressed. While not directly a component of athleticism, proper aerobic and anaerobic conditioning enables the components of athleticism to be performed more efficiently.

As with any athlete, our efforts to develop a better freestyle mogul skier focused on training movements not muscles. Movements and skills across a variety of extreme sports never occur in a fixed anatomical position. Extreme sports and maneuvers require the entire collection of body parts to work in unison. Technical skills must be performed while controlling speed and simultaneously executing movements that require strength and power. The movements of the mogul skier and many extreme sport athletes will constantly change in response to gravity, ground reaction force, landing, curve of the ramps, height of the jump or half-pipe, and varying momentum over a course. The isolation of specific muscles in training for these (or any) sports will not appropriately emphasize the strength required in multiple planes and patterns of movement at varying speeds over a variety of conditions.

Unlike most sports, however, the physical challenges present in mogul skiing depend greatly on the particular course it is being executed on, which can differ significantly from venue to venue. Thus, identifying demands important to achieving optimal performance requires an advance analysis of the physiological and athletic requirements of each particular course. For example, Champions Run, the Olympic mogul course in Deer Valley, Utah, that will be used in 2002, will be 265 meters in length, built with a pitch of 29 degrees, and will have deep bumps roughly two to three meters apart. Skiers will make 60 to 80 turns in one run in less than 25 seconds for men and 30 seconds for women. This equates to two and one half to three turns per second.

In addition to the ground skiing, mogul skiing requires athletes to perform air maneuvers. Airs are a combination of multiple movements involving counter-rotation, simultaneous flexion and extension of the legs, and fully blind rotations of either 360 degrees or 720 degrees—some with different body positions.

The Center of Control
All movement in freestyle mogul skiing is initiated and stabilized by the body’s center of gravity. Therefore, a primary objective in the training process is to condition and strengthen the muscles of the trunk to stabilize the pelvis, spine, and extremities in an athletic environment.

Since fifty percent of mogul skiing is scored based on technical skiing form, core strength must be developed to enable mogul skiers to maintain an upright trunk position, facing downhill, knees together, with elbows in and arms close to the body. Core strength can greatly affect a skier’s ability to maintain hip position, while controlling and absorbing large eccentric loads from the snow, and allow him or her to maintain proper posture during technical air maneuvers. Not only will increased core strength increase performance, it decreases the risk of injury.

Core conditioning for freestyle skiing places a premium on duplicating and challenging core strength in all planes of motion. For mogul—and many extreme—athletes, strengthening the core must be done with two things in mind: balance and coordination.

Mogul skiers must be able to negotiate the moguls, moving up and down through a large range of motion, without balance being affected in any way. Since balance in mogul skiing is so critical, we integrate balance training into the daily program as part of both warm-up sessions and strength programs during all phases of training. Balance training ranges from developing general skills in conjunction with coordination (such as work on the balance beam alone and with a jump rope;) during the early season to transitional and specific balance skills during the preparatory phase. During this latter period, special balance activities on the trampoline are performed. These activities attempt to duplicate the frequency, amplitude, whole-body coordination, and movement patterns encountered in mogul competition.

Coordination involves developing stability skills and various components of movement awareness, including spatial, visual, rhythmic, and directional. Movement patterns and decision-making skills in mogul skiing (and most other extreme sports) occur and change extremely quickly in reaction to gravity, ground forces, momentum, and changes in course conditions. A mogul course can be hard and icy in the morning, then soft in the afternoon; or, it may snow, limiting depth perception, flattening the light, and changing the scope of the original line the skier chose earlier. Incorporating activities that involve coordination into the conditioning process helps to economize movements and skills, preparing athletes to perform them repeatedly under various conditions.

Strength Development
The only exercise or drill that closely approximates all of the demands of mogul skiing is bump skiing. However, having mogul athletes do nothing but ski is not only often impractical, but it also will not provide the training challenges that are necessary for optimum performance.

While strength must be worked on separately, strength training must be done using exercises that are as sport-specific as possible. And, in addition to following the maxim of training movements not muscles, avoid the development of strength in too narrow a range of movement—for example, just squats, deadlifts, or ski-specific postures. A range of movements and sport-specific patterns must be continually developed so the athlete can effectively translate different types of strength movements to specific technical skills in competition.

The strength demands of mogul skiing involve the development of eccentric strength, strength endurance, maximal strength and power, and power endurance. Each of these must be developed in an environment of athleticism. In addition, proprioception should be integrated into all types of strength.

We change the loading pattern and body and joint angle to emphasize strength and stability. Different landing surfaces are incorporated during eccentric-strength progressions and variations of traditional lifts (such as the dumbbell rotational snatch) are incorporated to emphasize coordination.

The Heart of Conditioning
The assessment of cardiorespiratory fitness, specifically anaerobic work, is an important component in the performance spectrum of mogul skiing. While the run utilizes primarily anaerobic metabolism, all components of the cardiorespiratory system are evaluated and conditioned to develop a systematic and progressive increase in the athlete’s cardiorespiratory fitness.

A critical success factor and primary goal is to condition athletes to tolerate and buffer higher amounts of blood lactate. The higher an athlete’s anaerobic threshold is in relation to his or her maximal work capacity, the longer he or she will be able to sustain a hard workload (number of high-intensity runs). Measure-ments made from finger-prick blood samples taken during progressive tests are utilized to measure each athlete’s rate of lactate production lactate.

We also use a variety of interval sessions to enhance each skier’s ability to tolerate and buffer increasing amounts of lactate in the muscles. These consist of several repetitions of a given length that range from 15 to 30 seconds in duration. In the months prior to the competitive season, tolerance sessions are performed on both flat and angled trampolines. During summer, movement patterns such as body-weight squats, alternating jump-ups, multidirectional lunges, and whole-body movements are used as a transition to this type of work and to develop each athlete’s overall work capacity. Trampoline sessions involve lateral movement requiring the legs to extend, then quickly absorb—closely simulating the movement, special strength, and motor patterns utilized in mogul skiing.

Blood samples are taken at the end of each set and just prior to the start of the subsequent set to monitor the athlete’s lactate response. Heart-rate values are recorded after every repetition. These values are used to monitor anaerobic improvements and are relative to values after a competitive run.

Recovery
A mogul skier qualifying for the final run in a head-to-head duels competition will ski as many as 16 hard, intense runs with progressively less rest and recovery. Thus, implementing proper recovery patterns following competitive runs is critical for each athlete to minimize the immediate, residual, and cumulative effects of fatigue and work throughout the season. However, the competitive schedule leaves little time for athletes to recover in the quiet comfort of their own homes.

A primary goal following such high-intensity interval sessions (anaerobic tolerance, peak lactate), competition, or any repeated hard skiing where lactate accumulation can be very high, is to perform an active recovery session on the stationary bike or light movement activity to clear lactate and byproducts deep in the muscles. These activities should be performed with quick bursts until blood values fall under two mmol/L.

Incorporating these strength-training, conditioning, and recovery strategies will help any extreme athlete perform at his or her best—and any sports conditioning coach to design the best training programs for his or her athletes. If nothing else, the extreme demands and growing popularity of these sports may force us to take a fresh look at how we train and condition athletes in the more traditional sports.