What it takes to get to the top: US Alpine skiers conduct baseline tests in Park City
Battery of strength, agility, vision and aerobic tests validate athletes' winter gains and get their summer training programs off on the right foot
In between two downhills, a super-G and a giant slalom at the Whistler Mountain NorAm Cup during the last week of March and his season’s final three races at U.S. nationals in Sun Valley last week, Kyle Negomir made an important Park City pit stop.
On March 30 and 31, the former SSCV athlete joined most members of the U.S. Alpine Ski team at the USANA Center of Excellence for physical and cognitive tests, establishing markers to help assess a season of fitness gains and set a baseline for off-season training programs.
“It’s a tool for us to understand the physiological status of the different athletes,” Per Lundstam, the U.S. Ski Team Alpine sports science director told assembled media. The Swedish-born skier, who started working with the U.S. Ski Team in 1994 as the head strength coach — a position he held until 2010, when he left for an 11-year stint as director of performance with Red Bull — explained that the vast battery of tests are typically conducted every spring and fall.
“From there, we can understand how they develop during the season,” he said. “And the physiological characteristics that develop when they ski also are characteristics that are important for us. We try to look at those and focus on those.”
From squat jumps on force plates to vision and reaction tests and all-out cycling sufferfests, the two days are spent picking and prodding every aerobic, power, strength, agility, biomechanic and eye-sight-related skill that goes into constructing a pro skier.
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“We go through every aspect of testing — muscle endurance, peak strength, how far you can jump, how fast you can bike, how flexible you are … how fat you are,” Negomir said.
“The conclusion is I’m fat,” he continued with a laugh when asked what his takeaway has been thus far. “No, it’s good. We just got done with the bike test. I’d say that’s pretty much the hardest test we do.”
Beijing Olympian Isabella Wright agrees.
“(It) is pretty tough because you’re going to max wattage and seeing how high your lactate gets,” the 26-year-old Salt Lake native said.
“You pretty much go until you can’t move the pedals anymore, which at this point of the season takes a lot of willpower to get over that,” Negomir continued, adding that the whole rigmarole wouldn’t exactly be his first choice of activity if he was say, planning a bachelor party or something.
“It definitely isn’t fun. If you have a choice, you’re not going to volunteer,” he said before shifting to recognize the obvious value.
“But I think it’s cool to see one, the progress you’re making. As the years go by, you’re still with the team, you can see how the work you’re putting in is paying off,” he continued. “It’s fun in a competitive aspect, too, that you have all your best friends and competitors and you can kind of just push each other and see who can get the most out of themselves, which is cool.”
In terms of energy pathways utilized during downhill skiing, research suggests speed events are 46% aerobic, 26% glycolytic and 28% phosphagenic. Technical events are 30–35% aerobic, 40% glycolytic, and 25–30% phosphagenic. In layman’s terms: the energy demands for World Cup racing are a mix between Tour de France endurance and 100-meter hurdler explosiveness — all cradled within the anaerobic profile of a mid-distance runner hoping to go “all-out” for anywhere from 55 seconds to two minutes. If one wants to sound smart, throw around terms like “lactate buffering capacity” — the ability to regulate the blood’s pH level — which Lundstam and his team have also identified as “being of the utmost importance” for downhill and super-G elites.
The first day of tests included force-plate testing, vertical jumps, strength tests and bike tests. In that dreaded aerobic efficiency test, Lundstam is hoping to locate each athlete’s physiological profile to help identify optimal training zones. He does so by analyzing power output and heart rates at two different blood lactate levels, thereby determining the metabolic cost at any given workload. Through training, the ultimate goal is to improve efficiency via a higher removal rate of lactate at high intensities.
The max segment of the muscle endurance test is followed by a highly dynamic portion that includes lateral GS jumps. The second day included hamstring testing, a three-rep max single-leg squat, agility and vision tests.
“I think the vision thing is pretty new; it’s my first time doing it,” she said. “Us Alpine skiers going down the mountain at 80 mph, the stuff we see vision-wise and you know the obstacles we have to overcome — it’s pretty cool to put that to the test and see what we might see compared to other athletes in other disciplines.”
A Senaptec Sensory Station was used to measure multiple object tracking (the ability to use peripheral vision to track multiple moving targets at the same time), perception span (awareness of peripheral vision) and reaction time using a pull away technique. A RightEye technology was used to monitor both pursuit and saccade eye movements as well as evaluate steady fixation of the athlete, giving information about the accuracy of the athletes eye movements.
Lundstam is captivated by the type of fitness Alpine skiers acquire from a season of racing.
“It’s really interesting to see when the athletes have been skiing all year and how the physiology changes,” he said. “And what we see is they get really explosive in the spring many times. It’s really fascinating to see what skiing does to their explosive output when we now do the testing in the spring.”
The tests provide a two-pronged benefit. First, of course, for Team USA’s top athletes.
“A big part of testing for us is to validate all the training we do here,” Negomir said. “We have this incredible facility and all these smart people to help us in our physical training, but it’s hard to get objective data and numbers behind what you’re doing. Is it helping? Is it actually affecting your skiing?”
After taking the time to aggregate the data and convert it into actionable items for A, B and D-team skiers, Lundstam said the information also eventually trickles down to younger athletes and programs, too.
“For us, it’s so important to measure so we can understand what to do with the whole group and the whole system,” he said. “So, what we want to do is develop this testing into a really strong, sound battery and then kind of share that with our development system and the pipelines and the pathways.”
“People want to get here and do testing and understand what they look like when they reach this level of elite skiing,” he continued. “It’s really cool that we can share this with our community. That’s kind of what we really want to drive with this.”