Gold-Medal Workouts: Drawing on Biomechanics and Other Sports Science, Olympic Hopefuls Target Just the Right Muscles and Moves

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, December 17, 2001 | Go to article overview

Gold-Medal Workouts: Drawing on Biomechanics and Other Sports Science, Olympic Hopefuls Target Just the Right Muscles and Moves


Begley, Sharon, Newsweek


Byline: Sharon Begley

Aerial skier Eric Bergoust is known for risking life and limb by hurling himself into the air from a ski ramp and twisting, flipping, twisting, flipping, until he has executed four of one and three of the other before nailing his landing. So it's not immediately obvious why, one summer afternoon at his training gym near Utah Olympic Park, he's sitting at a 45-degree angle on a big squishy exercise ball, holding a 10-pound medicine ball and twisting to each side like a kid who's really nervous about being picked in a game of duck, duck, goose. Nor is it clear why Bergoust follows that by jumping off two-and three-foot platforms and springing right back onto them. To achieve the power and agility he needs for his midair acrobatics at the Olympics in February, says Bergoust, "I train like cats would if they wanted to be better cats."

Olympians of yesteryear shared the same goal, but they would hardly recognize today's training techniques. To achieve the Olympian ideal of "faster, higher, stronger," coaches now realize, athletes don't have to train more but they do have to train smarter. That's why, these days, cross-country (Nordic) skiers kneel on skateboards and tug on pulleys to haul themselves up a ramp. Bobsledders practice sprinting in a near-shuffling style that would make Maurice Greene wince. Pixie-ish figure skaters hurl 10-pound medicine balls--all because science has parsed nearly every move of every Olympic event and figured out what athletes must do to bring back the gold. That Nordic skier, for instance, is training to strengthen her upper body, which scientists find is the single greatest determinant of cross-country speed. The bobsled starter's odd sprint stance reflects the realization that he can't impart any forward oomph to the sled if his feet are off the ice, so unlike track sprinters, whose ideal form has them in the air much of the time, the bobsled athlete trains to keep his feet on the ground. The figure skater's medicine ball is strengthening her arms and torso so she can routinely perform triple jumps undreamed of a generation ago. "We've greatly increased our knowledge about what's happening at the cellular and molecular level," says Peter Davis, who heads the sports-science division of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC). "So in the last few years, we've been able to design programs so athletes can do more effective training without going down dead ends."

By analyzing every motion that goes into a ski jump, a luge run, a mogul run, the science of biomechanics breaks down events into their component parts and determines what movements of which muscles are the key to a superlative performance. Knowing that is crucial for a simple but, to many coaches and trainers, unexpected reason: it turns out that although training for general conditioning improves fitness, the best way to boost performance is by working the muscles and practicing the moves that will be used in competition. It's called sport-specific training. "We've learned that the most effective training replicates the patterns of nerve firing and muscle movements that the athletes use in their events," says James Walker of the Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Utah, a USOC training site. "You have to stimulate the neuromuscular system to fire in the pattern specific to the sport you're training for."

That's why long-track speed-skater Annie Driscoll, for instance, trains off-season by running, cycling, weight lifting and in-line skating six days a week, for three to eight hours a day. "But the closer we get to competition the more on-ice training we're doing," Driscoll says, with sprints, laps and whole-race simulations. And that's why cross-country skier Patrick Weaver is wearing out his arms double-poling on rollerskis: biomechanics has shown that more than half the propulsive force during uphill climbs comes from the upper body--in other words, from poling, finds the USOC's Kenneth Rundell. …

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