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. Says Weaver, "In rollerskiing, I use the exact same motions using the exact same muscles as when I'm on snow." Evan Dybvig, a freestyle mogul skier, has made the trampoline his new best friend. "He puts himself in a movement stance similar to freestyle skiing," says trainer Bill Knowles. "We're replicating mogul movement: it's the action of the knee and the hip, and ability to absorb [the shock of] moguls" while keeping balance.
Sport-specific training doesn't have to mean running the actual course or performing the exact event. There are other ways to work the right muscles and train the right pattern of movement. Luge, for instance, requires precise control of infinitesimal muscle movements: "Overcorrect on a turn," says driver Mark Grimmette, "and you're dead." To achieve that precise control, he and his doubles partner, Brian Martin, devote a good chunk of their training time to exercises on those squishy rubber spheres called a Swiss ball. Doing sit-ups on a Swiss ball, for instance, develops torso control as well as strength. The luge athletes also shoulder-press 15 pounds while balancing on a six-inch foam roller, which works the core muscles needed to maintain balance. In figure skating, "when biomechanics experts looked at jumping, they found that upper-body strength is the key to triple axels," says Dr. Mahlon Bradley of the U.S. Figure Skating Association. "Strength gives you the ability to control your position in the air, and lets you quickly get your arms into position for a tight rotation." That's why Olympic hopeful and former world junior champion Jennifer Kirk, 17, not only practices her long and short programs repeatedly but also does weight work and plyometrics at a gym. Plyometrics, the hot new thing in strength training, is based on the discovery that if a muscle stretches and immediately contracts, the contraction is stronger than if the muscle began at rest. To achieve the requisite slight stretch followed by a high-speed contraction, athletes jump off and back onto boxes like aerialist Bergoust, or do sit-ups on Swiss balls: starting the sit-up with an arched back stretches the abdominal muscles before making them contract.
The advances in physiology that have revolutionized training are giving sports scientists a better understanding of how to improve strength, power, speed and both aerobic and anaerobic fitness:
Speed is partly genetic: a star sprinter is probably born with a preponderance of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which fire repeatedly with only microsecond rests in between. Speed training therefore aims to recruit more fast-twitch fibers and increase the speed of nerve signals that command muscles to move. Zach Lund races skeleton (a head-first, belly-down sled race), in which the start is crucial. He has to sprint in a bent-over position (pushing his sled along the track), then hop in without slowing the sled. "You have to go from a hard sprint to being really calm in order to go down the track well," says Lund. To improve his speed he does leg presses while lying on his back, or leg curls on his stomach (bringing his foot to his backside).
Strength reflects the percentage of muscle fibers the body can recruit for a given movement. The thigh's quadriceps, for instance, consist of millions of fibers organized into what are called motor units. When a speed skater pushes off the ice, he recruits a certain percentage of them to fire; the others are relaxing and so do not contribute to the movement. "Someone with pure strength can recruit 90 percent of these fibers, while someone else recruits only 50 percent," says the USOC's Davis. Strength training, through high resistance and low repetitions, results in greater recruitment. That also increases the number of energy-making sites (called mitochondria) in muscle cells, as well as the synthesis of the muscle fibers actin and myosin. "During heavy-resistance training, you turn on this synthesis and the muscle gets bigger," says Carl Foster of the University of Wisconsin.
Aerobic fitness is hockey star Cammi Granato's goal one autumn morning at the USOC training center in Lake Placid, N.Y. "OK, Cammi, get it up, get it up," Ken Rundell barks out as she pedals a stationary bike with sweaty fury. "Drift back down to your pace... Use both legs here, Cammi, both legs! All the way around! Hold that pace, keep pushing, go, go, go! One minute of your best time ever... sprint it out, sprint it out!" When Granato finally staggers off the bike and crumples onto the padded platform, she's had a tougher workout than in any hockey period--which is exactly the point. Hockey is a series of aerobic bursts, explains Rundell, in which muscle cells burn carbohydrates or fat with oxygen. A hockey player therefore has to whip her heart and lungs into good enough shape to keep the oxygen coming. One measure of that is how long it takes to expend a set amount of energy (100 kilojoules, for those trying this at their home gym) on a stationary bike ride like Granato's.
In a new NBC commercial for the Winter Games, a young Granato decks a tiny figure skater, but these athletes are no wimps. They need phenomenal aerobic power no less than hockey players do. One minute into a four-minute routine, a figure skater's heart rate has reached its maximum and has to stay there. "Achieving this requires huge volumes of low-intensity aerobic work, like six-hour runs," says Steven Gaskill of the University of Montana. Jennifer Kirk's coaches, Evy and Mary Scotvold, build her stamina to the point where she can execute her long program twice per session. "If you can only get through it once," says Mary, "in competition you'll start missing jumps for lack of oxygen." To get the aerobic fitness he needs for cross-country skiing, Patrick Weaver runs in the woods or hikes in the mountains for up to five hours a day.
Anaerobic fitness keeps the muscles moving even when the heart can't provide enough oxygen. "It's what you need to execute a triple axel at the end of the men's four-and-a-half-minute program," says Dr. Mark Farber of Indiana University. By this point the body is typically awash in lactic acid. Lactic acid ties up muscles. To postpone the point when acid begins to accumulate, or at least train the body to tolerate it, Jim Walker has the speed skaters he works with push themselves beyond what they need to do in competition. Sprinters who skate 500 meters in the Olympics, for instance, power through multiple 300 meters, and do it faster than they skate the 500. "The idea is to train your muscles to function in that acidic environment," says Walker. "Part of it is mental: it burns just as bad but it doesn't bother you. Part is physical: the body learns to clear the lactic acid faster." When Rusty Smith, world champion in the 5,000 meter, does these "lactic-acid workouts" (between stints in the hardware department at Home Depot, part of a USOC program), he says, it's all about "seeing how much pain your legs can take." By raising the anaerobic threshold, the training gives skaters a better shot at exploding with a sprint at the finish.
Power is strength with speed. "One of the biggest changes in strength training is that we're getting away from pure strength and emphasizing power, or explosive strength," says USOC strength-and-conditioning coordinator Kevin Ebel. High resistance and low reps increase pure strength, but power comes from more and faster reps. "Traditional weight training is not the only way to develop power," says Stephen Swanson of the Orthopedic Hospital. "You can also do explosive plyometrics, like throwing a 16-pound medicine ball." Plyometrics--a typical move is a back squat into a jump--"recruits more muscle fibers and gets them to fire faster," says the USOC's Ebel, "letting you jump higher or push a weight like a bobsled faster."
It's still difficult to persuade coaches to let sports scientists mess with their athletes. Despite the finding that drafting reduces the demand on the heart of a speed skater and generally improves performance, for instance, most skaters still prefer to go out fast and first. To overcome such resistance, the USOC's Peter Davis has set up "performance-enhancing teams" where coaches and scientists put their heads together and apply the best science to training. Come February, the world will see how science fared in its attempt to mold athletic excellence