There were two presentations on the third day of the 2011 USST/USSA coaches education symposium held at the Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah. The first presentation was given by USST strength coach, Alex Moore, and the second was by USST doctor and physiologist, Jim Stray-Gunderson.
Moore gave a short spoken presentation and a tour of the strength and testing facilities at the Center of Excellence (COE), followed by a live demonstration of stretches and exercises.(Note: The USST is working to post video of all presentations, including this strength presentation, online.)
Moore is concerned with not only building strength for power but also strength that prevents injury. For this reason Moore echoed some of the same talking points that USST physical therapist Tara Fontenot had presented the day before. In everything he talked about – both in the presentation and in the weight room – Moore was adamant about posture, technique, and mobility.
He says that injury often starts outside the area of pain. For example, take a skier with lower back pain. This could lead to shin pressure further down the road. With back pain, the Transverse Abdominal (TA) cannot keep a constant contraction and so all the muscles on top have to do much more work. The skier also loses much control of the spine and also the pelvis, which in turn throws the hips out of alignment. Which makes it harder to balance on the ski. Which causes the balance muscles in the legs to work much harder. Which causes shin pressure and/or pain. . . .
Moore talked about being careful to not overly load the thoracic spine outside of ski training. For this reason he likes to be careful about the strength load and repetitions and how the skiers are performing the exercises. He likes to keep the repetitions low and the strength higher in all strength training, even core (he believes the athletes get enough low-repetition work in their every-day training). He added that high-repetition core training was an additional high load stressor on the back.
Moore then gave a tour of the USST strength room, which includes many modes of testing, therapy, and recovery as well as extra rooms for recovery, resting and nutrition.
Moore talked about the various means of testing athletes and showed the equipment set up to do so, including a rollerski treadmill with supplemental oxygen used for VO2 max tests and a force plate used to compute elasticity and force. There is also a video camera set up to tape and review technique during power lifting. Moore is very serious about having his athletes perform these max strength exercises as precisely as possible, in order to both avoid injury and target the exact muscles desired.
Moore then demonstrated several exercises focused on mobility, dynamic stretching, and core that he asks the athletes to perform at the beginning of each strength session. He also has the athletes repeat 3-5 minutes of the mobility exercises after the strength and core, in order to “unload” the hips. In every exercise, technique and focus on body and hip position are critical.
Moore gave his philosophy on not over-fatiguing the athletes during the strength session. If the athlete completes each exercise to failure – or max – this puts a lot of stress on the nervous system and they will not have enough energy to complete the other training required of them with worthwhile energy. Therefore, Moore asks the athletes to do one less repetition than failure; for example, if 8 reps with 60 lbs is the maximum number an athlete can perform, Moore asks the athlete to only do 7 reps. This practice is especially important in a high-volume or high-intensity week. In total, Moore likes to keep his strength sessions to 1 hour.
Recovery: Moore recommends that his athletes cool down, eat a light snack , use the hot and cold pools, then eat a larger recovery meal. The cold pool is set to 48 degrees F, and the hot pool is set at 105 degrees F. The athletes spend 3 minutes in the hot and 2 in the cold and repeat for 20 minutes. He says that the athletes feel a huge difference in their body when they perform this type of recovery, and believes this type of hot/cold water bath treatment acts to refresh the neural system more than the muscular system.
Race season strength: Moore likes the athletes to keep up with strength in the race season. He says that in order to not get sore, an athlete has to perform strength once a week. The sessions are kept short, 25 minutes, and include mobility warm-up, 3 core exercises, and 3 strength exercises.
Moore concluded by assuring that strength training was “not rocket science”. He thinks the key things to keep in mind are:
1.progression (focus on strength gain early season and progress toward velocity as race season approaches)
2. “less than more” (lighter weight but better technique/range of motion)
3. ensure each session and each exercise in session are of highest quality
4. don’t leave the gym “cooked”
The next speaker was Jim Stray-Gundersen, M.D., who is the Head Physiologist at the USST. He spoke on the topic of Training Monitoring, and pointed out right away that training monitoring was really “Athlete” Monitoring.
Dr. Stray-Gundersen listed the many ways of keeping track of an individual’s training and energy levels and reflected on the relevance and accuracy of each method.
Despite all the highly scientific methods of testing and monitoring available, Stray-Gundersen pointed out that one of the best methods was for the athlete to have a very good “feel” for their own energy level and health. He was adamant that an athlete wishing to learn how their body reacts to training and monitor their current levels of fitness and health must keep a “Living Log”. More than just a log for training hours, a living log should also list the energy level, activity, sleep, heart rates, nutrition, etc, of the athlete.
Dr. Stray-Gundersen talked about lactate; the myths associated with lactate and the problems with monitoring lactate. It is easy to make errors when testing for lactate because the results differ with hydration, altitude, health, and a number of other factors. Lactate also fluctuates during a short interval, and to do an accurate test for comparison and monitoring purposes, the test must be during a longer interval and try to mimic the same conditions as the previous test. (For all his misgivings about lactate tests, Stray-Gundersen still believes they are useful if done “with educated use”).
Dr. Stray-Gundersen talked about the importance of red blood cells and their effect on VO2 max levels. An iron deficiency limits erythropoiesis, which is the production of red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen to the muscles. So iron deficiency limits an athlete’s oxygen carrying capacity. He cited some amazing figures for the prevalence of iron deficiency on the national team level: 67% women and 20% of men had insufficient iron levels when tested.
It is most important to know an athlete’s hemoglobin and serum ferritin levels. Hemoglobin carries oxygen to the tissues. Ferritin is an indicator of iron stores. He points out that an athlete will have to specifically request “a CBC with a serum ferritin test” if they see their family doctor for an iron test, because a doctor will not automatically test for ferritin. Ferritin levels should be between 40 and 100. Hemoglobin should be 12-16.
Dr. Stray-Gunderson warns that an athlete should only take supplements for iron deficiency if they are being closely monitored, as an excess of iron is very toxic to the body. He recommends a liquid supplement which is easier to both take and digest than a pill. It should always be taken with vitamin C, as the acid creates an easier means for iron absorption.
Altitude training. Dr. Stray Gundersen says that it is best to live high and train low. Of course, that is not possible for many, but he advised strategies for both those living low and living high who want to race at both sea level and high altitude. For those living low: get to altitude for several training camps. For those living high: try to get to low altitude every once in a while – if possible, once a week, to develop speed. If frequent trips to low altitude are not possible and you want to race quickly at low altitude, try to do a camp at sea level one month prior to the competition.
In conclusion, Dr. Stray-Gundersen listed the best ways to monitor an athlete and their training: living log, resting heart rate, heart rate variability, sleep quality and duration, overall feeling, iron levels, psychological health (questionnaires such as SIMS or POMS), body composition, time trials, distance sets for time, treadmill max tests. If a number of these methods are implemented with regularity and diligence, it is possible to quickly identify or even predict the point at which an athlete stops responding positively to training.