While returning to snow remains a mystery for some, it has already arrived for others. Returning to training both on the hill and off provides a therapeutic dose of normalcy to the lives of all ski racing athletes. Inherently, we would all like to pick up where we left off and dive right into the deep end of pool in terms of training volume/intensity, but we know that is not feasible. As is the case with on snow training, dryland training requires a calculated plan to mold athletes back into form after a long layoff. This year, much like everything else, has been quite the anomaly.
In strength and conditioning, every program follows the same basic structure no matter the periodization model one chooses to employ. We never throw an athlete under the bar with maximal weight on day one, in fact it is quite a long time before that ever happens. Athletes go through an introductory or general preparatory period (GPP) divided into multiple cycles of loading and unloading volume/intensity.
After some time spent developing general physical qualities, specific fitness qualities are targeted, and we enter specific physical preparation (SPP). This is where we can address the unique aspects of the sport and help develop the necessary power, speed, endurance, etc. required to compete at a high level. This period of time also includes a heavy dose of tactical and technical training alongside the physical training, as it typically runs through the preseason right into the first competition athletes encounter.
After competition season (where we hope to maintain and slightly improve athlete’s physiological qualities) we enter the transition period where athletes are encouraged to recover and rejuvenate before restarting offseason training. Unfortunately, the season ended rather early for all competitive skiers, and we entered the longest transition period most of us have ever seen. In a regular year, we aim for a transition period of around 2-3 weeks for athletes before commencing our offseason training, any longer that and we risk muscle atrophy, serious strength/power loss, and declined aerobic capacity (1).
During this season, despite everybody’s best efforts to train from home, we experienced a transition period spanning over two months. We are lucky, however, that this pandemic hit when it did in terms of physical fitness for skiing, as it folded into the transition period we would normally take.
Meet them where they’re at
Now that we’ve entered June, time can feel like it is slipping away at a rapid pace. Normally by this time of the year the athletes I train would have several weeks of training under their belt and developed a solid aerobic base. We would be targeting significant strength gains and already greatly reduced their relative risk for injury on snow. This year, however, is obviously not the same case. We’ve only begun some training over the past couple weeks and although I applaud all of the enthusiasm and excitement to get back to work, we had to start from square one.
With a layoff period of over two months, athletes become significantly detrained. Providing an overdose of training stimulus is a sure-fire way to inadequately recover and stall performance gains. Before a coach ever even dives into the X’s and O’s of how to train somebody, the two golden rules they must always abide by are 1) Do no harm and 2) Always provide the minimal effective dose. Training should always be as efficient and effective as possible, any extra fluff or volume simply for the sake of doing so is a waste of everybody’s time.
Day 1 back in the gym is surprisingly rather anti climatic. We focus on addressing any movement asymmetries or deficiencies an athlete may have. Valgus knee collapse while squatting? Thoracic extension while pressing? Poor heel strike and/or running mechanics while sprinting? Focus on fixing all of these things and addressing them right away when training begins so that you’re not building your foundation on a sand lot.
If you fail to address these things, the home will eventually collapse or in this case, the athlete will break. From there, test the athlete’s fitness capabilities and see where they are deficient. Perhaps they lost a lot of strength but were able to get out for a run every day in order to keep up their aerobic capacity. This will guide your program and serve as the compass for where training needs to be focused.
Next, as previously mentioned, start with the minimal effective dose to be effective. Training, particularly resistance training and high-speed movements do much more than put stress on our muscles. Our joints, tendons, ligaments, and bones must all be able to withstand high levels of training stimulus. If we never provide them with the opportunity to receive a stimulus, recover and adapt, then we will be setting ourselves up for injury down the road. One of the most famous sport scientists of all time, Tudor Bompa, refers to these early stages of training/adaption as Anatomical Adaption (2). These are typically seen after our transition period, and allow us to build training tolerance, or as I like to call it, train so that we are ready to train.
Once we’ve worked our way back into being able to handle higher loads and intense training sessions, then we can give our athletes greater stimulus and heavier doses of training. It’s important to follow the process, not necessary the timeline. What I mean is that we should be to connect all of the pieces to the puzzle.
Just because October rolls around and we can ski, should we? Maybe not, we may need another block of training because we haven’t gotten to the destination as far as our fitness is concerned that we would like. The nine-month timetable to return to skiing after tearing your ACL is just a general guideline not gospel. You should be looking for specific force generating capabilities and symmetries between limbs, not looking to the calendar for answers.
I’ll the first person to express my sheer excitement for our recent ability to begin training and skiing again. I wake up every day excited to help athletes increase their fitness and resiliency in order to reach their goals of becoming the World Cup’s finest. All of that being said, it is important to check all of the necessary boxes for returning to sport for ensured safety and performance. Remember that training goes beyond one camp, one day, or one session. It’s about being consistent, trusting the process, and linking together intelligently programmed efforts day in and day out.
- Issurin, V. B. (2009). Generalized training effects induced by athletic preparation: a review. Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness, 49(4), 333.
- Bompa, T., & Buzzichelli, C. (2015). Periodization Training for Sports, 3E. Human kinetics.