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A perspective of world cup racers preparation during the Downhill Races at Lake Louise, Canada
by Louis J. Stack, Canadian National Speed Skiing Team 1990-1995
When the White Circus comes to the Canadian Rocky Mountains it is always a special event for both the racers and the locals. The races held at Lake Louise Ski Area in Nov 2000 were extra special in that it is rare on the World Cup circuit that the Men's and the Women's teams run back to back races on the same course.
What made this race even more unique is that the venue is one of the most spectacular locations in the world. In fact in the late 1990's the European travel association voted the Chateau Lake Louise Hotel, with its 488 rooms situated at the foot of Victoria Glacier, as the most scenic location in the world. And the best part of this race, excluding the demanding course itself, was that the 5-Star Chateau was large enough to house all the teams and support personnel in one location. The only other hotel on the World Cup circuit that can accommodate an entire team is in St. Anton, Switzerland.
So when over 600 World Cup Downhill racers, trainers, coaches, technicians and support teams ascend on this jewel of the Rockies it is the beginning of a very special experience. This year's event opened with the running of the men's downhill and super G in week one, followed by the arrival of the women for their two downhills and closing super G in week two. It was going to be a busy 12 days for the organizers. In total over 1000 people would be in and out of the venue each day as the White Circus paraded its way from the Chateau to the course for each day's events.
Organizers worked with the FIS and the Mountain to assure that the man made snow was adequate for the high-speed 2800 vertical drop course. But what if weather or snow conditions played havoc with the race? What would they do with these many highly trained athletes in the off slope time? The Spa at the Chateau is nice but it was never intended to handle this volume of people. The hotel was quick to offer its spectacular Glacier Room lounge in the center of the hotel lobby to be converted into a gym to house the athletes for morning stretch and post run work outs. It was suggested that the organizers call my Calgary-based company, Fitter International Inc. to see if we could possible convert this spectacular lounge into a world-class training center.
My phone rang only a few days before the teams were scheduled to begin arriving at the Chateau Lake Louise. After a brief discussion outlining the technical issues related to the request, I was quick to say that the Fitter Team would take the challenge. As I saw it, this was my chance to give the racers an in-house facility that would be unmatched at any other event in their World Cup Season. I knew from my own 5 years racing on the World Cup Speed Skiing Circuit that no big machines and heavy weights were required to give these athletes the best 12-day gym they ever had.
My job was clear and time was short. The University of Calgary Olympic speed skating oval and Human Performance lab were quick to lend me 6 high-end stationary bikes. A few big screen TV's were borrowed from Audio Visual Interiors in Calgary, and then I started to build my list of Fitter equipment required to outfit a portable World Class Functional Training Gym.
The list included Fitter Balls, Balance Boards, Bongo Boards, Pro Fitter 3-D Cross Trainers, SRF Boards, Heavy balls, rebounders, resistance cords and a set of 30 pound weights. For good measure I added a Shuttle 2000 plyometric jump trainer, an arsenal of functional training videos (mainly Paul Chek's tapes) and an assortment of new products that the company had been developing. As I loaded the van and trailer I pondered the scope of this task in comparison to a similar task undertaken 16 years ago.
You see, it was at the Chateau Lake Louise back in April 1985 that I presented my first Pro Fitter to a large group of World Cup Ski Races that had got together at the request of Crazy Canuck Ken Read to help raise money for Cystic Fibrosis. A friend from a 1979 hospital visit, famous Canadian downhiller Todd Brooker, had just come off another knee surgery and I told him about this machine that I had developed based on an Austrian Ski machine from the late 1970's. With input from a few well known physiotherapists who tried the product on other injured skiers we had designed a machine that was very effective for regaining functional strength and awareness in joints after injury.
Todd said he would love to try it and suggested I meet him in the Glacier Lounge in the lobby of the Chateau. It was about 4:30 PM and streams of famous skiers were strolling the lobby and there was Todd zipping back and forth on my first Pro Fitter Ski Cross Trainer. He liked it! After a few hours of non stop interest from the likes of Nancy Green, Scott Henderson, Walter Wolf and a host of other famous ski industry folks, I knew that the Pro Fitter would have a significant impact on the future of injury rehab and dry land ski training.
Back at the World Cup of 2000, and after many hours of loading and unloading gear the gym was ready to go. The Men's teams were quick to come to check out the "Fitter Functional Gym" and from the get-go it was a hit. The most popular products were the Balls, the Wobble and the Bongo Boards as many of the athletes had played on them before. I had the pleasure of upping the ante by showing the guys how to combine the Bongo Board with heavy balls and rebounders.
The essence of this skill-building task was to try to throw the heavy ball at the rebounder and then try to catch it again. This is a fairly tough task as even the slightest bit of balance loss was compounded instantly by the weight of the ball when you tried to catch it. An off center catch would force the Bongo into a spin and that required an immediate subconscious reaction to try and regain control. I like to call it survival time. It was a little like sitting back too far on your skis when you carve into a turn and the skis will snap you either forward or back as you try to set up for the next turn. With out an instantaneous response the racer would find himself spinning backward off the course (much like what happened to Canadian hopeful Kevin Wert seconds before he hit the net at top speed above coach's corner).
I challenged the racers to a head to head game of heavy ball toss between two athletes both on Bongo Boards. Again the bar was raised as each person had an opponent who was trying to win the challenge. The good news is that on a downhill course the only players are the racer and gravity so the head to head challenge was not as sport specific as some of the other activities.
The 30 or so Fitness balls I had inflated were also tools that every racer was very familiar with. Some guys used them for stretching while others trained their balance by standing on them and then dropping into a tuck. Again, this was a fine motor skill-developing task that forced very precise weight distribution on each foot. The strength coach for the Canadians, David Ellis, had his own tricks up his sleeve. He had the athlete hold two long latex tubes in their hands as if they were poles. David would stand behind or beside the ball bound racer and proceed to try to pull them off balance with sharp multi directional yanks on the stretchy tubes. The sensation for the racers was very similar to the effects of the force of the wind at 60 to 80 MPH. Similar to the Bongo Board, any weight shift required a precise and immediate adjustment of the athletes weight distribution.
The gym was busy from 3 PM to about 6 PM each day as the racers come to unwind from the days training or racing runs. Most would start off spinning on a bike and looking out to Victoria Glacier as they visualized their earlier run. Some of the teams were inclined to play snow soccer just in front of the Chateau and a few would disappear out onto the frozen lake as they headed out for a run. At its peak time each day there would be as many as 40 athletes doing a wide variety of skill building, neurological tweaking in order to sharpen the mental and physical prowess for the next days event.
A few interesting observations I made were that the most aggressive athletes, when it came to balance and reaction training products were the Austrians. After seeing how quickly some of them could adapt to a new skill I realized that this type of training was second nature to them. On the other hand, the Italians, although extremely strong, seemed to be more challenged in trying to figure out how to respond to some of these new neuromuscular training tools. The Americans were initially distant to using products that they were unfamiliar with, but like many of the other teams, their interest got the best of them and they started to challenge themselves with these interesting skill-building tools.
As the race days neared the training became more focused. Less playing and more team structure seemed to be the norm. Most teams tended to arrive at the functional gym and warm up and then stretch out in a group. There was very little interest in the weights or the plyometric jumping machine as the athletes did not want to tax their muscles any more than required. The theory here was to not exhaust oneself, instead, attempt to peak both mentally and physically the day of the race.
As I see it, the way to win a world cup downhill or Super G is to have the smoothest, quietest run possible where gravity functions solely as an accomplice and never as an enemy. In simple terms, if you have ever had an off-day on the slopes you will likely recall how much more effort it was to keep over top of your skis and remain in perfect control. Some people call poor balance "flailing"; I call it setting up for the fall! Any skier who has not mastered their relationship with gravity will not successfully race World Cup or free ski, for very long. Here are the names of the men who had the best relationship with gravity at Lake Louise:
The men's event winners were:Downhill - Stephan Egerharter, AustriaSuper G - Herman Maier, Austria
The next 6 days brought over 60 of the fastest female ski racers on the planet to the Chateau. I was immediately busy answering questions and showing the ladies how they could add new twists to some of the tools they had available to them. The Women's teams were all good friends that were generally happy to be in one place, compared to the men who were more reclusive, all hanging out in the same training area. It was a true pleasure to see how skilled and determined these gals were as they quickly mastered each of the different skill building tools. They too had their team-mates to chum with and their own agenda, but somehow the whole environment felt very friendly and supportive.
One side note was that I had the pleasure of dining with all the athletes at each meal. At the Men's event, I felt there was not too much encouragement for me to join any of the 8 person dinner tables. Lucky for me that the Canadian athletes, medical staff, and tech mostly knew me so they generally made me welcome at their tables, as did the smaller teams such as Norway and Australia. On the other hand, the Women's teams were much more upbeat at the meals and would often encourage me to join their table if there happened to be an extra seat. I wish I could say that this was all because of my wonderful male charisma, but in these circles, the competition amongst the young, strong and handsome men was well above anything this 41 year old ex-racer had to offer.
In the gym the ladies were continually surprising me with all the different approaches they had to race preparation. It was obvious that some came from backgrounds of gymnastics and others from track and field. I noticed the coaches also spent more time working one-on-one with the female athletes than they did with the men. Clearly the goal was the same for the ladies as the men. That was to challenge their neuromuscular abilities while avoiding exercises that were over-taxing on the muscles. These ladies had 3 races in which to compete over the next five days, and every one of them had the desire to be successful and healthy at the end of it all.
One team introduced me to a sort of 3 ball jousting game they accidentally started when they were free balancing atop fitness balls. A racer placed her feet on a smaller ball and challenged the coach to do the same. What unfolded was an unpredictable jousting game where the opponents tried to stay balanced on their butts and hands while they attempted to knock the other off balance by kicking the center ball. I was amused to see just how assertive this gal was as her coach managed to catch her off balance as she rolled onto her back and lost her footing on the middle ball. She looked as though she was a goner but her survival instinct had another plan. In her desperate attempt to avoid hitting the floor first, she rolled off her ball and muscled her right leg past the center ball and hit the coach's ball with such force that she regained her balanced position and he went for a big crash into the floor. It was a classic example of what it takes to stay on top of the situation as a world cup ski racer. Had this been on the snow at 70 mph I believe we would have called it a spectacular recovery that led to a well-earned finish.
It seemed that the women's teams spent more time in the functional training gym than the men did. I had a lot more inquires from coaches, trainers and medical staff wondering how to best incorporate the lightweight and affordable training tools into the teams on the road programs. Another unexpected development was that we had to ship stock from our head office in Calgary as so many gals bought product and educational materials for their own personal use. It was also interesting to note that a few of the European women had used Pro Fitters in their summer training programs.
It was a wonderful 6 days and the second set of races went off without a hitch.
The Women's event winners were:Downhill 1 - Petra Haltmeyer GermanyDownhill 2 - Isolde Kostener, ItalySuper G - Renate Gotschl, Austria
In summary, the things I learned about Training habits of World Cup skiers in the days prior to a race included:
Each time I saw a racer who had crashed during their run, I was reminded of just how physically and mentally painful the next visit to the course would be. I had my own 175 kph crash in Sweden in 1993 and the mental wall was more of a challenge than the physical discomfort I experienced as I stood in the starting gate at the next days training run.
World Cup Downhillers are a unique breed of skiers that have pushed the envelope to its maximum limit. Recreational skiers, regardless of their skill level, have the same basic requirements placed on them, but their zone is much less extreme.
The most valuable thing you can do to improve your skiing and reduce your risk of injury is to do what the worlds best downhillers do: that is, to continually work at enhancing your functional strength by integrating balance training and skill building into your daily life. This might include free standing on one leg when you're on the phone or brushing your teeth. Or try putting a Wobble or Bongo Board in your office or home to stand on it when on the phone, watching TV or preparing dinner. Also make sure you have a Ball in your life! Every home and office should have a big fitness ball to use as a chair and to stretch out on. It will make you and others smile or laugh when you decide to begin active sitting on it at your computer. In fact I and all the Fitter staff sit on the ball all day long as it dramatically improves ones balance, core strength and posture. Active sitting and standing will allow you to work on training your body to react favorably to gravity in any situation.
I personally guarantee you that the more fall and injury free ski days you have, the more pleasure you will get out of this wonderful sport. In my 35 years of skiing I have had my fair share of falls, however, the vast majority of the bad ones came before I discovered that I could train my functional skills of balance, coordination and body awareness 8 - 12 hours a day while I worked in my office, played with my kids and exercised in the great outdoors.
I wish you a wonderful and safe ski season.