Training to Take on the Mountains: A look at the physiological demands of alpine skiing

Monday, January 15, 2018
Training to Take on the Mountains: A look a the physiological demands of alpine skiing

What is the alpine skiing?

Alpine skiing has been a Winter Olympic competition sport since 1936 with 3 major specializations: the longer and faster downhill event, the more technical slalom, plus a combined event where athletes participate in both slalom and downhill. In individual events, athletes compete in only 2 heats or ‘runs’ with the combined time deciding the result. At the 2018 Olympics a new team event has been added to the programme with the Top 16 ranked ski nations competing in a team of 4 where they will race off head to head over the slalom course with a win in each heat (4) earning 1 point.  Elite alpine skiing has a significant heritage in Canada but currently the top nations in the world include Austria, Switzerland, Norway and Sweden.

What are the demands of alpine skiing?

The shorter slalom ski event is rapid with fast turns, as skiers attempt to successfully weave around a series of gates (positioned close together) and reach the bottom of the course as quickly as possible, usually within 30 seconds to 1 minute. Missing a gate results in a time penalty. The slalom discipline has 3 versions: the shorter slalom which is usually only 200m long, the longer giant slalom (200-400m) and super giant slalom (350-650m) of increasing distance with gates positioned further apart.  

The downhill event is comprised of less dramatic turning but is completed at very high speed. For many people hurtling at up to 150 km/h down a snow and ice-covered mountain might not be the most enjoyable activity. For an elite alpine skier, the downhill ski events represent the greatest thrill and the ultimate challenge to be the fastest and best in the world.  In the downhill race, the skier travels as fast as possible down a 1-2 km mountain course.  Because of the high speeds, the skier usually completes the course in 2-3 min. Alpine skiing in whatever form is therefore a very short and powerful sport and very different from endurance winter sports like cross country skiing.

Alpine skiing is also nearly always performed at altitude and in cold conditions, therefore the environment is a key consideration in preparing for competition. Understanding how the body responds during skiing competitions allows coaches and sport scientists to plan and modify specific training schedules to improve performance. Optimizing the performance of each run and the recovery of the athlete between runs is also a key objective of coaching and performance staff. 

How does Canadian Sport Institute Ontario provide support to alpine skiers?

The Canadian Sport Institute Ontario (CSIO) works closely with some of the best skiers in the province in order to optimize training and performance in these athletes. CSIO utilizes the integrated support team model (IST) whereby a multi-disciplinary teams of sport science, sport medicine and sport performance professionals work together to support coaches and athletes in their goal for podium success. More specifically, ISTs include experts in exercise physiology; mental performance; biomechanics and performance analysis; sport nutrition; strength and conditioning; sport medicine, including physical therapy and massage therapy; and sport administrators. The IST works regularly with coaches and athletes to ensure the athletes receive world-class care and support for their training, recovery and competition programs. The goal of an IST is to ensure that Canadian athletes are healthy, fit and psychologically ready for optimal performance.

How do IST practitioners support alpine skiers to maximize performance and reach the elite level?

Usually athletes specialize in either the slalom or downhill events, but all-round athletes also exist such as American, Mikaela Shiffrin, who has won recent World Cup competitions in both slalom and downhill. That said, no single characteristic is a determinant of success in alpine skiing and in that sense the approach to scientific analysis, training and injury prevention is multifaceted. CSIO’s staff of expert sport science practitioners provide specialist physiological analysis such as anaerobic and aerobic testing, as well as innovative and targeted training approaches and evaluation to support Alpine Ontario athletes.

Optimal performance in downhill or slalom skiing requires athletes to withstand huge forces on the body, especially the legs, to maintain balance and stability at high speed and to make dramatic turning movements around the gates positioned on the snow-covered hill. Downhill specialized competitors are generally bigger and more robust, especially in the legs, to counter the great forces. In all cases, skiers need balanced and symmetrical characteristics of the legs. By analyzing leg muscle size and circumference using a number of body composition techniques, the sport science staff at CSIO can establish which skiers are better suited to faster skiing events. The physiological testing can also help detect if there is an imbalance or asymmetry between the legs which might be a performance limitation or risk factor for injury.

Slalom athletes are lighter and more agile with great explosive power. These athletes typically perform tests of speed of movement and agility during simulated skiing drills. For example, the ‘box jump’ test, which is a ski-specific test known to predict high level skiing capacity, is performed together with blood lactate analysis to determine the stress of this task and how the athlete is adapting to training. The sport scientists at CSIO use the results of the box jump test and force output produced by the skiers in combination with analysis of the blood samples to establish how skiers might potentially fatigue during a slalom event. The sport science staff then use the results of tests like the box jump to prescribe dryland ski training to the coaching staff and athletes which are performed off the slopes.

At CSIO, ski athletes perform sensitive static and dynamic muscle function tests, coupled with functional movement analysis, and the results used to establish whether ski athletes might be at risk of knee injury. Training interventions are then prescribed to minimize the injury risk factors. One example, is to use weight training in the gym with the goal to increase the size of the body and legs, especially for downhill specialist skiers, enabling them to accommodate the demands of skiing. Endurance training, usually cycling, supplements weight training in the off season. Athletes also complete jumping, agility training and other explosive tests to ensure the training is progressing, as well as to identify and reduce the risk of injury and prepare for ski training and competition.

Due to the different length and demands of the downhill and slalom events, the physiological demands and training characteristics are different. Slalom skiers demonstrate great explosive power and agility to weave around the gates which are positioned very close to each other. Downhill skiing has a considerable anaerobic endurance component which requires skiers to both maintain an aerodynamic static tuck position and absorb huge forces for the duration of the ski run. Ski athletes experience the sensation of tension and tiredness in the legs as well as show an increase in blood lactate after a ski race. CSIO sport science staff can assess the anaerobic power of skiers using a 90 second all-out cycle test. In this test, skiers are required to cycle as hard as they can while maintaining power output. Athletes and coaches can then use these results in combination with analysis of performance and blood lactate response when skiing. The physiology team at CSIO has extensive experience in the analysis of results to assist athletes and coaches in talent identification, establishing an athlete’s current performance level, and prescribing individualized training plans.

How do alpine skiers prepare for skiing competition?

Most elite athletes are based in locations where snow is common year-round. In the off season, the athletes complete extensive dryland training. Athletes aim to train for power and anaerobic endurance characteristics in dryland training, including weight training, then convert these characteristics to performance in competition by completing many hours of practice on mountain slopes at training camps. CSIO has been instrumental in providing advice and specific dryland training programming to Alpine Ontario and its provincial ski team and development squads to ensure general fitness is developed prior to attending the camps so skiers can perform during the intensive training.

In the summer, Team Ontario skiers attend camps on the slopes of South America or at higher glacier locations in North America or Europe. Training on the mountain at high altitude requires skiers to perform over a dozen runs each day for 2 weeks. The sport science staff at CSIO advises coaches on preparatory dryland training in cycling and weight training in order to have the athletes conditioned to attend the camps. Wellness, performance level, and recovery of athletes is monitored using scientific techniques to assess movement quality and the body’s response to each ski run, indicating changes in performance level. Recovery interventions after lengthy sessions at high altitude are also included in the athletes’ preparation regime.

Using on hill analysis and innovative laboratory testing procedures, staff at CSIO have been able to better understand the demands of alpine skiing and characteristics of skiers. Using cutting edge training approaches such as altitude training in CSIO’s state-of-the-art environmental chamber, we can better prepare athletes for the rigors of training and ski competition at altitude.

Team Canada at the 2018 Olympic Games in PyeongChang will include 15 alpine ski athletes competing in individual and team events. The alpine skiing competition at the 2018 Olympic Games occurs between February 11th and 24th.

About Canadian Sport Institute Ontario

Canadian Sport Institute Ontario (CSIO) is a non-profit organization committed to the pursuit of excellence by providing world-class programs, services, and leadership to high performance athletes and coaches to enhance their ability to achieve international podium performances. CSIO offers athletes a range of sport science and sport medicine services including nutrition, physiology, biomechanics, strength & conditioning, mental performance, sport therapy and life services. CSIO also delivers programming and services to National and Provincial Sport Organizations and coaches to work towards building a stronger sport system in Ontario and Canada.

CSIO services approximately 700 high performance athletes and 250 coaches, at its main facility at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre, its satellite location at the Mattamy National Cycling Centre in Milton, and in daily training environments across Ontario. CSIO is part of a larger network of 4 institutes and 3 multi-sport centres across the country known as the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Sport Institute Network, working in partnership with the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee. CSIO is further supported by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, Sport Canada, Own the Podium, and the Coaching Association of Canada, along with the National and Provincial Sport Organizations within the sector.  www.csiontario.ca

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Written By:

David Bentley, Sport Physiologist, Canadian Sport Institute Ontario

Media Contact:

Laura Albright, Manager, Communications & Events

Canadian Sport Institute Ontario

Tel: 416.596.1240 Ext. 238

Email: lalbright@csiontario.ca

www.csiontario.ca

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