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Running Mechanics and the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics

– Derek M. Hansen –

With the 2010 Winter Olympics taking place in Vancouver, Canada, we are exposed to a wide array of different sports that rely heavily on unique skill-sets that are not required for conventional summer sports. Events involving flips, twists, jumps and edge-control, all while wearing either skin-tight or baggy style-conscious outfits, dominate the landscape. Additionally, almost every sport in the winter Olympics is heavily dependent on the effective design and use of equipment – whether it is skates, skiis, sled runners, aerodynamic designs or application of wax. While running is the dominant activity in the summer Olympics, we only catch a glimpse of it in sports such as bobsleigh and skeleton where it is required for starts. So does running play even a minor role in the preparation of Winter Olympics athletes?


General Conditioning

It can safely be assumed that almost every athlete in the Winter Olympic Games has used running, in some form or another, as a means of general conditioning during the dry-land preparation. Whether or not running is absolutely required for their training is debatable. In fact, it seems that cycling is a staple of off-season winter games training, particularly for the longer skating and skiing events. Running tends to work more elastic responses in the lower legs and feet, while skating and cross-country skiing events rely on a longer push and greater ground contact time. However, running uphill for longer durations can simulate the longer extension phase required for skating or skiing.

From a purely exercise physiology point-of-view, running is a good way to build the cardiovascular system, with a fairly good transfer effect to other activities. If a winter endurance athlete wanted to mix up their dry-land training and is ‘tired’ of riding the bike, running workouts over varied terrain may be a good means of achieving a similar end. Running tends to be a higher impact activity than cycling or in-line skating, so caution has to be exercised when prescribing volumes of work and choosing a training surface.

Winter endurance athletes should consider using running in their off-season training. Often, the fight to be as specific as possible can lead to over-use injuries, plateauing and general mental monotony that can wear on the athlete both physically and psychologically. The switch to running can also prove advantageous by strengthening areas that are not necessarily targeted in the same manner by more specific activities.


Speed Related Events

In Winter Olympic events that require fast running, sprint training is a no brainer. These events include bobsleigh and skeleton, where a fast sprint of anywhere from 25 to 50 meters can provide a distinct advantage at the beginning of a sliding effort. Many of the top athletes in these sports started in sports such as Track and Field, rugby or American football, where sprinting speed is a valued quality. However, other winter sports may not directly benefit from dry-land sprint training to the extent of the sliding sports.

I had an opportunity this year to work with a good portion of the Canadian Long Track Speed Skating team in preparation for the 2010 Olympics. One of my main tasks was to work on dry-land sprinting with them to improve their starts. The initial phase of acceleration in speed skating tends to be very similar to actual running on dry-land. Dynamic hip extension is required for good acceleration off the start line, with a strong front-to-back arm swing to counter-balance the forces of their powerful legs. As they progress further into the acceleration phase, the athletes begin to lower their bodies and push more to the side. On average, the transition to the lateral push occurs at 25 to 30 meters into the race. Thus, our dry-land acceleration training including sprints over 10, 20 and 30 meters, gradually lengthening out their acceleration range.

We were careful not to sprint beyond the 30 meter distance. Not only are the limb mechanics much different to speed skating at this distance, but the athletes can also be exposed to greater risk of straining a hamstring. Thus, the decision not to run further than 30 meters was made on practical grounds, with the costs of running longer far outweighing the benefits.

Accordingly, dry-land sprinting can be used to benefit both short-track speed skaters and ice hockey players during the off-season. Less enlightened coaches may argue that running is not specific enough for ice skating. However, when you analyze the limb movements, posture and joint velocities, you have very specific qualities being developed by dry-land sprinting. These qualities transfer very readily to one ice acceleration. Additionally, dry-land sprinting during the off-season does not create the same wear-and-tear on the groin and lower abdominals that can accompany high-speed skating repetitions.


Other Events

I would love to be able to claim that running and sprinting could help earn Olympic medals in snowboarding, figure skating, ski jumping, moguls and curling. Unfortunately, sprint training may only help Shaun White escape the adoring fans and paparazzi. Most of these sports require countless of hours of specific skill training and practice, with many of these athletes beginning their sports at the age of four or five years of age. As mentioned previously, they may do some jogging in their warm-up or as a means of shedding some excess weight in the off-season. For the most part, they are hoping for poor weather and slippery conditions. Thankfully, the Summer Olympics are only two years away.

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