As we head into the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, we’ve been spending a lot of time wondering about how these world class athletes train to reach the pinnacle of their respective sports.
Different winter sports emphasize different qualities, of course, but when it comes to raw power and full throttle speed, speed skating is a league of its own.
How on Earth do America’s Olympic speed skaters develop such fast, powerful bodies? We asked their strength and conditioning coach. BarBend sat down with U.S. Speedskating’s Tyler Dabrowski, CSCS, USAW, to learn about just how important strength training is to speed skaters.
How Much Do Speed Skaters Squat?
A lot, relatively speaking: Dabrowski says that ideally, his male athletes can squat 2.5 times their bodyweight, and he prescribes plenty of accessory movements as well.
“We will do hip thrusts, sometimes single leg hip thrusts, especially when the athletes hit a plateau,” he says. “We’ll often do the same exercises for three to four weeks and then change it up, but we have numbers on athletes: what’s their back squat, their trap bar deadlift, their conventional deadlift.”
And what’s the ideal deadlift? For a male athlete he’ll aim for 2.7 times bodyweight and for females 2.5 times, though Dabrowski emphasizes that this is for his most elite category, his ideal athlete — and of course, an athlete’s strength shouldn’t interfere with their speed.
“We’ve had cases where the strongest and most powerful athlete in the weight room have tested off the charts in the gym but they’re not making the Olympic team, so in cases like that we may back off on the weights and work on skating technique” he says. “It’s not always the strongest and most powerful in the weight room, but we still try and raise that bar as much as possible.”
Olympic Weightlifting and Speed Skating
It turns out there’s some crossover between another Olympic sport: weightlifting.
“We’ll use Olympic lifts and hang cleans for the triple extension piece, to try and increase their speed and power and try and transfer that out on the ice,” says Dabrowski. “They’ve got to push through the hips, glutes, quads, and ankles, so we’re trying to get that in the weight room and transfer it out on the ice.”
The Olympic lifts also help to strengthen the posterior chain, improve muscle recruitment in the hamstrings and glutes, and reduce quad dominance, which can be a common problem. Dabrowski also finds weightlifting useful for speed skaters because of its strong emphasis on mobility: more flexibility in the hips means a more efficient ability to push forward, particularly around corners.
Then there are weightlifting accessories.
“The overhead squat has more of that flexibility and mobility, it’s really about total body stabilization and it’s such a great movement to teach as far as bracing the core, getting the hands overhead in line with the ears, and keeping everything over the ankles,” he says. “You can see a lot of flaws when someone does an overhead squat. If their arms are coming forward, we may need to work on opening the chest. So it’s a diagnostic tool.”
Finally, the Olympic lift are one way speed skaters try to hone explosiveness, along with other plyometric exercises like box jumps.
[We also spoke to the strength coach of United States’ freestyle skiing team — here’s why they use Olympic weightlifting to reduce landing injuries.]
Knowing When to Step Back
But the most important piece of the puzzle is between the ears: understanding when an athlete’s stress and fatigue levels are affecting his or her physical performance.
“These guys are here five to six days a week, it’s their full time job, so we really try to manage the stress,” says Dabrowski. “We have meetings with other departments, nutritionists, athletic trainers, and sports psychologists to talk about the athletes and see where we should focus our efforts.”
This goes double with some of the younger athletes who also need to balance their training with school commitments or other jobs.
Surprisingly, one of the ways stress is measured is through jump testing: if an athlete is having trouble reaching 90 percent of their max jump speed, the coaches feel relatively certain that the athlete needs “a conversation” about their sleep and diet.
[Is your sleep schedule preventing you from getting stronger? Ask yourself these 8 questions.]
We certainly haven’t covered all of an Olympic speed skater’s training. We didn’t discuss how they train out on the ice, and in any case every athlete’s programming is individualized to the athlete’s history, anthropometry, and age, and their training may exclude some of the exercises above. But our conversation has confirmed one of sports’ most important rules: squats improve just about everything.
Featured image via @usspeedskating on Instagram.