There aren’t a lot of races in which the most important work is over in the first few seconds, but if you ask Jason Hartman, strength and conditioning coordinator for the U.S. Olympic bobsled team, that’s the crux of bobsledding. The five-ish seconds it takes the athletes to accelerate the 500-ish-pound sled and then leap into it are the most critical seconds of the race.
“All else being equal, every tenth of a second you can be faster than your competition during the first five seconds, that tends to triple by the end of the bobsled run,” he says. “If you can be a tenth of a second faster than the team you’re competing against, that’s a lead of three tenths of a second at the end of the track. Your start velocity is critical.”
You might think that means Olympic bobsled athletes spend most of their time doing a ton of sled pushes. You’d be wrong.
A Different Kind of HIIT
A good chunk of the athletes’ training is spent on the ‘track’ in a bobsled, but ultimately, the bulk of their time — almost all of the off season and two or three days a week during the on season — is spent in the weight room, where developing power and strength for accelerating the bobsled is of the utmost importance.
“Honestly, after those five seconds, they’re kind of trying to stay as relaxed as possible while leaning into the turns,” says Hartman, who notes that the driver at the front of the sled mostly needs the athletes to gently help him or her steer. “It’s a mental game, to stay more relaxed and go with the flow on the way down the hill. Otherwise, there’s not a lot they can do beyond getting that sled accelerated as fast as possible.”
To help achieve this explosive speed, athletes spend two or three days per week sprinting. But they’re not performing the standard high-intensity interval training, which traditionally looks something like thirty-second sprints followed by a minute’s rest, repeated for fifteen minutes.
Bobsled training instead looks to maximize recovery so that each set of sprints is performed at absolute maximum effort. The athletes, therefore, shouldn’t be fatigued when training their sprints, so they rest three to five minutes between work sets.
“Maximal speed and acceleration are the two most important attributes and because the athletes are only doing so for a few seconds, there’s no real need for conditioning or anaerobic endurance,” says Hartman. “In the off season they may sprint 80 to 100 meters but for most of the year, 60 meters or less is where they spend the most time.”
Sled pushes do make an appearance in his programming, but only in a limited role during the off season. Primarily, the track is reserved for speed training.
[How do you improve sprinting without sacrificing strength? Check out our guide to the most productive cardio.]
How Much Do Olympic Bobsledders Squat?
In the weights room, Hartman emphasizes the same kinds of exercises used by every Olympic coach we’ve spoken to, from skiers to skaters: squats and Olympic lifts.
“A double bodyweight squat is probably a good benchmark for every athlete to achieve,” he says. “Maintaining that level of strength should help with the power development training, be it plyometrics or sprint training.”
He notes that while he may incorporate front squats during the off season, the back squat is “the number one strength exercise” for bobsledders, in part because it allows them to lift a heavier absolute load.
Some athletes deadlift, but they aren’t a core movement. Bobsledding is pretty tough on the low back and while intelligently-programmed deadlifts can mitigate low back pain, Hartman limits them in favor of his go-to movements for improving low back strength and explosiveness: Olympic weightlifting.
[Ever wondered how Olympic freestyle skiiers approach strength and conditioning? We asked their strength coach.]
Olympic Weightlifting and Bobsledding
“Any Olympic weightlifting movements and their variations are going to give you a tremendous amount of hip extension power, which is critical for jumping and sprinting ability,” he says. “It’s ultimately that velocity and force that athletes can apply in those end ranges of hip extension that push the sled faster and let them sprint faster. There are no better options out there to maximize the hip extension power critical to the sport.”
Power cleans and heavy clean pulls are his favorites, but the clean & jerk is also a core movement.
“People watching the sport assume that there might be a lot of upper body to it, but proficiency at the jerk extends from how hard you can extend the hips, so it’s another great hip extension power exercise,” he says.
Accessory movements also emphasize hip extension and the posterior chain. Weighted back extensions, glute ham raises, heavy Romanian deadlifts, and weighted good mornings are considered staples.
There’s finesse involved at every point of a bobsled race, from the initial acceleration all the way to the finish line. But the most crucial part of the training is developing as much power and speed as humanly possible, and for that, Olympic weightlifting has no equal.
Featured image via @carlovaldes_usa and @mollychoma on Instagram.