Notes From Pete McKnight: Strength and Conditioning for the French Alpine Ski Team

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Pete McKnight is currently Strength & Conditioning Coach for the French Alpine Ski Team based in Annecy France. Previously he has worked for UK Athletics, Leicestershire County Cricket, and the English Institute of Sport where he worked with a number of sports including British Triathlon, Rowing and the ECB. Pete started his career as a Strength & Conditioning Coach at Loughborough University, then moved to work in India and Thailand. He currently also supports a number of elite track and field athletes and runs coach education courses. Pete is a qualified athletics coach and is doing a PhD in the monitoring and evaluation of strength characteristics in elite track and field athletes.

Pete’s talk at the 2013 UKSCA Conference was particularly interesting as it covered many of the cultural differences he has encountered not only working abroad but also in what I rightly or wrongly view as an “Extreme” sport. Below are my notes from his talk.

Allez les Bleus!

Part I Background & Science:

  • Alpine skiing is the biggest winter sport in France
  • There are 4 disciplines – each have very different demands from the highly technical Slalom to the speed of Downhill
  • Combined events work both ends of the spectrum from technical to speed as there are 2 Slalom runs and 1 Downhill
  • The focus is to minimise injuries rather than prevent them
  • Skiers often come back from very serious injuries that in other sports would typically force retirement
  • There is a wide variation in athletes:
    • Average height:  1.81m ± 0.6
    • Average weight: 87kg ± 7
    • Body fat: 8 – 15%
    • Age: 17 – 38 years
  • Events are very metabolically demanding especially in lactate:
    • 46% Oxidative/ 25% Lactate/ 28% ATP-CP (Saibene, 1985)
    • Lactate levels 12-15mmol/l
    • 87-97% Max Heart Rate
    • Average VO2Max 60.2 mL/(kg-min)
  • However there is a lack of research especially not to be able to discriminate between disciplines as much of it is an average of events
  • There is a significant correlation between aerobic power & sport ranking (Neumayr, 2003)
  • Oxidative system acts as a support & buffer to the Anaerobic processes
  • There are prolonged & multiple contractions at >50% of MVC
  • Aerobic training is important not only for the events but also to be able to withstand training
  • In training they can spend up to 5 hours on the course skiing anywhere from 4-14 runs that last from 1-10mins at altitudes up to 3,900m
  • Turns aren’t explosive or dynamic but produce huge forces – up to 3g
  • The knee angles plus vibration of the surface causes reduced blood flow which affect cardiovascular adaptations
  • Angular velocities are relatively slow – Slalom average is 69˚s ± 11˚s compared to sprinting at 6-700˚s
  • Jumps are very explosive & dynamic

Part II The Practice

  • 4 month pre-season from May to August
  • Use a snow dome in Holland in this time because the conditions are consistent (no wind, snow etc.) it is very good for technical skiing
  • The team has a centralised location in that they are based in Annecy but the facilities are spread out across town from 10 mins to an hour away from each other
  • In September they go to South America (Argentina or Chile) because it is cheap & also has very consistent conditions for skiing
  • The compromise is that they slopes are at very low altitude but it is worth it as they get a very high number of skiing days
  • They do very little testing & do not have protocols for using any altitude simulators at the time of the presentation
  • They did use supplemented oxygen after running some research of their own
  • Also tested a vibration plate but discontinued this as the frequencies were incorrect
  • Skiers tend to be very free spirited – they like many other sports such as biking, surfing, wake boarding etc.
  • They have a very good work ethic – maybe from training since age 5
  • They are very good at the high level technical aspects of their sport but not so good at many fundamentals
  • Strength work has an emphasis on posterior chain for injury prevention
Weekly Program

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  • Strength exercises used include squat variations (back, overhead, front), jerk & overhead press, bench press, weighted pull ups, RDL, deadlift, leg press from compromised positions
  • Conditioning includes trunk exercises, single leg hamstring work, eccentric leg work, hip mobility, shoulder conditioning & mobility
  • Language differences can be beneficial – trunk work can be either:
    • “Gainage” – static/iso work
    • “Abdos” – dynamic trunk work
  • Metabolic training is done via a variety of methods that tap into the skiers love of outdoors & other sports such as mountain biking, road bike time trials, cross country skiing, mountain walking & sprints
  • Skiers traditionally do a lot of proprioceptive work which Pete had thought was a waste of time outside the rehab setting but now he believes it has a strong place in the program
  • This is achieved in a variety of ways from basic exercises up to gymnastics, roller blading & powder skiing
  • Recovery from injury (especially serious injuries that would be career ending in other sports) is excellent
  • This is partly due to good rehab protocols but also a cultural expectation that serious injury is commonplace & rarely career ending in skiing
  • ACL injuries form 10-20% of all skiing injuries
  • Athletes who went 3 years without an ACL injury had higher peak hamstring torque at deeper angles of flexion
  • As a result they aim to be strong in extreme ranges (hence leg press in compromised positions)
  • “Engagement” is a form of training used to test athletes’ mettle & daring. Downhill mountain biking & performing tricks on roller blades at the skate park help them prepare mentally for the challenges of the steep slopes
  • Visualisation plays a big part as they mentally rehearse the courses mimicking the movements they will perform
  • If you time them doing the rehearsal the movements are very accurate to the actual course movements

Challenges

  • Program balance – training for strength & endurance at the same time requires careful thought
  • “Old Ways” can be helpful e.g. idea that injury is not insurmountable but challenging when introducing new practices such as barbell strength training
  • Lack of accountability – Pete has free rein but this can be dangerous if there is no-one to challenge him
  • Language
  • Environment
  • Facilities
  • Travel – can spend 10-12 hours driving in a van on days which are meant to be recovery days

My Thoughts

I found it refreshing listening to Pete’s frank account of the path that has led to him working in a sport that I knew very little about. Picking out the close similarities & vast differences in the program it was interesting to note that while many of the exercises & protocols looked very familiar the cultural nuances that must be respected are very different. The athletes’ attitude to injury, “Engagement” & visualisation showed how powerful the mental aspect to training can be when they deeply believe in it.

Many pro sportsmen in the UK (especially those worth millions of pounds) are barred from many activities such as skiing, wake boarding or even mountain biking which is a real shame as it puts a limit on their life experiences from which they can draw in their sporting arena.

Mladen Jovanovic has written an excellent article on the importance of culture in the coaching environment which is often overlooked when Physical Preparation coaches move between sports and/or countries. Coaches who try to force foreign systems & practices on athletes or ignore vital components of the local culture not only come unstuck, more often than not, they also miss out on a great opportunity to develop themselves as coaches.

The legendary Jim Telfer puts it best:

The importance of culture is becoming ever clearer when listening to coaches such as Dan Baker, Stuart Yule & Fergus Connolly. As I noted in Stuart Yule’s talk, successful teams may have very different programs but they all have a very strong culture.

Seeking out new experiences, assessing the good & bad within them in order to adapt (or exapt!) them for your own practice is an exciting & enjoyable process & Pete has clearly taken that opportunity to the fullest which I found inspiring.

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