Friday, June 21, 2013

If You Want to Improve Your Speed + Agility You Need to Get Stronger First

There are several vital qualities a Cross Athlete (Ski and Boardercross) must possess to consistently be a top performer from race to race.  Strength, balance, endurance, power, quickness/agility, technical skills and mental focus are a few of the more obvious.  Becoming faster and quicker over features on the racecourse is a common result that athletes I train want to gain from their off-season gym work.
These athletes at first are a little surprised when I prescribe a steady diet of weight training for strength and size before we come close to doing anything that even remotely resembles traditional speed/agility-style training.

With the technical nature of most Cross Courses it’s easy to understand a competitor’s desire to move more quickly.  For example, the quicker you are, the better you’ll be able to handle features throughout a start section, which means more distance between you and the competition.  To get a better idea of technical course design, check out this video from Nick Langkamp’s POV during a practice run at the US Grand Prix at the Canyons, Utah form earlier this year:

Thinking you need to be faster and wanting to be faster are both acceptable ideas.  The problem is that most athletes lack the baseline level of strength required to make their bodies move faster.  As a result, no amount of speed training will improve their quickness.

This also applies to athletes born with the gift of amazing quickness (assuming there is no effort to develop strength levels throughout their career).  Though at first they may be faster than everyone else in their peer group, eventually these gifted athletes will arrive at a competition level where all the other competitors are just as nimble or faster than they are and unless they improve their ability to move quickly, will no longer be winning races.

In fact, at a certain point in every rider’s competitive career they will experience a “level playing field” where most, if not all of the other competitors have the same high-end ability and background (especially when it comes to equipment, tuning and technical skills).  The following video is a great example of this idea and shows 3 top competitors practicing at USASA Nationals earlier this year:   

It’s amazing how identical they look through the start section.  Timing, technique, etc. is almost exactly the same.  How do you gain an advantage (set aside the possibility of help from gate selection and on-course mistakes) in a group like this?  Simple.  The rider with more physical strength will always have the upper hand. 

It might help to understand a basic description of moving quickly:
Quickness/Agility is the result of being able to powerfully and efficiently apply force to the ground (often repeatedly and/or in rapid succession)

The only way to increase this application of force is with improved strength.  Without the strength to sufficiently apply force or handle the sudden change of directions involved with speed training, an athlete won’t get the desired benefit from the exercises.  You can’t just “will” yourself to apply more force (and become quicker).

So the secret (and usually the only way for most) to becoming faster/quicker is to first get stronger (and to some degree bigger).  Any off-season training program that doesn’t address strength/size first won’t produce results in speed/quickness later.
Getting Stronger to Move Faster
The following scenario is typical in terms of results one experiences from trying to improve quickness with just speed/agility training (no effort to develop appropriate strength first): 
- The athlete starts a speed training program and learns/practices several quickness drills/challenges during each workout.  Over a few weeks they usually have some perceived improvement in the gym training sessions with regards to quickness.  They keep up with their speed training and fail to show continued or real improvement with the original exercises/drills.   They may or may not see any of these efforts translate to their on-snow performance.  Though they may experience slight progress with regard to quickness in competitions, it won’t be enough to show a dramatic difference from the previous season’s performance.

The main reason the athlete ‘improved’ initially in the gym setting is that they learned how to do the specific exercises in the training sessions.  If you try a certain training challenge that you’ve never done before and then try it again a week later, after having practiced the movements, you will automatically perform that same training challenge better and in a faster time - you didn’t get ‘faster’, you only got smarter.  Unfortunately, unless there’s a new base level of strength to draw from, that’s where the speed progress ends.

If you have a coach who is leading you through a similar process as to what I described, my guess is every other week, they change up the ‘speed’ exercises you perform and you start that process over.  Unfortunately you might think you’re getting quicker (because with each new set of exercises you show initial improvement compared to the first time you do them), but again you’re just learning to do the exercises better.

If you want to become more agile and quick, I propose that you choose 4 speed drills and do them this week to get a baseline performance time for each.  Obviously take the time to learn them first, don’t just do them once and that’s it.  These instructions seem to go against everything I've just talked about in this article, but again, I really just want you to have a baseline time ‘standard’ for the exercises to compare to at a later date.

After that, spend the next 8 weeks in an intensive strength-training program under the guidance of an experienced Coach.  Take a few days off, then do the original 4 speed drills again and see if your times are better.  As with the first time you did them, give yourself a chance to get re-acquainted with the drills before judging your times.  I guarantee that your performance will improve significantly.  The funny thing is if you had spent those 8 weeks just doing the same speed drills over and over, there’d be very little improvement, but you would have been thinking that you’re “working on your quickness and agility” the whole time.
Weights Held Overhead Help Build Body Armor
Besides an ability to improve quickness, increases in strength (and size) also have other positive benefits for the Cross Athlete:
        -        More explosive, powerful pulls out of the starting gate
        -        Strength to handle the forces in high-speed banked turns (easier to stay on your line in tight races, etc.) and the extreme forces involved in absorbing landings
        -        Increased power applied to (and acceleration from) pumping features
        -        Your own body armor (yes, muscle is body armor)

The US Team riders are using strength/weight training to gain a competitive advantage, why not you?   Here’s a look at a portion of the gym at the USSA Center of Excellence in Utah (1).

Looks like they might lift some weights there, eh?  And if you still don’t think it’s worth putting in time to get stronger, check out some stats on the US SBX “A” Team:
 -    Nick Baumgartner – Height: 6’ – Weight: 205#
 -    Seth Wescott – Height: 6’1” – Weight: 195#
 -    Nate Holland – Height: 5’10” – Weight: 185#
 -    Jonathan Cheever – Height: 5’10” – Weight: 185#
Even though these guys are at the top of the SBX game, if you didn’t know who they were, you would easily believe me if I told you they were pros from an NHL hockey club.
Weight Training = Smiles
If you’re not already doing so, I urge you to get started on a basic strength/muscle building program right now as part of your off-season training under the guidance of an experienced Coach.  Don’t wait!  There’s still plenty of time before snow season to make significant gains in your overall strength.  Once you’ve built that new base level of strength you can add some speed work to the routine.  You’ll be thanking me from the podium next winter.

Coach Jb

1 - Baker, David. "USSA Center for Excellence." What's Up USANA? 06/21/2012. Viewed 05/27/13

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