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Embarrassing Myself at the US Bobsled/Skeleton Combine [UPDATED]

Last week at this time I was running my fist 60m sprint at Lake Placid High School. As I was warming up and practicing my starts, I could look one way and watch random bush planes take off for remote parts of the Adirondack Mountains. Then I could look the other way and see the massive towers that were built for the Ski Jump events of the 1980 Winter Olympics. The whole reason I made the trek to Lake Placid was to partake in the USA Bobsled/Skeleton Combine.

Why you ask? Because I can, that's why. But also because competition, deadlines, and being graded by others are all factors in staying focused in your training.

I signed up in April for a test date in June. Ultimately, I had to push that back to July. Those 3.5 months of training were the most focused and intense that I've experienced in a little over 18 months.

When you put up the money for flights, rental cars, and lodging you'll be a bit more focused on making the most of the opportunity. When you know that you chances of making the team are based on the assessment of a coach who has worked with Olympic gold medalists...that focus turns into obsession.

How I trained

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So, knowing that I had 3.5 months to train (2.5 at first, but that didn't change the approach to training) and that the standards were right on the website, I chose the program that would get me the most return on investment and keep the likelihood of injury to a minimum.

The combine consisted of a 60m sprint, broad jump, underhand shot toss, 1RM power clean, and 3RM back squat.

For the lifting part, 5/3/1 was the best approach and there wasn't a doubt in my mind that it would deliver. After creating the plan and adjusting the numbers to abilities, any work or worry about the program was non-existent. Three days a week I would open the file on my phone, warm up, then do exactly what it said.

No changing half way through to a "better" program and no winging when I felt like I could take on the world. Walk in, do the weight prescribed for the reps prescribed and that's it. The only adjustment I'd make is if I felt a twinge or something not right during the main lifts. In those cases I would toss out an accessory exercises that might make the problem worse and then call it a day.

I also included 3 de-load weeks, as prescribed by 5/3/1, even though my time was short. Each one allowed me to come back fresher, and stronger, than if I would have kept pushing.

This slow methodically approach was the key to my PRs in both the power clean and squat.

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For the running, I modeled the 5/3/1 approach and slowly ramped up the intensity each week. Two days I week would work on sprints ranging from 30m to 250m. Some days would focus on shorter distances with a powerful start, others would focus on longer distances and maintaining form.

Total distance per session was kept between 540m and 900m for "short" days, and between 900m and 2250m for "long" days. Rest, and this is important here, was always 3-5 minutes between sprints.

These were not conditioning workouts, they were speed and skill workouts, so full rest was the focus of the workout right after using proper form. On that note, some days would be cut short when I felt my form slipping.

This is the same approach was taken, in both lifting and running, to make sure I didn't end up hurting myself. With such a short timetable to improve and peak, any type of injury would have set me back more than I would have been able to afford.

Everything was going right according to plan until I got lazy and complacent. Right around the beginning of June I skipped parts of the warmup (dumb mistake) and went out on the first sprints at or near 100% (even dumber mistake). This pulled hamstring kept me off the track for 2 weeks. By the time I got back on the track I felt like I hadn't lost a step, but without hard times to compare there was no way of knowing for sure.

How I performed

To but it bluntly....like shit. The combine was scored on a scale of 100 points for each test, and a total score of 600 was what they were looking for.

The first test of the morning was the sprint test. The coaches marked out a 60m course on a standard rubber track and placed timing eyes at 15m, 30m, 45m, and 60m. These times were part of the test, as well as a flying 30m that was just the 45m time minus the 15m time.

SIDE NOTE -  The area is fucking beautiful. I grew up in upstate New York, but the Adirondack Mountains are a completely different part of upstate New York. If you ever have the chance to go there, do it.

So around 9am, my roommate and I head down to the track to warmup for our 10am start time. A few of the other guys/gals are there and we all just kinda bullshit with each other in between warming up and staring at the ski jumps.

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Right around 950...it starts to pour. Not usually a big deal, except it causing false readings in the timing eyes. So off we go to our cars to stay dry. About 30 minutes later it clears up enough for us to start, so we head back out to the track and attempt to re-warm up.

Now the way they wanted the start isn't like a normal 40 yd dash you'd see at the NFL combine. You were allowed a rolling start, so it's not based off of your first movement, and you get a box that extends back from the start like about 1m to use. So, theoretically, you can get a 1m head start and shave a few thousandths of a second off your time...if you do it right.

At this point I'm still waiting to get my real score sheet back, so I'm not completely confident that I remembered these times accurately. I believe my 15m was a 2.22s and my 60m was a 7.14s. Both wildly mediocre and well below what I was planning to run.

Next were the broad jump and the underhand shot toss. The broad jump, again, was a fairly "meh" performance. I'm well aware that it could be worse, but also well aware that I can do better...because I have done better. After three attempts my best jump was 2.89m (9.4 feet). In college I was able to get up around 11 feet, but this isn't college and that's not how I performed.

Then, the most embarrassing part of the day, the under hand shot toss. For mens bobsled we had to use a 16 pound shot, all others (womens bobsled, and both mens/womens skeleton used a 12 pound shot). After three attempts my best was 12.6m (41.3 feet) and my worst was right at 11m. In training I was able to toss a 16 pound kettlebell to 16m consistently, so I was obviously disappointed with this performance. But, again, how to perform in training isn't what wins games of medals. You need to be able to perform in competition too.

After a few hours to get lunch and nap we headed to the weight room for the last two tests of the combine. The 1RM clean and 3RM squat were not an issue and I performed pretty well in both of those, scoring 93 and 95 points. This equaled a 135Kg (297 pound) clean, and a 190Kg (418 pound) squat. At the time, I felt like that was pretty much as far as I'd be able to go. But looking back at it now I'm confident I could have added 5-10Kg to both and gotten a few extra points.

UPDATE: Here is the combine score sheet with my performances highlighted. For Bobsled everything is counted except the 45m. For Skeleton the 60m isn't counted AND the shot toss is with a 12lb shot instead of the 16lb shot used for Bobsled.

Lessons Learned

I don't care how well an event goes, if you don't learn something from it then it wasn't worth it. As for an event that doesn't go well for you...well...it isn't all that bad as long as you learn something from it.

The most glaring lesson I learned from this was to not neglect the things you don't enjoy doing. For me this is usually upper body power or plyometric work. This became clear after the shot toss event.

Every strength coach worth his weight in protein powder knows this. Putting it into practice is much, much harder. Especially when you're the only one involved in creating the training program.

Getting another coach to make my program, or at least look it over and compare it to the tests in the combine, would have proven to be well worth it. Lesson here is that you might be on point with parts of your programming, but unless you have a few sets of extra eyes on it you might as well assume that you're overlooking something.

The second lesson is that the weeks leading up to the event are just as important as the overall training period. Especially when it comes to diet and nutrition. In the six week prior to the combine I had spent 2.5 weeks on the road and, more often that not, scrambling to eat right and find a decent place on the side of the highway.

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Again, something that many coaches know, but something a little trickier to put into practice when you're not used to that type of environment.

So, could I have planned and prepared better? Yes. Would that have meant a better overall performance? Possibly. But that's life. You make mistakes and learn along the way.

Where do I go from here So now that it's over and the coaches weren't putting me on he fast track to the National team, what's on deck? Well, my visit wasn't all that bad because I'm on the list to be invited to a Skeleton driving camp in November. If I actually get the call is dependent on their other combines throughout the country, but it's a better result than a hand shake and a pat on the ass as I left the training center.

The skeleton is a bit different than bobsled, and frankly a better fit for the size that I am.

You can bet your ass that between now and then upper body plyometrics and power will get a higher priority in my training.

Overall it was a great experience and am happy I made the choice to do it. Now it's just a matter of improving my weak areas and working my ass off for the next opportunity.

Mobility Part 2

In the last article about mobility I  touched on a few of the baseline tests you should be doing to see where you stand. Every two weeks I'll film myself going through these tests, as well as taking the same pictures I used in the Assess Yourself post. These metrics have given me a much, much better insight into how my body moved and lets me fine tune my assistance exercises and warm ups to focus on where I need to improve. So, after you go through the three tests from the last post you can use these exercises to improve your mobility in those areas.

Squating

The best way that I've come across improving your squatting is...wait for it...to squat. Shocking, I know.

The key isn't to force it though. Just because you decide to do 10,000 shitty squats (heels coming off the floor, rounding your lower back, etc) does not mean that you'll get any better. The key is to  keep your form tight, and just go down to where you're form starts to break. IT might seem a little futile at first, but by practicing perfect body weight squats with a partial range of motion (possible for your warmup) you'll be ingraining what feels right.

To increase the range of motion and get to the point where you can do a full squat you'll need to focus on stretching. Specifically your gastroc/soleus, glute, and hamstrings.

Stretching your gastroc and soleus is as simple as finding something you can stand on with your toes and letting gravity push your heels down. I touched on this in the flexibility article, and there is a video here. To shift the tension to your soleus, just bend your knee.

If you have trouble getting your knees forward during the downward portion of the squat you'll want to make sure you pay extra attention to your soleus.

To stretch your glutes, I prefer to do the "cheerleader" stretch. I'm sure it has some other, fancier, name but this is the way I've always seen cheerleaders sit, so it works. To do it, sit on the ground with your left knee bent at 90 degrees and your left upper leg pointed directly to the left. Your right upper leg should be pointed straight ahead, with your right knee also bent at 90 degrees and your lower leg pointing to the left. Sound confusing? Look at the picture.

Lean forward, keeping your back flat, and you should feel the stretch right on the outside of the ass check of the up leg.

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Hamstring flexibility is also crucial to being able to fully squat. It's also super important for many other things, so it's touched on later in it's own, special, section.

Thoracic Extension

You've heard it all before...sitting and driving and hunching over the computer all day every day is ruining your back. Bad posture, especially when it's held for the majority of the day, can seriously fuck up the way you're able to move.

The good news here is that working on your thoracic extension can help to get you back into a decent posture and work out some of the issues you get from hunching over your laptop all damn day.

You can do this movement from a bent over position, from a lunge, or from all fours. The video below has me doing it from a bent over position, which I feel like lets me focus more on the movement.

Some people will say you should put your hand on your head, which isn't necessarily wrong. My preference, though, is to keep my arm pointed straight out and to follow my hand with my eyes. This gives me a point of reference as I turn, and lets me gauge just how far I'm able to turn based on what my hand is pointing at.

Hamstring

Ask any person what muscle is the tightest on them and you'll most likely hear them say their hamstrings. Now, I've said it before, mobility and flexibility are different parts of the athletic equation. But you can't be mobile with out being flexible. Because of this I focus on dynamic stretching over static stretching. The differences are that instead of stretching until you feel discomfort and then holding it for 20-30 seconds like you do for a static stretch, a dynamic stretch has you moving back and forth from "normal" to the point of discomfort and holding for 3-5 seconds. The stretch will encompass 20-30 of these "pulses".

My favorite mobility/flexibility exercise for the hamstring is the towel stretch, or seated towel stretch. To be honest with you, I don't really know exactly what it's call. All I know is that I had to do it for what felt like hours at a time when I was in rehab after knee surgery. Do 10-20 pulses of 3-5 seconds for each leg. Depending on just how tight you are it wouldn't be a bad idea to run through it 2-3 times total.

The hurdler stretch is another one of my favorites because it's much more involved than a normal seated hamstring stretch. Check out the video to see how to do it (it's too simple) and follow the same 10-20 pulses held for 3-5 seconds as above.

Basic Mobility

Last week we talked a bit about flexibility, one of the unsexiest of unsexy topics. This week it's mobility. Still unsexy, yet still so very important. Mobility is the just the ability to be able to move freely and efficiently. It includes flexibility  (if you're tight as a drum you can't move) and coordination. Both of these will come easier with practice and by paying special attention to your weak points.

These are the three most important areas I focus on when it comes to an immobile client.

Squat

The squat is basic movement pattern that we SHOULD be able to do naturally. I'm sure most people in the fitness world have seen this picture of a young'n squatting perfectly by now. That just shows you that this movement pattern is basically instinctual, and not something that should require years of practice to get right.

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Well, mostly because of our cultures lack of activity and our desire to sit down for every damn thing, squatting is no longer a natural movement for anyone over the age of 13.

Go grab a mirror or a video camera and watch yourself squat. I guarantee you'll see at least one, if not all, of these...

  • Rounded upper back
  • Heels coming up from the floor
  • Upper leg not able to reach parallel with the ground
  • Upper body leaning forward past a 45 degree angle
  • Knees caving in

Some of these are because of weakness and other are because of tightness of immobility. Either way, they are affecting the way you train and the way you live your life.

Thoracic Mobility

Your thoracic spine is just your upper back. You know, the part of your back that is always rounded from sitting at the computer and is making you look more like a hunch-back each day.

Thoracic mobility is a major issue because a) like I just said, we're all hunched over a desk/computer/steering wheel all the time and b) it causes problems with all kinds of movements and exercises that we need to be doing to stay sexy and awesome as fuck.

Try this...

  • Lay on the ground with your lower back flat against the floor
  • Lock your elbows and wrists, so your arms are straight at your sides
  • Raise your arms straight up and overhead, trying to touch the back of your hands to the floor above your head
  • Take notice of where your arms are when you can no longer keep your lower back flat on the floor

The reason your lower back (lumbar spine) comes of the floor is because you lack the mobility in your thoracic spine. So, to make up for it, you unconsciously bend and contort your lumbar spine to meet the end result.

This isn't a huge issue when you're just laying on your back with no extra load on your spine, but when you're pressing over head or squatting it becomes a major problem.

Hamstrings

Your hamstrings run across both your knee and your hip, meaning that its tightness or immobility can affect you in a range of different ways. Causing your lower back to "tuck under" at the bottom of a squat or just being generally stiff and immobile are both problems.

Just like with anywhere else in the body, tight hamstrings will cause issues in the areas surrounding them when you attempt something that they aren't capable of doing. Similar to the thoracic spine, lack of mobility in the hamstring will put more force and pressure on your lower back.

I can almost guarantee that you have tight hamstrings, but just for shits and giggles try these two tests.

First...

    • Lay on the ground in a doorway with your hip in line with the frame
    • Lift the leg closest to the frame up and keep it straight
    • Keep lifting it as far as you can while keep in the knee locked out and body flat on the ground
    • Make a note of where your leg is in relation to the frame when you can no longer keep a straight leg or flat body
    • Repeat on the other leg

Then...

    • Grab a box or something 3-4 inches tall
    • Put one foot on the box and the other foot on the ground
    • Pinch your shoulder blades (ie keep a flat upper back) and touch as far down as you can on the leg that's on the ground
    • Repeat on the other side and make note of any differences in how far you can reach

Stretching for Idiots [UPDATED]

We all know that the only things people do in the gym are the newest of the new, and the sexiest of the sexy. Which is why nobody ever sprints, or does pullups, or pushups, or lifts heavy weights with proper rest. All of that isn't cool enough. And neither is stretching.

[UPDATE: Finally got a chance to film some half way decent videos for this post, check them out below.]

How many times have you fist pumped and then gave your bro the highest of high fives when it was time to stretch your hamstrings?

Never. But, this stuff is still important. Sacrificing one aspect (pure strength or speed) for another (flexibility) isn't something you want to do. More importantly, working on your flexibility will make you more able to lift with proper form and move your limbs through a full range of motion.

If you do an assessment on yourself, I can almost guarantee a some or all of these areas will be tight...

Hip Flexors

These bad boys sit directly on the front of your hip (surprising huh?) and mainly serve to reduce the angle between your thigh and your torso. Situps, leg raises, and running are just a few of the most common movements that involve your hip flexors.

Why are they tight? Because we sit so fucking much!

They're main purpose is to close the distance between your thigh and torso right? Well, when we stand these two body parts are almost as far away as they can be (without any outside force being applied). So if we were to stand as much as our bodies were meant to, we wouldn't be in this pickle.

But, whoever decided to invent the chair is a dick and he screwed us all over. Now we sit more than we stand, which means instead of our bodies spending most of the time in a straight line it's contorted into a series of 90 degree angles.

This 90 degree angle at the hips means that the hip flexors aren't stretched as much naturally (through walking and standing) as they should be.

The theory/concept/law of specificity goes like this...the body will adapt to the strain or lack of strain that is placed on it. That's why lifting heavy weights makes you better able to lift heavy weights and why running fast makes you able to run faster.

Since the strain of standing has been replaced with the ease of sitting, our hip flexors begin to shorten and stiffen due to the lack of stress being put on them.

How to Fix it...stretching of course.

Step out like you're doing a lunge and lower your rear knee to the ground. Now, if your left knee is on the ground you'll take your left hand and reach for the sky while simultaneously pushing your hips forward. Hold it for 30 seconds then switch to the right side (right knee on the ground, right hand in the air). You can (and SHOULD) be doing this multiple times a day, as in 4-6 sets of 30s stretches 2-3 times per day.

Hamstrings

Some people that I've talked to aren't exactly convinced that sitting is the reason their hamstrings are so tight. It makes sense if you think about it. The hamstring is meant to pull your leg backwards (as in sprinting) and pull your lower leg closer to your upper leg (leg curl).

If we look at the way we sit, with our back and upper leg forming a 90 degree angle, you'd think that position would stretch our hamstrings and we wouldn't have to worry about it. Wrong.

Now, I can't explain why this happens, but I have a hunch. And so you do...

How many of us sit like a perfect little pianist, able to balance 4 phone books on our heads? Nada, at least not the majority. This hunch in our backs takes away the hamstrings need to stretch while sitting. Toss in the 90 degree angle between upper and lower legs, and the need to stretch is less present.

Like I said, I don't know if that's really the mechanics behind it, but it makes sense and 99% of the people I see have hamstrings that are tight as fuck anyways.

Here's how you fix it. Grab two towels, one needs to be long enough to reach from your foot to your hip when folded in half.

Sit on the ground. Roll up the shorter towel and put it underneath your ankle, so your foot is slightly raised. It only has to be 2-3 inches. Hold both ends of the longer towel and wrap it around your foot.

Know, keeping your back flat (shoulders back and shoulder blades pinched) and bending at the waist, pull your upper body towards your foot. With your foot raised and your back flat you should only be able to make it a little ways before you feel the tension in your hamstrings.

Hold for 3-5s and repeat 10-20 times on each leg. These can be done multiple times a day too.

Ankles (Soleus/Calf)

Tight ankles are mostly caused by one of two things...wearing high heels all the damn time or not squatting properly enough. Simple enough.

Take this test. If you can't point your toes to the point that it's a straight line from your knee to your toes, you're ankle might be tight. Next, stand with your toes about 4 inches from a wall. Try to tap your knee to the wall without lifting your heel from the ground. If your heel pops up, then your ankle is tight.

Those were overly simplified tests, but they get the point across and effectively show you if you're a little tight around the ankles. Most people have no serious issues with the first one (fancy term for that one is plantar-flexion) so I'm not going to cover it.

The second one though (fancy term = dorsiflexion) is a huge pain in the ass for the two reasons I mentioned above. Not being able to dorsiflex your ankle properly will mess with your squatting, deadlifting, and sprinting...among other things.

To fix this we're going to do two things...stretch the soleus and stretch the gastrocnemius. These are your calf muscles, for those who prefer non-anatomical terms.

The setup for both is the same. Find something you can stand on with just your toes while letting your heel hang off the edge. To stretch the soleus, you'll bend your knee and let your bodyweight push your heel down. You should feel the stretch in the lower part of your calf.

To stretch the gastrocnemius, use the same set up as above, just don't bend your knee. You'll feel this in the upper part of your calf (the meatier part)

Again, hold for 30s and repeat 3-4 times on each leg.

**You can't always find something around to do it like a laid it out above. When that's the situation you find yourself in just use the method in the video below.**

Chest

I've already mentioned the hunch you have when sitting all the damn time. Guess what else that shortens?

YUP! You're chest. How'd you know that...?

When you're sitting down to type out your latest status update on facebook, holding your phone in front of you to tweet you're most recent insight into the world, or when you're driving all over the place your arms are pulled in enough to cause your chest muscles to shorten.

It's the law of specificity again. Your muscles see it like this...if you're going to keep your arms in a position that requires them you be flexed constantly, it makes more sense to just shorten and stiffen the muscle. This way you arms is in the position that you've deemed the most appropriate (though it's really not) and the muscles aren't wasting precious energy to constantly flex.

So, to fix this...the first thing you can do is take breaks from holding your arms out in front of you. Do some band pull-aparts or shoulder dislocates.

When it comes to stretching just find a wall, put your hand on it, and turn your body into the wall until you feel the stretch. Hold for 30s and repeat 3-4 times on both sides. Make sure your arm is locked out and you actually feel the stretch in your chest.

Beach