Extreme Sports Training
By Peter Twist and Gerard Recio, Twist Conditioning Inc
You see them everywhere…. TV Commercials, Motion Pictures, magazine ads, and YouTube. In 1995 ESPN launched the first ever X-Games (a made for television event that showcases extreme/action sports), and two years later, in 1997, they launched the Winter X-Games.
These two Extreme Sport or Action Sport events became the launching platform for various board sports like Snowboarding, Skateboarding, Wakeboarding, and Surfing. And also skyrocketed a variety of bike sports like BMX, Downhill Mountain Biking, and Freestyle Motocross, to the forefront of all Action Sports. Today, these sports are taking over the ranks of recreational activities and becoming more mainstream. Today more and more youth, young adults and week-end warriors of all ages and abilities are taking part in these thrill seeking multiple skill sports. The attraction also lies in the schedule control of participating in an individual sport, in beautiful outdoor environments, that offer endless levels of skill difficulty. Once a new skill set is learned and perfected, the sport holds more complex challenges to tackle.
Many participants are turning to specialize training programs to help them improve their abilities, and to prevent dreaded injuries resulting from the physical demands of these activities. Board and biking action sports, along with rock climbing, require more than “extreme” training or repetitive skill rehearsal. Exercise professionals face the challenge of preparing athletes to push physical limits to be ready to try new tricks and techniques. A basic assessment of extreme sport biomechanics, physiology, time motion analysis, performance variables and unique demands helps provide the ingredients needed for trainers to cook up an exercise formula that transfers well to sport execution.
Boarding sports feature an array of techniques and tricks, which involve catching air, carving long turns, switching stances, jumping, spinning and grabbing the board (while continuing forward) and spinning the whole body from 180 degrees to l,080 degrees (a triple rotation!).
Freestyle snowboarding, which has its roots in skateboarding, includes half pipe, super pipe and boarder cross maneuvers. Half pipe and super pipe (a more extreme version of half pipe) are long, U-shaped courses groomed into the snow on which the athlete is required to travel from one wall of snow across a transition area (about 15 to 25 feet across) to the opposite wall (each of which can be as high as 15 feet) to “catch air” (go airborne) and perform tricks. Boarder cross is an event during which athletes race downhill over various jumps and turns. In slope-style freestyle, competitors ride over a series of man-made jumps and handrails, and are judged on the quality of tricks and maneuvers they perform en route. Freeride is snowboarding over natural terrain, riding the trees, cliff drops and powder lines.
Skateboarding also features subspecialties. These include street skating (skating on street, curbs, benches, handrails); vert skating (skating on ramps and other vertical structures); half pipe (a U-shaped ramp with walls from 2 to 8 feet high); and vert ramp (a half pipe with steep sides that are perfectly vertical).
Surfers are carried by a breaking wave usually on a long or short surfboard toward the shore. Surfers also make use of kneeboards, body boards, kayaks, surf skis and their own bodies. Derivatives of surfing make use of other elements, such as the wind, these include kitesurfing and windsurfing. Other surfing derivatives when their are not any waves include paddleboarding and sea kayaking.
Wakeboarding is a surface water sport which involves riding the wake of a speed boat on a single board. It was developed from a combination of water skiing, snow boarding and surfing techniques. The wakeboard also has fins on the bottom to help it and you catch the water and make more precise, awesome jumps and tricks.
Motor Cross involves maneuvering a motorbike through manmade and sometimes natural racecourses. The powerful engine creates enough power to launch these bikes and their riders 10, 20, 30, and 40 feet in the air, accelerate through turns, and slice through rhythm sections with ease. Freestyle motor cross involves launching the bikes through the air and doing tricks by manipulating the bike, but most often requires the athlete to have less of their body in contact with the bike, like taking one or two feet off, or even letting go of the bike itself, while 40 feet in the air! BMX stands for Bicycle Motorcross, and originated from teenagers trying to mimic their Motorcross heros on bicycles. It involves the same characteristic, but involves pedaling a bike through a man made dirt course with various banked turns, jumps, and rhythm sections. Freestyle BMX involves more acrobatic stunts requiring the athlete to jump great heights and distances while manipulating their body and bike to do various rotations, bar spins, and flips. Downhill mountain biking similar to BMX, requires the athlete to maneuver through a race course full of man made banked turns and jumps, but also natural obstacles such as rock faces, off camber turns, lose soil, and rock, and sometimes small and large drops. The majority of the course is gravity propelled, so pedaling is kept to a minimum, and the excitement and adrenalin is pushed to the max.
Rock climbing is a highly technical and tactical sport that can be learned indoors or outdoors. Climbers source the best route up steep rock faces, often selecting tiny holds and cracks that are more proximal rather than stretching beyond range for a better hold.
Two Training Systems
Key focus areas in training for dynamic, unpredictable action sports include anaerobic energetics, multi-joint strength, speed, agility, balance, quickness, reaction time, balanced flexibility and a highly tuned proprioceptive system. For extreme sports, these components can be combined into two main groupings: 1.) Linked System Strength Training, which combines multi-joint strength, braking strength, explosive power, coupling, and rotary power into one training style of complex exercises, and 2.) Performance BalanceÔ, which blends dynamic balance, core stability, agility, reactions, proprioception and body awareness.
Linked System Strength Training
To execute extreme sports techniques, an athlete needs integrated coordination of his entire body (a linked system that harmonizes athletic actions). However, typical strength training isolates specific muscle groups and develops the body with a piecemeal approach. This is often done with the body completely unloaded, sitting stationary on a machine while moving one isolated body part through a controlled range of motion (ROM), usually in a strict linear motion or single plane movement.
Optimal movement occurs through a linked system called the kinetic chain. Exercise creation for extreme sports is based not on muscle training but on movement training, with the goal of firing muscles in the correct sequence and building body control within movement. Multi-joint lifts, cross-body actions, contralateral lifts and complex exercises predominate. Proper muscle sequencing through full-body actions arms the athlete to transfer greater power through the body and produce more efficient movement while expending less energy.
Boarding sports require great leg strength, particularly eccentric strength, to negotiate turns at high speeds, land big jumps and work against gravity and inertia on steep slopes or strong turns. Explosive power and quick coupling time enter the equation to get “pop” off of jumps and shift quickly from edge to edge. Sharp turns and spinning during jumps and tricks are dependent on torso rotation.
Eccentric leg strength will help skateboarders absorb landings from tricks and jumps and explosive power with quick coupling is needed to obtain high, powerful ollies and nollies (jumps performed by tapping the tail or nose of the board on the ground). Most tricks stem from the ollie, the technique that gets the board and the rider airborne.
Bike athletes need both leg strength for steep ascents as well as eccentric strength to land and absorb big drops. Anaerobic capacity is critical to maintain the output needed to race rides as well as being fresh enough to execute tricks with optimal body mechanics.
More proficient climbers will preferentially utilize their legs and as such training should teach force production from the lower body, with toes/ankle emphasis. If a climber relies well on her legs, there is no reason her arms should be fully fatigued when she reaches the top of a difficult summit. Grip strength and endurance and superior hip mobility also are vital tools in the climber’s arsenal. Rotational mobility and strength will help the climber reach across the body for holds and transfer force to draw the body up into position. Prescribing high-density workouts for strength and endurance will prevent fatigue from impeding mental clarity.
The body functions as a unit, with muscles firing sequentially to produce desired movements. Some muscles contract to help produce movement; others contract to assist with balance; and others contract to stabilize the spine and hold it in a safe, neutral position. Still other muscles will fire each time the body recognizes a shift in position or to correct an error, such as a loss of balance. Core stabilizers and spinal erectors are isometrically contracted to stabilize posture and fight forces of instability.
The unstable and unpredictable environments of extreme sports demand extraordinary feats of strength and balance. Preparation requires focus on secondary fitness characteristics such as dynamic balance, proprioception, body awareness, coordination, agility and reaction skills. Balance leads to control, which facilitates visual awareness and decision making, all critical success factors in extreme sports.
This is highly trainable. The human body contains receptors, sensors and “mini-brains” that compute each body part’s position. Each joint and muscle reads its position relative to the rest of the body and works cooperatively with other muscles in the kinetic chain to produce sport movements, tricks and injury-preventing reactions. The neuromuscular and sensory roles of detecting imbalance, computing the correct reaction, and coordinating corrective movement require exercising out of balance to stimulate improvement.
Bikers need balance and body awareness when riding across skinny wood logs and man made fixtures that are 10 feet off the ground. All bike action sports lean their bike aggressively to create a positive angle when cornering, or riding up jumps and walls. They need to make adjustments in their body positioning to secure a more aggressive lean position in order to carry more speed into a turn. They also require reaction skills to read and adjust to gravel, loose soil, slick rock and mud conditions at high speed. Incorporating drills with visual, tactile and auditory response stimulus would be valuable to all action sport athletes.
Boarders also require reaction skills for unanticipated terrain changes, execute tricks with the agility to change direction quickly, transferring weight from edge to edge in an instant. Repetitive training makes the response more automatic, as opposed to having to think first, move second, helping handle the learning curve for more technical tricks. All action sport athletes must be in tune to their body and know where their limbs and joints are in the space they are competing in. This is achieved with dynamic balance drills plus instability integrated into other exercises as a high percentage of their overall training volume. Agility also must be emphasized to ensure that body weight is quickly transferred and body position is altered properly on the board in mid flight. Not all movements and tricks will be executed perfectly, so heightened reaction skills will help the athlete survive another fun day.
Other Important Performance Indicators
In snowboarding, the feet are strapped to the board in boots that support the ankles. Conversely, the skateboarder’s feet are free of constraint and the shoes worn allow easy ROM about the ankle. This aids in performance of tricks, many of which feature flipping and spinning the board and which require amazing foot and ankle control, coordination and stability. Conditioning programs for both sports must focus on ankle strength and prehab exercises. Rock climbers need strength from their toes to their fingertips, with ability to generate force from the foot at various angles and mechanical disadvantages. Linking the toes and ankle into leg exercises will be of particular benefit. Our action sport athletes complete some of their unstable warm up exercises with bare feet, before foot fatigue or sweat interferes with safe mechanics. Over 50% of the bodies pressure sensors are strategically positioned on the bottom of the feet; we achieve greatest kinaesthetic awareness during barefoot drills.
Extreme sports draw upon the ATP-PC system to perform tricks and a blend of anaerobic and aerobic supply. They complete tricks every few seconds and continue their output placing high demands on the anaerobic glycolytic system. Both bike and board riders should train anaerobically using functional exercises with super-high repetitions or exercise supersets. Emphasize training the ability to generate power, handle instability and coordinate actions under fatigue. Climbing is also very strenuous but more continuous. A climber can intersperse a climb with long, purposeful ascents and rest periods. Technique proficiency, degree of difficulty and continuous climb time will all determine the aerobic-anaerobic continuum.
Exceeding Extreme Demands
Action sports undoubtedly impose extreme demands on the athlete. Your challenge is to package training to meet and exceed those challenges. However, make sure your program is level appropriate and take the time to improve core stability, posture and muscle balance before increasing the complexity of exercises. Do use traditional exercises as well such as squats on a stable surface that are used to increase muscle mass and pure strength. Later, build upon your foundation for a smarter body that is better connected through the kinetic chain. Designing a whole-body functional training program that integrates strength and power through movement and balance, and body awareness through instability is the general focus for extreme sports training. Blending function with multi-joint sequential muscle firing and incorporating sport technique, tactics and tricks into exercise prescription variables will set you and your athlete on the right course to generate sport-specific results. Enjoy the process of coaching your athletes to extreme personal success!