Student’s study to assist Olympic skiers

David Hyland

For University doctoral student Steve Gaskill, the current method of training of Olympic cross-country and Nordic skiers is akin to “shooting billiards with your eyes closed.”
Since no clear methods for muscle-building existed, Gaskill, who studies exercise physiology, recently launched a study using young skiers to determine an efficient training regiment to build upper-body strength. A $26,000 grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee helped finance the study.
For all athletes, especially women, a strong upper body is critical, Gaskill said. More than 60 percent of the strength skiers use to propel themselves forward moves through the upper body.
Gaskill said current techniques to build upper body strength in athletes leave something to be desired, as sports physiologists haven’t closely examined endurance.
As it is, the skiers already have a great deal of work to do in regard to improving technique and tactics. This leaves little time to improve upper body strength and fitness.
Gaskill said he hopes the study will reveal an efficient method to build strength with little time and effort.
Prior to working at the University, Gaskill was the national coach for the U.S. Olympic cross-country skiing and Nordic combined teams. He coached in the 1980, 1984 and 1988 Olympics.
It was Gaskill’s experience with the U.S. Olympic effort and his prominence in the field that prompted Olympic development coaches to approach him about conducting the study. The Olympic Committee later provided the grant.
Piotr Bednarski, a regional coach for the U.S. Olympic biathlon team, worked under Gaskill for several years. Bednarski said Gaskill is one of the top coaches and research physiologists in the country.
The U.S. ski team is currently ranked 15th in the world, Gaskill said. While most countries successfully incorporate new training techniques into their programs, he said the U.S. team must make a move to keep from falling further behind.
The study is broken into four regimens. The first section is focused on strength development and uses a combination of weights. Another section involves using poles and skis-on-wheels, in which the skiers must work their way uphill. The third segment comprises using roller boards, which are inclined ramps in which athletes pull themselves up and down with rope. The fourth section is standard circuit training.
Gaskill said the study is being conducted in Burnsville, Stillwater, Bloomington and at the University. He said he chose younger, developing athletes from area high schools to observe their progress.
Some of the athletes Bednarski coaches are in Gaskill’s study. Although the initial testing was difficult, he said his athletes are doing well.
Adam Gastonguay of Burnsville, Minn., is in the middle of the study. He is required to perform the exercises three times a week.
“It’s not that bad,” the 15-year-old said. “You work up to a higher level and you get stronger.”
Bednarski said the information from the study will greatly benefit the development of tomorrow’s athletes.
“We don’t know what’s the best way to build strength in endurance sports,” Bednarski said. “The idea is to find how to get the most bang for the buck.”
The study, which is broken into two 10-week periods, began in June and will end in late August. The second section will end in November. Gaskill said he expects to report the study’s findings by January to the U.S. Olympic Committee and regional development coaches. If the results are successful, they may be implemented as early as next summer.
Gaskill said the results won’t “rock the international ski scene,” but will enhance how coaches train their athletes.
“There’s a big gap between the science of sports and the application of it at the coaching level,” Gaskill said.
Tom Nesser, a kinesiology student and the project’s coordinator, said the study will increase the performance and the confidence of the athletes. That, the organizers said, is what the study is all about.
“If you help our Olympic athletes perform better,” Gaskill said, “it is worthwhile.”