Everyone knows U.S. speedskaters did not perform well in Sochi. The long track team failed to bring home any Olympic medals for the first time in 30 years, prompting U.S. Speedskating to investigate what went wrong.
The organization’s report, released earlier this month, blamed training errors for the poor showing Three national coaches left U.S. Speedskating after this year's Olympic games, including all-round coach Kip Carpenter, sprint coach Ryan Shimabukuro, and short-track coach Stephen Gough. The high-performance director, Finn Halvorsen, resigned.*
So we asked the coach of 2010 and 2014 Olympian, Brian Hansen, and four-time Olympic speedskater herself, Nancy Swider-Peltz, to break down what happened so athletes from all sports can learn from speedskating’s mistakes.
Forget About Altitude
The problem: U.S. Speedskaters spent 10 days before the Olympics training at altitude in Collalbo, Italy, then left for Sochi two weeks before their first races. The idea behind altitude training is that it will make the body produce more oxygen-carrying red blood cells that will improve an athlete’s endurance at sea level. But it can also have drawbacks.
“There is a fatiguing factor in dealing with altitude,” Swider-Peltz says. “You can never go super hard.” Also, it can be difficult to maximize altitude’s beneficial effects. “You have to be very calculated,” she says. That’s where it’s helpful to have a coach who can read your fatigue and adjust your training plan accordingly.
The fix: Athletes in shorter, technical sports might want to ditch the mountains. “I don’t think you have to train at altitude to be successful,” Swider-Peltz says. “It’s better to work on the things—the little nuances that can produce that tenth of a second—than to work so hard adjusting to altitude.”
Get Lazy to Stay Off Your Feet
The problem: “Two weeks before the first race, we were up at four or five in the morning to take a bus ride to Munich. Then we walked around for four or five hours, then we went to the BMW dinner and were up ‘till midnight,” Swider-Peltz says. “Then you get up at four o’clock in the morning and travel to Sochi where the transportation isn’t quite settled and you have to walk a lot.” As a result of the intense travel schedule, athletes were physically and mentally drained.
The fix: Athletes should be prepared to take a few hits before a race, Swider-Peltz says, whether that’s an unexpected late-night out, or a hitch in travel arrangements. But take too many hits right before a race, and your performance may suffer. So do your best to save the sightseeing and socializing for after your event.
Test Everything in Advance
The problem: As the Wall Street Journal reported, the executive director of U.S. Speedskating said, “the team erred in its decision not to use the brand-new Mach 39 suits in competition before the Olympics, as well as a skate polish that the team introduced on the eve of the Games.”
Swider-Peltz says U.S. athletes were asked to make decisions about the suits, skate polish, and kinesiology tape while at the outdoor track in Collalbo just before the Games. “But [the athletes] were cold, they had to change their technique to deal with the wind and the cold,” Swider-Peltz said, making it difficult for athletes to determine if they felt the new equipment was helpful or not. Asking the athletes to “to decide if something was good or different, or if it was the polish or the uniform” three weeks before the Games, she says, “messed with the athletes’ minds.”
The fix: “In my opinion, you should test things six weeks before to determine if they’re good or not good,” Swider-Peltz says. Once you’ve figured out your ideal equipment setup—and you know it’s quick, and comfortable—you’ll feel confident and fast on race day.
Bonus tip: Vet your coach and team
“If you’re going to be a part of a team, it’s just like a marriage,” Swider-Peltz says. “Make sure you wholeheartedly respect the leader. Also, make sure you like the other people on the team, because that is going to affect your ability to like what you’re doing. If you’re distracted by the other people, that’s going to be detrimental to your development.”
*Clarification: We updated the language of this paragraph to make it clear that Kip Carpenter, Ryan Shimabukuro, and Stephen Gough Shimabukuro left U.S. Speedskating but were not forced to resign.
You’re lying in bed, and you suddenly start worrying. It could be about anything. Or nothing. Maybe it’s just a sinking feeling in your chest, with no thoughts at all—until that old, familiar darkness descends, beckoning the doubts back in again. Then your heart rate quickens as your mind whirs with worst-case scenarios. Tightness creeps into your neck and shoulders, but you’re too busy worrying to notice.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. While stressing doesn’t necessarily make you diagnosable, it does mean you’re anxious, probably tired, and possibly less likely to be at your physical best. In addition, we often don’t realize the extent to which everyday stress can compromise performance.
“Our self-awareness as individuals is incredibly poor,” says Adam Naylor, a sports psychologist and Boston University professor. “There’s a reason you’re exhausted.”
Even if you don’t recognize its physical manifestations, your anxiety is burning up energy stores and motivation levels you could be using to train. When your brain detects and responds to a threat, it leads to the release of adrenaline, says psychologist Richard Zinbarg, who heads up Northwestern University’s Anxiety Lab. In the short term, this gives the body a boost of strength and energy. But when it persists, it leaves the body drained. While the exact impact varies from person to person and is difficult to quantify, the effect is major.
“Like a car engine that revs into the red for too long, it will break down over time,” sports psychologist and performance coach Robert Smith says. “Our bodies start to show the wear and tear of chronic stress.”
The solution? Diagnosed anxiety disorders are best treated by a medical professional. But for the rest of us, the first step is awareness. Naylor recommends doing a “shoulder check” throughout the day. If they’re tense, take a deep breath to release the strain.
Smith suggests deep breathing—inhale slowly through the nose and exhale out through the mouth. This self-conscious breathing will bring you back to the moment.
Stress management is difficult because we live in a fast-paced society, but many coping mechanisms are fairly simple. It’s about “realizing that we have these skills, but aren’t using them when we most need them,” Naylor says.
While some level of stress is good for performance—that boost of adrenaline can make you faster on race day—“excessive anxiety is not one bit helpful,” advises Naylor. “If you’re focused enough, you’re focused enough. There’s a tipping point.”
We know the feeling (Outside's headquarters are at 7,000 feet). Doing any sort of activity at high elevation, even just a simple walk, leaves you feeling like all your past months of training didn’t even happen—and that you’ve been smoking a pack a day instead.
So what are you supposed to do if you live at sea level and want to travel for a race that is at altitude? Surprisingly, you don’t have to feel like you’re dying the whole time—if you flow the rules of high-altitude racing.
Your Body on Altitude
No matter how good of shape you are in, it doesn’t matter when you head up to the mountains, at least for the first few days while you are acclimating. That’s because your body is experiencing hypoxia, where your blood carries a lower level of oxygen than normal. The wheezing and shortness of breath you experience is your body trying to compensate for these lower oxygen levels.
“Your heart rate goes up to try to get more oxygen into your lungs—it is trying to increase the pumping of your heart to deliver and transport more oxygen to your tissues,” says Robert S. Mazzeo with the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado. Altitude also causes hormonal changes to occur—like the pumping of adrenaline to help with oxygen transportation and delivery. This all happens when anyone is exposed high altitude, but if your body doesn’t acclimate well, you can get acute mountain sickness, which unfortunately feels a lot like a bad race anyway—headache, nausea, and vomiting.
Arrive Early and Lower Your Intensity
So how do you complete a high-altitude race when you train at sea level? Since we don’t recommend blood doping, and a hyperbaric chamber will set you back a few thousand dollars, aim to get to the race location a week in advance and stay active—which accelerates the acclimation process. Don’t, however, workout at your full intensity and volume. Instead, reduce your intensity by 10 percent and volume by 10 to 20 percent, over your taper, too, says Lance C. Dalleck, an assistant professor of Exercise and Sport Science at Western State Colorado University and researcher for the High Altitude Performance Lab. Take the first day or two off, and if you aren’t experiencing symptoms of acute mountain sickness, start training, but slightly less.
But be sure to prepare mentally, as your race pace will be slower and dehydration sets in quicker. Rather than trying to maintain your typical pace, consciously slow yourself down to avoid blowing up.
Timing Is Key
If you can’t arrive a week in advance and get your body acclimated, schedule your arrival time as close as possible to race day, says Dalleck. Avoid racing between 24 to 72 hours at altitude and instead head up the night or morning before. “That is when you are suffering the most and are most prone to mountain sickness, when you are really starting to acclimate,” Dalleck says of the one-to-three day period. “Before 24 hours, you haven’t really started acclimating... If you race right away, you will beat all of that happening. Your performance on day one at altitude will be better than on day two, three, or four.”
You can also try to get to a somewhat higher altitude at home, if possible, since preexposure to altitude can start that acclimatization. Aim to spend four or more hours at 5,000 plus feet a few times in the month leading up to the race.
If you still end up feeling like crap the whole race, don’t sweat it. It’s not you—it’s genetics. “We see a lot of variability in athletes at altitude,” says Dalleck. “Some individuals don’t seem to be as impacted by the altitude. Others at sea level might be world class athletes and at altitude, they are just anybody else.”
You won’t find this equipment at your local park. Instead, the Monkii Bars are a lightweight, portable suspension-training tool.
Use them at home, in your office, at a park, or while camping and traveling—the whole system is completely self-contained within the sleek bars.
Here’s how it works. Remove the 18-foot suspension line from the bars, then throw the line over a branch or hook it up to a door with carabiners and webbing. (A door-attachment accessory is still in the works.) Use the loop to adjust the length, and voilà, you have a personal-training system. The kit also includes training and set-up-anywhere guides.
Work on upper and lower body strength or use the bars to extend your flexibility. Because the Monkii Bars can be used and stored almost anywhere, you’ll have no more excuses for not working out. The product is set to ship later this summer.