Four Steps to Peak Agility
Without agility, working out is just bodybuilding.
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Training always reverts to the quantifiable: Put in three weeks of high mileage on the bike and it’s “How much fat did you drop?” Ramp up the intensity of your running workouts and it’s “What was the split time?” Throw a medicine ball and it’s “How heavy and how far?” We’re a results-driven society. In the first three installments of our Pillars of Fitness series, our experts served up results-based advice to make you measurably fitter, faster, and stronger than ever. But athleticism is more than a numbers game. Up to this point, whether your goal was to build a more powerful cardiovascular engine or strengthen your core, you’ve essentially been bodybuilding. Now it’s time to apply your gains to the outdoor sports you love, whether it’s skate-skiing in Vermont, surfing off Baja, or just scrambling around in the mountains with the dog. To do that, you’ll need to forget about numbers and start honing your agility and coordination. Here’s how.
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MEET THE EXPERTS
PETE VORDENBERG: Head coach of the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team, former NCAA champion, and two-time Olympian. Since Vordenberg took over in 2006, the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team has gone from 40 World Cup points a season to 600 and started standing on podiums.
FRANK FLETCHER: Owner of Rhythmic Nature Fitness, a Los Gatos, California based training outfit, Fletcher works with outdoor athletes to develop agility programs and movement-based workouts designed to prevent injuries. Here he lays out a routine for winter athletes.
PER LUNDSTAM: As the strength-and-conditioning coach for the U.S. Ski Team, Lundstam has helped oversee the strongest and best-performing group of American racers in a generation. Lundstam gets you ready to handle your next wipeout.
DARON RAHLVES: The most decorated U.S. downhill and super-G skier of all time. Today, Rahlves trains for skiercross at home in Truckee, California.
Get Out of Your Rut
Every year, it’s the same dream. In the weeks before ski season, I spend my nights floating down infinite powder runs, accelerating effortlessly through arced turns until I’m flying off knolls and only occasionally brushing the earth. I am all-seeing and nimble, relaxed and agile. Skiing’s Platonic form.
And then I go skiing. The first turn is awkward and committed halfheartedly. The second is only marginally better. This is nothing like the dream. I remember that I’ve spent the past eight months riding bikes, running a bit, and hiking generally going forward. Forward is my plane of motion, and I own it. But skiing exists on multiple planes. Breaking out of those ingrained movement patterns requires conscious thought. I must exert myself physically simply to move laterally. It’s as if the quick-response messages are jammed up in the wiring. Days and sometimes weeks go by before the ski legs are back and I can once again move fluidly downhill.
Like an unused muscle, athleticism itself atrophies. I notice this not only on alpine skis but when I go for my first trail run in the fall or even just ice-skating with the kids. And I especially feel it during early-season nordic skate-skiing the one sport I do that seems to tap every bit of my cardiovascular system, muscle strength, and coordination. “Cross-country skiing is the repetitive application of power in undulating terrain, on a slick and unstable surface,” says U.S. nordic team coach Pete Vordenberg. “There are long, steep uphills and superfast, twisting downhills. It requires agility.”
Vordenberg’s racers incorporate agility into their strength training by means of ladder drills (fast feet) and plyometrics (old-school box jumps and the like). But even weekend jocks can benefit from working agility training into their routines. The basic agility moves you were taught in junior-high PE like running through cones on a gym floor or lawn are fine to start with. But the problem with these routines is that they quickly become just that: routine. And even if you’re getting faster or stronger, your body soon stops learning anything new from the same motions. This is why the state of the art in agility training takes a purposely chaotic approach challenging the body in new and unpredictable ways to hone reaction time, recovery, and balance.
It’s like that scene in Rocky II where Mick has Balboa chase a chicken around an empty Philadelphia lot. He lumbers after it stiffly, the chicken gets away, and Rocky says he feels like a “Kentucky-fried idiot.” Cut to Rocky training in sweatpants and seventies kneesocks jumping, bobbing, weaving, squatting, lifting, twisting and soon celebrating with the hen overhead. To get more agile for your sport of choice, you need to ditch the status quo and chase the chicken.
Protect Your Knees
The problem: Cut-and-pivot sports like soccer tend to boost the likelihood of tearing or rupturing the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). The same danger exists with agility training, which incorporates ever more lateral movement as you progress in difficulty. But you can help prevent injury by honing your body’s proprioception the ability to sense where its parts are and stabilize itself to avoid putting too much strain on the knee. One method: the weighted decelerating lunge. It increases the strength of the ACL itself and may also increase the nerve sensitivity and feedback to the muscles.
Start by taking a giant step forward and dropping into a standard lunge, slowing your momentum with your forward leg. Lean into it a bit. Got it? Tie a bungee cord to the base of a pole in front of you and keep it taut as you drop into the lunge; the cord will pull you forward, increasing the load your knee is trained to stabilize. Do 2 3 sets of 15 reps, twice a week.
Thrills, Not Drills
Now that you get the concept, and you’ve built up some knee strength, start by working 15 minutes of Frank Fletcher’s agility exercises into your routine once a week (or up to 45 minutes, three times a week, for advanced athletes). Mix them up: The variety will keep you on your toes. Do each exercise until you feel tired but not fatigued, stopping well before your form gets sloppy.
1. FAST FEET
Begin in a classic athletic “ready” position, standing on the balls of your feet with a slight bend in your knees. March in place, progressively shortening the height you lift your feet until they’re barely rising from the floor. Swing your arms in time with your feet, as in a regular jog, and speed up the pace until you’re beating out a staccato rhythm on the ground. Time: Beginners, start with 30 seconds; advanced athletes, three to five minutes.
2. PULSE SQUAT TO JUMP
You’ll want to customize these fast squats based on the needs of your sport. For example, skiers and surfers should squat until the knees approach right angles; soccer players and trail runners, only to 45 degrees. Use the usual form for squats (back straight, butt out, knees behind your toes), but do them quickly, more like bounces than traditional repetitions. Do three to 15 quick pulses, depending on your fitness level, before explosively jumping straight up as high as possible and immediately returning to the pulse squats no rest. Beginners, start with ten sets before resting. Work up to 30 sets.
3. AGILITY LADDER
With an agility ladder ($90; performbetter.com) laid out before you on the ground, begin with simple “one-ins.” Run along it with one foot outside the ladder, one foot stepping inside every other space. Then do it backwards. Comfortable with that? Try “two-ins” in every direction. Begin by placing your left foot in the ladder, then place the right foot next to it before moving the left foot one spot over. Repeat quickly. Ladder combinations are as endless as dance steps, but you can up the difficulty with high knees holding your hands out in front at hip height and touching your knee to your hand with each step.
4. HOPS AND JUMPS
On skis or on the basketball court, you’re often forced to quickly jump off one or both legs in any direction. To train the body, you have to add that kind of variety to a jumping workout. Begin with both feet parallel and jump repeatedly in any given direction. As you progress and grow stronger, do the same on one foot, unless you have injuries. Next, try “two-ways” hopping in one direction before stopping and returning in the other. To boost your reaction time, have a friend quickly call out random directions, and try to keep up. Be sure to work your way up over time no hopping while you’re sore.
5. DEPTH DROPS/JUMP-UPS
These two basic moves build explosiveness and can help you absorb big impacts from ski jumps and the ensuing crashes. Begin by standing on a solid platform about knee height off the ground. Step or hop off, allowing gravity to bring you down. Absorb the impact by dropping into a squat, trying to be “quiet” or “soft” with the feet, and stick the landing like a gymnast. Now turn around and do a standing jump off both legs back up to the platform. Repeat until tired.
6. DODGEBALL TENNIS
In this agility game, start by side-shuffling back and forth across a room or doing fast feet laterally. Your partner then takes a racket and a hopper of tennis balls and starts blasting them at your legs. The idea is to dodge them but continue your task. For your friend, this is almost as fun as driving golf balls at that dude in the cart.
7. REACTION BALL
To add some chaos to your training, buy one of those irregularly shaped balls that bounce in random patterns ($24; kwikgoal.com). On your own or with a partner, throw it on the ground or against a wall and try to catch it. This is like chasing the chicken, only it’s PETA-approved.
8. BLINDFOLD DRILLS
You can add difficulty and increase your proprioception (a.k.a. body awareness) with most of these exercises by simply blindfolding yourself. “A huge part of the brain is used for visual perception, interpretation, and reaction, which is a slow process,” says Fletcher. “But sports require us to make rapid decisions without executive interference from the brain.” As your agility and strength improve, try the depth drops, single-leg hops, and fast-feet moves blindfolded. (Not recommended for dodgeball tennis.)
Get Ready to Fall
Stumble on a trail run, skitter out at the apex of a turn on snow, or lose your balance while playing catch on a Bosu ball and your body and mind must work together quickly. Thankfully, the more you react to such circumstances, the more you store that information in muscle memory for future use. It’s an idea known as the body’s “situation bank,” and professional coaches like the U.S. Ski Team’s Per Lundstam are increasingly working this kind of situation-specific training into agility and strength programs. Here’s how you can, too:
Stand on a Bosu ball ($100; bosu.com) and have a friend throw balls of different weights and sizes over your shoulder from behind. “The athlete needs to see which shoulder the ball is coming over and then react to the size and weight to make the catch,” says Lundstam. “They’re constantly changing their center of mass.”
Running hurdles is hard enough for most of us, but to challenge the balance and core strength of his professional ski racers, Lundstam makes them jump high hurdles laterally (though the move also works over low hurdles or any similar obstacle, like a tennis net). The move pulling your knees up to your chest in quick succession and landing while moving sideways taps the muscles you use to recover balance.
Since most race skis are less than 70 millimeters wide underfoot, and only a fraction of that width is biting the snow at any given time, developing your sense of balance is essential for tapping in to your newfound agility. Start off walking narrow beams, then move on to slacklines ($80; gibbonslacklines.com).
FUN FACTOR: TAKE IT OUTSIDE
Training in a gym can be soul-crushing. That’s why all the exercises on these pages can be done outside. Thankfully, the real world provides all the variety you ever need to boost agility, coordination, power output, and reaction time. Just ask Olympian and X Games medalist Daron Rahlves:
“To work on agility, I prefer the changing landscape of a run/jump/hike outing up on Donner Summit, a peak near my home. The trails and granite rock provide an agility supersession. I start with a ten-minute warmup run before diving into a few six-second sprint bursts to get ready. I have two routines. The first is around 40 minutes, running at a good pace with my heart rate around threshold. But if I’m ready to go for a mental and physical blowout, I’ll add three all-out hammerfests at max effort uphill for 60 seconds each. To make it tougher, I wear a 25-pound weight vest [$155; weightvest.com]. The key is to think ‘quick feet’ while driving with the arms to jump over little gaps and keep the pace moving. When you’re using everything from arms to core to toes, and then you add in quick decision making, it simulates skiing really well.”