Warming up in a chaotic environment

At the core, the ideas behind a warm up are relatively straightforward and well-understood: increase muscle temperature, increase range of motion, dial in an athlete psychologically, increase heart rate, prepare the joints, ligaments, and tendons for movement and impact, and much more. Together the warm up should prepare the athlete physically and mentally for training and competition. In most sports, the timing and execution of a warm up is simple. But in winter sports, challenges appear all over for something that should be one of the easiest parts of training to implement.

I work specifically with alpine ski racing and will discuss some of our challenges below. Other winter sports see very similar issues. And even non-winter sports can hopefully learn from how we address issues regarding space, timing, weather, and more. At the very least, it’s my hope that when you have better ideas than me, you’ll send them my way!

Complexity and chaos

Before moving to alpine skiing, I worked in a collegiate environment. We had out own weight room, our own field, and everything at our disposal on a daily basis. I was hardly prepared for the hurdles that would be thrown at me in ski racing.

Location – The first issue we face is one of location. For World Cup athletes, lodging is usually within walking distance of the training or race hill. I spent the previous three seasons traveling with our younger teams, competing on the equivalent of the minor leagues. Younger teams typically means smaller budgets. Smaller budgets mean we can’t quite stay at the race hill, which is often significantly more expensive. Travel to the race hill can be anything from a 1 minute walk to a 45 minute drive. And who takes them there? That would be me, as one of my many jobs. Sport coaches often have to be on the race hill up to an hour and a half earlier than athletes, so some mornings I’ll shuttle 7-10 athletes to the race hill, occasionally in multiple trips. “Why don’t they drive themselves?” you ask. The large majority of the time, we’re in rental cars on the other side of the world, and because the team pays for the rental, the athletes aren’t covered by our insurance. Enter me, your professional chauffeur.

Facilities – Once the athletes arrive at the race hill, the nicer venues have lodges where we can change into our boots, warm up, and store bags. But probably half the time or more (and even more with the younger athletes), space is a challenge. I’ve been to races in Slovenia and in the eastern U.S. where the race hill doesn’t even have a lodge. So it’s parking-lot warm ups, lunch and naps in a van, and bag storage and changing at the bottom of the course. Mind you, it’s not too warm there. I think my personal record cold was at Banff National Park up in Canada, racing at Lake Louise. It was -25º [Fahrenheit, with a -35º wind chill.

Equipment – The idea of having gym access is almost laughable. During training, the younger athletes have a gym available to them probably 25% of the time, a well-equipped gym 10% of the time. At the race hill? Probably 5-10% of the time. So what equipment do we use to warm up? Whatever I happen to bring. Typically, my dryland bag contains the following:

  • Bands of various sizes and thicknesses
  • 2 Jump Ropes
  • Dynadisc
  • Waterbag [fills up to 70 pounds]
  • Medicine ball [usually 12 pounds]

When we travel overseas with 10 bags a person [the racers have A LOT of skis], there isn’t much room to haul dryland equipment along. We learn to use the equipment and space we have, and we make the most of it. I learned quickly how to write warm ups and workouts on the fly using limited resources, and that’s become a fun challenge that we’ve incorporated into our internship program.

Timing – The schedule also adds complexity. A simplified example schedule for one of our technical events [slalom and GS] is given below:

  • 8:30a – Inspection 1
  • 10:00a – Start Time – Run 1
  • 12:05p – Inspection 2
  • 1:00p – Start Time – Run 2

Which means our actual schedule could be:

  • 5:30a – Warm up 1 [Movement Session]
  • 6:00a – Breakfast
  • 6:30a – Drive to the hill
  • 7:30a – Warm up 2 [Pre-Skiing]
  • 8:30a – Inspection 1
  • 9:15a – Warm up 3 [On-Skis]
  • 9:45a – Warm up 4 [Pre-Race 1]
  • 10:00a – Start Time – Run 1
  • 11:35a – Warm up 5 [General Warm Up]
  • 12:05p – Inspection 2
  • 12:45p – Warm up 6 [Pre-Race 2]
  • 1:00p – Start Time – Run 2

Weather – And of course, there’s mother nature. When you’re on the top of a mountain in the middle of winter, you’re likely to run into quite a bit of it. Races can get pushed back 10-30 minutes or even multiple hours. Similar to a weightlifter judging the flow of a meet and deciding when to hit her warm up attempts, my racers have to keep an eye on on-time or pushed-back schedules, the flow of the race, and more.

Defining your warm ups

As I showed above, my athletes will warm up multiple times per day in multiple different phases. It’s not about the warm up; it’s about the warm ups.

To give a practical example, I’ll take an easy situation: our recent World Cup stop in Saalbach, Austria. We had the rare pleasure of a well-equipped weight room at our hotel and the hill was about 7 minutes away. Here’s how it played out:

  • Early morning, pre-breakfast — Duration: 15-30 minutes
    Athletes typically spin on a spin bike for ~5-15 minutes, work through some active mobility and stretching, address any prehab-related movements as assigned by the physio or AT, do some basic bracing work, progress into some introductory power movements.
  • Top of the race hill, pre-inspection — Duration: 5-10 minutes
    At World Cup events, they have a tent at the top of the race hill with various bits of equipment. Sometimes a spin bike or two, sometimes some DBs or KBs, sometimes some bands. Athletes have to be adaptable with their warm up to match what they have. At lower-level races, the athletes will warm up in the lodge before heading up for inspection. Typically includes more core bracing and dynamic core work, will include some power work [skaters, lunge jumps, SL and DL CMJ, scissor jumps, etc], but not complete activation.
  • Post-inspection, pre-race — Duration: 20-45 minutes
    During this time after inspecting the race run, I’d say the majority of the warming up comes from skiing on the hill. They’ll go through ski-specific drills, usually incorporating something technical they’ve been working on recently. Typically there’s a trail on the hill designated as a warm up hill so athletes can ski full-speed without worrying about the public. They’ll usually take 1-3 runs here.
  • Within 20 minutes of kicking out of the gate — Duration: 10-20 minutes
    Highest amount of power work. Typically includes band-resisted pallof chops, lunge jumps, quick feet, max effort jumps, short sprints up the hill in race boots, etc. At World Cup events, this will start in the tent at the top of the hill then progress out into the start area, ending about 3 minutes prior to their start. At lower-level events, this entire warm up will take place at the top of the hill in the snow in ski boots.

Depending on when the athlete starts, he may never hit Warm Up 5. If he runs later in the pack and starts 90 minutes after the normal start time, he may finish his run, grab his clothes, then hop right back on the lift to go up for inspection for run 2. Delays mid-race occur often and can be expected, whether it be for high winds, course repairs, or a crash. A crash resulting in a helicopter evacuation can pause the race for as long as 45 minutes. During this time, athletes are at the start waiting to run, so having extra clothes on-hand and good communication from coaches on the hill is essential.

Creating independence

If this is the first time you’ve been exposed to chaos like this leading into a major event, it may sound like an absolute mess. But there are a handful of tricks I use to balance it all out.

The first and most important thing to me is to create autonomous athletes. My athletes range from 17 years of age all the way up to 36, but I still make a point to sit with each of them before the season starts and walk through their warm up routine for both training and races. Once I hear their plan, I poke as many holes into it as I can. “What happens if you don’t have the bands? What happens if the race gets delayed 30 minutes, what will you do? What if you’re rushed and don’t have time to do your full warm up, what are you scratching? What are your ‘must have’s?”

And we train for this during the prep period. During the summer, I have my athletes write one training session a week. I give them rough guidelines [how hard I want the session to be and what the focus is], but then they write the session start to finish. If I see that they have something absolutely catastrophic in there, I’ll give some guidance, but if I think it’ll play out fine, I let it ride – even if it’s not perfect. I then use those not-so-perfect moments to teach them. Work-to-rest ratios, pairing of exercises, exercise order, it all comes into play. First and foremost, I believe we as coaches should be teachers, and I take that very seriously. I absolutely beam when my athletes text me from the other side of the world and tell me what they had planned that day for dryland and it’s perfectly in-line with what I would’ve prescribed. That’s the coolest.

My second tip is to ensure my athletes completely understand the “why” behind everything. Why do we even need to warm up? What are the goals, what are the benefits? What types of movements should be incorporated at what time and why? If they can answer these questions, they can make things work even when I’m not present, which is often since my athletes will split into as many as 6 groups spread out all over the globe at a time. My last trick is to be as prepared as I can possibly be: have all the equipment I think might be needed, all the snacks and supplements, all the water, and Gatorade. Over-preparation is key. This attention to detail on my part guarantees that I’m ready, cool, and collected when the pressure is on for my athletes.

Once I got over the initial shock amidst the chaos, working in this sport has been incredible. It’s pushed me, stretched me professionally, and challenged me to expand my thinking and my processes. In what ways could you empower your athletes more? In what areas do your athletes need more autonomy? How can we lead them better? I hope these thoughts on our warm up patterns and methods have pushed you to dig a little deeper into your own programming and philosophies.