USA Nordic looks to advance from collaboration with Mayo Clinic
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The optimal Nordic combined athlete has not been defined, but Mayo Clinic has started its research.
As a part of the new collaborative relationship with USA Nordic, the Mayo Clinic started testing for a multi-year analysis on ski jumpers and Nordic combined skiers from the national and junior national teams.
“I’m guessing a lot of people do it more by feel as opposed to scientific data. We’re going to be some pioneers and hopefully make a huge difference,” said USA Nordic team physician and Mayo Clinic Medical Director for Sports Dr. Jonathan T. Finnoff. “If you look at what makes a good jumping athlete versus cross-country ski athlete, they look totally different. Jumpers are really thin with explosive power in their legs, super skinny upper bodies and cross-country skiers over time … they’re big, strong, muscular people.
“So very different body types and Nordic combined are trying to be great at both, you’re on a tight rope for sure,” Finnoff explained.
In June, USA Nordic’s national and junior national teams went to Minneapolis for baseline testing at the Mayo Clinic. The tests ranged from standard physicals to performance testing.
“We’re working with them to create a database where we’re going to be testing not only the elites and the junior elites, but also a broader swathe of youth,” USA Nordic Executive Director Billy Demong said. “And then identify over the next years what is a good long-term athlete development model.”
Mayo Clinic plans to keep all tests in a database, reassessing the athletes every couple of months to ultimately decide what training plans work to produce world-class competitors.
“We did 3D analysis of jumps, how much force was generated, how fast an athlete goes from squat to full jump and what phase of the jump cycle they can produce that,” Finnoff said. “We measured body composition, bone mineral density, fat content. Having a really good body composition assessment with their performance with specific dietary needs will produce a better outcome than meeting with nutritionist once a year, trying to use the latest science, most advanced technology.”
In addition, plans to build a new ski-jumping facility in Red Wing, Minnesota, are gaining traction. This would allow athletes to spend more time in the U.S. being evaluated by the Mayo Clinic, since most will spend a lot of their time training in Europe.
Skiers spend three to four weeks in Steamboat and Park City, Utah, then one to two weeks in the Minneapolis area for summer training.
Demong said for endurance, living in high altitude is an advantage, but to work on speed, athletes go to the Midwest because the oxygen levels enable them to go faster. For jumpers, altitude isn’t so much an advantage but an opportunity to master mechanics before working on powering through higher air pressure at sea level.
But Demong wants more specifics that cater to each athlete.
“We’re going to be looking at doing some lactate threshold testing, which will allow us to give the athletes real training zones like heart rate and effort and help them to work on the areas they need,” Demong said.
Some athletes might have a huge endurance base but need to work on honing it into generating speed. On the flip side, others need more endurance.
The multi-year collaboration is unique, with Mayo Clinic looking holistically at each athlete’s health and identifying potential problems that range from heart arrhythmias to spinal stress fractures.
In other professional sports, like the NBA or NFL, Finnoff describes the relationship between athletes and doctors as “disjointed.” Athletes work with a variety of different providers, sometimes dictated by sponsorship money. This can lead to doctors competing against each other and producing various incorrect diagnoses, rather than having all information under one roof.
A long-term relationship with doctors and the best minds in sports science might be what’s needed to produce top-level athletes from USA Nordic, which will make the sport more interesting in years to come.
“Every year we’re going to get better about optimizing their performance,” Finnoff said. “I love that we’re not just doing pre-participation, we’re doing biomechanics, psychiatric, all of it. It helps us effect positive change. I think it’s a huge opportunity to really be trailblazers in this sport.”
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