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Built for Speed: The Physics of the Winter Athlete Body 

The physics and effects skiing has on the human body.

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Ever been out skiing, feeling like you're in a groove, moving along at a good pace, only to be passed like you're standing still by a truly gifted skier? Me neither. (kidding.) When you see an elite athlete in action firsthand - especially when you're participating in the same sport - it gives you a genuine understanding of just how good they are. And although they may be working really hard, most talented athletes make it look effortless.

"It definitely comes easier for some people who have attributes specific to their sport," says Bart Bowen, owner of the Powered by Bowen sports lab. As an example, he points out that people who excel at cycling typically have large lung capacities and longer femurs. (Thighbones that are longer than shins act as a strong lever while pedaling.) Conversely, good runners usually have a longer shin, or a shin length equal to the length of their femur. Curious, I measure my leg and find my femur is longer than my shin. Maybe that explains my running.

While we know the mental aspect of sport is huge, and that negative thinking and lack of confidence are detrimental to athletic performance, the cold truth is desire and positive thinking can only take you so far if you're not built to perform. And, even if you have the right physique for your sport,your body still needs to be specifically trained to efficiently perform motions unique to the sport. We tend to employ scientific principles when we evaluate the equipment used for our sport - for example, when we compare bicycle frame materials based on strength, compliance or weight - and after talking with some of Central Oregon's elite coaches, it's obvious the laws of physics are important for evaluating performance of the athletic body as well.
Nordic Skiing: the VO2 Beast
When asked what separates an elite-level Nordic skier from a strong recreational skier, J.D. Downing, who directs and coaches the XC Oregon Nordic Ski Team, says aerobic fitness (which encompasses aerobic base and high-end aerobic capacity), strength and technical efficiency are distinctive factors.
Downing says multiple studies have proven that Nordic skiers are the most aerobically fit athletes because of the sport's intense demand on the body. "It's a quadrupled motion, with both the upper body and lower body working simultaneously, with the upper body power really being that delineating force," explains Downing. "If you're going to pick the biggest of the beast, Nordic skiing takes the prize."
"Nordic skiing is the highest aerobically demanding sport from a pure VO2 max standpoint," agrees Bowen. VO2 max refers to the body's aerobic capacity, or the maximum amount of oxygen an athlete can use during vigorous exercise, which can be tested to determine comparative fitness.
Bowen, who competed as a collegiate Nordic skier, says there's been a shift in the sport, with much of a skier's power coming from the core and upper body. "(Skiers) are really not propelling themselves with their legs as much as you would think," he says.
Downing concurs. "It's not enough to have a big motor," he explains. "You have to have strength in a sports-specific manner. It's the upper body power that really separates different ability levels."
Is there an ideal body type for high-level Nordic skiing? Alas, it appears there is. You're in luck if you're "tallish, but not tall," and "lean, but not runner lean," according to Downing. "Think a muscular runner, but not weight-room muscular."
Alpine Skiing: the Agile Brickhouse
Aside from the obvious ability to manage fear, downhill skiers bring unique physical qualities to a sport that is essentially a controlled fall.
Bowen, who transitioned from competitive alpine skiing to professional cycling while he was at the University of New Mexico on a ski scholarship, says both sports require the athlete to fight the force of gravity: cyclists while climbing uphill and skiers while descending.
"The same force - gravity - causes a different adaptation for each sport," says Bowen. "An alpine skier has to create power to work against both gravity and centrifugal force."
While a cyclist who climbs well is usually very lean, elite alpine skiers are "built like brick houses," says Bowen.
"It's a gravity sport," explains MBSEF Alpine Director Nils Eriksson, who has coached for more than 20 years. "The more mass you have, the faster you'll go. But if that mass is not well-coordinated or well-proportioned, it won't steer you in the right direction."
Bowen agrees. "You can't just train in the gym and be a good skier," he says. "You have to have the finesse, and feel the snow."
Eriksson says even at the elite level, alpine skiers have different body shapes, and more importantly, "the best alpine skiers are pretty good all-around athletes."
Fast-twitch muscle fibers that allow a downhill skier to generate extraordinary power for a short time, combined with anaerobic fitness, are classic physical characteristics of the alpine skier.
"Generally, we train like a 400-meter track athlete," says Eriksson. "It's very much become a power sport. But you need to build the right power with the right repetitions to get the muscle memory necessary for good technique."
But even if you're naturally muscular and coordinated, Eriksson says the winning advantage separating the elite downhill ski racer from a recreational skier is the willingness to accept the risk of hurtling down a mountain while pushing the personal limit of your ability and comfort zone. "You have to live a little bit on the edge," he says.
So let's say you're not one to build a lot of muscle, and don't possess big, um, confidence, like a downhill ski racer. Or you lack the third lung of an elite-level Nordic skier. Should you sell your equipment and take up competitive knitting?
"You want to go out for a love of the snow, and not obsessing about technique or equipment," says Downing. "Don't worry about it. Just go have fun."

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