High-end athletes are being built behind closed doors

Star Chambers

High-end athletes are being built behind closed doors

When trainer extraordinaire Mark Verstegen talks about macaroni, he's referring not to the sludge served in school cafeterias, but to that near-perfect synchronization of an athlete's energy management, strength training, nutrition and regeneration after they've been tweaked by Verstegen and his staff at Athletes' Performance Institute, a private facility on the campus of Arizona State University (Tempe). Macaroni is what allows one of his prized pupils, shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, to take a splitter off his shoelaces and hoist it over the Green Monster at Fenway Park; and another, tennis pro Mary Pierce, to reach what should have been a winner at Roland Garros and rifle it back past her opponent.

Students of the old school, who associate performance enhancement with jumping jacks and pep talks might cringe at how scientific game-playing has become. Yet few would argue that macaroni is a lot better than human growth hormone, juice, blood expanders, erythropoietin and the myriad other substances that threaten to make the final arbiters of sporting events lab techs and mass spectrometers, not refs and replays.

Verstegen does see a connection between his methods and the shortcuts employed by the cheaters. "The limiting factor to performance is recovery," he insists. "If you look at the reasons athletes have used unethical means -- anabolic steroids or stuff like that -- it's because it allows them to recover [from training] more quickly, and then train at a higher intensity when they come back. Here, we're committed to providing the most efficient and ethical ways to optimize recovery and regeneration. Half of our building is called work, and half of our building is called rest."

To maximize regeneration, Verstegen uses a host of state-of-the-art post-workout gizmos and techniques, including massage, hydrotherapy, underwater massage wands, steam rooms and heat treatments. But he builds recovery into every aspect of his clients' lifestyles. "All those types of things are imperative to us and our athletes," he says.

Dolph Doppelgaengers

Hydrotherapy and naps? Seems a far cry from the images of uberathletes being manufactured behind the Iron Curtain last century. Equating performance on the athletic field with their standing on the world stage, nations built sports machines that would hand-pick athletes nearly out of the womb and then train them assembly line-style through their teens, mercilessly weeding out those who stumbled in fulfilling their potential.

The West conjured images of armies of Dolph Lundgren doppelgaengers filling gulag-like training facilities. In fact, sports-specific training is in some ways taking elite athletes in the opposite direction now. For instance, take the decathlon, long considered a showcase for the world's greatest athletes. How specifically can you train when your sport is 10 rolled into one?

"The challenge in the decathlon is trying to balance all 10 events while keeping a good feel technically for all the field sports," says Tom Pappas, who in September placed first in the sport at the 2003 World Indoor Championships, making him the favorite to win gold in Athens. "At the same time, you're trying not to overtrain."

The head coach for track and field at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville), Bill Webb, oversees Pappas' kaleidoscopic training. As needed, specialists give additional instruction in selected events. Pappas' weekly training load is prodigious, consuming 4-5 hours daily, with a full day's rest coming only on Saturdays. All of this work may have made Pappas the world's best athlete, but the decathlon is neither a high-profile nor a big- budget event, and he lacks the time and the resources to take advantage of the state-of-the-art in training across his sports. Pappas is expertly coached, yet at the end of the day, he isn't using anything more high-tech than Bruce Jenner's hairspray was back in the '70s.

What if someone like Pappas were to access the ultimate facilities and laboratories, those standing at the forefront of training for strength, speed and endurance? If he could, here is where he, or anyone else, might consider going:

Australian for Strength

Located in Canberra, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) is where that country's elite athletes go to take their game to the next level. Many Olympic athletes train there, but it isn't necessarily or exclusively for them. AIS's mission is to take athletes as they arrive at a pivotal juncture in their development and then propel them forward using the most advanced means at its disposal.

AIS's strongest suit is strength training, thanks at least in part to Julian Jones, its head coach of strength and conditioning. A former Olympic weightlifter, he has taught many of the same, although his department works with athletes from more than 25 sports.

Athletes are still lifting barbells and dumbbells like they did 10, 20 and 30 years ago, and that's basically the approach used by decathletes like Pappas, who does Olympic and power lifts four days a week. At AIS, however, advances in strength training are coming through the use of things called force plates, rotary and linear encoders, and bar tracers.

"When a bar or dumbbell moves, we can now measure its velocity and the power the athlete attains, and identify where in the movement he or she attains that power," Jones explains. This isn't just mimicking the biomechanics of the various moves common in a sport. Using eponymous computer software from the company Dartfish, based in Switzerland, exercise physiologists at AIS develop a "skill trace" of the biomechanics of, say, a jump shot in basketball, or someone throwing the javelin. But since the traces are two-dimensional, AIS adds a third to the analysis using motion-capture systems manufactured by Vicon, based in the United Kingdom. The product of these technologies is imagery that looks more like sci-fi than exercise phys, with skeletons moving around onscreen. Even though the skeleton is 3-D and the Dartfish images are 2-D, side by side they offer Jones and his staff a good indication of where the athlete needs to be in terms of movement patterns and planes of movement while he or she's out on the court, in the pool or on the field.

The traces also tell them where athletes should be achieving peak power and peak velocity as they rise and release the shot or toss the javelin. Exercise scientists can then compare the ideal trace to the actual ones of athletes, and determine whether their power is peaking at the right point along the trace. If not, the skill will be "broken down" for the athlete in the weight room, with training used to correct the deficiencies.

So has AIS quantified the improvements made, if any, by athletes using this fancy-pants software? "That's the process we're in right now: validation mode," says Jones. "This is all relatively new, and while we're getting reliability data on the equipment we're using, by no means is it rock-solid. But we're heading down a pathway that we believe will give us the edge in making the training tools more specific to what we're after. So we can do away with a lot of the fluffy-icing things where people are making a leap in faith that it actually works."

Asked to peer into his crystal swiss ball, Jones sees a day in the not-too-distant future when high-tech monitoring gadgetry will shrink to the size of a matchbook, so that athletes can train "wired" with portable gear that provides instantaneous feedback in real time. Unlike a standard training diary, in which you might enter sets and reps completed by hand, sensors will measure variables such as power output, velocity and intensity.

Going Long

You may have seen the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (Barrington, Illinois) and its director, Robert Murray, PhD, on a recent TV commercial for that company's ubiquitous sports beverage. In his fleeting cameo, the exercise physiologist stands motionless in a white lab coat. This would be a stark contrast to his sweaty research subjects, who are put through their paces in exotic apparatus such as the environmental chamber located in GSSI's state-of-the-art exercise physiology laboratory.

"It gives us the opportunity to control and standardize environmental conditions for our research projects, with all the equipment necessary to get people hot and sweaty in a whole variety of ways," says Murray, noting the lab does testing and research on a wide range of athletes, from world-class sprinters to Ironman triathletes. "We collect a lot of different measurements on various physiological responses: cardiovascular, thermo-regulatory, fuel control, hormones, and fluid and electrolyte balances." Adjacent to that lab is GSSI's exercise biochemistry laboratory, where Murray and his associates can take blood, sweat and urine samples from the environmental lab and analyze them quickly using sophisticated gear.

Arguably the most impressive component of GSSI, though, is its one-of-a-kind exercise sensory evaluation lab. "It gives us the opportunity to get people hot and sweaty and thirsty, provide them beverages to drink, and then closely monitor what they like and don't like about that experience," says Murray. "One of the things we want to make sure that Gatorade accomplishes is that it strikes a balance between its physiological effectiveness and its palatability when people need it most -- when they're exercising."

During his years of research on endurance at Gatorade, Murray has been struck most profoundly by the value of recovery as part of an athlete's training program. Looking forward, he sees that as a continuing emphasis. "For sports nutrition in general, recovery nutrition is going to be a place where we're likely to see lots of new information. It may include what to eat and drink before we go to bed, because after all, it's when we're sleeping that much of our hypertrophy and cellular changes occur, as a result of the stimulus of working out that day."

Fast Forward

In contrast to stamina, speed and acceleration fuel the imagination like no other sporting feat. Strength and endurance records become arcane factoids, known only by disciples of the sports in which they are set, but the average person on the street would associate the digits 9.7-something with a record-setting 100-meter dash.

For his 100, decathlete Pappas doesn't just get in the blocks and run -- he practices some acceleration patterns and drills -- but his approach is old-school compared to that of the Frappier Acceleration Clinic, located in the decidedly slow-lane locale of Fargo, North Dakota.

The genesis of these advances came in 1986, when exercise physiologist John Frappier was invited to Russia to study how the old Soviet sports machine had identified athletic talent and then developed it to compete in the Olympics and world championships. There he was exposed to the concept of towing, in which an athlete hangs onto a bar attached to the back of a vehicle that is then driven faster than the athlete can run on his own.

Says Frappier: "That intrigued me, and I remember asking the doctors: 'Why are you doing this?' They told me, 'It's to manipulate the stretch reflex.' When you manipulate that, the resultant contraction is equal in both velocity and force to how it is stretched. So while a runner can produce only so much force on his own, by towing him faster than he can run, he gets a greater stretch reflex at the hip flexor."

Frappier, who earned his graduate degree in exercise physiology from the University of Kansas (Lawrence), knew he couldn't return stateside and tell parents he wanted to hitch their kids to the back of a Chevy, Jackass style. He could, however, replicate the effect on a treadmill, where variables such as duration, elevation and speed could be easily programmed and controlled. He also accounted for individual differences in stride length by measuring variables such as shoe size and femur and tibia length. What's more, he evaluated the strength of an athlete's hip flexors, hip extensors, hamstrings, quadriceps and gastrocnemius.

Armed with this data, Frappier began using his custom-built treadmills to soup up training regimens. He found that after six weeks, athletes were routinely shaving two-tenths of a second off their 40-yard-dash times and doubling their quickness scores. The treadmills also allowed him to extend sprinters' anaerobic endurance by "pushing out" their lactate threshold.

Today, 122 sites around the United States operate using Frappier's protocol-driven training methods. Along the way, he developed a high-speed running treadmill that goes from 0 to 20 in less than three seconds, as well as a research treadmill with a built-in force plate that does the same thing in less than one second. When a hockey coach approached him about developing something for his guys, Frappier, who studied biology and chemistry as an under-graduate, found a polymer that was very close to the co-efficient of ice and built a hockey treadmill based on that.

The next frontier for Frappier, who has worked with more than 1,500 athletes from all the major professional sports, is further enhancing the ability of athletes to harness power, allowing them to become more explosive and dynamic. "We're in the patent process right now for something we've developed called 3PQ, which stands for plyo-press-power," he says. "Basically, it's a force plate mounted onto our leg press machine. We did a pilot study this summer to see if we could improve vertical jump more, and we saw an average improvement of 4 inches when we integrated that into the program."

Pro Performance

Like linen pants and Jennifer Lopez, elite athletes today are very high-maintenance. And nowhere are they maintained better than at Verstegen's Athletes' Performance Institute at ASU, which provides a model of how training modalities can be integrated to produce champions. The 30,000 square-foot campus is loaded with custom-built and prototype equipment by leading manufacturers, but while the bells and whistles are useful, Verstegen sets himself apart by the way he synthesizes and applies them.

"From blood analysis and 3-D biomechanical analysis to nutrition and regeneration, we may have, say, 26 things that we try to integrate on a daily level with an individual athlete," says the former walk-on linebacker at Washington State University (Pullman). "Someone else might take one element of that and market it as the answer to everything, but we look at an athlete's physiological and even psychological response to figure out where it fits in this overall system and structure and methodology and science.

"A lot of things end up being complementary. There's a lot of gray area between different disciplines, but they all start to make a lot more sense when you uncover these overlaps."

Verstegen does apply certain principles almost across the board. For speed, it's about developing sufficient pillar strength -- core, hip and shoulder strength -- and learning to transfer force well. For endurance, instead of having athletes mindlessly run laps, he focuses on increasing efficiency through improvements in joint function, flexibility, biomechanics and lactate threshold manipulation, along with nutrition and regeneration.

As for strength, Verstegen says: "In the past, when you'd say, 'Let's get strong,' people would automatically think you were going to squat and deadlift and bench. Those are phenomenal exercises, and we do those -- don't get me wrong. But we also do multi-plane training with things like rotational clean pulls and rotational snatches. The next realm is Kaiser equipment. It's opened up a lot of avenues for us. We have it integrated all the way up to the squat racks and power racks. It's made a huge difference."

In the future, Verstegen sees further integration. "The next big advancement is taking all the things that we know now to help produce these athletes, and to integrate it into their technical and tactical training," he says. "Regeneration is another huge area, too. That really is just in its infancy."