It's that time again, when we gape in awe at the athleticism of the world's best doing their thing in pursuit of Olympic gold. And while we know that being an Olympian requires a superb level of fitness, most of us are less knowledgeable about the specialized training needed to achieve success in some of our lesser-known winter sports.
Logging a significant number of training hours is important. So is the gift of good genes and the right body type. As for what else it takes to stand on the podium, here are some of the training regimens our athletes have been enduring in anticipation of hearing the Canadian anthem being played in front of the home crowd.
"The No. 1 key factor (of biathlon) is being genetically gifted," said Dan Lefebvre, high-performance adviser and former national team coach for Biathlon Canada.
Biathletes need a superior pair of lungs to compete in the cross-country ski portion of the event and accuracy and control during the shooting part of the competition. They are lean and mean with a high-performance engine that is able to work at top intensities for extended periods of time.
"You can teach anyone to shoot and ski," he said. "But only the most fit can be successful."
Lefebvre says it takes three to five years to become proficient with a rifle. As for the fitness required to become the best in the world, these endurance athletes log an incredible 600 to 700 hours a year in sweat equity.
During the off-season, biathletes cycle, kayak, swim and, believe it or not, breakdance. Sport-specific balance and co-ordination training is also essential.
In 1999, Lefebvre visited schools across the country looking for potential talent. He hand-picked 10 young athletes who demonstrated the aerobic endurance and competitiveness it takes to be successful. Three were overwhelmed with the training and quit in the first year. Two are competing in Vancouver - Zina Kocher, who finished 64th in the 7.5k Spirit Feb 13, and Jean-Philippe Le Guellec, who finished sixth in 10k Spirit Feb. 14.
"They won't come knocking at our door," Lefebvre said of future biathletes. "We have to go out and find them.
Strength and conditioning specialist Scott Livingston describes bobsleigh competitors as the "sprinters of the Winter Olympics."
Unlike many sports where the athletes are groomed from a young age, most sledders make a transition from a previous athletic career in speed and power sports like track, football or rugby. Their job is to push the sled to an explosive start before hopping in and letting the driver take over.
"Their focus is on the first five or five-and-a-half seconds of the race," Livingston said.
Jesse Lumsden, a former running back for the Edmonton Eskimos, is one-fourth of the Olympic team pushing the sled of driver Pierre Lueders. The size, speed and power of a football running back transfers well into the sport of bobsleigh. Women require the same degree of strength, speed, power and size as the men and often come from a rugby background.
"You won't find a 140-pound woman bobsledder," Livingston said.
A typical training regime for a sledder involves a lot of power lifts like squats, deadlifts and cleans along with plyometric (jump training) and track work.
The goal is to build explosive strength and size while keeping their body fat in the lower range. There's no room for extra weight in the sled.
Core training is also important: it helps maintain stability while the sled hurtles downhill at speeds that create a gravitational push that exceeds four G-forces. That kind of descent can be punishing on a weak midsection.
Don't expect a sledder to be aerobically fit. Their training and physique don't lend themselves to endurance.
"They don't have much in the way of recovery," Livingston said. "They're built for power."
Freestyle skiers are short, lean and compact. Most men measure under six feet and women average 5-5.
"The acrobatic nature of freestyle skiing lends itself to smaller stature," said Adrian King, the strength and conditioning coach for the Canadian freestyle ski team.
Mogul specialists need to combine two distinct skill sets: the ability to ski as fast as possible down a steep mogul-filled pitch and the technique to wow the judges during a couple of well-executed jumps. The aerialists are pure jumpers whose tricks are judged by their takeoff, in-air style and landing.
The jumps, bumps and landings demand strength, power, a keen sense of balance and core strength. Too much muscle mass, however, increases the impact stress of hitting the moguls and landing the jumps, hence the need for a lean frame.
The anaerobic nature of the sport (the average run is 25 seconds for men and 30 seconds for females) requires lots of high-intensity interval training, often in the form of sprints. Aerobic endurance is also vital as it helps speed recovery and withstand the fatigue that comes with travel and competition stress.
Then there's the balance and proprioception (knowing where you are in space) that is the hallmark of a freestyle skier. Sport-specific balance training is a vital part of the training regime.
As punishing as this sport is on the body, our Canadian team has several members who are at or near 30 years of age. Their longevity comes from superior conditioning and factoring in a long recovery period after the competitive season.
There's no ideal body type for skaters, says Bruno Durand, strength and conditioning coach for Speed Skating Canada. Tall, short, heavy or lean, good technique is more important than body composition. Sprinters tend to be more muscular than the endurance athletes, but all skaters carry a significant amount of muscle in their thighs and glutes (butt).
Building lower body power is the goal of most off-ice conditioning programs. Squats and split squats rate high on the list of preferred exercises, as do exercises that train one leg at a time. Unilateral training keeps one leg from overpowering the other, which is common during bilateral exercises, but undesirable in a sport that demands equal power from each leg. One-legged training also strengthens the small stabilizing muscles of the hip, which is important when you are travelling at high speeds on a slippery surface while balancing on razor-thin blades.
On the short course, the ability to hold position on the ice while skating among a pack of pushy competitors requires more than strong legs. A well-conditioned core is vital for a speed skater. The added stability of a strong centre also improves balance and aids in the explosive push required as one leg of the relay hands off to the next.
Speed and endurance are trained both in the gym and on the ice. The more technical work is done on the ice while plyometrics, interval training and aerobic conditioning (cycling and running) build the necessary conditioning.