Cheers of support echo through the Athlete Performance Lab at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. And while everything from rap to rock to country blares from the speakers in the room, the shouts still manage drone out the music.
“You can do it – keep pushing!”
“30 seconds – that’s one shift! You got this!”
There isn’t a stick, an equipment bag or a pair of skates in sight, as the U.S. Women’s National Team is in the middle of its June performance camp, focusing on fitness testing and dryland training. The players filter in and out of the room, which doesn’t look as much like a lab as it does a Toys-R-Us for elite athletes, filled with treadmills and high tech instruments that evaluate everything from power to speed to agility.
Each player first completes a test that measures leg strength and whether one leg is more powerful than the other. However, it’s the test that follows that creates butterflies in the stomachs in even the fittest athlete – the lactate threshold test.
“I still have nerves about it,” admits two-time Olympian Natalie Darwitz, who has taken the test five times over the course of her career. “You never sleep well the night before because you know you have the test, and you know what to expect.”
The test measures anaerobic fitness, and athletes with a high lactate threshold are able to work at a higher intensity for a longer period of time before they fatigue. Each player runs on a treadmill at increasing speeds for two-minute intervals. After each stage, which starts at 6.5 miles per hour and increases a half a mile an hour each time, a blood sample is taken to measure lactate accumulation in the body, and a player notes her perceived level of exertion on a scale from 6-20.
In layman’s terms – the test is sprinting flat out until the body absolutely cannot go any further.
“I would say it’s pretty comparable,” says Jenny Potter, the only mother on the team, weighing the pain of childbirth against the grueling time she just spent on the treadmill. “It took me about 15 minutes to give birth to both my kids. At least there’s a reward after having a baby. The reward here is that I’m done.”
The facility provides the ability to test two players at once and with such fit athletes and a large group to get through, it takes a full day to get everyone done. Yale alum Helen Resor, who is frequently referred throughout the day as the best runner of the group, performs at the highest speed.
“Everybody has a different response to the graded exercise test and everybody has a different response to when it really starts to hurt,” says John Crawley, who has been with the USOC for 10 years and is responsible for performing each test.
“They’ll use visualization, or their teammates or the music. Whatever tends to work for them to get through that process. Everybody is unique in that way and everybody responds differently. We take that information into consideration not only when we evaluate them but also in how to prescribe training on top of that.”
Teena Murray, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, will use the test results to create individualized training programs for each player to follow during the offseason. This includes the results of the functional movement testing, which serves as an injury prevention tool and is used as the baseline for determining a training program.
“We have a wide range of ability right now so we want everyone to be working off their own specific numbers,” says Murray, who serves as the strength and conditioning coach at the University of Louisville.
The functional movement testing is a series of screenings that help the staff locate any deficiencies a player might have in terms of joint mobility, stability and balance between their right and left sides. For each task, a player is graded on a scale from one to three – three is perfect and one indicates a player struggled with a certain area. Any “one” ratings, such as a shoulder mobility issue or a weak lower back, will become the focus of that athlete’s initial training.
“I think the functional movement is great to analyze where we might be a little weak so we can strengthen those areas,” says two-time Olympic veteran Julie Chu. “I’m sure I’ll have some core exercises to work on, which excites me because ultimately you want to be healthy.”
This will be the third year the team has conducted a dryland performance camp in June and head coach Mark Johnson says he’s seen a great deal of improvement in the conditioning level of the players over that span. When the weeklong camp ends on Saturday, the players will return to the grind of maintaining their off-ice training regiment, but also lacing up the skates again to play some hockey.
“We love the hockey part,” Chu says. “That’s the part that’s easy to get excited for, but I think these are necessary steps for us to be able to perform on the ice and for us to be able to succeed as a team.”