First of all, I think it's very cool that Sweden has an entire research center devoted to winter sports. It's called The Swedish Winter Sport Research Center, and it has a simple goal: harness all manner of biomechanical research and technology to help Swedish athletes excel. The center is prepared to go to some lengths to do it. In fact, as you can see, they took some expensive, high-tech GPS gear to Whistler last year to help map out the cross-country courses. Normal GPS, accurate to a few feet, just wouldn't do, so they used something called the Real Time Kinematics Global Navigation Satellite System, which uses both stationary reference stations and a rover to get measurements that are accurate to .4 of an inch. The GPS in your car, for comparison, is accurate to a few feet.
Matej Supej helped the Swedish researchers take the measurements. He told me the system is so accurate because it uses both the US and the Russian satellites to take measurements. "We can make 20 measurements a second," Supej said. "We also rigged up skiers with equipment to measure their velocities on different parts of the course."
One of Supej's helpers was Mikael Swaren, a biomechanics expert at the Center. He explained that the Swedish research team went one step further: "When we took the GPS measurements, we also had videotaped the entire course from a snowmobile."
OK, by now you're asking why. I was too. Well, it turns out that the Swedes were keen to develop a training product that puts your Nordic Track to shame. They wanted to create a treadmill that would allow Swedish cross country skiers to experience, in the most realistic ways possible, the Olympic courses.
Supej and Swaren took the GPS data from Canada back to Sweden, they wrote some sophisticated software, and programmed a large treadmill. The skier dons roller skis, the program starts, and away they go. On a screen in front of the skier, that footage from the course plays on a monitor. It's not virtual reality, but it's about as close to skiing Whistler as you can get and not be there.
"You know where you are, you recognize where you are and you can visualize what it's going to be like during the Olympics," says Swaren.
This is, of course, not like a running treadmill where you use up and down buttons to control the speed. Instead, a laser mounted behind the skier determines where the athlete is on the treadmill, and adjusts the speed accordingly. If the skier moves forward on the treadmill, exerting more energy, the program speeds up. If the skier moves to the back of the treadmill, it slows down. If they stay in the middle, speed is maintained.
As Swaren puts it: "Now now the skiers can come to the research center and they can see the video in front of them on the video screen. And then they can adjust the speed according to how they want. So they can play around and they can go back and ski the same hill a few times over and over again and see what it feels like."
Sprinters, then, can test out different strategies, while long-distance skiers can get a real sense of the pace they'll need to maintain on different parts of the course.
There are limitations. The treadmill can't re-create the snow conditions, for starters. And secondly, says Swaren, "the treadmill can't do turns, just up and down." So, while the skier sees the turns on the video, the treadmill can't actually do the turns. It's always pointing straight ahead.
"So if you see any Swedes skiing straight into the woods, then you know that they've been on the treadmill too much," Swaren jokes.
You can see a video (in Swedish, but you'll get the idea) of the treadmill in action here.
(Pictures courtesy of Matej Supej)