Sochi Olympics: Measuring Every Step of Training
Any workout fiends feeling puffed up should stay out of one of those “how-many-calories-did-you-burn-yesterday” conversations with Grete Eliassen.
Eliassen is a 27-year-old freestyle skier. She has the sort of sculpted, 5-foot-10, 140-pound physique that looks like it burns 7,000 calories a day. Some days, according to her Fitbit Flex, that’s exactly what happens.
On Nov. 20, the bronze medalist at last year’s world championships in slopestyle, an event that requires skiers to perform highflying acrobatics as they zip down a hill, burned 7,601 calories during her training. Like plenty of people these days—everyone from hard-core triathletes to new mothers looking to drop baby weight—Eliassen quickly got hooked on the little gadget on her wrist that was tracking her movement.
“I kept telling my teammates, ‘Girls, I need to eat more. I just burned 5,000-plus calories,’ ” Eliassen said.
Winter Olympics hopefuls measure workouts with FITBIT fitness devices.
With the Olympic cauldron set to burn in Sochi, Russia, in February, and the wearable technology craze steaming toward a boil, The Wall Street Journal decided to hold a little experiment among a few Olympic hopefuls.
We gave a Fitbit Flex to three Team USA hopefuls: Eliassen, speed skater Brian Hansen and mogul skier Heather McPhie. All agreed to wear the device for a week in November and share their data, as well as details of their ascetic diets. Three reporters decidedly less active than the would-be Olympians also wore Fitbits for a week.
The results say a lot about what it takes to try to become a Winter Olympian, and plenty more about the effectiveness of those increasingly ubiquitous personal-fitness trackers.
While heart-rate monitors have been around for decades, more fitness fanatics have started sporting wearable technology, usually on the wrist of their nondominant arm. Fitbits track how often people swing their arms and other ways they move. The devices translate that data into an estimation of how many steps people take each day, the intensity of their activities, calories burned, even the length and quality of sleep. The market for personal-fitness devices reached an estimated $1.6 billion in 2013, according to the research firm Gartner.
Team USA Olympic hopefuls have plenty of motivation to train hard. Yet in an era when elite athletes crave information about their training, the three guinea pigs quickly became obsessed with how the Fitbit Flex said they were performing.
“It seems crazy to me how little active minutes I have in a day,” according to the Fitbit, McPhie said when the week was through.
McPhie, 29, was an ideal choice for the experiment. In her early 20s she was a middling mogul skier. The event requires competitors to bounce their way down a hill covered with boulder-sized bumps and mix in a series of flips and twists. U.S. ski team officials told McPhie roughly four years ago she needed to improve her endurance. While a mogul run lasts just 30 seconds, a competition can include as many as five runs in a day. McPhie was burning out.
The biathlon combines long-distance cross country skiing with precise .22 caliber target shooting. But for the U.S. Biathlon Team, Olympic training can’t stop for the summer. WSJ video spent time with biathletes Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey to learn how they train for the Olympics when there is no snow in sight.
For Olympics-bound freestyle skiers, snow-free summer months don’t mean a break from training. WSJ visited the Olympic Training Facility in Lake Placid, New York, where skiers utilized three ramps and a deep swimming pool to prep for Sochi. Freestyle moguls skier Jeremy Cota explains how the water training works.
For Olympics-bound lugers, snow-free summer months don’t mean a break from training. WSJ visited the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., where the U.S. team is prepping for Sochi. U.S. National Champion Julia Clukey explains how the luge team trains indoors for their starts. Photo: AP
So she began punishing circuit workouts that included lengthy wall sits, dozens of box jumps and knee bends while holding weights, plus long-distance cycling. She finished last season ranked third in the world, though her performance at the start of the 2013-14 season would decide whether she would make it to Sochi.
In other words, McPhie, who is 5-foot-3 and 125 pounds, is deadly serious about her level of activity. She griped that on one day the Fitbit had her burning 500 fewer calories than a separate heart-rate monitor indicated. Despite three hours of exhausting powder skiing one day, the Fitbit only recorded 20 minutes of McPhie being very active. Why? Since powder skiing is about keeping the upper body still, an elite skier like McPhie barely swings her arms, where the Fitbit tracks movement.
James Park, Fitbit’s co-founder, acknowledged that McPhie’s frustrations reflect the limitations of devices aimed at a general population wanting a casual and relatively inexpensive accessory. “It’s not a precise scientific instrument,” he said.
However, Park noted the Fitbit mobile application offers a solution—a database with some 1,800 activities, with calorie estimates for each. Users can manually enter more activities, describe the intensity and add those calories to their daily totals. They can enter their food intake and calculate those calories, too.
Adding the extra calories from McPhie’s skiing, jump-roping and yoga increased her output by an average of 1,848 calories a day. (A couch potato burns about 1,300 total.) She topped out at 4,399 calories burned on Nov. 22, with 20 minutes of yoga, 10 minutes on the exercise bike, a 30-minute power-endurance circuit and three hours of hard skiing at Wolf Creek in Pagosa Springs, Colo. McPhie makes sure to get her rest, though. Before a hard training day on Nov. 20, she slept 581 minutes and spent 639 minutes, or nearly 11 hours, in bed.
Hansen, the speed skater, never reached McPhie’s calorie-burning level during his week with the Fitbit. But that was by design.
The 6-foot, 175-pound middle-distance specialist won a silver medal in the men’s team pursuit in Vancouver in 2010. He is most concerned with overtaxing his body, especially when on the ice in the hunched-over skating position that stresses the back. During a routine training week, Hansen rarely spends more than 75 minutes on the ice on a given day, avoiding marathon skating sessions at all costs. “You get the volume in on the bike and your off-ice training,” says Hansen, a 23-year-old from Illinois.
Still, with a workout routine that involved mostly skating and cycling, Hansen started to get the same concerns about his workout that McPhie did. His left wrist, which wore the Fitbit, rests on his back as he circles the skating oval, and it doesn’t move when he bikes. And yet, even with the manually-entered calories from an hour of cycling, or 40 laps around the 400-meter skating oval, his calorie count never surpassed 3,960. He averaged 3,518 through six training days in Milwaukee.
Hansen is hardly a slacker. That’s about 30% more than the reporters who wore the Fitbit for a week, even on days when they took more than 17,000 steps. But his output isn’t too far beyond the reach of a hard-core weekend warrior.
Eliassen, on the other hand, worked on an entirely different plane. Twice during her week training in Breckenridge, Colo., Eliassen cleared 7,000 calories, including the calories the gadget might have missed while she was on an exercise bicycle, doing calisthenics, weightlifting, skiing for as long as five hours, doing 90 minutes of push-ups and sit-ups, 30 minutes of yoga or running. It was all part of her plan to win the first Olympic gold medal in slopestyle skiing. Even without adding calories that might not have been picked up from arm-swinging, Eliassen burned on average more than 4,400 on her hardest training days.
The pursuit of the Olympics can be cruel. In December, Hansen cruised onto the U.S. Olympic team in speed skating team for a second time. McPhie failed to gain an automatic spot in moguls. With nominations set to come out Tuesday, she remained on the bubble despite her position as arguably the second-best American mogul skier behind Hannah Kearney. Eliassen never found her championship form, finishing sixth in qualifying. She appears to have only a slim chance of making it to Sochi.
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Source: Wall Street Journal