Can the Mayo Clinic Make You a Better Skier?

Data streams, body scanners, and “cross-pollination” are the new frontier in boosting athletic performance. And why not prevent injuries before they happen?
Mayo Clinic Photos

If you are an elite athlete—a huge earner like the NBA’s Kevin Durant or a ski champion like Mikaela Shiffrin—a squad of sports medicine, science, and performance experts would be part of your personal team. Their job: to analyze you head to toe.

Is your right leg nine percent stronger than your left? Does the alignment of your pelvis and hip joints shift a few degrees off kilter when you decelerate while fatigued? Your performance team would know (thanks in no small part to quickly evolving technologies) and apply sports science’s latest developments in a customized program so you can reach your peak in your specific sport while also minimizing your chances of injury. It’s a bit like Dr. Frankenstein meeting the Bionic Man at CrossFit.

Or if you were a slightly soft-around-the-middle mortal, you could swing by the Mayo Clinic, sign up for a Performance Training program, and receive a weekend-warrior version of the superstar treatment. “You can take the same principles that work for the elite athlete and apply it to the non-elite athlete,” says Jonathan Finnoff, 47, medical director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center in downtown Minneapolis. “It doesn’t matter whether it is somebody whose performance goals are to walk their dog a mile each evening or somebody who wants to be a World Cup skier.”

Of course, most of us fall somewhere in between. A few times per week, we run, bike, or hit the gym. The problem, say sports scientists, is that while you’re busy strengthening your quads, you’re likely also strengthening some existing dysfunction. You could wind up stronger in certain places yet not optimized for either your own body or the demands of your sport.

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To the rescue come Mayo Sports and similar sports-science facilities. Opened in 2014, Mayo Sports weds experts in sports medicine, psychology, and biomechanics (Mayo Clinic staff ) with non-medical experts in sports conditioning and nutrition (staff from Exos, a fitness company whose clients include U.S. Special Forces and NFL players). A new area of specialization focuses on how to prevent injuries—with the sci-fi-sounding name “prehab.”

Mayo’s toolbox contains cutting-edge technologies such as body-composition scanners, isovelocity machines, and a three-dimensional motion-analysis lab (which can, among other things, uncover micro-movement patterns that presage knee injuries). “We look at the whole picture,” says Calin Butterfield, 30, an Exos performance specialist. Sport performance programs start at $300 but with à la carte add-ons can go as high as a client’s goals, needs, and budget require or allow.

Whether at Mayo Sports or elsewhere, performance optimization follows certain steps. First, specify the athlete’s goal. Comfortably skiing first chair to last chair is a different target from winning the Birds of Prey downhill.

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Second, measure the athlete’s current condition, noting risk factors for injury along the way. These assessments are often starkly revealing. “Some people have very quadriceps-dominant thigh musculature,” Finnoff says. “They are very strong in front of their thighs, and weaker in their hamstrings and glutes.”

This differential heightens the risk of knee injury, particularly for skiers. “An appropriate quad-to-hamstring strength ratio balances your knee better, reduces the stresses across your knee, and therefore reduces your risk of ACL injury.” Other discoveries may be more systemic. “Sometimes an athlete has a high VO2 max, but their ability to maintain performance at that highest range is minimal,” Butterfield says. “They can get their heart rate up, but they can’t stay there for very long. On the other side, some athletes have a peak capacity that is not very good but they are very efficient. They can continuously burn, but that absolute value is not very high.”

The third step in performance optimization: Devise a program to bridge the gap between what’s needed and where the athlete currently stands. In my case, a condition assessment revealed that my left-side gluteus medius (a broad hip-area muscle) needed to be strengthened, as did the tiny multifidus muscles that stabilize my lower spine, before I progressed to beefing up my hamstrings and calves.

In Greg Boester’s case, testing revealed he was out of balance. “I had a huge right- side favoritism,” says Boester, 47, a former Olympic ski jumper turned 80-hour-a- week Wall Street banker. “I was very asymmetrical.” A father of three who also serves as president of the U.S. Ski Team Foundation’s board of trustees, he ran through his paces at the Ski Team’s Center of Excellence in Park City. Boester’s program (updated weekly for one year via online videos) has recalibrated his physical symmetry, increased his core strength, and upped his overall fitness. “The variety of it, having goals and being in a holistic training plan built with specificity and intent, has been like a reset,” Boester says.

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Sports-performance optimization isn’t new. What’s revolutionary about what’s happening at Mayo, the U.S. Ski Team’s Center of Excellence, Fortius Sport & Health near Vancouver, and other facilities is the interdisciplinary approach. The USST’s high-performance director, Troy Taylor, calls it “cross-pollination.” Individual specialists no longer work in isolation the way they might if you went first to the trainer at the gym and then to your rehab specialist. “We get a coach’s eyes, a physical therapist’s eyes, and a strength and conditioning coach’s eyes on the same movement at the same time,” Taylor says.

In Fortius Sport and Health’s Athlete Development Center, the heaps of data gathered from athletes are charted on large whiteboards in Einsteinian equations and complex flowcharts. What forces are at play when an athlete speeds up, slows down, takes off, and lands? How do these dynamics change under fatigue? Which measures predict peak performance—or injury?

“How do we make you more durable?” asks Damien Moroney, 45, Fortius’s director of rehabilitation and performance integration. “How do we make a better athlete?”  


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