The Life and Fast Times of Coach Wolfgang Unsöld

The Life and Fast Times of Coach Wolfgang Unsöld

Interview from summer 2011

How a Coach turned around a nation’s speed skating team…

Anyone who has ever attended a Strengthtraining Seminar anywhere in the world in the last 1,5  years has probably met Germany’s Wolfgang Unsöld. He’s completed 21 courses in that time. Such knowledge, along with his growing reputation as a strength coach, landed him a job working with the Hungarian National Speedskating Team. And these athletes, along with that country’s speedskating fans, could not be happier.
Hungary is rapidly becoming a world power in speedskating. In the European championships 2011 in the Netherlands the team earned five medals. In a recent World Cup competition their 3000-meter relay team set a national record, and in a relay competition at a meet in Turkey they beat the Canadian team. Here’s the story.
Last April Wolfgang traveled to Sweden for a two-day course  on Strength Training for Lower Body dominant Sports. At the same time, a volcano erupted in Iceland; the volcanic ash disrupted air travel so much that instead of a six-hour trip by plane and train, Wolfgang’s trip turned into a 25-hour trainride. But this change in travel plans turned into a great opportunity for Wolfgang: a chance meeting with Yves Nadeau.

Yves Nadeau was Canadian Head Coach in short track speedskating from 1983 to 1995. Yves is a legend in the world of short track speedskating and the most medaled coach of all time, having coached athletes who’ve won a total of 202 medals at world championships and the Olympic Games. As a result of Wolfgang and Yves’ meeting, Wolfgang was invited to a training camp in Budapest a few weeks later. Subsequently Wolfgang got hired as the Strength Coach of the Hungarian National Team in Shorttrack Speedskating. As a result, once a month Wolfgang travels to Budapest to work with the team. 

When he’s not in Budapest, Wolfgang is training clients in his personal training gym in Stuttgart, Germany, which he opened in September 2010. The clientele is split about evenly between athletes and general population personal training clients. Here are some of the champion athletes who have benefited from Wolfgang’s coaching:

• Slavo Polugic, 2010 WKN World Champion and WFC World Champion in K1 
• Martin Jahn, bronze medalist at the World Championships and German National Champion in Thaiboxing
• Martin Gratzer, multiple Austrian national champion in the shot put

Wolfgang took a few minutes from his busy schedule to discuss his path to being an elite strength coach, personal trainer and gym owner.

KG: Let’s start with your coaching education. What was your motivation to take so many seminars?
WU: At a Seminar in London in May 2009, Clarke Flynn one of the assistant Coaches on the course told me that the most successful European Coach does 12 weeks of seminars a year. The consequence was that I devoted 14 weeks to education that year, and read over 200 books besides. I would also like to mention that in addition to Strength Training Seminars, I’ve done seminars with Dr. Dietrich Klinghardt and Dr. Mark Houston, as well as internships with Jud Logan and Preston Greene. 

KG: What were the initial responses by the athletes to the Strength & Conditioning Program?
WU: They responded very well. From a performance standpoint their starts got better, and physically their lower back and knee pain disappeared. Strength-wise, every woman on the team is able to perform chin-ups for multiple reps, and everyone has gained a considerable amount of lean mass and has lost bodyfat. The common progress was 70 kilos bodyweight at 8.8 percent bodyweight to 75 kilos bodyweight at 6.3 percent bodyweight within the first six weeks.

KG: Do you train both men and women, and do you also work with long track skaters?
WU: I work with both men and women short track speedskaters. I don’t work with the long track skaters currently, but an opportunity to work with them could come along.

KG: Do you have any assistants?
WU: Both national team coaches Attila Telegdi and Akos Banhidia have completed Strength Training Courses, which makes my job easier and ensures quality of exercise technique when I am not there.

KG: What is the most limiting factor and weakest links in terms of Strength & Conditioning for a Speedskater?
WU: In the beginning, it’s upper body strength, as you can only squat what your upper body can stabilize – it’s especially important for the start. A high level of relative strength is what’s needed for a fast start. For example, in the 500 meters, which for females is about a 42-second race, those with the best start usually win. Also, for optimal strength and power development, the posture has to be corrected with structural balance training. 
Some of the most valuable data I got are the predictor norms for world record performances. For example, the numbers for female speed skaters for the Chinup performance to get their upper bodies strong enough for a world-record start.

What were the major challenges with your Speedskaters when you started with them?
WU: In general, their upper body strength level was pathetic. I worked at a public gym for two and a half years and I didn’t see a single person there as weak as some of these girls were. One of the girls’ 1RM on the Scott curl was the empty bar, and her 1RM on the biacromial-width bench press was, again, the bar. In the lower body, I found that through structural balance testing the weak links were the VMOs, hamstrings and lower back muscles.

How much time do your speedskaters invest in Strength & Conditioning Training?
WU: In the off-season from mid-April to mid-October it’s 18 workouts a month. In-season it’s only one maintenance workout a week due to their intense competition schedule, but in the first two weeks of December I have them perform a super-accumulation phase, which means full-body workouts, twice a day, six days a week.

What are your favorite strength training exercises for speedskaters?
WU: The best predictor lifts for performance are the front split squat, the power clean and the incline press.
During the general preparation phase, my workouts are built around the split squat, step-ups, and unilateral leg curl variations to offset the left-right muscle imbalances caused by going around the corner the same way all the time. In the specific preparation phase, the focus switches to working on the muscles of the posterior chain.
For the upper body, they have a separate shoulder/arm day, focusing on external rotators, scapula stabilizers, elbow flexors and elbow extensors. The torso workouts are designed around various presses, rows and every chin-up variation I can think of.

Whats your take on Plyometrics for Speedskating? 
WU: At this point, none of the skaters I work with are strong enough to use plyometrics and jump training optimally. At training camps I observe other coaches and their training methods, and one thing that amazes me is their emphasis on jumps, especially the volume of jumps – up to 30 jumps a set. With the athletes I train who can’t pass the Klatt test, much less squat 1.5 times their bodyweight, this type of training puts the athletes at a high risk of injury and does not make them more powerful.

Do you do any aerobic training with your athletes? If not, what do you do for energy system training?
WU: In the past there was a lot of running to warm up for the ice, which is a waste of time. I showed them some dynamic stretches and a few drills that actually make sense for speedskating.
I realize that aerobic training is popular among many speedskaters and other athletes, but it takes time for the majority to realize that the most popular methods do not produce the best results. It’s like in the ’70s when the Edmonton Oilers were the first team to realize that intelligent strength training was necessary to increase the physical preparedness of their hockey players, and the result was that they became a dominant force in hockey for the following 10 years. 

What were the nutritional challenges?
WU: At competitions between races, I saw athletes eating chocolates and bananas washed down by sports drinks. In Formula One racing, it’s well known that if you pour sugar in your tank, the engine won’t work for long. I recommended snacking on nuts and seeds between races, and going with water as the drink of choice.

What type of diet do you recommend for speedskaters compared to other athletes?
WU: In looking at their subscapular skinfold, I’ve found that speedskaters are definitely more carb tolerant than shot-putters. On top of that, their total volume of training and all the lactic acid their sport produces allows them to have more carbs after workouts and at night – I repeat, after workouts and at night – NOT at breakfast and before workouts.

What bodyfat percentage do you want your speedskaters to be at?
WU: About 6 percent for males and 12 percent for females, and I do Skinfold Assessment every time I work with the team. Speedskating is a speed sport, and athletes in speed sports have to be lean to be at their best. I saw a study with sprinters showing that reducing bodyfat reduces the friction between the muscles, which in turn makes the athlete faster. The team proves this in real life – my leanest woman, Erika Huszar, is also the fastest.

What supplements are important, generally speaking, for speedskaters?
WU: The first thing I put all the skaters on is a proper post-workout shake. Considering the total volume of training they do on ice and off ice and in the weightroom, this is an absolute necessity to ensure optimal recovery. Other than that, I recommend they take a high-quality multivitamin-mineral, fish oil and magnesium.

What are your goals for the team, based upon your current rate of improvement?
WU: Next year we will have a longer off-season and a better base to build on. Two of my athletes, Bernadett Heidum and Szandra Lajtos, have made excellent progress, and their improvement is motivating the others to catch up. The Hungarian relay team will be a threat to the big powerhouse nations such Korea, China and Canada. The Hungarians have never won a World Cup medal, but I predict next year they will.
The long-term mission is medaling at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. With hard work, determination and willpower on the ice and in the weightroom, I have no doubt they will succeed.

Picture: The Hungarian National Team Speedskaters pose with the medals after the European Championships 2011 (l-r): Andrea Keszler, Szandra Lajtos, Bernadett Heidum, Erika Huszar, Rosza Darazs

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