When you look at bobsleigh athletes, you can’t help but be in awe of how ridiculously powerful they are. I joined the GB programme in late summer 2016 and I made sure that I had done some research before making the switch.
Big Sam repping the TBM brand proudly in the background. No idea who the other bloke is.
I remember being sent a video of Steve Langton (Team USA Olympic medallist) doing a ridiculous 60 something inch box jump. I also trawled through YouTube and found videos of big Bruce Tasker, who would later go on to be my teammate, squatting and cleaning inhuman weights. I sat there and I wondered how on earth these guys could do these things and how I would ever be able to match up to their athletic feats.
You see, I was a rugby player and for those of you who know the sport you’ll know that, although the women and men who play are very big and quite powerful, it’s still very much an aerobic capacity game. The majority of our time was spent perfecting our skills and game understanding - anything from tackling, passing, catching or set piece plays and being run into the ground with fitness. When we weren’t on the field, we’d spend our time analysing our next opposition and analysing their tendencies and play styles.
My first professional club, the Exeter Chiefs, were a team that based their game plan around superior fitness. We would always put points on opposing teams in the latter stages of each half and essentially run them into the ground with a really high paced and attritional game plan. Our training resembled those demands and, during the tougher stages of our pre season, we would be running anywhere between 12 to 14 kilometres a day, split over two sessions with an additional off-feet fitness session and a short but intense gym workout thrown somewhere in between. We were all big men - I was about 105 kilograms and probably the smallest in my position of flanker (the positional equivalent of a linebacker in American football for our North American cousins) but power work was very much something we neglected. Not because it wasn’t necessary but because there wasn’t enough time in the week to focus on it.
Sam showing a clean pair of heels in his rugby days.
For my position especially, the quality of my games were measured in involvements- how many tackles, ball carries and rucks (1) could I make/hit? Why would I ever focus on getting powerful when my KPI’s (2) were based on work rate, skill and game understanding?
Saying all of this, I was always a naturally gifted athlete - which is why I thought bobsleigh could suit me but I still came into the sport very disadvantaged from a physical point of view. My record breaking fitness test scores were next to useless when I was now being evaluated on how quickly I could run 60 metres.
I recently got thinking about other athletes with similar backgrounds (i.e. the more “endurancey” types) in the sport of bobsleigh and it gave me the idea to write this article. There are two brakemen in the men’s field that I would say are world class and from that kind of background - Cam Stones of Canada and Nick Gleeson of GB.
Cam was a rugby union player and made his name in the Canadian age group rugby teams as a very athletic back row player (3). He grew up as a classic Canadian kid - ski racing and playing football and only started playing rugby when he got to high school. Cam played rugby up until the age of 24, which was when he left university.
Fun fact - Cam and I played on the same Canadian U17 rugby team and competed for the same position before I defected for Queen and Country.
Nick is a currently serving soldier and has been since he left secondary school. He is a member of the British Parachute Regiment and, before coming to bobsleigh, was used to running miles and miles with a heavy pack strapped to his back. As a soldier, his weeks are filled with 20 mile TABs(4) carrying 35 pounds of equipment and various other long distance runs and marches. Nick is actually renowned for his low knee drive shuffle style of pushing which he actually attributes to his years of waddling over huge distances (something he calls the “airborne shuffle”). I’m not even sure if Nick knew that hip flexion was a thing before he started bobsleigh.
Big Nick taking a brilliant 4th place finish at the 2019 Whistler World Championships with anonymous pilot.
Cam and Nick both kindly contributed to this article with their experiences and together we came up with this list of 8 do’s and don’ts for transfer athletes.
Sam Blanchet, Nick Gleeson and Cam Stones' 8 Do's & Don'ts:
1) DO: keep in touch with your fitness. It’s one of your strengths. I don’t mean go and run sub 20 minute 5k’s, I just mean make sure that you continue to do some sort of endurance based activity maybe once or twice a week. That can look like a Wattbike finisher at the end of a Friday gym session or some longer distance intensive tempo running on low intensity days (I do back to back 150m’s during the off season, for example). Bobsleigh pushes are measured to the hundredth of a second and the Olympics and World Champs are spread out over 2 days of competition. No one cares if you push well the first day and fizzle out on the second and, because the pushing is so important, the downtimes will reflect your inconsistencies at the top.
If you look at both Nick and Cam’s pushing, they’re both some of the most consistent in the world. They can do all of the training runs at a decent intensity during the week and at the weekend their pushing is all within a few hundredths of a second. If I were a betting man, I’d say that this was because of their huge aerobic base from their respective backgrounds. They just don't tire and that’s exactly what you want from a brakeman.
2) DON’T: imitate the training habits of sprinters. You’ll see them do outrageous single leg bounds or depth jumps from the height of a building. Chances are, your body isn’t ready to tolerate that level of plyometric load both from a physical perspective (i.e. your muscles, tendons and bones) and coordinative perspective. Start your plyometrics and power training from a basic but varied level - the sexy stuff will come later otherwise you’ll just get hurt.
In the same way that you wouldn’t start a gym newbie with a 1RM squat, you wouldn’t start doing plyos and sprinting at the more intensive level of the spectrum.
Instead of starting your sprinting with flying 30m’s, start with flying 10m’s or gradual build ups. Instead of running as fast as you can from a standing start, add constraints like a heavy sled and find yourself a coach to teach you how to accelerate properly.
Your body will thank me. Your tendons and bones will hurt initially as you acclimatise to the hard surfaces and increased impacts - Nick talks about his knees and shins hurting but that’s something you’re going to have to deal with.
I can tell you about some outrageous sessions in my first year of bobsleigh where our sprint coach at the time made us do 10 sets of 10 maximal acceleration bounds on a cold cement floor. We couldn’t walk for a week because our shins were so destroyed. Don’t do what I did.
3) DO: invest time in finding a good coach and in finding good training resources for bobsleigh training.
Cam found help in strength and conditioners that he knew but, interestingly, he also took the time to get to know top end Canadian bobsleigh guys - Nick Poloniato, Tim Randall and Jesse Lumsden who helped guide his training. Cam became a student of sprinting and made sure to watch as many top level sprinters as he could on YouTube and Instagram. He also cites GB athlete Ben Simons as training inspiration (follow Ben’s Instagram @benthebounce for some ridiculous jumping videos).
Nick found a coach that got him up to GB standards - Steve “Smudge” Smith, a former GB bobsleigh athlete and ex Parachute Regiment soldier. “He (Steve) didn’t let me get away with anything, he thrashed me twice a day every day. He set a great foundation for me to work from”.
Finding a coach that believes in you and who will invest time in you is worth its weight in gold.
For me personally, my best training resource when transitioning into power training was Keir Wenham-Flat. He was one of the first rugby strength and conditioning coaches who saw the importance of sprint training for rugby. He has an excellent website (rugbystrengthcoach.com) which has a lot of great free training content for speed and power noobs and pros alike.
4) DO: take care of your body. Bobsleigh is hard and it takes its toll on your body and regular massage and physio will keep you healthy enough to compete.
“I used to be supple when I was your age”- Bruce Tasker (probably). Don’t be that salty old bobsleigh guy or girl.
5) DO: make the most of the sport-specific skills that you spent your life learning. For rugby, and indeed most team-based ball or racquet sports, that would be your coordinative abilities and adaptability (which will far surpass those of your teammates).
This will lend itself well to learning the technicalities of pushing. Be the best technician - learn to hit the sled the best and learn to load the best (it’s so important for sled velocity). Although a good bobsleigh push is a lot to do with physical ability, technique is also huge.
Cam spoke about the team ethos from rugby transferring well. There is a cultural aspect in rugby that always puts the team above the individual which is incredibly powerful. It helps teams perform above and beyond their own individual members. In Cam’s words:
“You can have a team of 15 guys who aren’t particularly special but if they are all aligned towards one singular goal, they can definitely punch above their weight”.
The same is true in bobsleigh - especially in 4 man. The best 4 man crews tend to be very close off the track.
If you come from a military background then your skill will be your sheer bloody-mindedness and your ‘just do it’ attitude. Nick only spent a year on the World Cup circuit and within that year had made the Olympic team. He never faltered, made mistakes or took a backwards step and I think that is largely due to the Parachute Regiment mindset that he has.
6) DO: prioritise recovery. Bobsleigh destroys your central nervous system which isn’t a very common issue in endurance sports. You’ll experience levels of fatigue that you’ve never experienced before and overtraining will become the demon lurking around every corner. Prioritise your sleep. Eat a lot of good food. Relax and take your mind off competition when you can.
7) DON’T (ish): play through pain. Admittedly this is because I spoke to athletes from two very unforgiving backgrounds and you might not necessarily have a contact sport or military history. Military women and men and rugby players are very much used to persevering through pain and competing/working at 70% health. That’s all well and good in those situations but bobsleigh is a totally different kettle of fish. Because pushing is so maximal and every sinew of your body is being used, small niggles can turn into huge injuries.
I’ll use myself as an example here but back in the last Olympic cycle, I competed with a broken shin for the entirety of the 2018 Olympic season. What started out as microfractures in my shin became multiple full fractures that needed several operations. If it hurts - get it seen to and get yourself sorted.
8) DO: Finally, and most importantly, focus on your strengths. What is your best physical attribute? Perfect it. Bobsleigh needs a blend of strength, power and speed. Every bobsleigh athlete will have something they are better at and I’m a firm believer that you should always maximise your best qualities.
Nick is a great example here. He knows that he will never be a top level sprinter and so he focuses on his best attributes (which is his weight room stuff). In the 2018/19 season, Nick was constantly pushing top 3 start times. His 30m time (although not slow) would have been at least 2/3 tenths of a second slower than the sprinters in the team but it didn’t matter he could express his force in other ways. The guy can squat 220 kilos and he powercleans 170 kilos. That is how he expresses power and so he rightly focuses on that.
Sum It Up
In short, most athletes coming into bobsleigh will likely have felt some semblance of, ‘if
you’re not a top sprinter, you won’t make a top pusher.’
Do a little digging, as we have in this article, and you start to see that the notion is
ludicrous. 100m sprinting, whilst as good an indicator of pushing ability as any, is not
pushing! There are numerous other variables at play and your potential and performance ceiling will only be dictated by you.
That is, your willingness to become a student of your sport (like Cam), your willingness to prove that sprint speed and background is not the ultimate indicator of push ability (like Nick) or your perseverance and self belief from your previous sporting successes (like me) – mind over matter.
To be clear, this isn’t a sprint-bashing article! It is just a discussion to show that, for
newbies coming into this sport, they shouldn’t compare themselves negatively to other
athletes on the basis of their speed. If you believe in yourself, believe in your force and power expression abilities and feel this sport could work for you, then get in touch with your National Governing Body and find a way to trial. It’s a pretty open process for most nations.
In Cam’s words:
“I broke my nose 5 less times in bobsleigh than I did in rugby. Don’t hesitate, make the switch.”
Hard to believe handsome Cam (R) ever broke his nose.
Glossary of terms
(1) A ruck is those piles of bodies you see after a tackle and it’s essentially a mini war where guys are thrown in in order to secure the ball. It’s essentially a short and violent wrestling match that is as much about fearlessness as it is about body control and execution.
(2) KPI stands for Key Performance Indicator. It’s a snazzy and pretentious term which essentially is a way to track tangible metrics used to analyse an individual or team’s performance.
(3) the back row is a positional group in rugby. It consists of 3 positions- Number 8, blindside flanker and openside flanker. It’s probably the most physically demanding set of positions in rugby union and requires a blend of fitness, size, strength and speed.
(4) TAB stands for Tactical Advance to Battle which is a term used by the Parachute Regiment. It’s a rapid march over long distances carrying weight.