On a map, the stately town of Östersund — located directly in the midsections of Östersund Municipality, Jämtland County and even Sweden itself — passes for the genteel bellybutton of Scandinavia. As a traditional crossroads of trade and commerce, it also happens to be the region's cultural and economic hub. These days, however, the city finds itself at the centre of a lot more than mere geography.
Long marketed as Vinterstaden — Winter City — Östersund builds on an extensive history of outdoor activities that include lake-surface ice-skating and cross-country ski trails, a modern cross-country stadium, and a small alpine ski area. The city has hosted World Championships in biathlon, speed skating and ski orienteering; National Championships in cross-country skiing and snocross; and, on several occasions, the Nordic Games (precursor to the Winter Olympic Games). With a population of ~45,000, the city is also home to Mid Sweden University's largest campus, with 7,000 students. And it's here that Östersund's sport, educational and commercial heritages intersect in an innovative and powerful way under the rubric of the Swedish Winter Sports Research Centre (SWSRC).
The centre's genesis goes back to the 1990s and the idea of offering athletes at the local ski academy a greater range of supporting functions. Beginning in 2001, a regional sports association oversaw various national and EU project grants for a nascent winter sports research centre. Collaborations with Mid Sweden University to unite theory and practice were natural, growing steadily until students were actually conducting their own practical research. In January 2007, the SWSRC was officially integrated into MSU. Unique laboratories, successful research groups, skilled staff and close cooperation with external public and private entities in the sports and academic worlds have all served to bolster its current international reputation. The centre's activities fall into five main areas: national/international R&D; testing in both performance and public health; training for elite athletes, winter sports, and public health projects; student laboratories linked with a range of degrees and courses at MSU; initiatives focused on prototype and product development.
Some of what goes on at the SWSRC points the way to what might be forged with academic, industrial, sport and government granting agencies should Whistler's post-secondary education aspirations ever be realized.
On a recent trip to Östersund I had a chance to see these firsthand. Rolling into the north end of the city we stopped inside a grand square of buildings that, while institutional in character, seemed more military than educational — as did the smart parade grounds around which they clustered. As it turns out, these indeed were once part of an extensive military garrison prior to its closure in the early 21st century and acquisition by MSU. Inside one we found the SWSRC, now officially part of the Department of Health Sciences, and were greeted by Sture Espvall, a tall, laconic man in a chocolate blazer who explained the astounding tools at his disposal for integrated research into the biomechanics and physiology of performance. Two, in particular, were most intriguing. In the first lab we visited, the entire room was taken up by a giant tilting treadmill on which subjects could be hard-wired in a dozen ways to banks of computers and filmed from every possible angle by a constellation of high-speed cameras. Medical paraphernalia for blood and other testing sat everywhere.
So sophisticated is this particular set-up that it can be programmed to simulate — and thus test athletes on — cross-country courses of, for instance, any World Cup or Olympic venue. This has obvious appeal for national teams (they don't just work with Sweden in this respect), but also organizers and other stakeholders in planning and performance during such events.
What kind of things are studied? As an example, Mats Ainegren and colleagues, looking at economy and efficiency among skiers, found that not only did these vary widely within certain groups, but that older elite athletes were more efficient than younger elites or recreational athletes, suggesting that simply skiing for longer teaches efficiency. This suggests economy and efficiency be incorporated into testing regimens that usually focus largely on VO2 Max to predict performance. "For elite athletes, the differences in materials, ski waxing, VO2 peak, and performance in races are quite small, thus emphasizing the importance of using an efficient technique," they wrote.
Another MSU team looked at a different kind of optimization: pacing. David Sundstrom's group modelled the 2007 Swedish National Championships sprint, breaking the ~1.4 km course into a complex of 36 distinct segments for an imaginary skier of specified proportions. They then ran computer simulations in which the skier changed effort at various places along the course. The study concluded that athletes could actually save up to 13 seconds — even in a short sprint — by varying their pace around the course. That's a time reduction of ~6.5 per cent, or, as the authors wrote: "In the men's individual sprint qualification in the 2010 Olympics, this would be the difference between placing number 51 and winning the qualification."
Telling. But if we thought stuff like this made winning look academic, we were in for a real eye-opener in the second SWSRC facility we visited — the recently opened climate lab. Housed in a separate area, the airy, glassed-in enclosure with a mountain-scene wall mural on one side hardly seems like an atmospheric chamber. It is, however, Europe's only lab where it's possible to combine variations in temperature and oxygen — the chamber can simulate altitudes up to 9,000 metres at temperatures from -20C to 30C. The lab is also equipped with a treadmill for testing performances in cross-country skiing, running and high altitude climbing. Adjusting temperature increases the realism and range of uses — the way temperature affects various kinds of material is important to outdoor clothing manufacturers. "How does a material react at 30C or -20C? How are heat loss and moisture permeability affected by different temperatures and levels of activity? Research that can combine high altitude with temperature gives us better insight into how both individuals and various types of equipment and fabric function in different environments," says SWSRC leader Glenn Björklund on the centre's website.
Well, anyone familiar with the outdoor world knows that sooner or later any research into winter sports comes down to gear. That's why our next stop was to march across the square to MSU's Sports Tech Research Centre...
Next week — Vinterstaden 2: Material Gains
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.