The only thing skier Mikaela Shiffrin could control this past year was her workout soundtrack: Taylor Swift. Due to coronavirus, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and six-time world champion found herself preparing for her comeback season in her home garage using equipment hacks and video coaching. She became one more avid exerciser trying to keep fit without a gym.
Ms. Shiffrin says learning to manage situations that are out of your hands is a secret of her sport. “As a ski racer, you spend your whole career trying to control something that should be uncontrollable,” she says. “When everything lines up on a run and you’re in control of the uncontrollable, it’s the greatest adrenaline rush you can get.”
The 26-year-old took a mostly involuntary break of 10 months from racing last year. After a six-week hiatus following the February 2020 death of her father, Jeff Shiffrin, she tried to return last March, just as the pandemic shut the world down. An October back injury sidelined her further. After years of domination, she entered the 2020-21 season in unfamiliar territory: coming from behind.
“I’ve had to play catch-up all season,” she says. “For quite a while I was the one being chased. I felt like I was the one writing the playbook and everyone else was reading it. This year I have other skiers to watch. It’s been motivating to be the one chasing.”
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While her European competitors trained on glaciers during the North American summer, Ms. Shiffrin barely touched skis. “My training program and schedule changed completely,” she says. Typical training trips to South America were off due to travel bans. And when the state-of-the-art gym where she trains in Avon, Colo., shut down, she scrambled to buy equipment online to create a home gym.
For the past six years, her strength and conditioning coach, Toronto-based Jeff Lackie, would spend one of every three weeks working with her throughout the summer. “We had to revert to FaceTime calls and me critiquing workout videos,” Mr. Lackie says. He was able to join her in Europe for the Alpine World Cup race season and now he oversees her hotel-room workouts, which use chairs as markers for single-leg bounds or a couch to balance a leg while holding a side plank.
Her creative efforts have paid off. Ms. Shiffrin delivered her best-ever performance at the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy in February. The event marked the first time she’d raced any speed discipline in over a year. Despite just 28 minutes of training in super-G leading up to the worlds, she secured a bronze medal. She also captured a gold in the combined event, finishing with a haul of four medals to become the most decorated U.S. alpine skier in world championship history.
Ms. Shiffrin entered this weekend’s FIS World Cup Finals in Lenzerheide, Switzerland in third place overall. Skiing die-hards consider this competition more prestigious than the Olympics.
Ms. Shiffrin makes speeding down a mountain in a tuck position at 80 miles per hour look effortless. She needs incredible strength and coordination to resist gravity and centrifugal forces that could be as much as more than two times her body weight. In the offseason, she focuses on power and strength, squatting loads of up to 295 pounds. When the season starts, her Olympic clean, a movement where the barbell is lifted off the ground to rest across the chest, is 135 pounds, but she focuses on velocity. A device attached to the barbell measures how quickly she lifts the bar.
“In-season, she’s in maintenance mode,” he says. “The focus is on mobility, core strength and plyometric exercises.” Training reaction time and explosive power have been key to her workouts. Ms. Shiffrin will perform single-leg side bounds while Mr. Lackie restrains her with a resistance band. As soon as she lands, she jumps to balance on the opposite foot.
Mr. Lackie might hold one end of a resistance band while Ms. Shiffrin holds the other and does jump lunges. He’d normally challenge her stability even more by adding a weight plate, but now attaches her ski boot to the band to create a bouncing effect.
Other clever equipment fixes include using a dish towel beneath her feet to do hamstring curls on a wood floor. Instead of doing Zercher squats, performed with a barbell secured under the crooks of the elbows, she uses ski bags. Ms. Shiffrin is always game to bound over low hurdles laterally or on one foot, but she groans when Mr. Lackie has her do bear crawls, an exercise that targets the core and shoulder muscles. Ms. Shiffrin starts on all fours in a tabletop position, hovers her knees slightly off the floor and moves opposite hand and foot to crawl while maintaining a neutral spine.
“It looks and feels so awkward,” she says. “My arms aren’t strong enough to hold my body in that position, and my hip flexors always start to cramp.”
After the World Cup, Ms. Shiffrin will take a short rest before diving back into on-snow training in California in late April to prepare for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.
Sweet Tooth: “I’m a total sugar person,” she says. “I love sugary cereal. I dilute Cap’n Crunch or Fruit Loops with a lot of oats or muesli so I get a little sweetness, but most of what’s in the bowl is good for me.”
Pre-Race Dinner: Pasta with chicken. “The sauce changes,” she says. “It might be marinara or basil. Some people might cringe, but I mix chicken with Bolognese sauce. More protein is never a bad thing.”
Splurge: “Really good doughnuts are my jam,” she says.
Recovery Secret: “I fully believe the only way you can recover mentally, emotionally and physically is with sleep,” Ms. Shiffrin says. She aims for a solid eight to nine hours of shut-eye a night, plus five naps a week. “I’m a top-level napper,” she says. “I shoot for 45 to 90 minutes. I don’t always sleep that long, but I find it beneficial even when I shut my eyes and tune out the external stimulation.”
Guilty Pleasure: Dancing. Her pump song on recent race weekends has been “Love I’m Given” by Ellie Goulding on repeat.
Boost Your Training With More Sleep
Many athletes and exercises believe that if they train harder and more often, results will come faster, says Wendy Batts, a personal trainer based in Roswell, Ga. “Training is only one part of the equation,” she says. “Work plus rest equals success. If recovery practices aren’t utilized, the body will likely force recovery by breaking down in the form of an injury or illness.”
Ms. Batts says sleep is often the most overlooked piece of the larger recovery formula, which also includes nutrition, hydration and activities that help repair the muscles. Sleep should be viewed as nonnegotiable.
“Research has shown that for the majority of active individuals, averaging less than eight hours of sleep each night can negatively influence strength levels, cardiorespiratory functioning, coordination, body composition, mood and the hormones responsible for muscle repair and growth,” she says. “And lack of sleep can increase the likelihood of soft-tissue injury by almost two times.”
Dan Perlmutter, associate director of sports performance at Duke University, notes that when we work out, we create microtears in our muscles. “Muscle regeneration occurs during certain parts of the sleep cycle,” he says. “It’s also a time for mental recovery and for new movement patterns to sink in.”
Napping, he notes, can also be effective as long as it doesn’t take away from your ability to get a good night’s sleep.
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