Mikaela Shiffrin's Gold Medal Dreams

As she prepares for the 2018 season and her probable appearance in the Winter Olympics, Shiffrin hit pause for a half-hour to chat with M&P about her training, nutrition and mental strategies.
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As she prepares for the 2018 season and her probable appearance in the Winter Olympics, Shiffrin hit pause for a half-hour to chat with M&P about her training, nutrition and mental strategies.

Muscle and Performance January 2018 Cover

Smart, eloquent and approachable, Mikaela Shiffrin could be your goofy bestie, your wingman at the bar, that friend who will always tell you if there is lettuce in your teeth. But she is also an incomparable competitor, a technical mastermind and one of the hardest-working athletes on the planet. 

As she prepares for the 2018 season and her probable appearance in the Winter Olympics, Shiffrin hit pause for a half-hour to chat with Muscle & Performance about her training, nutrition and mental strategies.

127 k/h 

That’s how fast Mikaela Shiffrin was clocked during a race, hurtling at 80-ish mph down a sheer mountain face wearing nothing but a helmet and a wafer-thin racing suit. If you were driving that fast in a car, you would get a ticket and several points on your license, but Shiffrin doesn’t give it a second thought; she was snapped into her first pair of skis at age 2 and never stopped.

Though she won’t know for sure whether she has secured a spot on the 2018 Olympic U.S. Ski & Snowboard team in Pyeongchang, South Korea, until the eleventh hour, she is pretty much a shoo-in: At age 15, she became a person of interest as she finished top 15 in her first two NorAm Cup races and made her first World Cup podium appearance a year later. At the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Shiffrin was the youngest athlete in history — male or female — to win an Olympic slalom gold medal, and as of this writing, she has logged 31 career World Cup wins. The icing on the cake: At the end of the 2016-17 season, Shiffrin became only the fifth American to win the title of FIS Alpine Ski World Cup overall champion — at age 22. Considering that most peoples’ biggest accomplishment at that age is swilling an entire beer bong without choking, her achievement is that much more remarkable.

Technicalities

Shiffrin is just coming off a nine-week block of summer conditioning training at the time of our interview and preparing to head to South America for some on-snow work in preparation for the upcoming season.

“You could call it technical refinement,” says Shiffrin when asked what she has left to perfect during these training camps. “For me, one of the biggest things is finding fluidity with my skiing — finding a way to ski more athletically and translate the strength and coordination and power I build in the gym to my skiing to find a faster way down the mountain.”

As evidenced by her Instagram posts, Shiffrin’s offseason programming is all-encompassing and perhaps even more grueling than her winter training. On any given day, she might hit max squats for strength, slackline for balance or bound over track hurdles for explosive power — all this in preparation for a run that lasts less than two minutes.

“The thing is, you can’t train for skiing unless you’re actually skiing,” Shiffrin says. “Think about it: A tennis player trains on the court for three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon, getting in that repetition six hours a day. But in ski racing, we might be on the mountain for five hours, but the actual time we spend in the gates skiing — from start to finish — adds up to about 10 minutes total for the whole day. Most of the time is spent warming up or sitting on the chairlift or waiting — everything besides skiing. This summer conditioning supplements my on-snow training.”

Building Gold

Shiffrin’s programming is very well thought out, and it targets the skills and strengths she needs to be successful — and fast. Of course, lower-body power is imperative because the forces she experiences going into a turn are immense. “If you took a skier making a giant slalom turn and then stacked five of that skier on top of herself, that equals the forces you are dealing with for that turn,” she says. “That is why we are in the gym doing max squats — you have to be able to hold your legs strong and your entire body because that force is coming down on every part of your body.”

She also works on explosive power, usually training one leg at a time to ensure balance between her sides. “One workout I love to do is a 45-minute plyometric workout on an outdoor staircase with like 30 steps,”
Shiffrin says. “I do single-legged jumps up the stairs, two or three or four at a time, and try to make my landing time as short as possible. The idea is to reduce the impact but still get the power and strength and explosive motion from taking off.”

Though legs are a main focus, Shiffrin does not dismiss the rest of her body during training. “You can have the strongest legs in the world, but if you don’t have core stability, you’re not going to survive — you’ll blow out your back on the first turn you make,” she says. “Ski racing is really hard on your back, so skiers tend to have over-
developed back muscles. In order to balance that, you have to make sure your core is really strong.”

And since her runs can be anywhere from 90 seconds to three minutes, Shiffrin regularly trains both her anaerobic engine and her cardiovascular endurance. “One day a week, I go for a long bike ride where I will do longer intervals for endurance,” she says. “But I also run or train on the rower or the Assault bike doing 45-second all-out intervals for the duration of an hour. It is the most grueling thing; it almost makes me want to stop ski racing!”

"I'm finding fluidity with my skiing — finding a way to ski more athletically and translate the strength and coordination and power to find a faster way down the mountain."

"I'm finding fluidity with my skiing — finding a way to ski more athletically and translate the strength and coordination and power to find a faster way down the mountain."

Mind Matters

At the professional level, ski racing becomes as much mental as it does physical, and when the difference between gold and silver is determined by fractions of a fraction of a second, your mental game must be on point.

Something you’ll never see on TV is the time competitors spend sideslipping down the hill to inspect and analyze each race course, etching the run into their minds from top to bottom. Once they reach the bottom and all the way until the starting countdown, they visualize themselves performing perfectly on that course. “Imagery is huge, and for me, it’s almost like a form of meditation,” Shiffrin says. “It takes me to another place, away from those nervous thoughts so I can focus in on the actual skiing.”

Another go-to escape from her own head is music. “I get more nervous now than I used to — the more races I win, the more pressure there is,” she admits. “Music definitely helps me focus, and I listen to everything from pump-up music to classical.”

Also helping with nerves is her mother. “When new things are thrown at me — unexpected things like losing a boot or a hat or something — I can be on edge,” she says. “Thankfully, my mom is one of my coaches and travels with me. She will remind me to calm down and take it all in stride.”

“Please don’t make me do Paleo!”

Like many pro athletes, Shiffrin eats for performance and does not subscribe to a specific diet program. “With all the strength training I do, protein is an essential component of my meals but so are carbs,” she says. “One of my biggest sponsors is Barilla pasta, who has been a sponsor of mine for six years now. Part of that is because I love pasta — who doesn’t? — but they also have a whole line of products made with whole grains and extra fiber as well as their Protein Plus product that has extra protein infused into the pasta. So, yeah, please don’t make me do Paleo! Bring on the gluten and the carbs!”

Pasta does indeed comprise three or four of her daily meals and snacks, which Shiffrin balances out with healthy protein such as chicken and eggs as well as plenty of vegetables and healthy fats like avocado. “I try to avoid sugar, but I love dessert, so it is a constant moral battle,” she says, laughing. “Everything in moderation. I’ll treat myself with a dessert now and then but not daily.”

Pasta is also very portable, which comes in handy when Shiffrin travels to countries where her options are limited. “If I stay in a hotel for a weekend, I will actually give them a box of pasta and have them cook that for me instead of the pasta they have in the kitchen,” she admits. “It’s also the only thing I can stomach before a race since it is easy to eat and digest.”

I train on the rower doing 45-second all-out intervals for an hour. It's grueling," say Shiffrin.

I train on the rower doing 45-second all-out intervals for an hour. It's grueling," say Shiffrin.

Racers Ready

In sports circles, fellow racer Lindsey Vonn is known as the queen of speed, and Shiffrin is hailed as the technical master. But Shiffrin sees every racer from every country as masterful. “You can’t count anybody out,” she says when asked who her biggest competition will be in Pyeongchang. “The U.S. team is incredible, the entire women’s slalom team from Sweden is very good, the Italian women are very fast, then you have the girls from Austria — they will always be vying for the podium — as well as Germany and France. All the competitors are solid — they always are.”

Who makes or misses the cut to represent her country will be determined in the months leading up to the Olympics, and Shiffrin will take every race as it comes, with her sights set on Pyeongchang. Will she be there? We would wager yes. Tune in and find out for yourself.

Bio: Mikaela Shiffrin

Birth Date: March 13,1995
Hometown: Vail, Colorado
Height: 5’7”
Weight: 145 lb
Sponsors: Barilla, Oakley, Red Bull, Leki, Atomic, Bose, Reusch, Longines, Visa, Westin Riverfront Athletic Club
IG: @mikaelashiffrin
Twitter/FB: MikaelaShiffrin

Quick Q&A

It must be amazing to walk into the Olympic arena for the opening ceremonies.

You’re gonna die — I was not at the opening ceremonies in Sochi last time! It’s a sin! I was training in Italy for the first week of the Olympics because my races were not until the second week, so I watched the ceremonies on TV, and it was crazy because I was like, I am going to be there in a week! This time I will be racing the entire two weeks, and my main events are in the first week, so I think and hope I will be there for the opening ceremonies. It depends on how training goes.

Have you ever snowboarded?

I have not, but I would love to try sometime. I have nothing against snowboarders, but I hear it can take a toll on your backside! I will wait until I am done skiing.

Where do you keep your medals?

I have the World Championship medals on the wall of my room and the Olympic one — it is hidden somewhere. I am not telling you where!

Do you support any charities?

The Kelly Brush Foundation (kellybrushfoundation.org) is a local charity started by a girl I went to school with who incurred a spinal injury in a ski race — she hit a tower that was unprotected. The money goes toward all-mountain safety as well as supporting other athletes with spinal injuries and providing them with adaptive equipment. I also support the Tyler Robinson Foundation, which helps kids with pediatric cancer (trf.org), and of course, the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team (ussa.org)! <

Stay on top of the action! 

The 2018 XXIII Winter Olympic Games run from February 9, through February 25. The 2018 XII Paralympic Winter Games run from March 9 through March 18. Go to olympic.org/pyeongchang-2018 for the full schedule of events. Watch them live or on demand on NBC, on the NBC sports app and at nbcolympics.com.