(CNN)She was hailed a “phenom” even before winning gold at Sochi 2014, now Mikaela Shiffrin is aiming for legendary status in Pyeongchang.
The hype needle has surged into the red zone.
Shiffrin is hot favorite to defend her slalom crown, and is a very real contender in giant slalom and the combined (downhill and slalom). And she could win more if she decides to add the speed events to her Games schedule.
“You’ve got to be talented to ski like this, but talent is 10 per cent and hard work is 90 per cent,” Shiffrin’s agent Kilian Albrecht, a two-time Olympian himself, told CNN Sport.
“With Mikaela it’s a combination of hard work, being really talented, being really focused and having the drive and wanting to win.”
So, what goes into making the complete skier? Shiffrin’s coach Jeff Lackie gave CNN Sport a unique insight into the training methods of an Olympic champion.
Shiffrin has been all-conquering this season, with 10 wins in 20 races, including five in a row after Christmas. Her prodigious tally is now up to 41 World Cup wins. To put that in perspective, Lindsey Vonn — only five World Cup wins behind Ingemar Stenmark’s all-time record of 86 — had seven at the same age.
Significantly, Shiffrin also reaped the rewards of a renewed focus on speed training to clinch her first ever World Cup downhill win in December.
But what are the requirements of skiing’s different disciplines? Can a slalom skier pull off the Olympic equivalent of Usain Bolt winning the 3,000 meters?
“Skiing is a power sport so the ultimate limiting factor to an athlete’s success is their ability to produce force and raise power,” says Canadian Lackie.
Shiffrin stands 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighs 145 pounds, similar to four years ago but with more “baby fat” converted to muscle, according to Albrecht. That’s compared to speed specialist Vonn’s 5 feet 10 inches and 160 pounds, according to the US Ski Team website.
“There’s no arguing having additional mass is going to benefit athletes because gravity is our primary driver but you can’t ignore the strength-to-weight ratio,” says Lackie.
He uses the analogy of a race car that can accelerate quickly in a straight line but is cumbersome around corners.
The optimum downhill body type, he says, is one that can overcome up to three times its body weight in jumps or big direction changes, but can still get into an aerodynamic position and be fluid and dynamic on the skis.
“In slalom it’s about how quickly athletes can generate force in a different direction to oppose what gravity or centrifugal force or a sudden change of direction is causing,” he says.
“Slalom skiers are faster at generating force but produce less absolute force than a downhiller would.
“With Mikaela we’re looking to find that balance where she has that strength and power to be competitive in all events. I think we’ve struck a pretty good balance right now.”
The training — In the gym
A strong cardiovascular system is important to enable faster recovery, which enables more high repetitions of quality training, says Lackie, but for him the real training focus is on power.
“Even though Mikaela makes slalom look effortless, much like a figure skater or a ballerina moving gracefully across the stage, there is a huge power component to that which makes that huge bound or series of tight turns look effortless,” says Lackie.
The bulk of Shiffrin’s work is squats and various types of lifts with a weighted bar, emphasizing “eccentric overload training” — in terms of a squat, this would be the “down” phase when the muscle is lengthening, which is a more efficient way of targeting the muscle than concentrating on how much she can lift.
“From there, we would tailor your spectrum, so for a slalom skier we would focus on a higher bar velocity — moving the load quicker — whereas a downhiller can afford to lift the bar at a slower velocity but with more weight,” says Lackie.
“We use a device called GymAware which mounts on the bar and measures speed of movement. In Mikaela’s case when we’re focusing on a tech (slalom) block we’ll look for higher bar velocity on her primary lifts to replicate the speed of movement and rate of force development qualities we’re going to expect on race day.”
Every five days or so Lackie will incorporate plyometrics or body weight training, and lung busters such as sprints pulling a weighted sled.
“We try to incorporate all the attributes she needs to be successful all season long. We never go through a period where we focus on one single attribute. We try to maintain a similar load of training (total minutes multiplied by her perceived level of exertion) when she’s on snow and off snow,” he says.
“Let’s say in June, training would consist of a 90-minute strength session on Monday morning followed by an hour-and-15-minute energy system workout. Contrast that to January when we may do a two-and-half-hour on-snow training session followed by a 20-minute energy system workout.”
Among the other training devices Lackie uses are blood flow restriction bands, and “shock absorbers.”
“One training modality is blood flow restriction. This is like a tourniquet that we use on the tops of legs to slightly restrict blood flow. This gives the same sensation of legs feeling full when you get lactic acid build-up at the bottom of a run. We’re essentially exacerbating that with the use of the bands.
“We also have a device in the Park City head office of the US ski team which is like two massive shock absorbers with a platform in between. The athletes bound up and down on it and the shocks suck all the energy out of the jump. It’s incredibly fatiguing. You can jump laterally with little to no impact for maximal fatigue.
“We’re trying to find movements that replicate the sport’s movements instead of doing intervals on a bike or an ergo that don’t necessarily replicate the positions you’re going to be in while skiing.
“There is that mind-body connection so we want to make sure that what Mikaela experiences in preparation is what she experiences in competition.”
Data gathering is also key.
“We use an app where Mikaela completes an online questionnaire after every session to assess her perceived fatigue and in addition looks at barbell velocity, lactate levels, heart rate and so on,” says Lackie.
“We can track how many minutes training she’s doing, for example when was the last time she ran a 65-second continuous downhill, when was the last time she trained any event in excess of 45 seconds, what’s been the total minutes of slalom training in the past week or the total kg she has squatted.
“Just being able to keep track of all that gives me a lot of insight into where she’s at and what we need to address.”
But Lackie warned: “Coaches are very susceptible to seeing what we want to see. We have a confirmation bias like everyone else so we have to be cognizant of that, especially with someone like Mikaela.
“It’s very easy to see what you want to see because she’s such a phenomenon. She makes everything look easy but to extract the best performance out of her you need to be tracking the numbers.”
The training — on the snow
In slalom, the exact gate configuration for that race is set on the day and skiers have a one-hour window for inspection, making training for specific tracks difficult. However, coaches try to replicate general conditions and test their racers across the whole spectrum of likely set-ups.
“To replicate the Olympic and World Cup hill preparation we use fire hoses and spray down the hill to saturate the snow to a wet slurry and then let it freeze,” says Lackie.
“It becomes bumpy, hard and virtually impenetrable. That in itself requires a lot of coordination and strength just to be able to ski on.
“Depending on Mikaela’s period of training we might set a full-length slalom and run eight repetitions or do 16-20 runs of a 20-25 second 20-30 gate slalom.
“The important thing is to train a variety of different course set-ups as that’s the one factor we can control. We need to be prepared for everything, so we could set a really tight combination [of gates] or really fast delays (changes of direction). It’s important not just to train the average but to train the ends of the spectrum to fully prepare Mikaela.”
Technical tweaks are often made by Shiffrin’s mother Eileen, who has been her long-time coach as well as friend, mentor, cook and nursemaid on the road.
Her training regime continued throughout the Christmas period in Europe, with only Boxing Day off. It reaped rewards as she scored five straight World Cup wins in an intense fortnight, and seven wins in eight races from mid December in France, Austria, Norway, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria again.
“When you’re over in Europe and away from home and family there’s no sense in taking Christmas off, you might as well continue training,” says Lackie.
“That’s the difference between Mikaela Shiffrin and her competition.”
To complement their downhill training — including stints in Portillo, Chile in the summer, and sessions practicing gliding, aerodynamics and and jumping — Shiffrin and other members of Team USA have taken their preparation into the digital realm with the use of 360-degree video.
Headsets loaded with 360-degree views of downhill courses, such as the little-known Jeongseon venue in Pyeongchang, enable the skiers to train remotely and build up a mental picture of the racetrack.
“We’ve found it to be really promising,” says Lackie. “It helps athletes bridge that gap between visualizing and real-world experience.”
Shiffrin combined this technology with training full-length downhills at the Team USA training facility at Copper Mountain in November ahead of clinching her first ever World Cup downhill podium place and then the following day her maiden victory at Lake Louise, in only her fourth ever World Cup downhill race.
The mental game
Shiffrin has earned a reputation as an ice-maiden who doesn’t feel pressure. However, she admits the thought of disappointing other people is her biggest fear.
“That’s where the external pressure comes into play, when I think, ‘If I don’t win I’m going to disappoint the media, or my fans, my family or my coaches or the people on my team who work so hard day in, day out to help me achieve my goals,'” Shiffrin told CNN.
“But I’m starting to be able to separate the two and that’s really important for me to be able to enjoy the sport.”
For Lackie, it’s Shiffrin’s mind that is her biggest weapon.
“Strength alone is never going to win,” he says.
“You need to have unbelievable mental fortitude to suppress nerves and execute your plan on race day.
“Downhillers are often intimidated by slalom because they feel the gates are coming at them so fast, whereas slalom skiers are intimidated by the sheer speed of downhill. Both require speed and agility but of a different kind.
“The ability to suppress fear is a key attribute in speed races. Some of the men’s tracks can be super-intimidating. You can be conditioned better than anybody, and can have the best training, but you have to be able to suppress a lot of really good instincts and literally put your life in the line to be the best.
“The longer I do this the more I realize that, yes, fitness is important, strength is important, but mental toughness, grit, all of that, is ultimately what makes or break an athlete.
“Mikaela’s a standout because of her mental toughness and because of her perseverance. She’s so deliberate about her training, there’s never a wasted inch on the hill. Even skiing down to the top of a course she’s refining her technique.
“She has loads of grit and that’s why she’s the best in the world.”
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