- Mikaela Shiffrin is the first skier – woman or man – to win $US1 million in prize money in a single season.
- She’s often referred to as the best slalom skier in the world.
- Shiffrin told Business Insider that her training schedule is not very different from her colleagues’ regimens, but she has a sharp sense of focus and prioritises sleep.
- Shiffrin also keeps her diet routine simple: Seltzer mixed with cranberry juice is her “favourite thing to drink,” and she almost never imbibes alcohol or coffee.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Mikaela Shiffrin is the youngest slalom champion in Olympic history, the youngest skier to win 50 World Cup races, and the first skier – man or woman – ever to earn $US1 million in prize money in a single season.
She’s often referred to as the best slalom skier in the world, but that’s not necessarily how Shiffrin describes herself.
“I’m generally a pretty athletic person, but I’m not like, the greatest athlete,” she told Business Insider in an interview arranged by Swiss watchmaker Longines.
Shiffrin said much of what makes her stand out is her razor-sharp focus.
“For most of the competition, probably, my level of focus is a little higher. And that can also make a difference,” she said. “Just taking better advantage of the time that I have to train.”
Shiffrin’s discipline extends to other corners of her life as well, including what she eats, how much sleep she gets, and the way in which she takes care of her own mental health to manage performance anxiety. Each plays a role in her winning strategy, and most of these techniques are backed up by years of scientific research.
“She approaches skiing in a much different way than most, or maybe everyone,” retired US Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn recently told the Associated Press. “It’s very methodical and technical, kind of the opposite of me, but that’s why she’s had so much success.”
For Shiffrin, the best part of waking up is not coffee
Shiffrin follows the same routine almost every day: “I start every morning with eggs and toast and a glass of water with a little juice in it,” she said. “I almost never drink coffee.”
She does not want to feel dependent on caffeine, she said, adding that coffee doesn’t always sit well with her stomach or nerves.
“It sometimes makes me jittery,” she said “Especially on race day, when there’s just a little higher tension anyway, it can make my stomach feel really out of whack.”
Studies suggest that coffee can have significant health benefits, especially when it comes to keeping ageing hearts healthy and staving off cancer. But drinking coffee also blocks adenosine receptors in the brain, which help regulate sleep. (This is part of the reason that coffee helps wake people up.) Coffee also gets more adrenaline flowing in the body, which can make people more anxious and jittery than they would be otherwise.
The brew also stimulates more gastric acid production in the stomach, which could help explain Shiffrin’s stomach reaction.
She acknowledged though, that she’ll have “half a cup” of joe very rarely, when not racing. But typically, Shiffrin sticks to tea, a milder stimulant, when looking for a caffeine boost.
Cranberry juice with seltzer
Shiffrin has a favourite cocktail – but there’s no alcohol in it.
“My favourite thing to drink is cranberry juice with a seltzer water,” she said. “That’s just my favourite and I feel like that’s the most refreshing thing.”
Generally, she avoids alcohol, much like coffee.
“It makes sense with what I do,” she said, though noted that “every now and then I’ll have a glass of wine, or a beer, or a cocktail or something.”
The relationship between alcohol and athletic performance is not well understood, but scientists are getting some clues (from studies in cells and in animals) that booze may not be the best thing for swift recovery.
Shiffrin’s diet is decidedly not low-carb
Shiffrin does not adhere to any low-carb diet fads.
“The rest of my diet is like, carbs, protein and vegetables,” she said.
This strategy has a lot to do with the way food makes Shiffrin feel on the course or before a big race.
“Pasta is one of the things that I can almost always get down, no matter how I’m feeling,” she said, adding that one of her favourite pre-race dinners is “pasta with chicken and maybe like a little bit of salad or something.”
Other days, Shiffrin said, she’ll pair noodles with “bolognese sauce or maybe just simple, with basil and garlic and olive oil.” (It’s perhaps no coincidence then that Shiffrin is supported by pasta-maker Barilla and wears hats emblazoned with the company’s red logo when she skis.)
Exercise scientists and athletes also endorse this eating strategy. World-record ultra-marathoner Zach Bitter, a vocal fan of low-carb eating, still relies on some carbohydrates to fuel his 100-mile races. Pasta is also a pre-race favourite of 2004 Olympic runner Roberto Mandje. Part of the reason athletes choose carbs is that the body doesn’t digest fats and proteins (though they’re great nutrient sources) as quickly as carbohydrates. Carbs are also body’s go-to fuel source, and nutrition experts consistently say that high-fibre whole grains are some of the best kinds.
Still, it’s worth noting that nutrition scientists don’t generally endorse any one-size-fits-all diet plans, since everyone processes food differently.
Even without coffee, Shiffrin said she gets anxious before big races. That’s when she turns to her “tools,” as she calls them, to manage anxiety.
“It’s pretty easy for just jitters to turn into anxiety if you don’t know what you’re looking at and have tools to deal with it,” she said.
Her go-to is listening to music before a race.
“That always helps, because it gives me something else to focus on,” Shiffrin said. She also tunes in to her breath.
“I’ll practice different breathing techniques,” she said. “Like a deep breath, and then hold it for four seconds, and then let it out slowly.”
This is a known way to regulate our body’s autonomic nervous system, which governs both stress and relaxation.
“Increasing the duration of the out-breath, either by holding it or by extending how long you’re breathing out, that’s increasing parasympathetic activation,” psychiatrist Dan Siegel, executive director of the Mindsight Institute in California, previously told Business Insider. “That can be really good to achieve a state of calm and relaxation.”
Like Shiffrin, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps also relies on music and breathing. Phelps used to build playlists including country star Eric Church and hip-hop artist Lil Wayne as part of his preparation for his swims. He is now teaching his version of a “lion’s breath” to his son to help him manage intense emotions.
“It can often be as simple as just telling yourself it’s going to be ok,” Shiffrin said.
Nine hours of sleep is a minimum
If there’s an activity besides skiing at which Shiffrin would beat most of us, it’s sleeping. She strives to get at least nine hours a night, but said it’s often nine-and-a-half.
“If I’m exceptionally tired, it’s so much more difficult to deal with nerves,” Shiffrin said.
Sleep experts like Matthew Walker, who directs the sleep and neuroimaging lab at UC Berkeley, endorse this approach. Walker says almost everyone needs about eight hours of shut-eye, though each person is different.
Shiffrin pays close attention to the signs her body gives about its energy levels: Is she feeling more sore than usual? Are her eyes watering? Is she a tad more irritable than normal?
These can all be signs she’s hovering on the edge of sleep deprivation, Shiffrin said. And she takes the clues seriously. That philosophy has served her well so far – Shiffrin has almost never suffered injuries. The one time she tore her MCL (in 2015), she was back on the slopes two months later, Deadspin reported.
Many are betting that Shiffrin will become the most decorated skier of all time. This year, she broke the record for the most World Cup wins in a single season, with 15. She’s 24 years old.
“There’s kind of a breaking point of what our bodies and our minds can handle,” she said. “And I do have a pretty good sense of where my limit is. I don’t want to find that limit. I just want to kind of go up close to it.”
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