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Making a Comeback

Making a Comeback

Instruction
By Kellee Katagi
posted: 09/19/2007

You've been off snow for six months. But we've got it on strong authority-no less than ski racing legend Phil Mahre-that making a comeback isn't as daunting a task as you might think. Arguably the most successful ski racer in American history, Mahre, 50, returned to competition last season hoping to qualify for the U.S. Alpine Championships by 2008.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, he won seven national championships, Olympic gold and silver medals in slalom, and three consecutive overall World Cup titles-all without pumping one scrap of iron. "I never lifted weights when I competed in my 20s," says Mahre.

But skiing has changed since then. Equipment advances have made it less about finesse and more about muscle. "Now, with all the sidecut in skis, it's just a matter of tipping the ski up on edge and carving," he says. "If you can deal with the forces in the turn, that's key, so strength has become a bigger issue."

Even so, you won't often find Mahre in the weight room. More likely he's water-skiing or running wind sprints with the local high school football team he coaches. "If you're having fun and getting your workout in at the same time, you're more apt to go do it," he says.

Following this laid-back approach to dryland training, Mahre finished 38th in slalom in the USSA's Western region in 2007. This season, he'll need to be among the region's top 13 skiers in all disciplines to qualify for a shot at his eighth national title. A long shot perhaps, but he has at least one edge: He knows what it takes to get there, says Topper Hagerman, who served as the men's trainer for the U.S. Ski Team in 1984, when Mahre won gold at the Sarajevo Olympics. "Once you've reached the pinnacle of success that Phil has, the mental strength you gain is a big advantage."

Even if you don't plan to run a single gate this winter, the following Mahre-inspired workout plan can help you stage your own comeback for the season. Stick to it for eight weeks, and you'll boost not only your mental strength and concentration but also your cardiovascular fitness, your muscular strength and endurance, your flexibility, and your power.

POWER AND CARDIOVASCULAR FITNESS
Distance running is low on Mahre's list of training activities. "You can run five miles a day and then ski and be sore because it uses different muscle groups," he explains. Instead, he builds his cardiovascular fitness, his explosive power-and his ability to trump teenagers-by running wind sprints with the Selah High School football team, which he helps coach. More often than not, he finishes among the top five in every sprint. Try the following drill once or twice a week; then take the next day off to recover.
WIND SPRINTS Start at the goal line of a football field. Sprint all out to the 10-yard line, and then back to the goal line. Repeat, this time running to the 20 and back. Then to the 30 and back and so on for the length of the field. Rest as needed to keep up a strong pace; the faster you run, the more you'll build power. Work up to 15 to 20 minutes of sprinting with only short rests. Check out the "Reaching Your Peak" related article to the right for examples on how to perform these exercises.

STRENGTH AND MUSCLE ENDURANCE
With a need for brawn but an aversion to iron, Mahre opts for elastic resistance, specifically a device called a Sport Cord ($50-$80, 800-250-3779) that Hagerman created for the U.S. Ski Team to use while traveling. Hagerman recommends performing the following two exercises three times a week. "Of any Sport Cord exercises specific to skiing, these are the best," he says. "Plus, they don't take long, and you can do them anywhere."
SINGLE-KNEE DIP Hold the ends of the cord or resistance band at waist level; stand on the cord with your right foot so the cord is taut. Bring your left foot up behind you into a stork position. Keeping the cord steady, your abs tight and your knees hind your toes, bend at your right knee and drop your buttocks back as if you were sitting in a chair. Stop when your thigh is at a 50-degree angle to your shin. Lift until it's at 20 degrees and then repeat, taking one second to drop down and another second to lift up. Work up to three minutes with each leg.
LATERAL SKI STEP Attach the handles of a Sport Cord or both ends of a resistance band to a point at about waist height. Put on the belt (or loop the band around your waist), and stand with your left side toward the attachment point, far enough away that there is constant tension in the cord. Drop into a half-squat and step right, focusing on your "inside edge" as you push off. Step left to the starting position to complete one rep. Keep your knees behind your toes and your chest lifted throughout the drill. Do 50 reps on each side. If the cord pulls you over, you're not low enough. Check out the "Reaching Your Peak" related article to the right for examples on how to perform these exercises.

AGING RACEFULLY
It's been 23 years since Mahre captured Olympic gold, but by his assessment, it could have been last week. "I still feel like I'm in my 20s," he says. "The only difference is that my body doesn't recover the way it used to." Now, after three or four hard days, "I start to drag a bit," he says.

Indeed, longer recovery time is one of the distinctions between training in your 50s versus your 20s, says Hagerman, who now co-owns the Howard Head Sports Medicine Centers of Vail, Colo.

Since you can't train harder as you age, the key is to train smarter. Don't push yourself if you're tired, a good practice no matter what your age: Recent studies indicate that strength gains actually occur during rest periods, not during exercise itself. To avoid wearing yourself out, focus on areas that need improvement. "We all prefer to work our strengths," Hagerman says, "but that's not where you're going to see the greatest gains."

CORE TRAINING
Lower-back issues have plagued Mahre off and on. Now, whenever he feels the pain coming on, he stretches and strengthens his abs and back to keep pain from interfering with his skiing. Even if your back is pain-free, doing Mahre's favorite core exercises three times a week will increase your flexibility and stability on the slopes.
BICYCLE Lie on your back, tighten your abs and drive your lower spine into the floor. Place your hands lightly behind your neck and curl up so that your shoulders are slightly off the ground. Avoid straining your neck. Bring your left knee toward your chest, then extend it while bringing your right knee toward your chest. Keep your feet as close to the floor as you can without touching it. Work up to 50 reps with each knee. As you improve, bring your right shoulder toward your left knee as it comes toward your chest and vice versa.
BACK EXTENSION Lie facedown and place your fingertips lightly behind your ears. Keeping your hips and feet on the ground, slowly lift your chest as high as you can without straining. Slowly lower almost to the starting position. Work up to 30 reps. For more resistance, extend your arms so that your upper arms are next to your ears.
PRONE PRESS-UP Lie facedown, and place your palms on the floor directly beneath your shoulders. Keeping your back relaxed, press up, lifting your shoulders as high as you can while keeping your belly button on the floor. Hold for 20 seconds and return to the starting position. Do five reps. As an alternative, press all the way up so that only your hands, hips and legs remain on the floor. Look up for a deeper stretch. Check out the "Reaching Your Peak" related article to the right for examples of how to perform these exercises.

MENTAL STRENGTH AND OVERALL FITNESS
Mahre's preferred approach to ski conditioning is cross-training-essentially work masquerading as play. "I've always recommended sports that move you in the direction of skiing: soccer, tennis, handball, basketball, volleyball," he says. "They get you moving fore and aft, side to side and up and down. They make you work the same muscle groups you do with skiing, as opposed to running, which just moves you forward."

Even auto racing, one of Mahre's hobbies, complements his performance on the mountain, he asserts. "When you get away from your sport, you need to be involved in something that makes you concentrate. You can't let your mind turn to Jell-O for four or five months and then go back and think you're going to be competitive."
CROSS-TRAINING Play sports you enjoy a few times a week. The more crossover they have with skiing, the more benefit you'll notice on the hill.

that move you in the direction of skiing: soccer, tennis, handball, basketball, volleyball," he says. "They get you moving fore and aft, side to side and up and down. They make you work the same muscle groups you do with skiing, as opposed to running, which just moves you forward."

Even auto racing, one of Mahre's hobbies, complements his performance on the mountain, he asserts. "When you get away from your sport, you need to be involved in something that makes you concentrate. You can't let your mind turn to Jell-O for four or five months and then go back and think you're going to be competitive."
CROSS-TRAINING Play sports you enjoy a few times a week. The more crossover they have with skiing, the more benefit you'll notice on the hill.

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