Even armchair athletes can pick up some useful pointers by looking at how the best U.S. downhill skier is rebuilding her lower body after knee surgery
by Dana Gelin
Today she has chosen a t-shirt that reads GIRLS KICK BUTT for a workout with her physical therapist, whose name is Rock. Do you doubt that Picabo Street is serious?
She hasn't always been fit--she was kicked off the U.S. ski team in 1990 for being out of shape--but as she works to recover from a knee injury that will keep her off skis until late spring, her priorities clearly have changed. "Maybe in the past she has taken things for granted, but I've noticed a difference in her attitude," says 25-year-old Matt James, Street's personal trainer, the first she has ever had, and a former Portland State wide receiver who is rocklike even though he's not Rock. "This made her realize how much she loves skiing, and she knows how hard she has to work."
So once or twice a week Street, who won the World Cup women's downhill title in 1995 and '96, goes for a two-hour workout with Rock Reid (who, to be honest, could pass for a Steve or a Bob), and another five times a week she works out for two hours with James. Call this the endurance phase of Street's career, and not just because being off skis is hard to bear. "I've never been able to work for a long period of time on endurance," Street says. "I'm hoping to get to a point where I'm not even breathing hard at the bottom of the downhill."
For the first six weeks after reparative surgery on Dec. 11 (she first tore her left anterior cruciate ligament in 1989 and then tore it again on Dec. 4), Street could do only minimal lower body work. So she concentrated on her upper body and on building a base of endurance. Although eventually Street will shift her workouts to emphasize building power and strength (by lifting more weight for fewer repetitions), most women prefer to stick to the endurance routine. "If you keep your reps high and your sets low, you're going to tone and firm up," James says. "You want to do anything over 12 reps." During her rehabilitation, Street has been doing three sets of 15 to 20 reps each, working her shoulders, back and biceps one day, triceps and chest another. "They're different muscle groups," she explains, "so you can load both without fatiguing the others too far."
A typical shoulders-back-biceps day consists of 10 exercises, some with machines and some with free weights. While working out at the Bo Jackson Fitness Center on the Nike campus, near her home in Portland, Street starts with military presses, front raises with hand weights, lateral flies with an adjustable pulley and upright rows with a bar--all of which work the shoulders. Then she goes to seated rows, lat pull-downs and high lat rows, for the muscles in her shoulders and back. (The high lat row, done on a specialized machine, is very specific to the muscles used in a skiing start.) She moves on to biceps curls done first with free weights and then with a bar.
The finale to this day's workout is towel curls, one of the two things that have regularly brought Street to tears since her operation. (The other is watching a tape of herself skiing before the accident.) Towel curls are a torturous variation on biceps curls that Street says give her the same jitters beforehand as racing does. "You're working the muscles almost to complete fatigue, and it makes you nervous because you lose control to some degree," she says. "But it's good to experience that because you find where your limits are." Sitting on a bench, she holds the middle of a rolled-up towel while James, holding both ends, sits on the floor facing her. She pulls up on the towel, as if doing a biceps curl, while he provides resistance. Then he pulls her arms back down while she resists. "You're working both the positives and the negatives, with constant pressure applied to both," James says. "It tests her will and desire to push herself through the pain." At the end of 15, Street is obviously feeling that pain. "Two more sets," James says, then upon seeing her shocked expression, "Just kidding."
A key to this endurance workout is grouping all the exercises for one muscle together in one big set, a so-called superset, to work each muscle to near fatigue before moving on to the next one. It's always a good idea to get instruction from a personal trainer or physical therapist when starting a routine, but here are a few general tips from James: If you can't maintain good form, you're trying to lift too much weight. Always keep proper body position and lift with slow, controlled movements. And don't forget about breathing: exhale as you are lifting the weight (many serious lifters will do this with an audible puff), inhale as you release it.
Although these workouts are good for fitness, much of the upper-body work Street does is geared toward helping her with her start. Last year, she says, someone on the team was a few hundredths of a second faster, but, "I don't intend to have her beat me again," Street says.
Do you doubt that she is serious?
At the end of January, Street was cleared to start doing lower-body strength work. The rule was this: When it came to her left knee, anything that brought tears was bad. "There's a big difference between rehab and body conditioning," Reid says. "You have to be alert to the structure that's being repaired." Pushing a healing joint too hard can inflame the tissue around it, causing swelling and a setback in the rehabilitation. "Your body, whether it's healthy or injured, tells you when to stop," Street says. "When you're injured, it screams at you, but even when you're healthy it will whisper." One day Street's knee screamed that it did not want to ride the stationary bike, so she lifted weights instead.
By the middle of January, she had been cleared to ride up to 45 minutes on the bike but was still holding herself back to half an hour. A key to her rehab, and to any workout program, is patience, not pushing yourself too far, too fast. And, yes, patience isn't the strong suit of a woman who makes her living flying at 75 mph down steep hills.
"As people start feeling better, they want to accelerate the progress and get back to the point where they were," says Reid, who spends much of his winter working with skiers recovering from knee injuries.
"ASAP!" chimes in Street, who is lying on the floor doing an exercise for her hamstrings.
Much of what Street was doing when working on her hamstrings could have been called prehab, i.e., doing everything possible to make sure that by the time her knee was ready to go, the muscles around it would be strong enough to protect it. (She needed crutches to walk for a month after surgery and lost much of her muscle tone.) Strong hamstrings are especially important in supporting the knee. "Most women spend a lot of time speed walking and on the Stairmaster, doing a lot of quad loading," Street says. Overdeveloped quads paired with underdeveloped hamstrings can leave the knee susceptible to injury, so throughout her rehab, Street has worked the left hamstring particularly hard to provide her left knee with extra support.
She's supine on the floor doing bench hamstring presses, except instead of a bench she has her feet propped on an 18"-diameter therapy ball. (Balancing on a ball while doing the exercise helps train proprioceptors, sensory receptors in muscles that aid balance. Using a bench or chair as a base works the hams just as well.) With her hands behind her head, her knees bent and her heels on the ball, she lifts her butt off the ground by pushing down through her heels. It looks easy, but your hamstrings will disagree. Street does 50 with both legs, then does two sets of 20 single-leg presses. "Doing this exercise really helps me feel normal again," Street says. "My hamstrings are about the only things I've got [in the lower body] that are close to where they should be."
But by May, all of Street's muscles should be back in the shape they need to be in to support her knee in competitive skiing. (Her first race is scheduled to be the World Cup downhill opener next fall.) Street doesn't believe any amount of prehab could have prevented this injury--"Halfway through the jump, I knew I probably would not walk away from it," she says--but Reid points out that some injuries can be avoided by getting in shape beforehand.
"A significant part of rehab is making people realize that this is a life process," Reid says. "The idea is that you get in shape to play your sport, you don't play to get in shape."
Adds Street, "Failure to prepare is preparing to fail."
As she sweats and strains, Street is preparing to succeed. "When I come back," she says, "my intention is to win every day, and that includes the Nagano Olympics."
Do you doubt that she is serious?
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