by Dr. Bill Rawls
Posted 2/10/18

Yesterday marked the first day of the 2018 Winter Olympics, and for the next two weeks, many of us will be glued to our television screens as we watch the world’s top athletes compete for gold in PyeongChang, South Korea.

One competitor to keep an eye on is Mikaela Shiffrin, the top U.S. Olympic contender in women’s alpine skiing.

If you haven’t heard of Shiffrin yet, you will very soon. She is arguably one of the best downhill skiers on the planet. At age 22, she has already racked up a long list of impressive accolades, including four World Cup slalom titles and a gold medal in slalom skiing at the 2014 Winter Olympics at age 18 — making her the youngest person in history to win Olympic gold in downhill skiing.

I happened to read about Shiffrin in the November issue of Outside magazine. The article was focused on what Shiffrin does to be a top competitive athlete. While I was inspired by her as an individual, what I found most interesting were the parallels between her approach to training and what helps people overcome health adversity.

I realized that whether you’re excelling as an athlete or simply regaining wellness, the principles of moving from one level of health to a higher level are much the same:

  1. Optimized nutrition
  2. Clean living environment
  3. Focused effort
  4. Rejuvenating activity
  5. Restorative rest
  6. Support and guidance
  7. Strong community

Here’s what each of these components look like for a professional athlete like Shiffrin, and how they can translate to improved health for you, wherever you are on the wellness spectrum.

1. Optimized Nutrition

Shiffrin is very particular about her diet; she eats like a champion. Her diet includes lots of vegetables and only fresh foods. While athletic performance does require higher levels of carbohydrates, fat, and protein than average, modern athletes still typically source their food from wholesome natural sources.

Eating a clean diet isn’t challenging. Fresh foods, with vegetables predominating, are readily available and not expensive. Simple cooking techniques such as sautéing, steaming, and batch cooking are easy enough to adopt, and they allow for immense variety so you don’t get bored with the same dishes every day.

To that, you can add herbal therapy: Herbs provide a robust spectrum of protective chemical substances that aren’t present in even the healthiest diet. These substances, called phytochemicals, counteract stress factors, support optimal immune performance, and balance the gut microbiome. Their unique properties are not only beneficial for athletic performance, but they’re also key to overcoming any type of health adversity and protecting wellness.

2. Non-Toxic Living Environment

Shiffrin’s living environment is as clean as her food. As a skier, she’s automatically breathing cleaner air than many of us — the cleanest air on earth exists in forests. Shiffrin’s lifestyle is also very pure: she’s not a partier, and she doesn’t allow indulgences. The price could be a fraction of a second difference on the racecourse, and that could cost her a medal.

Establishing a clean living environment is a matter of exercising as much control over your surroundings and interactions as possible. Fresh food, organic when practical, should be a top priority. Clean water is a matter of installing a filter on the water tap. The cleanest air is found in natural areas. Here you can follow Mikaela’s lead, and get outside and away from the city as frequently as possible. Indoor air quality can be improved with reduced clutter and air filter systems.

A less obvious part of making your world less toxic is shielding yourself from negative media, antagonistic people, and other things beyond your control. When you let go of what you can’t change, those things lose their power to influence you.

3. Focused Effort

As with any top athlete, the key to Shiffrin’s success goes beyond natural skill. It also hinges on years of focused effort on achieving a single goal, an approach that protects her from feeling stressed. Which might sound counterintuitive at first: Shouldn’t concentrating on something as big as winning at the Olympics be overwhelming? But in fact, stress is usually a result of life being too complicated. Shiffrin’s life appears to be remarkably simple — work every day to be a better downhill skier.

Similarly, focusing exclusively on a single objective of wellness over other concerns greatly reduces stress. It gives you permission to decline perceived obligations that do not move you closer to that goal. That includes social obligations like weddings and holidays, and work-related ones too.

I recognize that saying “no” to your boss isn’t always possible. But too often, people work long hours in stressful jobs in order to afford things they don’t really need. When you pare your worldly needs down to the essentials, you don’t require as much to live. This enables you to cut back on work, which not only reduces stress, but also opens up more time to focus on recovery.

People who approach recovery similarly to an athletic training program also tend to find that they have more control in life. This can translate into more judicious use of the medical system and lower medical expenses — which reduces financial stress, as well as overall stress.

4. Rejuvenating Activity

No surprise, Shiffrin spends a lot of time on the slopes. There’s no escaping physical training as a key part of any athletic success. It not only improves ability, it also improves stamina.

Exercise also stimulates healing. It increases levels of endorphins, chemical messengers in the body that fight pain, improve mood, and stimulate immune functions. Regular exercise also stimulates stem cells, the cells necessary for forming new tissue in the body.

Though moving should be considered essential for wellness, the level of activity must be strictly kept within abilities. Top athletes know that exceeding limits can come at great cost. This is true for overcoming health adversity as well: excessive movement when tissues are inflamed can be destructive. For someone at a low level of wellness, a simple goal of walking each day may be enough. Activity level can gradually be increased as health rebounds.

5. Restorative Rest

As Outside reports it, Shiffrin not only trains relentlessly, she also sleeps relentlessly. She takes naps at every opportunity and goes to bed early every night. Recognizing that to achieve physical prowess, the body absolutely requires rest and recovery, Shiffrin treats sleep with sacred devotion.

Rest is essential for illness recovery, too. While physical activity stimulates healing (and promotes better sleep at night), rest is required to allow healing to happen. During sleep is when the body heals most intensely. Meditating at every opportunity, with a focus on enhancing the body’s ability to heal itself, also counts as rest and leads to a better night’s sleep.

6. Support and Guidance

Another of Shiffrin’s advantages is having very supportive parents and coaches. Her mother and father are both avid skiers who recognized her potential early on, and she has some of the best professional coaching around.

Together, Shiffrin’s parents and coach staff provide the kind of guidance, advice, and therapy someone with chronic illness receives from their doctors, nurses, acupuncturists, herbalists, and other healthcare providers. This support team is motivated and united by the same wellness goal, and while success is ultimately up to the person aiming for wellness, they can offer tools that make it more achievable.

If you’re in the throws of battling chronic illness, you’ve likely put a team of experts together to help guide your recovery. If not, or if you’re unhappy with any member of your support team, don’t be afraid to keep looking—it’s not always easy to find the right health practitioners, but sticking with those who are sub-par won’t get you to wellness any faster.

7. Strong Community

Shiffrin puts a lot of value on her skiing community. Being a professional athlete is an enormous commitment, and it can be very isolating — it doesn’t allow time for normal relationships. Connecting with other competitors provides Shiffrin with both role models and friendships that otherwise would not have been possible.

Recovering from illness can be just as isolating as training for a top sport — and having community is just as essential. Numerous studies have linked social support with increased resilience to stress and better physical and psychological health. Unfortunately, too often during health adversity, people lose touch with their normal professional and social communities. I found this to be one of the most devastating parts of my struggle with chronic Lyme disease.

While you can’t hire a new community like you can a doctor or coach, rebuilding community through connections with others going through a similar struggle can be valuable. Fortunately, this has never been easier. Online forums and support groups provide endless opportunities to cultivate connections with others who share your adversities and common goals.

The reward of focusing all your effort on your personal recovery is getting your life back. While you may not celebrate from the top of a podium, your success will be just as exceptional and fulfilling.

Have you used any of these seven principles to reach your wellness goals? Please share your inspiring stories with us on Facebook.

Dr. Rawls is a physician who overcame Lyme disease through natural herbal therapy. You can learn more about Lyme disease and recovery in Dr. Rawls’ best-selling book, Unlocking Lyme.

You can also learn about Dr. Rawls’ personal journey in overcoming Lyme disease and fibromyalgia in his popular blog post, My Chronic Lyme Journey.