Tips from an NHL Coach on Getting Fit and Staying Fit

Interview with Mark Fitzgerald

Mark worked in the NHL as the Head Strength and Conditioning coach with the Anaheim Ducks from 2015-2019 and in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization. He currently owns and leads Elite Training Systems (ETS), a high-performance training center that caters to athletes from all sports and ages. Through ETS, he supports hundreds of men and women across professional and developmental hockey leagues. His clients also extend to the NFL and he has helped develop athletes across many diverse sports.

In your work with pro athletes, what are some common mistakes you see them making?

When it comes to pro athletes, often they try to do too much. Typically, there are so many voices giving them advice, whether it’s fellow players, or people trying to sell them the latest product or service. Sometimes the advice they get is sincere but other times, it’s not really being given for their benefit. In working with different athletes, I’ve come across so many gimmicks. A big part of my job is helping them filter out the noise and identify the best tools or practices. All you have to do is open Instagram and you’ll see thousands of people looking good and trying to sell a program but those people are not necessarily the most qualified or most experienced.

Do these “pro” pitfalls extend to us regular people too?

Definitely. The biggest problem I see is the confusion between a workout and a training program. For example, F45, Orangetheory, spin classes are workouts, which are great, but they are not training programs. Someone who’s sedentary will certainly benefit from working out but eventually they’ll stagnate and hit a wall. A good training program helps you break through those walls because you’re constantly changing, evolving and switching focus. That may not be fun, but that’s real training. Good training is boring and part of getting the value of good training is just putting up with it. Most gym goers don’t want to hear that because it’s not exciting. People need to think about a complete training program that they can map out for the next 12 months and really consider how they want to build their program around their lifestyle, rather than just stringing together a few workouts.

If you only had 30 minutes a day to work out, what exercises would you focus on or prioritize?

Unfortunately, there’s no one magic exercise. However, those exercises that focus on large muscle groups and multi-joint movements such as squats, pushups, lunges, and pulling actions will hit the whole body, and burn a lot more calories than isolation movements like bicep curls.  Large muscle exercise combos are even better. For example, you could do a series of push-ups, which are a great horizontal movement, then follow it up with the opposite action of overhead pullups. You could work the lower body with squats and move to bench presses for the upper body. Similarly, you could do lunges, then move to rowing. Basically, you want to work opposing muscle groups by pushing and pulling. Working large, opposing muscle groups will give you the most benefit in a short amount of time.

Is there one unhealthy food that you’d recommend everyone eliminate from their diet?

No, there are no bad foods. The diet industry is filled with even more misinformation than the exercise and training world, mostly driven by people who want to sell products and books.  For example, cutting out a macro nutrient like carbs will help you lose weight but the minute you eat a carb, the weight will come right back. The key is moderation. My kids love going to Dairy Queen in the summer and getting a Blizzard after sports practice. If we ate nothing but Dairy Queen Blizzards, that definitely wouldn’t be very good but once a week is fine. In my family, most Fridays are pizza night but we don’t eat pizza every day. We even have donuts for breakfast when it’s someone’s birthday but that’s a special treat. My advice is to eat what you want but don’t make unhealthy foods a daily habit.

If someone is starting from zero and looking to get more active in 2022, what simple exercises would you recommend they start with?

Walking is a great cardio-building exercise and being outside offers so many benefits to your overall mood. You can even do it if you’re injured because it’s low impact and low intensity but it’s also fat burning and it’s easy to progress by gradually increasing your distance and pace. There’s no excuse to not go for a walk and it’s especially helpful after a big meal. It’s also a great gateway exercise to something more strenuous. Often, I’ll walk my dog, which gives me the extra lift and energy to go right into my workout.

Before starting any new exercise routine, look at your calendar year and put a plan on paper. I start in December and plan my whole year at a high level, mapping out any big vacations, business trips, or events and planning my fitness activities around those things.

What should people look for in a fitness coach if they’re looking to work with someone?

The coach you choose should understand where you’re coming from as a client. For example, lots of the pros I work with have an injury of some kind so I’ve become very sensitive to how to work with and around injuries. If you’re an older, busy, working mom, for example, who doesn’t have a lot of time to work out, hiring a coach who works with body builders and figure athletes might not be the right fit for you. Pick someone who understands your time restrictions and who works with other people who have a similar lifestyle to yours. At ETS, we don’t do any marketing. It’s all word of mouth. Do your homework, find someone who’s certified, and ask for referrals from like-minded people in your community.

What is the biggest advantage of wearable technology?

I’ve worked with the Polar fitness tracker to track my sleep and my workouts. I also wore a Whoop band very consistently for an entire year but it still didn’t pick up on everything I was doing. For example, it understood a run to be an intense workout but not weight lifting. With any wearable, you can’t live or die by what it says. All the information is just a snapshot and although it’s close, it’s not perfect information. Think of it as providing you with guidelines, but ultimately, you need to combine that data with monitoring how you feel. When you can combine a solid training plan with a wearable device, the two can work together to help you get a clearer picture of where you are in your fitness journey and where you’re going.

What’s the importance of heart rate variability (HRV)?

HRV is definitely something I pay close attention to. When you do an HRV reading, it’s typically done first thing in the morning or in some cases the data is collected through a wearable device in your last phase of sleep before you wake up. HRV is a snapshot of what’s going on in your nervous system and how you’re coping with stress.  One of the challenges is that positive stress (like working out) gets put into the same bucket as bad stress (like having financial issues). If you’re not sleeping well, and doing training, and fighting with your partner, it all goes in the same bucket. It’s super interesting to see what different things like travel and relationship stress do to your body. Some people can brush off those life stressors more easily than others. From that perspective, you need to look at yourself as an individual rather than a member of an age category. In other words, you may cope with stress better or less effectively than others so making comparisons to people in your cohort may not tell the whole story. The questions to ask are always, where am I at and why? Tracking can be helpful and it can teach you how you respond to stress.

Any other closing tips or advice?

Health and wellness doesn’t have to be complicated. Keep it simple. Drink water, sleep, get outside. If you get the basics down, it opens the door to increasing your training frequency and it makes it easier to build. So often, at the beginning of the year people start being so rigid with their fitness which causes them to fail. Don’t look at the next 30 days but look at the next 365 days. I make notes on the calendar and share it with my wife and put a plan around things so that family is prioritized. Keep things simple and just start.

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