Winter fitness tips from hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser

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Retired hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser in Banff in 2018.Dave Holland/Canadian Sport Institute Calgary

Though she doesn’t play on the ice herself any more, retired hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser is still all about physical activity. Wickenheiser, who represented Canada at the Olympics and World Championships, hasn’t exactly retired to a life of quiet: Nowadays, she’s a doctor at Toronto Western Hospital and works as an assistant general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Despite her busy schedule, she still makes time to workout six days a week.

As a winter athlete, Wickenheiser is familiar with the struggle of getting a workout in when the weather is challenging. But still, exercise is a form of therapy, she says, and she finds it difficult to go any amount of time without some sort of physical activity. So, she’s found ways to make it work – establishing a routine that’s easy to stick to, motivating herself to get out there and modifying her workouts so she can do them anywhere. This is how she stays fit.

Get going in the morning

Because of her hectic schedule, early mornings are typically the only time of day that Wickenheiser can squeeze in a workout. But she knows how hard it is to be motivated to work out first thing – especially in the winter, when it’s darker and colder.

“This winter has been difficult,” she says, pointing out that Toronto has been even gloomier than usual. “I really enjoy the sun, especially after living in Calgary for so many years.”

To get herself out of bed in the morning, Wickenheiser will first step outdoors to let the cold and light wake her up and get her feeling energized.

“I always feel more fresh and like I can get on with the rest of the day,” she says. Getting morning light on her face also helps her be more aware during the day. “Getting your head outside within the first hour is really important,” she says.

Early birds such as Wickenheiser receive a lot of benefits – studies have shown that working out before noon is the key to a healthy life. One study in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that morning physical activity is associated with lower risks of cardiovascular disease, regardless of how much exercise is done.

Spend more time on the warm-up

It sounds like a no-brainer, but warming up in the winter (especially if you’re exercising outdoors or on a rink) is crucial. While warming your muscles up is important regardless of the temperature (it primes your muscles and cardiovascular system), when it’s cold, Wickenheiser says that it’s the only way to avoid injuries from pulling muscles. “Staying limber when it’s cold out is really important. You want to get your core body temperature high enough that you’re not going to pull your muscles or hurt yourself,” she says. “You need to make sure the joints are oiled up and mobile.”

Warming up should involve dynamic stretching – such as walking lunges, leg swings and arm rotations – in order to get your muscles ready for activity. Dynamic stretching has also been shown to increase range of motion and flexibility, which will help avoid over-extension and injury. Exercising in the cold can speed up the vasoconstrictor response, or the narrowing of blood vessels which can lead to decreased muscle temperature and performance, so prepping the muscles is key.

Interval train to maximize your time

Interval training is a good way to up the intensity while cutting down on the length of your workout. Wickeheiser says that interval work is her go-to when pressed for time, and she turns to it in the wintertime to reduce the amount of time she’s spending outdoors.

Studies have found that high intensity interval training (also known as HIIT) has all sorts of physical health benefits – it lowers the risk of diseases such as breast cancer, colon cancer and cardiovascular conditions, it increases the metabolic rate and lowers body fat mass, reduces arthritis and lowers the risk of falling in older people. HIIT can also improve your mental health and decrease feelings of depression and anxiety.

Mix it up

Falling into a rut with your workout routine is a big part of why exercising becomes a chore. Changing up your exercise routine, rather than following the same set every day, not only reduces boredom but it also gives you an opportunity to work on different parts of your body and fitness. Wickenheiser herself will cycle through stair workouts, swimming, HIIT, boxing, treadmill exercises, riding her bike and sprinting on the ice.

“I need to keep the variability high,” she says. “And that’s a fitness habit that I’ve kept since my training days for the Olympics.”

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