How to Hang in the NHL at 40? Work Out Like a Fiend
Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara is a 6-foot-9 mountain of a player with a diabolical routine for keeping up with guys half his age
Zdeno Chara, the 40-year-old captain of the Boston Bruins, is the third-oldest player in the National Hockey League. SIMON SIMARD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
By Jen Murphy
Oct. 28, 2017 7:00 a.m. ET
At age 40, Zdeno Chara is still keeping up with guys born after his pro career began. Now in his 20th National Hockey League season, Mr. Chara, the league’s third-oldest player and the captain of the Boston Bruins, shows no signs of slowing down. The Slovak defenseman is known throughout the league as a workout fanatic. He also hates to lose, whether it’s a hockey game or a pull-up contest. “On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m an 11 when it comes to competitiveness,” he says.
Mr. Chara gets his drive from his father, Zdenek, a former competitive Greco-Roman wrestler who ran a sports academy for cyclists and other athletes in Slovakia. From a young age, Mr. Chara would tag along to the gym and competitions. “I liked how cycling is a precise formula of diet and training,” he says. Mr. Chara spends much of his off-season on a bike and has trained on roads that have been parts of Tour de France mountain stages.
“I like the challenge of finding comfort doing uncomfortable stuff,” he says. “The harder, the better.” He has tracked his workouts for the past 25 or so years. “I keep all of the data—the number of sets and reps, how much I lifted, how I felt—and at the end of each season I revaluate and create a new program for the following summer,” he says.
At 6-foot-9, Mr. Chara is the tallest player in NHL history. That size comes with its advantages and disadvantages. It allows him to cover a lot of ice and generate a ton of force. He has the velocity record for the hardest shot at the All-Star Skills Competition, at 108.8 miles an hour. But a bigger body also makes him a bigger target for collisions. If anything has changed with his workout over the years, he says it’s the attention he places on recovery.
He entered this season weighing 250 pounds, with 5% body fat. “Regardless of age and sport, there aren’t many athletes who can boast that build,” says Mike Macchioni, the Bruins’ sports performance coach.
Leading up to the season, which began in early October, Mr. Chara averaged four to six hours of training a day. He worked out on his own for one hour each morning, then joined the team for a two-hour strength session at the gym. He put in an hour or two on the ice then recovered with foam rolling, massage and his favorite, the cold tub. In season, he shifts to more time on ice, practicing and playing and performing shorter workout sessions, with more emphasis on active recovery.
MORE ON FITNESS
Mr. Chara warms up with stretches and Greco-Roman-wrestling-inspired moves that work range-of-motion and flexibility. The Bruins’ gym is equipped with machines that use air-resistance to build explosive power. The bench press machine, for example, allows the athletes to perform an explosive upper body push without decelerating the bar, as in the traditional method, while measuring the speed of each rep.
Mr. Macchioni says not overtraining is key. Mr. Chara works out frequently with low volumes, rarely doing more than three repetitions a set, six max. “But every rep is executed to perfection,” he says. He performs most core work standing upright: This includes a variety of rotational movements that work the obliques. “Exercises we do perform on the ground are in positions where the spine is stabilized, while the arms and legs go to work, as they would during skating or battling in the corners,” Mr. Macchioni says.
To work on reaction time and hand-eye coordination, players partner up and toss tennis balls, which they must catch with one hand. Athletes use Fitlight, a blinking-light system that can measure reaction time, speed of movement and delay times, as they perform speed, agility and quickness drills on and off the ice. “It’s important for a big guy like me to have quick feet,” Mr. Chara says.
To train skating muscles, Mr. Chara does a drill called the band-assisted partner pushdown. One person loops a large exercise band around their waist. The other person anchors the band with one hand and pushes their partner into a lateral squat position with the free hand. The person in the squat immediately explodes back into the upright position.
“Everything I put in my body has a purpose,” Mr. Chara says. “As you age, you realize how diet affects performance.” As soon as he wakes he has a big glass of water. “Your body has just gone without liquids for seven to nine hours,” he says. Breakfast is oatmeal, eggs, toast and a juice of vegetables, like beets and carrots, and super foods, such as goji berries.
He has his carbs in the morning and sticks to protein and vegetables the rest of the day. Salmon, chicken, avocado and chickpeas are staples of lunch and dinner. He snacks throughout the day. “You never want to feel so hungry that you’ll put anything in your mouth,” he says. Favorite snacks include rice cakes, vegetable and juice shakes and quinoa mixed with nuts and dried fruits. In the off-season, he splurges on red meat.
“I like to keep things simple when it comes to gear,” he says. “I care about how I feel and perform, not how I look.” Mr. Chara likes New Balance sneakers and wears True Pro Custom skates. He rides Trek mountain and road bikes.
STAYING STRONG IN MIDDLE AGE MEANS NO SLOWING DOWN
Athletes including the NHL’s Zdeno Chara and NFL quarterback Tom Brady are proving that age is just a number. Psychologically, people think they need to slow down as they age, says Walt Thompson, the Atlanta-based president of the American College of Sports Medicine. Without intervention, the aging process slows us all down.
“Muscle strength generally peaks at around the age of 25 and plateaus for about another decade or so before starting to decline,” Dr. Thompson says. “After age 25, aerobic performance could decline as much as 10% per decade or more.” With age, we also lose elasticity of ligaments and tendons—most notably in the low back and in the hips—and calcium in the bones, he says.
Regular aerobic activity and strength training can slow down, and in some athletes nullify these effects, he says. “The trick is to maintain the same level of physical activity over the years,” he says. Trying to keep up with the workouts of our 20s in our 40s requires more sleep, better nutrition and more attention to recovery and flexibility he says. Avoiding excessive alcohol and sugar, integrating stretching and flexibility into your routine and maintaining a challenging intensity during workouts will help you stay at the top of your game as you age, he says.