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How fitness helped to reshape curling

When Blake MacDonald won the Tim Hortons Brier and world championships in 2010 with Team Koe, being physically fit gave the Alberta rink an edge over the competition. Today, being in top shape is the norm at the elite curling level and those who aren’t are getting left out in the cold.

MacDonald — who threw third stones with skip Kevin Koe, second Carter Rycroft, and lead Nolan Thiessen — was at the forefront of the fitness revolution in curling towards the end of the past decade. Kevin Martin’s team was also committed to a workout regimen and it paid off when they claimed the gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics on home ice in Vancouver. Brad Jacobs and his team were just rising up the ranks at the time, but they too were focused on fitness. Team Jacobs reached curling’s pinnacle two years ago capturing the Olympic gold in Sochi, Russia, as the stereotypical image of an out-of-shape curler had been brushed away.

“When you look at that era, [fitness] was very important and we attributed a lot of our success to it,” MacDonald said. “We worked harder, we trained harder than everyone else, and at the end of the day we won the 2010 Brier and world championships based on it being an advantage for us. Quite honestly, today it’s not an advantage anymore. It’s a disadvantage if you’re not doing it.”

MacDonald has since stepped back from competitive curling and is now president of Orangetheory Fitness Canada working with members of Team Koe and Team Simmons to maintain their physical peak. Fitness has also played an important role in changing women’s curling with players from Team Rocque and Team Homan also committed to Orangetheory.

“If you look at the seasons a lot of those teams are having, they’re having great seasons and they all attribute it to the success that they’ve been able to maintain with the workout,” MacDonald said.

Curling returned to the Olympics as a medal sport in 1998 and the “Faster, Higher, Stronger” motto has taken hold on the sport. With more on the line now than ever before from cash prizes at professional tour events to government funding, fitness became key to fighting off the fatigue during those grinding week-long tournaments like the Brier or Olympic trials that can make or break a team.

“There was so much money and so much to lose and win, guys really started to look for edges. Fitness became one of those edges that you could have as a team if you were in really great shape,” MacDonald said. “The reality is you burn around 2,500 calories in an eight-end game. If you’re playing three games in a day that’s a ton of energy you’re expending. If you don’t have the fitness level there, physically you’re not going to be able to sweep as hard and, more importantly, mentally you’re not able to be in the game.

“The game has changed in that the physicality of it becomes extremely important to be able to maintain your mental focus. It’s very similar to racecar drivers and why they need to be in great shape.”

The mental game still plays a vital role in curling, however, being physically fit helps improve that aspect as well.

“It is definitely a 60 or 70 percent mental game but you can’t maintain that mental sharpness without being in amazing shape,” MacDonald added. “That’s really where the game has changed a lot in the last few years and the physicality of it initially was an advantage for some teams that were working out and really working hard at it. Now it’s come to the point where if you’re not doing it you just can’t compete with these guys.”

It does come with some challenges as teams are away on the road for long stretches of time and maintaining proper nutrition can be tricky when there are limited options in certain towns.

“They’ve got to make sure they’re continuing to fuel their bodies with bars or shakes or other options throughout the games and properly hydrating themselves,” MacDonald said. “It’s difficult when you’re eating restaurant food for a lot of the weekend and you get what you need to be sharp.”

Fitness is here to stay in curling and the days of curlers sliding out of the hack with cigarettes dangling from their mouths are long gone.

“The old ash cans on the hog line,” MacDonald recalled. “Those days are definitely done and you definitely need to have that [fitness] aspect of your game for sure.”

3 Fitness Keys for Curlers

What should curlers be aware of while working out? MacDonald shared his three keys:

1) Interval training: “What that is, is working at a base pace and then pushing yourself into either an all-out or a push sort of environment for a short time and then coming back to that base pace. So what that does is the recovery from that all-out stage helps to build cardiovascular capacity within them. It simulates in a lot of ways what they go through with sweeping. You stand around for a minute and a half and then you work for max output for 20 seconds and then you’re standing around for a minute and a half. But you’ve got to do that 80 times.”

2) Muscle endurance: “The second big one is they’ve got to focus on muscle endurance as oppose to just muscle strength. You see now a lot of teams, even Jacobs’s team, they’re a lot smaller than they used to be. They have really refocused their workouts on muscle endurance and making sure they’re not doing three reps of 150 lbs, they’re trying to do 12 or 15 reps of maybe 80 or 90 lbs on an exercise because it’s not about pushing the max, it’s about being able to maintain that over 20 or 30 seconds.”

3) Core strength: “Full body, functional exercises that utilize and engage the core throughout the exercise. That’s super important for them because your core is your foundation. Your core strength is what allows you to maintain your balance on the ice. It allows you to, when you get tired are you able to maintain your control of your slide and your delivery. For curlers your core strength is key.”