With three months to go before the Sochi Olympic Games, Canadian ice-dance pair Tessa Virtue, 24, and Scott Moir, 26, have their sights set on defending the Olympic gold they claimed in Vancouver. In Toronto for a recent publicity tour, the pair – who grew up in the London, Ont., area and have been skating together for 16 years – shed light on a rigorous mental and physical regime that has played a critical role in their renown as Canada's sweethearts.
How do you deal with stress before a competition?
Tessa: We started this thing at the Olympics in Vancouver where we'd hug before we stepped on the ice, and we breathe slowly at the same time. We want to feel totally in unison and in synch, something critical for our skating partnership. We even say we want our hearts to beat as one, which comes after being together for so long.
Scott: I don't know if there is a way to de-stress completely. If it was that simple, it would be a lot easier to compete. I'm just always thinking about my breathing, and slowing it down, focusing on my thoughts. Rarely do I regret being nervous because as long as I'm nervous, I'm focused, and that's the main thing. I just try to think of the task at hand and what I have to do to execute our goal.
How do you use nerves as positive energy?
Scott: The important thing for me is remembering that everyone is nervous. For some reason, that's a really comforting thought. This might sound a bit cocky but I think the person who is going to win the competition is the person who rises up and overcomes [nerves]. And I kind of think I'm the best candidate for the job, and I better get out there, and take what's mine. It takes me out of the passenger seat and puts me in control, and when I'm in that zone, I'm most likely to have a successful skate.
Tessa: I get really nervous and with that comes doubt. I can get very quiet and internalize things. So I have to be conscious to express my nerves to Scott and to reframe it into a positive thing. I try to remember that we're trained for this. We're ready, and we're prepared. I think back on the weeks of training we've put in before an event. Truthfully, what we do in training is 10 times harder than what we ever have to do in a competition. That's always really reassuring for me. Thank God we have each other to rely on.
What is your most important muscle group?
Scott: Glutes. It's the area where I get all the power to throw Tessa and to skate faster. If I don't activate that group then I'm going to be pulling on smaller muscles to take the load. That's when you run into injury problems, and obviously it's not efficient.
Tessa: Glutes for sure. And building them up has been something I've worked very hard on the last few years. I'm not sure how I was a skater for over 10 years before and didn't use my glutes. I relied on so many other muscles instead, especially my calves, so my body had an odd pattern. I ended up needing a couple of surgeries [in 2008 and 2010 for chronic exertional compartment syndrome (CECS) in the shins and calves]. I overused them so I've worked hard to improve hip activation and core strength.
What exercises do you do?
Scott: We find ourselves doing a lot of old-school push-ups and planks, and varieties on these. Some people might think having massive biceps and chests is going to make you a great athlete, and it rarely does. You need a full, well-balanced training, and factor in as many muscle-group exercises as possible.
Tessa: One of my favourite things is sending our trainer videos of our new list for the season because she comes up with the craziest exercises, having us work with bungees and different things. If Scott and I are in the gym together, he might be lifting a barbell and I'll be using the bungee, and we're both working toward the same lift, but not with each other.
You have to be strong, but you don't want too much bulk. How do you use training to balance the grace of a dancer with the athleticism of a true athlete?
Scott: Obviously as a skater you can't afford to carry around weight. It's a four-minute sport and your body needs to work very efficiently because it's like doing a four-minute sprint. I guess it depends on your definition of strength. To me, when I watch a good dancer all I see is strength, always carrying their body correctly, and having the proper form that makes you strong. I might not be able to bench press 400 pounds, but I feel strong in my body. Proper mechanics helps me to lift Tessa faster and throw her higher.
Tessa: In addition to strength and conditioning, we do a lot of ballroom dance and ballet, which is nice because so much of our work is so structured around being functional. Sometimes you forget how good it feels to just move, to express, to make different shapes, and let your body be free. It's a great antidote to the structured training we do on ice because we really are doing the same movements over and over again.
Any tips on minimizing overuse injuries?
Tessa: Heading into the training cycle before the Vancouver games, Scott and I ramped up our training tenfold in a really short period of time, putting in 15-hour days of training. We thought more time meant we were training smarter and harder which would get us to the top. Instead, we burnt out. We've learned now to make effective use of our time on the ice, but also to get that recovery and let our bodies rest. There are always going to be peaks and valleys in training, but down time is important. We're so much smarter now. It's a message I want to share because I've lived through [the consequences of overuse] and it's not fun.
Scott: There are 1,000 different ways to get to your goal. We had to rewrap our heads around thinking if we stayed at the rink longer, we'd improve, and that's not always the case. Now we're training about five hours a day, breaking it up between morning and evening sessions. That break means we're much more focused and our bodies are ready to work harder because we've had the recovery time. Always adapting has helped us, and it's fun to find new solutions to get the same results. We're constantly playing with that and trying to figure out the best possible use of our time.
Do you meditate?
Tessa: Our trainer says it's important to have white-noise time. Time when you're not focused on anything, and that can mean watching a TV show, or doing breathing exercises. Anything that takes your mind off all the stress of competition. We have this breathing music our sports psychologist sent us and it's really calming.
Scott: Visualizing [your goal] is huge in our sport. We spend a lot of time on that. It's an important part of our training because by the time we get to our Olympic moment, we've already been there 1,000 times in our heads. So we know exactly how we're going to react.
Best cardiovascular workout?
Scott: The best thing is to skate. Easily the best cardiovascular is doing our intervals, doing our programs. When we do program run-throughs, back to back, nothing is harder than that because there is the performance side to it too. You can run yourself ragged in the gym but it's different to have to give everything you have into skating – and smile, smile, smile.
Tessa: We do a lot of tough interval work on the ice, and we find the two-minute mark is the toughest part in our programs because our energy systems are changing over. When I'm not on the ice, I do interval work on the bike or the elliptical, trying to mimic a four-minute routine. But it doesn't come close.
Do your faces ever get tired?
Scott: Luckily, we're trying to switch it up and having facial expressions that are a bit more relaxed and genuine. But there are days you get [to the rink] and you don't feel like smiling, and you have to find it in you to do so. In our sport, you have to draw the best out of yourself, no matter what.
This interview has been condensed and edited.