An Interview with Nelson Ayotte of the St. Louis Blues

In my continuing series of interviewing NHL strength and conditioning coaches, I was able to speak with Nelson Ayotte of the St. Louis Blues. Nelson has been working with the Blues for close to a decade, and he has also worked with a number of athletes from a wide variety of other sports during his time in the industry. His reputation as an industry leader is well-earned.

A big focus of his Nelson’s work is on the nutrition side of things, with a company called GenEthix. Our interview didn’t touch on nutrition as much as it did hockey training, but Nelson does a lot of work with his athletes to improve their performance through supplementation and nutritional guidance. GenEthix works with athletes through proper supplementation (multivitamins, as an example). Nelson recommends supplementing with omega-3’s (fish oil) above all else. And for good reason, too – here are the benefits:

  • Increases growth hormone levels (promotes muscle growth)
  • Heart protective (pre and post-heart attack)
  • Reduced blood clotting
  • Promote the sensitivity of the insulin (elimination of body fat)
  • Keep the hormonal system in balance
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Feed the brain
  • Joint protection

And he offers his take on the ever-growing issue of gluten allergies:

The caveman didn’t have access to gluten. Grains started to be cultivated only ten thousand years ago in Europe. The American had no gluten until they were introduced a few hundred years ago. The United States genetically modified the grain in order to add a higher percent of the wheat protein under the premise that it would feed a bigger population. The digestion of this protein was too wide of a step for our genes to follow. We went from hunter and gatherer to the industrial era expecting the body to genetically adapt right away to this type of protein. Countries that adopted the use of this genetically modified wheat show a direct correlation to inflammatory and auto-immune diseases! This may explain why grain sensitivities are so widespread nowadays. For all the reasons mentioned above, my advice to the players is to avoid as much as they can any products that contain gluten.

His Twitter feed is also a very good resource for fitness and nutrition information (@NelsonAyotte).

Angus: Nelson, thanks for taking the time to speak with me. You are involved with a wide variety of athletes. What is unique in terms of training a pro hockey player?

Being a strength and conditioning coach, I strongly believe that I am training a person, not a sport. No matter who you are, or which activity you want to be good at, you are as strong as your weakest link.  For instance, if you develop a problem with your lower back, it will have negatives repercussions on your overall performance, especially at the elite level. That being said, I’ve always found the easiest professional athletes to coach are hockey players.

Nelson working with former Blue Erik Johnson

What have been the biggest changes in hockey training since you have been working with the Blues?

The biggest change I have made is trying to not change too much. Training is training the muscle does know if he plays hockey, lacrosse or baseball… The muscles effectively perform a task, they are extensors or they are flexors.  Early on in my career (1989-1994) I was the first one to jump on the newest band wagon.  I was thinking: “ if it’s new, it must be better…” poor dumb me! I realized later on that I should be more careful at taking only what can be useful and ditch the rest.  Our trade is constantly trying to reinvent the wheel, we are bombarded by new systems or new exercises that promise us a Stanley Cup overnight.  My advice is stick with what bring you results do not make big changes if it works.

How was this summer different with the lockout on the horizon? 

Nothing, my job was to train the players like the season was starting on time.

What is your level of involvement with players during a typical off-season? How much influence does the team have on their training program compared to their own coaches/trainers?

I am pretty lucky to be with the St-Louis Blues, as the team wants the players to train here during their off-season.  Most players have started with me as soon as they are in their rookie season. I have the bulk of the players who train under my direct supervision. I have two programs, first for the resident athletes (players who stay all summer long in St-Louis) and second for the non-resident (players who fly in every month in order to get different phases of their personal program).

What is your athletic background? Has that helped you establish a relationship with the players you train?

Of course, I played hockey from 5 to 14 years old, then at the age of 14 I started training all year long for cross-country skiing and running (cross-country and track distances of 400, 800, 1500, and 3000m). When I joined the military at the age of 17 I competed in the biathlon until I was 24. This helped me greatly to understand what it means to live your sport, as you are an athlete 24/7. I have never asked any of the athletes that I coach to do something that I wasn’t ready to do or something that I have never done. To this day I am still lifting and running, I think when the players see you train they keep a better respect for you.

What level of nutritional guidance do you offer the players? This holds true for hockey players as well. How do you make sure they are eating properly?

The Blues believe that it is a big part in the performance of our players.  They let me handle 100% of this aspect.  On the road, I am the one that prepares the menu on the plane and at the hotel. At home I’m in charge of the breakfast every single morning and I also have to take care of the post-practice and post-game meals. Good food will not make you perform above your potential, but bad food will for sure diminish your performance.

Vitamins and minerals are the foundation of a proper nutrition and supplement regiment.  Our current nutrition intake is depleted of these micro-nutrients due to the decreasing quality of our food supply and busy lifestyles. Even though the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA’s) are updated regularly, the recommendations have never considered what an optimum level consists of. Our company has decided to create high-level supplements because we have yet to find anything on the market that we were 100% confident to prescribe to athletes who are tested banned substances regularly.

Generally, how does in-season training differ from off-season training? 

In-season, my role is to support the St-Louis Blues organization as a whole. I have to give the best service I can to the head coach and his coaching staff. This is the head coach’s call not mine. I can provide advice but contrary to the off-season, the final decision is not mine.

In-season I have to make sure that the players keep what they’ve acquired during the summer, otherwise it doesn’t make sense. Why would you train all summer and lose it all during the season? My job is to make sure every single player stays on top of his overall fitness level all winter long.

In your time with the Blues, who have been some of the fittest players you have worked with?

Not the easiest guy to win a puck battle against.

I was very fortunate to work with great players like Al MacInnis, Doug Weight, Chris Pronger, Paul Kariya, Andy MacDonald, Barrett Jackman, and Jay McClement to name a few. To this day in hockey, I have never seen anybody who is as strong and powerful as Roman Polak. This guy is the ultimate physical machine, he is awesome to work with. I’ve tried methods on him than few athletes could sustain.

I am really proud of the overall fitness level of our team, all the credit goes to the players they are the one that put the long hours in the gym.

Interesting note on Polak. His gym feats are quite impressive. Thanks for taking the time to talk, Nelson.

Nelson’s reputation as a top level coach is well-earned, to say the least.

He is recognized as one of the top sports performance training coaches in the world and is a level five of the National Canadian Coaching Program which is the highest level. Out of one million coaches, only 76 have finished the program since 1974. Ayotte has been chosen as Canadian coach of the year in 1998, Quebec coach of the year in 1998, 1999 and 2000. He also won the Canadian Military Land Forces Coach of the year in 2002.

Again, check his website out here (GenEthix), and give him a follow on Twitter  (@NelsonAyotte).

Other NHL strength and conditioning interviews: