Hockey players want to be just as fast and as powerful late in a game as they were at the beginning of the game, so devising a proper conditioning protocol is a critical area for a strength and conditioning coach. Although the coach’s job is to help hockey players become stronger and faster, conditioning is also part of the job description. A proper conditioning program is an ongoing process.
Implementing a Conditioning Program
Conditioning for hockey has come a long way since off-ice methods were first implemented. There was a time when professional hockey players did next to nothing during the off-season in terms of training. Players would use the then four- to six-week training camps as the time to get in proper condition for the season. It wasn’t until the 1980s that hockey started to embrace off-ice training and testing protocols to help players improve. Exercise physiologists were consulted and asked to provide proper fitness protocols at a time when none existed. At first, the training was primarily aerobic, with long, steady-state rides on exercise bikes. The intention was to improve O2max. As a result, O2max became the universal method of assessing hockey conditioning for many years and is still used by many hockey teams and organizations at the professional and amateur levels.
Today, a strength and conditioning coach needs to understand how to design and implement conditioning sessions on a year-round basis. Conditioning programs should follow the principle of specificity to mimic the energy demands of hockey: Players need to train like they play. A shift lasts anywhere from 20 seconds to more than 80 seconds, depending on the player’s position and the situation on the ice. Players sit and recover for a few minutes, and the cycle repeats for the rest of the game, which also has two intermission periods (usually 15 to 18 minutes). During the third period, especially if the team is trailing by a goal or trying to protect a lead, the higher-skilled players will usually play more minutes. Therefore, these players may be on the ice for longer shifts, and they may be off the ice for less time. This is universal in hockey, regardless of the level. The only difference is the total time of the game - 60 minutes at the higher levels of hockey and 36 minutes or so at the lower levels.
The conditioning program needs to be implemented at the beginning of the off-season. As the preseason starts, the program transitions from primarily off-ice conditioning to more on-ice conditioning. Although the goal of the off-season conditioning program is to become a highly fit player, conditioning doesn’t stop when the regular season begins. The regular season is the time for players to maintain their conditioning so they can play at the highest level possible.
There are recommended conditioning drills for each part of the season - off-season, preseason, and in-season.
Off-Season Conditioning Drills
During the off-season, all conditioning methods are off-ice, or dryland. The beginning of this period is easier compared with later in the off-season. It is the time for players to get reacquainted with a more time-consuming and demanding training regimen without the use of sticks, skates, and pucks. It is also when running needs to be reintroduced at all levels of hockey. Running allows hockey players to extend their hips with their feet on the ground, which is important since they primarily train in skates with a flexed posture during the season. Their muscles need to be able to apply force through the ground and get to a lengthened state. This will help combat the in-season shortened hip flexion position that occurs over and over again with a large volume of skating.
Conditioning progresses from lower volume in terms of repetitions and distance covered to higher volume, which consists of more reps and distance covered. The athletes adapt to the stresses that the conditioning program imposes on the body. By the end of the off-season, players will be well conditioned for the start of the preseason phase, which consists of on-ice and off-ice training.
Off-season conditioning methods in Total Hockey Training include tempo running, slide-board intervals, and running shuttles.
Tempo running is a method of conditioning used throughout the off-season. It has been advocated by track and field and strength and conditioning coaches such as Charlie Francis, Al Vermeil, and Mike Boyle. Charlie Francis used tempo running with his track sprinters as a method of increasing work capacity and recovery. It builds the aerobic system without long, steady-state work to help enhance recovery for when the high-end anaerobic work is started.
The athlete starts in an athletic stance in a corner of the back of the end zone of a football or soccer field.
The athlete runs down the sideline until he reaches the opposite goal line or corner of the soccer field to complete 1 repetition. He walks across the goal line to the opposite sideline and then runs down the sideline to the back of the other end zone or corner of the soccer field to complete the next repetition. From there, he walks across the end zone until he reaches the opposite corner and starts the next repetition. Perform the prescribed number of reps.
Tempo running is at a good pace, neither jogging nor sprinting but somewhere in between, in the range of 75 to 85 percent of maximum speed. This drill can be successfully implemented in a group setting by having the athletes run down the sideline in single file and walk through the end zone in the same format.
Tempo running should be done one or two times per week throughout the off-season. There are two days of tempo running at the beginning, with a transition to one day when shuttle runs are introduced a few weeks into the program. These consist of running 110 yards or meters.
Hockey players need to be able to play in multiple directions. The slide board is a tool that helps athletes condition in the frontal plane, or side to side. Off-season training conditions the muscles used in skating, such as the hip adductors and abductors, to help the players prepare for a return to the ice. Being efficient on the slide board during the off-season can help a hockey player improve her conditioning while also mimicking the demands of skating as closely as possible.
Although the slide board is used for lateral conditioning during the off-season, it should rarely be used during the in-season phase with healthy players. Once the players return to the ice, the slide boards should be put away until the following off-season. (The exception is when the slide board is used in an in-season rehab setting for a player with an injury such as a groin or hip flexor strain.) Also, if a player decides he wants to resume skating during the off-season, the volume of slide-board conditioning should be dropped. The risk of overuse injuries should be minimized before the start of the preseason.
The athlete assumes a low center of gravity by sustaining a deep knee bend (see figure a).
The athlete is always in an athletic stance. He glides from side to side, eyes on the horizon, with the knees bent, hips back, and chest up. The emphasis is on the push-off (see figure b) and then the gliding phase of each slide-board repetition, all while staying low. Perform for the prescribed amount of time.
Previously mentioned strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle is a pioneer in regard to the slide board and its implementation into a strength and conditioning program. His work has been instrumental in guiding the slide-board programming process. Players use the slide board on Tuesdays and Fridays during phases 2 to 4 of the off-season program. During work intervals, the objective is to try to work as hard as possible once technique is established. The slide-board program starts with 30-second intervals and progresses to 45 seconds (defensemen) as the off-season goes along.