No Ice? No Problem!
Steve Myrland is a conditioning and performance coach and the manager of Beacon Athletics in Middleton, Wis. He is the former Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Wisconsin and for the San Jose Sharks.
Training & Conditioning, 14.7, October 2004, http://www.momentummedia.comEven at first glance, the physical demands of ice hockey are easy to observe. The combination of speed, agility, strength, reaction, and stamina required to succeed is matched by few other sports. While training an athlete for these varying demands presents an obvious challenge for a strength and conditioning coach, there’s another challenge that is even more difficult to address: Except at the highest levels of the game, much of the off-season strength and conditioning work must be done off ice.
Obviously, athletic performance training that is removed from the actual competitive venue can quickly become a frustrating process. Yet, as in other sports, the exercises and drills you employ for ice hockey players must transfer to the game. If the exercises you use off the ice do not produce results on the ice, you are not only wasting everybody’s time, you may also be increasing the chance of injury.
So, how do you train effectively off ice for an on-ice game? The answer lies in mimicking the demands and movements of the sport as closely as possible in dry-land environments. We do this by emphasizing the movements that make up hockey’s elemental skills and training in short bursts of high-intensity work with limited recovery time between sets, which matches the work patterns players will face in games.
In developing training programs for hockey players, I have leaned heavily on the work and teachings of Jack Blatherwick, a physiologist, teacher, and genuine coach. His insights into making hockey training relevant have benefited a generation of players and form the foundation for this article.
What It Takes
The important elements of hockey are fairly easy to list. They include:
The key to prioritizing this list is progression. Strength is the necessary underpinning of balance, power, speed, and agility. For younger players especially, any improvement in strength will support improvement in all other bio-motor qualities.
I have left endurance for last because you have to develop strength and all the other bio-motor qualities before you can work on sustaining them. You can build a really nice eight-week endurance program, but it won’t help your athletes be strong, and they won’t have power, speed, or agility. You’ll be building a weak player who can stay on the ice longer, but who will likely be stuck on the bench watching the stronger, more powerful players get all the ice time.
For many years, dry-land training consisted of long runs that were thought to help players develop the endurance they needed to perform well in the third period of a game. But nobody goes out and skates for 30 continuous minutes during a hockey game. Thus, long-distance running doesn’t build hockey players. Instead, we develop hockey-specific endurance through the same exercises that develop strength, balance, power, speed, and agility.
Get A Leg Up
In terms of strength training, since the underlying skill required of all hockey players is skating, I focus our efforts on improving lower-body strength. This is not to say that we ignore the upper body, but players usually don’t need as much prompting to do bench presses as they do to develop their core and their legs.
Nearly all movement in hockey (skating, stopping, turning, shooting, checking) results from a weight-shift from one leg to the other. Ignac Kavets, a Slovenian hockey player and coach, once watched a group of my college players struggling to perform one-legged squats at a hockey camp. He stared, unimpressed, as one after another wobbled about in an attempt to perform a few repetitions.
Finally, he shook his head impatiently, and promptly did a set of 20 perfect reps on each leg. When he finished, he turned to me and said, "You must never forget, my friend, that hockey is a game that is played with the legs, legs, legs!" I could only nod. Point taken: My off-ice program had missed the mark.
I have learned that players must be able to produce and reduce force—with balance and control—on one leg. Two-legged exercises, such as squats and squat-jumps certainly play an important part in developing hockey-specific strength and power. But proficiency at single-legged movements must be a priority. (For an example of a series of single-leg squat exercises, see "Shark Legs" below.)
In addition, we have found a direct correlation between a player’s vertical jump and his or her performance on the ice. The higher their vertical jump, the faster they skate. So any exercise or program that increases vertical jump will improve on-ice performance. This also makes vertical jump an easy and quick way to test an athlete’s progress when ice is not available.
When training speed, the natural tendency is to train a skater like you would a sprinter. This tactic is okay, as long as you understand how sprinting correlates to skating and how it does not.
Sprinting is most similar to skating in the acceleration phase. In both running and skating, you want to train for long ground-contact times and explosive leg drive to maximize acceleration. Up-hill and soft-sand sprints work well because they emphasize ground contact and transfer well to the ice.
However, sprinting is quite different than skating when it comes to stride length. In sprinting, stride length is maximized by increasing flight time with a corresponding decrease in ground-contact time. Ground contact is long only during acceleration, and shortens as a runner gathers momentum and elevates to an efficient, hips-tall posture.
For skaters, minimizing ground-contact time is not a factor. Because skaters glide and ice barely inhibits momentum, there is no reason to concentrate on decreasing ground-contact time. Instead, for hockey players, the key to increasing stride length is focusing on a low center of gravity.
In hockey, stride length is a function of knee-bend, pure and simple. Keeping the center of gravity as low as possible allows a player to take advantage of the greatest possible stride length, while maintaining balance and control needed in the chaotic, high-speed environment of the game. Effective play becomes virtually impossible as soon as a skater’s posture becomes too upright. Thus, all exercises must be performed with a knee-bent posture to be effective in building hockey strength.
Stride length is also influenced by the direction of the force of the movement. In hockey, players move their feet and legs to the side. Therefore, we need to emphasize deep triple-flexion at the ankle, knee, and hip, followed by an explosive triple extension where the force is directed to the side.
The Russian box is an ideal tool to train this deep flexion-extension movement. Athletes progress from short side-to-side bounds on platforms angled at 26 degrees to significantly longer bounds as their strength and power develops.
Landings should be light, in control, and balanced. When you hit the ground, the ground hits you back, and ultimately the ground is undefeated. If you encounter the ground violently, you can expect a violent result. It’s going to beat up your ankles, the soles of your feet, your joints, and your back.
Stress to athletes the importance of attenuating impact when doing exercises like the Russian box. When bounding off the left leg, for example, if they come down with the right leg tucked up close to their body, they’re going to hit like an airplane that hasn’t put down its landing gear. Instead, they should extend the right leg and hit the ground as softly as they can by gradually applying the brakes—to touch the ground and then gently absorb their weight. This will help exaggerate the knee bend and by the time they bring themselves to a stop, they’ll be at full triple flexion.
Slide boards are another great training tool for developing the strength to maintain good skating posture, with the added benefit of affording the opportunity to learn about the role of the arms in skating. We might have athletes do 12 to 20 really long, strong strides using a forceful glide, making a strong recovery, and maintaining optimal skating posture throughout. As soon as players compromise any of those things, they’re done. Maybe this means only doing 10 strides at first and building up to 20, but they all must be performed with the right form or they’re not worth doing. Note that we are strengthening here, not conditioning.
The length of the board, and thus of the stride, should be adjustable from eight to 12 feet. The length you use will be determined by the age, size, and ability level of the player you are training. Lengthen the board only when players can demonstrate that they have developed the power to project themselves fully from one side to the other while maintaining good posture throughout.
Perhaps the most pernicious phrase in all of hockey performance training is "aerobic base." It may be comforting to believe that spending an hour jogging, or performing any other low-intensity activity, will benefit athletes in a game, but it won’t. Hockey does not reward those who can go slowly for long periods of time—it rewards those who can go fast, and then recover quickly to do so again.
You should train like you play because you play like you train. And since hockey is a game of pure physical intensity, training with anything less is simply preparing to lose.
Fortunately, the game provides clear guidelines for setting correct levels of training intensity for off-ice work. Let’s do the math: A period in a hockey game lasts 20 minutes, or 1,200 seconds. Assuming that an average playing shift lasts 40 seconds means there are 30 shifts per period. Most teams cycle three units of players into the game regularly, so players must be able to perform consistently on a 1:2 work-to-rest ratio where the duration of the work is around 40 seconds, and the intensity of the work is generally high.
Highly skilled players will find that their work-to-rest ratio in games rises toward 1:1 and sometimes beyond. When the team is behind in the final period or the game is tied, the coach will shorten the bench to keep the best players on the ice as much as is practicable. Good players will want to be on the ice in these situations, so they must prepare to play at maximum intensity on minimum rest. Table One and Table Two, below, show some examples of intervals to help condition players while also improving their strength and power.
The same interval idea can apply to other exercise modes, including a slide board or in-line skates. Jumping rope is another effective way to improve hockey conditioning as it also improves the ability to coordinate the hands, eyes, and feet, and teaches players to strike the ground lightly and softly.
Regardless of the specific exercise used, the idea is to work at hockey intensity for progressively increasing periods separated by relatively short recovery periods. After 30 seconds or so, the ability to maintain an effective skating posture will begin to break down, so it’s important to train players to be as powerful as possible for that short period and to recover quickly so they’ll be ready for the next shift.
The "Shark Legs" program can help hockey players develop the single-leg strength needed to succeed on the ice. Athletes should stay as low and well balanced as possible throughout the entire exercise.
One-leg squat and hold: Lower yourself into the "down" position of the one-leg squat and hold your balance in that position for five seconds. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other foot.
One-leg squat and stride out (skater’s strides): Lower yourself into a one-leg squat and extend the raised leg laterally without changing your upper-body position. Hold for a five-count. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other foot.
One-leg squat and rotation: Lower yourself into a one-leg squat and rotate the raised knee out and back (like it is a gate swinging open) without changing your upper-body position. Hold for a five-count. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other foot.
One-leg squat and skater’s circles: Lower yourself into a one-leg squat and make five giant circles with the toe of your raised leg, barely touching the floor.
One-leg squat and skater’s kicks: Lower yourself into a one-leg squat and kick your raised foot forward and backward, full extending your leg five times in each direction.
Traditions are a big part of what makes ice hockey great. But when it comes to training hockey players, some traditions are best left behind.
Chief among those are long-distance running, skating, and biking, which do little to help players get into hockey shape. Another long-time dry-land training favorite is wall sits (players simply stand with their backs against the wall and slide down until their thighs are parallel to the ground and hold that position for as long as possible). Wall sits make the legs burn, to be sure. But they create an "artificial" strength that does not transfer to the ice, in part because balance is taken out of the equation. As kinesiologist Roger Eischens explains, "You can’t strengthen anything effectively while you are simultaneously supporting it."
A more recent addition to dry-land training would appear to be much more effective for training hockey players, but it has become greatly overused. In-line skating is similar enough to ice skating that there’s a temptation to view the two as the identical. But ice hockey is about starting, stopping, changing directions, and accelerating. In-line skating is about making good circles. If an ice hockey player is circling, he or she is taking the path of least resistance, and at the higher levels, that path usually leads to the bench.
In addition, many players like to go for long in-line skates, which do little to help skating strength since optimal skating posture breaks down after 20 or 30 seconds. In-line skating can be used, however, as a conditioning alternative, as long as it’s confined to interval training using tight, high-speed turns from an always-improving, strong, hips-low posture. Players should always carry a hockey stick during their in-line intervals.
Table One: Sprint Intervals
The following is an example of extensive tempo sprint intervals. They should be performed at the specified pace, followed by an equal rest time. For example, an advanced-level athlete should run 50 yards and back in 18 seconds followed by an 18-second rest before continuing with the set. Have athletes rest two minutes between sets.
Distance (and back) -Beginner --Intermediate --Advanced
50 yards x 6 ------------20 sec. ----19 sec.-------18 sec.
40 yards x 8 ------------17 sec. ----16 sec. -------15 sec.
30 yards x 10 -----------14 sec. ----13 sec. -------12 sec.
20 yards x 12 -----------11 sec. ----10 sec. --------9 sec.
Table Two: Interval Sets
The following lists samples of different interval plans that can be used for a variety of exercises, including slide board, in-line skating, and jumping rope. When jumping rope, "fast" intervals can include tricks, double-jumps, lateral movements—anything to raise the physical and mental demand. Each plan should be preceded by a three-minute warm up at an easy pace. Plan D is best done in pairs, with one partner timing the other for a minute before switching roles.
10 sec. -------50 sec.
12 sec. -------48 sec.
15 sec ------- 45 sec.
20 sec. -------40 sec.
30 sec. -------30 sec.
(Repeat 2-3 times)
20 sec. -------1:40
24 sec. -------1:36
30 sec. -------1:30
40 sec. -------1:20
60 sec. -------1:00
(Repeat 2 times)
30 sec. -------90 sec.
30 sec. -------60 sec.
30 sec. -------30 sec.
(Repeat 3-5 times)
60 (sec.) easy
30 easy/30 fast
20 fast/20 easy/20 fast
15 easy/15 fast/15 easy/15 fast
10 easy/10 fast x 3 reps
5 easy/5 fast x 6 reps
15 easy/15 fast/15 easy/15 fast
30 easy/30 fast
Skipping cool-down (easy, relaxed)