Training to be a Hockey Player: The Balancing Act
When I think back to when I was 18 years old, I had just finished my first year of Junior ‘A’, playing for the Waywayseecappo Wolverines of the MJHL. After a rough season of 17 wins and 45 losses, we all went in for our exit meetings and were handed an off-season training program. I always prided myself on my conditioning as a player; mostly because I had to make up for my lack of skill somehow! Regardless, I was very excited about the training plan and couldn’t wait to start following it. Knowing what I know now, there were some good things I was doing in training and there were some questionable things, but what I remember most about that program was the very first page, which gave a general overview of the off-season plan.
After a few paragraphs explaining some terminology and how the summer would be periodized, it had a cartoon drawing of a big muscled up, body building type of dude and next to that, a drawing of a scrawny, long distance runner type of dude. The message was that training like a body builder may get you some mass that you want, but in turn you will be neglecting much of the energy system development you need for the sport. Similarly, if you train like an endurance athlete, you may have incredible stamina, but completely lack the musculoskeletal properties that are key for a successful hockey player. You need to have a balance between aerobic fitness, anaerobic fitness, musculoskeletal fitness (strength, power, endurance, flexibility/mobility), and body composition. This balance was something that was labelled as important in the training program I received many years ago… and low and behold I still consider this highly important as a strength and conditioning coach today.
What got me thinking about this idea of balance was talking with a few people about VO2 max scores in hockey players. Everyone wants to know what is good, because when someone spits out a number that is in millilitres per kilogram per minute (ml/kg/min) it won’t mean much to a person with limited knowledge in exercise physiology! To put VO2 Max numbers into perspective for a male aged 18-25, a score of 30 or lower would be considered very poor, 43-48 would be average, and over 50 would be good. The highest score ever recorded in a male athlete is 97.5, measured from cyclist Oskar Svendsen; in female athletes it is distance runner Joan Benoit at 78.6. Whenever I have been involved with VO2 Max testing in hockey players, we consider a score of below 50 as unacceptable, 50-54 as good, 55-59 as very good, and 60-65 as excellent.
In my opinion, a score of over 65 will be of no added benefit to a hockey player and possibly have negative effects on their game. My reasoning for this is that the training regime used to get a player to this level of aerobic fitness has most likely neglected some of the other fitness parameters that are important for success in hockey, including muscular strength and power. This is where the idea of balance comes into play and should always be considered when planning the off-ice training for hockey players.
Since we are in the midst of hockey season right now, let’s consider this idea of balance for an in-season training program. The main goal of most in-season training programs is maintenance of the fitness parameters that were gained in the off-season, but this will vary depending on the individual. If we take a typical player in Bantam/Midget hockey, they will usually have 2 practices and 1-2 games every week. There are a number of ways you could strike a good balance with your training in this situation, depending on the time and facilities you have available. What I would prescribe is to do 2 days of weight training each week and one day of conditioning. With the weight training, I find it best for most athletes to focus on strength for one month; then power for one month and continuously rotate through those two focusses throughout the season. From a conditioning standpoint, I usually find that aerobic intervals are a player’s best bet for extra work. This is because games and practices will be where you get more than enough stress delivered to your anaerobic energy systems, leaving your aerobic energy system needing the extra attention.
The way you approach the off-season will be even more individualized than at any other time of the year, but the right balance is still of the utmost importance and this all lies in how you periodize the athletes’ training scheme. I can’t for the life of me remember where I heard this quote, but “no athlete has ever won anything for being the best conditioned in the off-season.” Now don’t get me wrong; there is a time in the off-season when a hockey player needs to ramp up their conditioning, but this can be done during the last month of the summer leading up to training camp. So I guess a better way to end that quote would be to say, “early off-season.” In the early months of the off-season, I will usually prescribe 2 days/week of conditioning, in the mid off-season it will be 2-3 days/week, and then in the final month of the off-season, conditioning will be included on every training day. The primary focus, early, will be aerobic fitness and then the conditioning sessions will transition into more of a mix of aerobic and anaerobic fitness, mid-summer, and then near the end of the off-season, anaerobic energy systems will be stressed slightly more than the aerobic energy system.
For weight training, I find that the majority of my athletes have set their main goals as becoming stronger and faster. For these players I will start with a focus on strength and then transition them into power, and depending on the length of the off-season, I will continuously cycle them between these focuses until we reach near the end of the off-season. This is very similar to the approach identified for in-season weight training, but the off-season is obviously much more demanding in volume, intensity, and frequency. For the final month of the off-season, I always implement a training phase that I title Pre-Camp; where the major goals are to transform the players strength and power gains into on-ice ability, as well as increase their work capacity for the grind of training camps.
That’s all for now! Stay tuned for my next post, which will go more in depth as to what 4 physiological variables make up the complete player. If you are interested in receiving your own personalized strength and conditioning program, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time.