Specificity of Off-Ice Fitness Testing and Strength and Conditioning in Elite Male Hockey Players: A review and Personal Interpretation of Current Practices
Dr. Gallo and Dr. Mosher
Kinesiology 585 Coaching Science- Coaching Manual
December 20th, 2011
University of British Columbia
Table of Contents
1.1- An overview of the demands of the sport………………………………p.3-4
1.2- Concerns unique to its transferability from gym to ice …………………..p.5
1.3- An overview of current spectrum of practices that are accepted
for training ………………………………………………………………..p.6-8
2. Briefly describes the pros, cons, and concerns that I have with current practices:
2.1- Using steady-state endurance training to build an “Aerobic Base”?..................p. 9-12
2.2- Using Maximal Oxygen Update (VO2max) scores as predictor ice hockey performance……………………………………………………………………………..p. 12-14
3. “My 2 cents” and future considerations…………………………………………p. 14-16
Ingrained within the Canadian culture is a passionate devotion for the game of ice hockey. Be it parents buying skates for their 2 year-old prodigies, possibly sacrificing their financial security, or the endless 5:30 am practices, our commitment to the sport is relentless.
Due to the “competitiveness” of sport at all levels and ages, off-season fitness testing and strength and conditioning has truly become a vital part of the game. The days of going into training camp 30 pounds overweight and out of shape with their golf clubs on their back from a summer off are as far gone as the days of helmetless players. In 1988, Montgomery observed that elite hockey players displayed a muscle fibre composition similar to untrained individuals. These players are non-existent in today’s game, as these fitness levels would likely not lead to a spot on the roster.
Despite the reality that sport training regimes have evolved, concerns and difficulties still exist in the implementation of efficient off-season strength and conditioning programs, as well as determining transferable off-ice testing measures that reflect performance in game-like situations.
In my coaching manual, I will not attempt to “solve” the issues that currently perplex the hockey world. Rather, I hope to delve into the demands and needs of the game, while reviewing and interpreting “current practices” as they relate to recent research, in order to maximize my understanding of fitness testing and strength and conditioning implementation in the sport. I hope to accomplish this by providing a brief overview of the demands of the sport, concerns unique to its transferability from the land to ice surface, and an overview of some current strengths and conditioning practices currently accepted at the elite level. Furthermore, I will challenge, via a research analysis, some controversial concerns in current practice within the sport. Lastly, I will review my own practices with current strength and conditioning.
1.1- Brief overview of the demands of the sport
Ice hockey is a sport of power and grit with high speeds and collision. As I understand, grit can possibly be defined as pushing oneself to the maximum effort and determination. However, Reilly et al. (2009) stress the complexity of interpreting the demands of team sports due to the, “multidirectional high intensity movements interspersed with medium- and low-intensity episodes with and without the ball repeated over long periods in a semi-stochastic fashion” (p. 576). Further, the authors state that positional and tactile roles must be considered, as well as the type of surface in which the sport is played (Reilly et al., 2009). Hence, the bioenergetics and demands of ice hockey cannot be analyzed in such a simplistic fashion.
What has been reasonably established is the contribution of the phosphagen (alactic) and anaerobic energy systems for the powerful nature of the sport, with the aerobic energy system contributing more so to over-extended shift lengths and for efficient recovery.
Balance, agility and core strength have been acceptable skill acquisitions for ice hockey due to the decreased friction of the skating surface, frequent change of direction and elevation and the decoupling of upper and lower body, respectively (Twist, 2007). With the nature of battling for loose pucks, high impact checking, shots ramping up to 100 MPH, and 3-4 second explosive skating strides, it is obvious that strength and power are keystones to success in the sport. As well, Jack Blatherwick (Hockey USA-Exercise physiologist) believes that rink “sense” is vital for success in this dynamic game.
Peter Twist (2007) has broken down the individual demands of the sport simplistically, yet with clarity.
Balance and Posture
Skating mechanics, low and long stride, edge control
Deceleration and Acceleration
First Step quickness, stopping ability, change of speed
Top-end speed, stride power
Multi-Directional Movement Skill
Efficiency of the tight turn, pivot, x-over, stop and start
Offensive creativity and defensive reactivity
Linked System Strength and Power
Strength on and off puck
Shooting and pivoting power
Hockey specific conditioning
Closed Kinetic Chain Core Strength
Strong on skates
Recovery / Regeneration
Flexibility, joint mobility, myo-fascial release
Figure 1-Twist conditioning core elements of the hockey training system
1.2 - Concerns unique to its transferability from gym to ice
Hockey is a unique sport in itself. Ice hockey is played on an ice surface, which has a significantly decreased frictional force relative to most surfaces. Also, players are dressed in a large amount of protective gear and carry a hockey stick, with their skate blades providing significantly decreased ground contact relative to they typical training shoes or cleats. Furthermore, the biomechanics of skating and the decoupling of upper and lower limbs (due to stick handing and shooting) differentiate its movement patterns from that of running/sprinting. Based on the examples above, it is clear that the issue of attaining transferable gains between off-ice strength and conditioning and game performance is a complicated one. Many respond by prescribing specific movement patterns, while others believe that training to be more powerful and athletic will transfer regardless of the sport. Hence, the realm of exercise prescription for the sport is both wide-ranging and often counterintuitive.
Ice hockey is further distinctive in the manner in which participation occurs. It involves a unique “change on the fly” style of play, where players battle for 20-60+ second shifts with changes occurring during the play or in between whistles. Changes are frequent, yet the variability between the length and frequency of shifts, as well as the time between the shifts played varies significantly by the position, role, and skill level of the players. Also, recovery periods are further unpredictable by “television time-outs”, the flow of the game (amount of stoppages, penalties etc), and the intermission between periods. Recovery periods for the athletes range significantly, and the work:rest ratio often fluctuates from 1:1 to a roughly estimated 1:60+. Thus, we must consider many factors when creating conditioning programs for different hockey players.
Evidently, finding transferable off-ice/laboratory measures of game performance is one of great difficulty. Research regarding certain predictors of ice hockey performance, such as “cornerability” and skating speed, can provide a vital light on these important components of the game. However, by using the draft status as an indicator of overall ice hockey performance, Vesovi et al. (2006) determined that off-ice tests could not accurately predict ice hockey playing ability in an elite group of athletes. Furthermore, variables indicated as a possible rationale for these findings included homogeneity of the combined participants, a lack of validity of the tests, and other factors (such as on-ice hockey skills, psychological variables etc…) that play a role in a draft selection (Vesovi et al. 2006). Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest hockey player of all time, was notoriously poor in off-ice testing scores. With further investigation, perhaps having the ability to find better and more reliable testing protocols and indicators related to performance can help to development a more relevant and reliable physiological profile for hockey players.
1.3 - An overview of current spectrum of practices that are accepted for training
Many strength and Conditioning specialists and exercise physiologists believe that they are able to offer the “best” way to train for the sport of hockey. However, the varieties of which these individuals prescribe and implement their programs differ immensely in theories and focus. With this diverse spectrum of training philosophies, how do we decipher whose is the best?
Jack Blatherwick, a Ph.D in exercise physiology, is a well-respected strength and conditioning coach with USA hockey and several NCAA and NHL hockey teams. Having worked under the former Soviet system, Jack sits on one extreme of the training spectrum. He believes in ‘raising the comfort zone’ through overspeed training (combining skills with explosive athletic movements for nervous system development and plasticity) and techniques, such as post activation potentiation. He is a firm believer of sports specificity, as he states “The more training looks and feels like the movement in your sport the better it transfers to competition” (Blatherwick, n.d., p.2). Jack takes into account range of motion, speed of motion, multi-tasking, unpredictability, read/react, coordination, balance, agility, endurance, metabolism, gender and age (Blatherwick, n.d.). His philosophy of training is “Thinking outside the barrel”. This is accomplished by integrating more athleticism into strength workouts by turning weight rooms into “gymnasiums with highly athletic movement everywhere” (p.3), by having all lower body and core workouts simulate skating practice, as well as incorporating multi-tasking skills in off-ice training (Blatherwick, n.d.). Jack believes that strength coaches should become coaches of synergy in athletic movement, and that the synergy of skills, rink sense, and athleticism should be the goal for all training.
Aligned with Dr. Blatherwick, be it less extreme, is Peter Twist. Having spent 11 years as a strength and conditioning coach and exercise physiologist for the Vancouver Canucks, Peter is a very successful business owner and has extensive work experience with professional athletes and developing young elite athletes. Twist Conditioning has built what they consider “its own unique system of training” in which the focus is on training movement, not muscle (Twist, 2007). Peter wants his athletes to develop efficient, quick, powerful, deceptive, and confident movement abilities that will translate into increased sport skills, tactics, and overall performance (Twist, 2007). According to his camp brochure testimonial, “Each year Peter Twist creates new innovative exercises that produce even better on-ice performance” (Twist, 2007). Integrated into their programming includes parachute-resisted skating/dryland and Bosu ball training for balance, as it is meant to increase the specificity of training for ice hockey. Mr. Twist refers to training with specificity because, “Neural adaptations are involved in strength training”, and thus the muscular and neural systems feeding the muscle must be developed together, specific to game demands so as to learn how to meet those demand (Twist, 2007). Thus, he believes that training must be as specific to the requirements of the sporting action as possible so that the training effect is transferred to the sport movement (Rhodes and Twist, 1993).
At the international level, Mike Boyle is considered one the pioneers and top experts of the strength and conditioning and sports performance in the training world. He is also known for challenging the reasoning behind certain training prescriptions, which makes him both popular and despised depending on whom you ask. Over the past 30 years, he has worked with several professional athletes and teams including the US Women’s Olympic teams in soccer and ice hockey, the Boston Bruins, the Boston Breakers and the New England Revolution. He is also the head strength and conditioning coach for the powerhouse ice hockey program at Boston University. He is more of a traditionalist in his training philosophy, as he believes that, “working on a solid athletic foundation will pay huge dividends down the road” (Boyle, 2011). Stating that the best methods to develop speed and power are somewhat universal, Boyle understands that some sports require more strength and power than others, but the way you build it does not change (Boyle, 2011). He emphasizes the importance of avoiding certain exercises for a given athlete, rather than having specific ones for a given athlete. However, for a sport like hockey, challenges exist in adding exercises to alleviate common problems, rather than subtracting exercises that exacerbate it. Specifically, Mr. Boyle has his hockey players add hip mobility drills and stretches to improve internal rotation (Boyle, 2011). He is also a big proponent of slide board interval training for adductor and abductor strengthening and conditioning specific to hockey, however he uses it for all of his athletes.
Joe McCullum is the final strength and conditioning coach to be reviewed. Also a challenger of the “status quo”, Joe is a very well respected local professional with Level 10 Fitness. Joe has worked extensively with national programs and professional athletes, and even more so at the development level. Relatively speaking, he is a traditionalist in nature, specifically focused on fundamental movements, techniques, and progressions of exercise prescription (McCullum, 2010). Rather than focusing on what exercises may maximize a sporting performance, he is concerned with what exercises may maximize an individual’s performance. Hence, his saying, “What works for one works for one” (McCullum, 2010). Joe believes that sport specificity is not just about training certain movement patterns because they look like something you do in sport, but rather Joe focuses on the progression of skills, adding increased difficulty as abilities increase (McCullum, 2010). He states, “Shouldn't everyone's training be specific? From the position of strength and conditioning coaches, before we worry about specificity we must ensure that an athlete has the ability to do basic movements and do them well before we worry about a sport specific movement” (McCullum, 2010). His definition of sport specificity includes, “addressing the athlete's goals, needs, ability, strength and weakness in order to decrease the chance of injury and most importantly; increase performance…Either way, progressions should be put in place with the end result being able to execute movement's specific to your sport” (McCullum, 2010).
The success of the four strength and conditioning coaches discussed above is not in question, yet their modes of philosophical implementation of strength and conditioning strategies vary drastically. Thus, how do we decipher whose training philosophy is the best? Perhaps, an absolute truth does not exist. More likely, these individuals execute their programming strategically and effectively with highly athletic individuals under the right circumstances. Is it the program the athlete “likes” or the one they “hate”? Compliance and dedication must have roots in perceived benefits. By in large, these are highly motivated and driven individuals who need to be professionally guided, not herded, into the right direction. Either way, they must all be doing something right, and we must respect the “method to the madness” that has driven them to success.
It is evident that the definitions and the use of the term “sports specificity” differ drastically depending on whom you ask. Like the terms “core training” and “muscle confusion”, the definition of sports specificity is vague and open to interpretation. While often used as a manner in which to train for skill acquisition related to performance, mimicking movement patterns of a given sport, and as evidence for specific exercise prescription, sport specificity is also integrated into marketing ploys, selling gimmicks and the uniqueness of a training facility, and as the answer to the common question, “what is the best way to train for hockey?” In actuality, I believe that it is a manner in which we attempt to maximize performance and understand the complexity of periodization and programming, especially for a sport that exhibits such unnatural movement patterns, such as ice hockey. We must not be fooled to think that a “golden key” standard of strength and conditioning exists; this is exemplified by the success of the four philosophically different trainers above. Joe McCullum (2010) sums it up very well by stating, “Build a base, or try to mimic movements seen in the field of play. At the end of the day, power is power and strength is strength and if you don't have the ability to transfer both to better you in sport the exercise selection you choose doesn't really matter anyways.”
2. Briefly describe Pros, Cons, and Concerns that I have with current practices:
2.1- Should we use aerobic endurance training to build an “Aerobic Base”?
Ice hockey has been primarily deemed as a physical and power based sport. In terms of its bioenergetics contribution, it is roughly estimated that the ATP-PCR, anaerobic and aerobic conditions, and aerobic conditions contribute 60%, 20%, and 20%, respectively (Gallo, 2011). In general, the successes of these explosive activities depend on speed/turn-over rate, recovery rate (P-Cr resynthesis and lactic acid clearance), high economy/efficiency/technique, and high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers (Gallo, 2011). However, the demands of an event do not equal the physiological aspects of that event (Reilly et al. 2009).
In a literature review conducted by Tomlin and Wenger (2001), it was concluded that aerobic fitness enhances recovery from high intensity intermittent exercise through increased aerobic response, improved lactate removal and enhanced PCr regeneration. The need of an aerobic system may not always seem evident given the nature of sprint-intervals; however in reviewing the theoretical research pertaining to repeated high intensity intervals with different recovery durations, the aerobic contribution becomes further evident.
Energy System Contribution Table- Appendix A
A strong argument can be made for the development of every energy system when comparing the repetitions of sprint intervals to the number of shifts taken in a hockey game (Appendix A). However, of great importance in making inferences are the work-to-rest ratios of concern. As previously stated, the number and duration of shifts taken by a player differs significantly depending on many variables including skill level, position, and the role of a player. Montegomery (1988) observed that each shift for a player last 30-80 seconds with 4 to 5 minutes of recovery between shifts. However, the current level of elite ice hockey has become more powerful and physically demanding. John Cuniff, former head coach of the New Jersey Devils, accurately estimated that within a given hockey game, a player averaged 7 shifts of approximately 45 seconds per 20 minute period (Boyle, 2006). Within a given shift, it was estimated to include series of 3 to 5 second sprints. With 20 minute periods realistically 40+ minutes in length, intermissions of 16-18 minutes between periods, and the average television slot for a game from start-finish around 2.5 hours, the variability and need for immediate recovery is player dependent. Player position is also an important consideration, as defensive players are prone to getting more ice time; in the 2010-2011 season, 57 of the top 60 average time on ice/game were defensemen. NHL statistics calculated the lowest and highest average time on ice/game for defensemen and forwards at 2:43-24:17 and 3:04-22:33, respectively. Though the number of games played varied significantly for the players, the variables surrounding the average shift, and thus the resulting work:rest ratios, evidently makes the argument of bioenergetics far more complex.
So how should we build our aerobic fitness levels? In 1993, Twist and Rhodes stated that, “Athletes need to develop a good aerobic base on which to build quality work. Aerobic power is a supply and recovery system, while he needs a strong aerobic base before he can pursue more intense training” (p.11). Furthermore, a hockey player needs a strong aerobic base before he can pursue more intense training, and that he cannot train anaerobically without a strong aerobic base. The reasoning for a strong “aerobic base” is supported by its contribution during the less intense efforts, its vital contribution to recovery and fatigue resistance, and to enable athletes to train harder so they can develop speed, strength, and skill (Twist and Rhodes, 1993, p.11). Conceptually, the aerobic base represents the base of a cardiovascular pyramid model of training. Thus, the moderate intensity and steady-state aerobic intervals, which represents the aerobic base, build the foundation on which quality higher intensity training (anaerobic, %) intervals can be completed. Though the processes used to build an “aerobic base” have been largely accepted since the early 1990s, research and rebuttals validating the manner in which this theoretical model is “built” or the existence of such a model has been challenged in recent times.
Mike Boyle is a proponent of “dead to long steady state cardio”. Based on ice hockey’s “on-the-fly” nature of rest intervals with brief high intensity sprints, Mike believes that its bioenergetics requirements are unique, and that assuming, “that the development of an aerobic base is essential for this type of activity is foolish and shortsighted”. Also, he stresses the importance of strength and power in ice hockey, and the detrimental effects that high volumes of cardiovascular endurance work can have muscle fiber type conversion of transitional or intermediate muscle fiber to red, endurance muscle fiber (Boyle, 2006). Among many who support Boyle’s point, Fitts and Widrick (1996) observed that prolonged daily endurance exercise training might induce atrophy of the slow type 1 and fast type IIa fibers. In assessing skating performance variables, ice hockey players should focus on regularly engaging in activities promoting force and power production in the legs, while minimizing prolonged endurance activities which have been shown to hinder their potential (Potteiger et al, 2010).
Consequently, Boyle supports the use quality anaerobic intervals, which can promote the movement of intermediate fibers toward the anaerobic, fast twitch fibers (using 5-60 second sprints with longer recovery), while building the aerobic system by controlling the recovery periods to maintain recovery heart rate levels in the aerobic range (over 120bpm). Moderate-intensity aerobic training that improves the maximal aerobic power does not change anaerobic capacity; yet adequate high-intensity intermittent training can impose significant improvements in the anaerobic and aerobic energy systems (Nishimura et al. 1996). Caret el al. (2007) also concluded that coaches should probably avoid including aerobic training in their practices, due to the increases in aerobic capacity associated with HITT seen in hockey training, as reflected in increased VO2max values of their subjects. Conclusively, it is evident that our body has a canning ability to build aerobic features of recovery during anaerobic training, while the same cannot be said in the reverse situation. Also of benefit is the reduction of training volume associated with HITT. In comparing short-term sprint intervals (SIT) training versus traditional endurance training, Gibala et al. ( 2006, p.1) discovered that given the large difference in training volume, that SIT was a time-efficient strategy/alternative to induce the rapid adaptations in skeletal muscle and exercise performance comparably exhibited in young active men trained via traditional endurance methods. Furthermore, the decreased training volume is better suited for injury prevention and minimizing overuse injuries. Boyle sums up his points very well by asking the question, “An efficient aerobic system may facilitate faster recovery. However, at what cost are we developing the aerobic system?”
“Mr. Sports Specific”, Jack Blatherwick, also supports the negation of long steady state cardiovascular training. However, he does not contradict its uses due to the lack of need for an aerobic base, but rather the biomechanical complication that a short “jogging” stride can have with a skating stride, and the lack of specificity of the training protocol.
With benefits such as increasing the anaerobic and aerobic energy systems, and decreasing training volumes and body fat composition, controlled “High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)” is recommended in the literature, and of great importance for the development of elite ice hockey players. Conversely, the long endurance orientated conditioning methods (in attempting to build an aerobic base) continue to be passé for the aforementioned reasons. Running for an occasional leisure activity, for active recovery, or following an injury is the only time that elite ice hockey players should be going for long runs to work on their “cardio”. Whether you are a firm believer in “building the aerobic base” or not, the superior method of increasing our aerobic capacity coinciding with gains in our anaerobic energy systems seems to be through HIIT. HIIT better mimics the intensity and duration of ice hockey, and thus pertains to the training principle of specificity. In understanding the importance of recovery in ice hockey, it is vital to take into account the variables that exist, separating the theoretical and realistic dimensions and bioenergetics of the game. Those who still believe in the traditional pyramidal approach to building an aerobic base must be cautious in implementing their conditioning programs for elite athletes. It is both naïve and narrow minded to assume that professional and elite athletes lack an aerobic base in the first place. The evolution of the game has demanded that these athletes be professionals, year round. We must be careful in referencing research from the late 1980s. As early as 1995, Cox et al. demonstrated that the previous hockey studies were of little relevance to the “then modernized” hockey due to its evolution, and that much of what existed was based on poorly controlled studies. Furthermore, they suggested the investigation of several performance variables for future research, yet none of them included aerobic base/contribution (neuromuscular skills, strength, power, peripheral adaptations, travel, hydration, detraining and sport specific programs). Since then, it seems that the game has continued to evolve exponentially, gearing more and more towards a power and strength oriented sport. I am confident that this would be exemplified given the opportunity to compare fitness testing results over the past 20 years, though these quantitative measures have not been made available.
2.2- Using maximal oxygen update (VO2max) scores as predictor ice hockey performance
In the above section, we reviewed the appropriate aerobic contributions to ice hockey performance. Though there is variance in the capacity in which its importance is valued, one cannot deny that it plays a role in performance.
One’s VO2max is defined as the amount of oxygen an individual can extract from the air and deliver to his tissues (Twist and Rhodes, 1993). VO2max testing protocols have, and continue to be in many governing bodies, one of the gold standards of fitness test for ice hockey performance (along with the Wingate test). I do not deny that benefits exist, such as testing-retesting protocols for a given athlete to see if they have maintained their aerobic fitness levels on the off-season or following an injury, but it should by no means be considered a gold standard for ice hockey performance. Durocher et al. (2010) observed that off-ice VO2max and lactate threshold (LT) were not adequate predictors of on-ice VO2max and LT (in college elite males). These observations, supported by several others in the industry, pose a serious challenge to the use of a cycle ergometry in assessing aerobic capacity (VO2max).
Firstly, with different modes of testing existing (row, bike), the use of a cycle ergometry continues to be the acceptable method for testing in ice hockey. The “groin” muscles, which are major contributors in skating biomechanics, are “spared” in this method of testing (Boyle, 2006). Furthermore, the use of a cycle ergometry does not incorporate a full body movement relative to that of a skating stride. Though the use of VO2max testing is still under question by some, in an attempt to combat the aforementioned variables to make its testing values more acceptable, I suggest the use of a sports-specific on ice aerobic power test called FAST (Petrella et al, 2007). Otherwise, I would suggest the use of treadmill protocol due to its incorporation of the “groin muscles” and the research supporting sprinting speed to skating performance. In addition, the use of a beep test could be advantageous due to the change of direction, which further mimics the nature of ice hockey.
Secondly, Mike Boyle (2006) states that, “The use of VO2max is frequently utilized to evaluate the condition of athletes involved in endurance sports like distance running, cycling and rowing. This assessment has never been shown to correlate to performance in sports that are intermittent in nature like hockey or court sports.” (Boyle, 2006, p.5) In short, how does the use of an aerobic fitness test represent a primarily anaerobic sport? A high value of VO2max may seem appetizing, however it has been suggested by some that a better dictator of ice hockey performance is a higher lactate threshold (a measure of efficiency; %VO2max at which lactate begins to accumulate), or rather the amount of “useable aerobic capacity” (Boyle, 2006)
Thirdly, Sheppard et al. (2009) determined that maximal oxygen uptake tests are of little use in ranking athletes of similar ability. This finding in itself is strong evidence that the VO2max testing may be overvalued.
Fourthly, according to Dr. Timothy Noakes, “Testing for maximum oxygen consumption has produced a brainless model of human exercise performance” (Noakes, 2008, p.551). Though controversial in his work, Dr. Noakes references heavily to make some strong arguments regarding the use of the test. He believes the testing protocol is flawed because it contains three features foreign to performance, including its progressive and graded nature of intensity, the variable duration which negates the ability for optimal performance, and most important the inability for the testing subject to regulate the intensity (Noakes, 2008, p. 555). By predetermining the work rate, Dr. Noakes notes that the test is beyond the control of the experimental subject’s brain, removing pacing strategies and the motor unit recruitment, which results during exercise performance (Noakes, 2008, p. 555).The current VO2max is oriented towards completing the activity without homeostatic failure and the development of a “limiting” skeletal muscle fatigue (Noakes, 2008, p.555). Dr. Noakes uses “limiting” in a semi-sarcastic fashion, as the use of 1-2 factors to determine performance is reductionist in nature, and that several hypothetical models of fatigue exist beyond the one that orients the VO2max test (what about central governor hypothesis?). In summary, “As the VO2max test does not evaluate the athlete’s ability to choose and sustain the optimum pace during exercise of different durations, it cannot be the optimum test either to evaluate a subject’s athletic potential or to understand the biological basis of superior athletic performance.” (Noakes, 2008, p.555).
Lastly, as noted previously, the high volumes of endurance/aerobic training methods can create a muscle fiber type transition unfavorable to ice hockey players. Often in elite sports, athletes focus specifically on the fitness tests that they will undergo during tryouts. In an attempt to make a team, many players may focus on increasing their VO2max testing score with steady state aerobic training, thereby possibly affecting overall on-ice performance; for smaller, younger and/or less explosive players, these transitions can be potentially catastrophic (Boyle, 2006). Thus, by decreasing the importance of high VO2max scores, we can help negate poor training goals that may actually hinder performance.
I do not believe that removing V02max testing is necessary, but I believe that it is time for exercise physiologists and strength and conditioning coaches to be reasonable with regards to its value in evaluating performance in ice hockey. More important in cardiovascular fitness testing, other than the Wingate test, is finding ways to test recovery and energy regeneration. I suggest the use of a modified phosphate decrement test or repeated shuttle test to analyze performance decline related to recovery/fatigue. The use of a yo-yo intermittent test (modified beep test with short rest intervals) would be useful for aerobic capacity test, while FAST, a sport specific on-ice testing protocol, could be used for aerobic power. Finding an efficient way of testing %VO2max (use of blood lactates) would be beneficial as well.
A protocol developed by Mr. Boyle, which requires strong mental toughness and conditioning is the 10/10 treadmill test; 10% incline at 10 miles/hour until exhaustion (Boyle, 2006). Both traits are required for elite hockey players, and the nature of the incline protocol also stresses the gluteal muscles and hip flexors similarly to skating. Also, it is a true test of anaerobic endurance and aerobic power (record at BU is 3:15). Though the test may be more subjective and less quantitative in nature, its relative comparison is great.
2. “My 2 cents” and Future Considerations
In the final section, I hope to delve into “my 2 cents” and to make suggestions for future research. Following the review of strength and conditioning and testing practices in elite ice hockey players, it is evident that the delivery and theoretical applications vary significantly. So, where do I find myself in this spectrum of ideologies?
Regarding exercise and conditioning prescription, my guiding attitude is based primarily around injury prevention; if an athlete is injured, they cannot perform. After having been exposed to training young elite hockey players, it became quickly evident that a significant need for balanced training existed. Many of these athletes, a lot of whom are playing 6 days/week, already display significant imbalances in movement patterns, in musculature, and in flexibility. The extensive demand of the in-season schedule, as well as the demand to maintain elite fitness levels in the off-season, makes for a demanding commitment, which can often lead to overuse injuries. Poor recovery techniques, barely-existent warm up and cool downs, demanding travel schedules, and the “unnatural” movements involved in ice hockey also contribute to issues surrounding the sport. This is often evident throughout a season and late into the playoffs, where teams are plagued with injuries and grinding to perform. Thus, our job as strength and conditioning specialists is to program catering to individual needs that will maximize consistent performances, while maintaining efficient mobility and movement patterns while minimizing injuries. Nutritional considerations and maximal recovery techniques must be implemented in the culture. Furthermore, when we are programming, we must have the ability to understand the tradeoff between gains in the weight room versus mobility and performance detriments; there are always risks with increase intensity of resisted training. At what point is the risk worth the reward?
I believe that programming should be specific to individual needs and demands. Designing a mass program catering to the “perfect training program for ice hockey players” must not apply. Variability in skill level, strength, size, experience, playing position and fitness levels are just a few of the variables that must be taken into account when programming. Furthermore, it is rare to have all athletes from a team or group to be injury free. Thus, a “Cookie-cutter” program for all hockey athletes cannot be optimal in my opinion. Maintaining efficient fundamental movements, range of motion, mobility and muscle balance are essential foundations for performance. The use of progressions of exercise prescription to attain performance goals in the weight room is also necessary, as you cannot run before you can walk.
Sport specificity, one of the major training principles, has its place in all training. However, its definition in practice and theory often varies depending on whom you ask. Concerns that I have with using sport specific training to mimic movement patterns seen in the sport exist. Firstly, I question the use sport specific movements during in-season training because we may be further likely to tax those muscle groups already prone to overuse injuries, such as the hip flexors and groin muscles. Secondly, in attempting to imitate movement patterns, velocities, and angles under resisted loads, it may possible to affect the biomechanics of the movement. I believe that specificity on this level does have its place, however this should be done on the ice surface and not in the gym (Matthews et al, 2010). Further research on this topic would be beneficial to sport specific programming. We must ask ourselves what our goals are when we go into strength and conditioning facility. For example, are we trying to make better and fit athletes, or are we trying to make better hockey players? I believe that the latter reason can be accomplished by playing the sport itself, while the former can contribute to the athletic attributes needed to excel in on-ice performance.
As previously stated, I do not support the use of prolonged endurance training for the purpose of building an athlete’s “aerobic base” or aerobic capacity. The literature supports well the use of HITT as a method of building both the anaerobic and aerobic energy systems, while decreasing training volume and increasing the specificity of training.
V02max testing must not be used as a primary protocol for determining ice hockey performance for the aforementioned reasons. What should be further integrated in fitness testing protocols are test pertaining to injury prevention and/or injury risk assessment. For example, significant research supporting the use of the functional movement screen (FMS) and Y-balance test as predictors for the risk of injury exist. It is not the “end-all-be-all”, however using them during the pre-season, mid-season, and post-season could give some insight on a player’s maintenance and progress throughout the season and how it pertains to their performance. Also, the importance of power and strength fitness components should be more heavily valued; the broad and vertical jump, balance, 10 and 40 meter sprint test, Wingate test, and body composition were all determinants of skating speed (Behm et al., 2005; Farlinger et al., 2007). Furthermore, Peyer et al. (2011) determined that leg press, chin-ups, bench press, and repeat sprint performance were significantly correlated to physiological characteristics of NCAA Division 1 hockey players and their relation to game performance. Further research is also needed in evolving more efficient off-ice determinants of ice hockey performance, as current standards display inconsistent results.
Further investigations and research are required for the successful evolution of hockey. Having access to NHL combine results of the past and future could enable much of the research needed. Investigating career performance variables (such as games played and missed, points, and longevity of career etc…) and how they pertain to individual testing variables could provide helpful insight and correlations. Along with the use of GPS studies, this data could be used to study positional variances, possibly providing more accurate information of strength and conditioning variables. Lastly, investigating injury prevention and risk assessment techniques as they apply to the nature of injuries in the game of ice hockey would be very beneficial.
The future of Ice hockey is promising, and continuing to grow internationally. By increase research, the collaboration of those involved, and the efficiency in which the game is approached, Hockey Canada will continue to be a dominating force.
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