When I was a Bantam (13 y/o), I played for a coach that emphasized that we always keep our feet moving. The second we stepped on the ice, we were supposed to buzz around constantly. The goal was to force a high tempo; it worked. At that level, our team was extremely fast and the strategy of constant movement was overwhelming for other teams.
Unfortunately, this strategy does not work at higher levels. Speed kills and tenacity intimidates, but constant high speed movement is inefficient. At any given level of conditioning capacity, a player can improve his/her level of expressed conditioning by learning how to conserve energy on the ice.
Think about it this way: The goal is rarely to skate as fast as possible at any given moment on the ice. Instead, the goal is to skate just fast enough to win possession of the puck or positioning relative to an opponent. Sometimes this requires all-out efforts. Sometimes it does not. In every case, a player can improve his/her ability to win the race or gain optimal positioning by reading the play faster than their opponent.
Hockey conditioning comes down to preparing the body to delay fatigue to the greatest extent possible. In my setting, conditioning is mostly a preparatory effort. In other words, the idea is to pre-emptively overload the body and allow recovery time so that it is well-prepared for the rigors of the game. In reality, there is also a strategic component to conditioning that most players are never taught.
Off-ice conditioning is important, but only part of the equation
When a player hops on the ice and goes all out for the entire shift, they rely on a metabolic process known to have a longer recovery time and lead to impaired future performance. In contrast, if a player becomes an expert at alternating periods of near all-out efforts with periods of strategic gliding and repositioning, the shift is transformed from a 30-45s interval to something more like 8 x 2-3s/6s. In other words, the player skates all out for 2-3s, then strategically glides/rests/repositions for 6s, 8 times throughout the shift. This allows for less fatigue accumulation and a more prolonged maintenance of near-peak performance.
Naturally, hockey isn’t nearly this regimented. The game is chaotic in nature. However, players can adopt this strategy based on the demands of any given shift to help build in recovery intervals on the ice. To be clear, the message here isn’t to “loaf” on the ice. Certain shifts will mandate constant motion at maximal efforts. However, not all shifts do, and it’s important for players (especially at higher levels) to learn to read the game so they can position themselves properly to conserve energy without impairing performance.
One of my favorite players of all time. Known for being a student of the game.
In the training world, we measure performance through things like time to move a given distance (speed and conditioning) and weight lifted. On the ice, all that matters is goals for and goals against. There are ways to maximize objective on-ice outcomes, while strategically conserving energy. Become a student of the game. Learn to anticipate play development. Develop the habit of creating time and space. More optimal on-ice positioning leads to shorter races to the puck and/or open areas on the ice, leading to less fatigue accumulation and more desirable hockey-specific outcomes (e.g. goals scored or prevented). Conditioning isn’t just a physiological state of being; it’s also a playing style-specific strategy. Maximize both and optimize your on-ice performance.
To your success,
Kevin has rapidly established himself as a leader in the field of physical preparation and sports science for ice hockey. He is currently the Head Performance Coach for the Boston Bruins, where he oversees all aspects of designing and implementing the team’s performance training program, as well as monitoring the players’ performance, workload and recovery. Prior to Boston, Kevin spent 2 years as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach for the San Jose Sharks after serving as the Director of Performance at Endeavor Sports Performance in Pitman, NJ. He also spent 5 years as a Strength and Conditioning Coach with USA Hockey’s Women’s Olympic Hockey Team, and has been an invited speaker at conferences hosted by the NHL, NSCA, and USA Hockey.