What is the best cardio for hockey players? It’s been a hot topic in the fitness world for some time and most folks are leaning towards the HIIT (high intensity interval training) route in order to develop their “hockey specific” energy systems. There’s even folks out there that talk about Tabata style training for energy system development like it was the original cure for polio.
A hockey player generally performs in shifts of less than a minute and then heads to the bench to rest and recover for the next shift. Scientifically, this would be looked at as the anaerobic energy system being used because this system provides energy to the body for up to 2 minutes approximately.
For readers that aren’t completely aware of the energy systems our body uses to perform work, there are basically three types:
1. ATP-CP – Provides energy for the first 6-10 seconds of work.
2. Anaerobic/Glycolytic – Provides energy for approximately the first 2 minutes of work.
3. Aerobic – Provides energy for work done up to and beyond the first 2 minutes of work.
And to be extra clear, and something that you need to keep in mind, is that as soon as you start exercising, all of these energy systems begin to work at the same time. However, certain energy systems are emphasized more than others depending on the sport.
Let’s take a closer look at these energy systems closer and see the differences between the 3.
The ATP-CP energy system training is utilized when you are racing for a loss puck or engaging in an extremely intense battle in front of the net with a defensive player for example. Interval training with high intensity sprints of short duration is the best way to train this system. These intervals should be around 3-10 seconds in length.
Anaerobic training is also a very important system in the game of hockey and definitely needs to be worked on.
A really good example of anaerobic energy system training would be intervals. 20-60 yard sprint intervals repeated several times with a rest period between intervals.
The intervals could actually last up to 30-60 seconds in duration. This will really utilize the anaerobic system and aid in grinding out the occasional longer shift.
Along with the ATP-CP system and Anaerobic training you would also want to add some Aerobic training as well. I want to dive deeper into the aerobic energy system, because there is a lot of misconceptions when it comes to this form of training and the purpose it serves.
So why would a hockey player NEED to include some form of long, steady state cardio into their hockey training program where they work to improve their aerobic energy system?
To be honest, I’ve always hated including long, boring runs into my workouts. For me they seemed like a chore that I was always made to do as a kid. I knew it had to be done in some capacity, but I always questioned if it was the best cardio for hockey players. And for a hockey player, what benefit would it bring to take a 30 minute run or to move around a circuit of low intensity exercises if they don’t primarily use the anaerobic system for energy production? Especially when I already stated above that the anaerobic energy system was the primary energy system utilized by hockey players.
Benefits of Aerobic Training
1. Improved Recovery
Now I’m not just talking about the day after a tough workout as what the term “recovery” is generally used for. I’m also talking about improved recovery between sets during your actual workouts.
2. Improved Heart Function
The heart is a major player in how our body works and performs. The more efficiently this muscle works, the better you’ll be able to perform. What happens when the heart is forced to do work at a lower intensity you allow a lot more blood to enter the left ventricle. When this happens over a period of time, that ventricle stretches and adapts to the training. What you’ll now have is a heart that has more room to pump more blood with each beat. Look in a textbook and they’ll call this term “stroke volume”.
I know there’s plenty of knocks on longer, steady state cardio type workouts as well. In fact, I agree with the majority of them. I think I just need to make this clear that I don’t think this type of training needs to happen on a full-time basis. At the moment, my thinking is directly related to the off-season. Since it’s the early off-season and players don’t have practices and games any longer, their aerobic energy system is no longer putting in much work.
I also believe that since the off-season should be geared towards making improvements in strength, power, and overall performance, so based on the benefits of an improved aerobic system listed above, including some (2x’s a week) steady state cardio workouts a week for the next 3 or 4 weeks would be beneficial to your long-term development.
*Before you read on, please note that I’m talking off-season training and realize that this type of workout during the season would be counter-productive.*
I’ll be honest that I wasn’t on this wavelength of thinking lately because I was all aboard the HIIT bandwagon thinking it might be the best cardio for hockey players. Now, I’m not saying that HIIT is all of a sudden a thing of the past. Actually, I’m still all over that and think it brings huge benefits to hockey players, but at the same time, it’s not the “end all be all” of energy system development for hockey players. You see, the heart is a muscle that is developed in a similar fashion to the muscles in our body. You put it through some work and it adapts to get stronger and more efficient.
Have you ever gone hard for the first couple shifts and then all of a sudden you’re completely gassed the rest of the game?
I can raise my hand for that one and the reason being is that I’ve spent the majority of my training lifting weights and doing short, intense intervals for energy system work. But what I didn’t realize was that energy system work has to be looked at as a pyramid. The ATP-CP system being at the top of the pyramid (the point) and the aerobic system being at the bottom or the base of the pyramid. The anaerobic system would then fall somewhere in the middle of the pyramid. So basically with a larger aerobic base, what you’ll find is a higher capacity for improved anaerobic work. The bottom line is, you’ll be able to perform at a higher level more efficiently with a better developed aerobic system.
Myths About Aerobic Training
1. Makes You Slower
Even if you’ve been working on getting faster and you’ve been making huge gains in your speed lately, adding in a couple low intensity workouts a week for the next few weeks isn’t going to all of a sudden cancel out all that work you put in on getting faster. If you’re also including lifting heavy weights, getting stronger, and working on improving power, your body is going to adapt to all of them and not just one of the training mediums.
2. Not Specific To Hockey
I understand that in order to prepare for your sport of choice, your training should be somewhat specific to the sport itself. In reality, the only training that’s specific to playing hockey is playing hockey, but that’s another article in itself. If you watch a hockey game, you’ll notice that it’s the fastest team game out there. Everything is done at high intensities…..that is, if you only watch the puck. If you keep your eye on one player at a time on the ice, you’ll notice that not everything is done at such high intensities their entire shift. There are times when the player is going all out, filled in with parts of the shift where they’re coasting here and there when they’re not directly involved with the play.
As noted above, the whole purpose of this period of doing some steady state cardio workouts is to increase the performance of the heart so that it can pump more blood with each beat and work more efficiently. Doing these types of workouts from time to time can be “specific” because a player needs to improve their recovery times between shifts so that they can perform at high levels throughout the game. That may not be “specific” in the sense that it doesn’t replicate the movement of a skating stride, but it’s a “specific” quality that elite players need to compete at elite levels. Oh, and no one is telling you to do sport specific workouts year round either.
Bosu balls are as “hockey specific” as you can get. Note the heavy dose of sarcasm.
Ideas for Aerobic Training
Building this aerobic base is going to help you set the stage for a larger anaerobic threshold and ultimately allow you to perform at a more intense level longer and recover from intense bouts of exercise faster.
So here’s a few ideas to include in your off-days:
1. 30 minute light run on the treadmill
2. A series of mobility drills followed by some skill work
3. Light weight dumbbell or barbell circuits
4. Light sled dragging, pushing
5. Using the slideboard along with some skill work
The idea is to get your heart rate working at a light to moderate intensity, so around 120-150 beats per minute (you’ll benefit from a heart-rate monitor here) will do the trick.
Hockey Conditioning Workout
Here’s a good example of how I would set up a hockey conditioning workout to best take advantage of all 3 energy systems.
Aerobic Training – To begin if your resting heart rate is below 65 bpm you probably won’t have to work on your aerobic base as much as a player that has a resting heart rate 70 bpm or above. 1-2 aerobic sessions per week should give your heart the adequate work it needs to maintain a good aerobic base in order to help build the other energy systems upon.
If you tend to have a higher resting heart rate then you would benefit from 2-3 sessions per week to help lower your bpm utilizing the aerobic exercises above then switch to 1 time per week to maintain.
ATP-CP Training – 1-2 sessions per week working on the ATP-CP system should be enough to improve your sprint repeatablity. My go to exercises for this system is short sprint intervals or sled acceleration intervals which are both great options. 3-10 second sprint or sled push followed by 30-60 second recovery. Perform 6-15 intervals, rest 2-3 minutes then perform another 1-2 sets. Start with the lower amount of intervals and increase every 1 to 2 weeks.
Anaerobic Training – 1-2 sessions of anaerobic training utilizing sprint intervals, sleds, slide board, and Bike(maybe) etc. Intervals should last roughly 30-60 seconds with a 60-90 second recovery. 2-6 intervals x 2-3 sets will do the trick with 3-5 minute rest between sets.
If it’s your off season you may want to start off the spring with a bit more aerobic work to really build up that base and add the other two systems in after a few weeks of base training. In season the amount of off ice conditioning you perform will depend on the amount of practicing and game play you have per week. Also how many shifts per game you are playing. If you are not getting a ton of ice time, you may want to really push your conditioning off ice, so you are ready to go when called upon.
So the answer to the question; What is the best cardio for hockey players? You need to work all your energy systems! Depending on the time of season, what your resting heart rate is like, how much ice time you get in season, and where you feel you may have a weakness.