Cardio vs. Work Capacity For Hockey Players

3446758005_066a505b37_b More now than ever, we’re getting calls from coaches in the OHL, Junior, and Midget levels.  At the start of the offseason, they want to know that their players are in good hands; totally understandable.  Most have already given their players an offseason workout plan, and just want to make sure the Trainer checks all the boxes and keeps input to a minimum.
After talking with us, usually for at least a half hour, though, it’s common for them to call the player and advise them to follow our plan instead.  Want to know why?  It’s not a secret. Read on.

“Cardio” is a slang term reserved for aerobic endurance work.  “Work Capacity” is the ability to apply force  across a distance for a specified time.  To get mathematical for a second, 

W = Fs : Work = Force x Distance.  Force = mass x acceleration.

Typically, most offseason Hockey programs focus only on aerobic development: long runs, hill repeats, jogs, cycling…..all in the pursuit of the elusive and undefined ‘base.’  ‘Base’ training is similarly undefined, but most coaches would agree that it refers to the ability to avoid fatigue at the high level of output demanded by hockey.  In other words, the capacity to perform work.

3429172272_aa6d312d24_o If the GOAL of all the ‘cardio’ is to increase the ability to perform work, is jogging or running 5km the best way to do it?    Let’s get back to math:
Work = Force x Distance.  In the case of cycling or running, ‘Distance’ is the movement of the limb in space; force is the energy exerted to move the body that distance.  Simple stuff, really.  
Let’s take a 5k run. Since there’s very little acceleration after the start (you keep a constant pace for most of the run) the actual Force generated is tiny.  Pulling a sled, though, on concrete?  There’s no momentum due to the friction of the asphalt and steel.  Hammering through 30 pullups after a 400m sprint and 30 pushups?  Lots of force there!

In real-world terms, performing long aerobic training at submaximal heart rates (below 70%, typically) will NOT improve performance at heart rates above that level. That’s a key point.  Running/jogging long distances will NOT improve your ability to work hard under fatigue.  

Long aerobic work WILL improve oxygen uptake efficiency – your V02 max score, which is another variable often used by hockey trainers – but not necessarily at a rapid heart rate, which is common after a rough shift.  Nor will aerobic work help you avoid the rapid heart rate, which is caused as much by performing the Valsalva maneuvre as it is by metabolic turnover (using oxygen to metabolize energy.)  Doug Bodger, Defenseman for San Jose: ““I don’t think you’re breathing half the time. You’re mostly exhaling…pushing and shoving…and concentrating so much you don’t think about breathing at all. That’s why we can only stay out there for a minute at a time. It’s like holding your breath.”

3445999611_5e9fbf008a_b When you start a skating stride, you ‘brace’ down your spine: your glottis closes, you trap air in the lungs, and are thus stabilized to transfer force to the legs.  You can’t avoid the Valsalva maneuvre; it’s necessary for spinal integrity.  Unfortunately, your heart races to recover when you DO take a breath.  Endless hours of cardio-based training won’t alter this necessity.

So far, this article has focused on what DOESN’T work: the ages-old habit of doing endless aerobic exercise to develop the mythical ‘base.’  What DOES work, then?  High-intensity intervals under load.  Brief, all-out bursts of twenty to sixty seconds, usually while performing a complex task or combination of simple tasks.  Mixed workouts .  Full-body movement instead of isolation exercises.  

Every year, we hear something like this: “We picked him up in the fifth round, but he really impressed us at camp” or “he was the steal of the draft” or “can you get him back to the level he reached last summer with you?”  or “What are you guys DOING with these kids?  They’re way ahead – it’s almost unfair!”  These are actual quotes from OHL coaches.  And the truth is, we don’t have any secrets.  We have logic, science, and a burning desire to win at all costs.  Heck, our capacity for work isn’t too bad, either.

In one week, we’ll be putting our daily workouts online free.  These are for hockey players; they’re not tailored to any one player to address individual strengths and weaknesses.  Rather, they’ll develop anyone to a level of excellent overall fitness.  Our job in the offseason is to deliver the player to the coach with an elite level of fitness, injury-free, ready to be a better hockey player.  

For more about the physics of hockey, click here.

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