Fitness: For the love of hockey and conditioning

In the early days, playing into shape was part of the game, but now specific strength and conditioning results in fitter, stronger and more resilient players.

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Canadians love hockey, with many a Saturday night spent in front of the TV cheering on their favourite team.

Widely considered the fastest game on two feet, the combination of speed, skill and physicality make hockey exciting to watch.

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Characterized by repeated bursts of high intensity effort, quick changes of direction, intense physical contact and highly skilled manoeuvres with and without the puck, players require high levels of fitness to compete at the elite level.

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Like most sports, the ability to excel requires a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic factors, including genetics, fitness, skill, athleticism, biomechanics, psychological strength, opportunity and coaching.

In the early days of the game, hockey players played themselves into shape. But as knowledge of the physiological demands of the game increased, hockey specific strength and conditioning resulted in fitter, stronger and more resilient players.

One of the last comprehensive studies highlighting the physiological profile of professional male hockey players was published 20 years ago. Using historical data from the Montreal Canadiens, author David Montgomery from McGill University noted an increase in body mass from 75 kg in 1917 to 93kg in 2003 — a gain of 17 kg, most of which was in muscle. Players were also on average 10 cm taller.

Strength and power brings more speed and physicality to the game, so it’s no surprise during the last 50 years scouts began identifying players who had the size and strength to add value to the team. Strength and conditioning coaches were hired and in-house gyms became part of every team’s infrastructure.

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Players also got fitter. The positive association between aerobic fitness and recovery meant players with higher VO₂ max scores demonstrated less fatigue in the third period as well as a quicker recovery between games.

Fast forward to 2023 and the science behind the physiology of hockey has become even more sophisticated. High-tech tools tracking player movements and physiological responses offer position-specific data on speed and distances covered over the course of the game, including per shift. Matched with changes in heart rate, exercise physiologists now have a clearer picture of the physical demands of hockey at the pro level.

Acknowledging changes in the game and the players who hit the ice, a team of sports scientists from the University of Southern Denmark provided an update on the physiology of the game of hockey.

“The game has evolved tremendously, with increased professionalism, progressions in athletic preparation and several rule changes that have been adopted during the last three decades,” the researchers said.

What do we know about the game now that we didn’t know a few decades ago?

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Players cover a total of four to six kilometres per game, depending on their position and playing time. This is considerably less than other team sports, but hockey is unique in that players spend almost half of their shifts skating at high speed — in excess of 17 km/h. Not only are hockey players fast on their feet, they need to get to speed quickly and slow down just as quickly. During an average game, players perform 133 high-intensity accelerations (four-10 bursts per minute) and cover 15-26 metres in only three to five seconds.

Forwards perform 54-per-cent more high-intensity bursts of speed per minute than defencemen, but blueliners accumulate more playing minutes and total distance over the course of the game.

Heart rates average 85 per cent of maximum effort, with plenty of near maximal efforts recorded during any given shift. That means both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems are taxed regularly, not just while getting to speed, but also to provide the stamina needed to repeat the 100-plus bursts of high-intensity skating required during match play. Yet despite improvements in overall strength, power and endurance over the years, player fatigue is inevitable.

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Some of that is the result of depleted energy within the muscle, but researchers also point to higher-than-normal sweat rates due not just to the intensity of play, but also to the amount of gear and clothing worn by hockey players, most of which isn’t engineered to maximize cooling.

Even mild dehydration can cause increases in core body temperature, heart rate and perceived exertion, all of which contribute to player fatigue in the later part of the game — especially for players who have accumulated lots of playing minutes or who aren’t diligent in consuming fluid and topping up energy stores with added carbohydrates.

“The ability to recover rapidly not only between shifts and intense actions, but also between games is imperative, as back-to-back games with less than 24 hours of recovery commonly occur during congested game periods (e.g., during the NHL season where teams often play four games a week), and with a busy and long in-season schedule allowing only brief periods of relative rest,” the researchers said.

The goal of any deep dive into the physiology of sport is to not only to optimize training to match the specific physical demands of the activity, but also to assist athletes in delaying fatigue for as long as possible. So while researchers understand more about what it takes to play the game at an elite level, they admit more needs to be done to understand how to minimize fatigue and maximize recovery.

But for hockey fans, the more we know about the game the more we can appreciate the fitness and skill of the players who compete at the game’s highest level. It makes watching hockey more enjoyable as we tip our hat to the talent on display every Saturday night.

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