It’s no secret that professional hockey players have tremendous aerobic capacity. It’s a necessity if they’re going to withstand the intense physical requirements of the NHL’s 84-game season.
“We measure aerobic capacity in two ways,” says Calgary Flames Strength and Conditioning Coach Rich Hesketh.
“First with a sub-maximal aerobic test that consists of a 12-minute bike ride, and second with a two-minute recovery heart rate after a maximal effort” explains Hesketh, "this means the drop in beats per minute following a two-minute rest."
Flame players Raitis Ivanans, Matt Pelech and Robyn Regehr ranked first, second and third consecutively in the 12 minute test. In the recovery test, Rene Bourque, Cory Sarich and Jay Bouwmeester claimed the top three spots.
When it comes to testing hockey players’ aerobic capacity, Hesketh says there is still a misconception about the importance of a player’s V02 max, which is the volume of oxygen used during aerobic exercise. It was the most disliked test during NHL training camps. The test has players on a treadmill or bike, with increasing resistance, until exhaustion.
“A player’s V02 max used to be the most important thing when it came to training,” says Hesketh. A high V02 max was often achieved by long periods of endurance training, which does nothing to improve a player’s speed or power-two key components on the ice.
“We had to get away from the long, slow training training slow makes you slow,and you have to incorporate fast, powerful movements if you want to be fast.”
More recently, player training has moved away from increasing V02 max to improving speed and strength unfortunately, says Hesketh, some trainers have swung too far the other way and as a result, some players’ general conditioning has dropped.
“We always have to incorporate general conditioning, athletes need to have a broad base of training that can be built upon,” says Hesketh. He compares a player’s training to a pyramid “the base needs to be laid in the summer, and then you build it into a peak everything else like power, speed, skills and tactics are integrated at the appropriate times.”
Anaerobic threshold exercise will improve a player’s general conditioning and can be achieved through interval and circuit training. It is generally performed at approximately 80 to 85 percent of maximum heart rate, which is still aerobic training.
"Because of the players’ schedules, the majority of their general conditioning is done on the ice and in the summer," explains Hesketh “If it takes a day to recover, we have to pick and choose when in-season, off-ice conditioning can be done ”
Injured players have more time to focus on their general conditioning and often return to the ice more fit than when they left. Hesketh points to netminder Miikka Kiprusoff during the Flames’ Stanley Cup run in 2004.
“Miikka was out for six or seven weeks due to a knee injury. He believes the time he spent on general conditioning while he was injured was what helped keep him going through the playoffs.”
For healthy players, the challenge is finding the right mix of cardio, strength and speed. “We want to ensure a high aerobic capacity without diminishing a player’s speed,” says Hesketh. “It can be challenging, and more often than not, it’s a real balancing act.”