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Off-season training more vital than ever

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Already, Senators players are beginning to do the work that's necessary to prepare them for training camp in September (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).

(Editor's note: This is the first of a four-part series about off-season training, which has become a vital part of the year for the Ottawa Senators and players around the National Hockey League).

Once upon a time, the off-season for NHL players meant many a leisurely day spent by the pool or at the cottage.

Accompanied by a leisurely beverage or three, no doubt.

Oh, how times have changed. Professional hockey is a year-round business now, with the preparation for the coming season beginning not long after the previous one ends. And everyone knows it.

"It's come to a point where every player knows now they have to come to (training) camp in shape," said Chris Schwarz, the Senators' strength and conditioning coach. "If they don't, they're going to be behind and it doesn't look so good on their performance. The game has changed so much and I think professional sports have changed so much... training has become a 12-month thing."

So it is that Senators players and prospects throughout the organization have begun the road that will get them exactly where they want to be when rookie and training camps arrive in September. And Phase 1, as Schwarz calls it, is the time to build good habits and the right foundation for the work still to come.

"The Phase 1 program is really what we call the reconditioning phase or the preparation phase," he said. "Basically, we’re looking at the year, we’re talking to players. We also do a self-evaluation on the player to say to them ‘what do you feel you need to work on in development?’ and ‘what do we feel you need to work on?’ Hopefully, the two of them match together, but sometimes they’re completely different.

"What we’re trying to do as strength coaches is do some analysis about what is enough and what’s too much," said Schwarz. "There’s a fine line between ‘are we causing injuries?’ and ‘are we preventing them?’ Every player has so much wear and tear and they’re just like tires. If you wear that out, what’s the consequence of that?" - Chris Schwarz
"But from a preparation point of view, we’re looking at aligning the body properly and making sure muscles are firing properly, so when they start to get into Phase 2 — that’s when the volume and everything starts to get a lot harder — then they’re ready, and we don’t throw a screwdriver into the works and we have to take a step back."

The tricky part, however, is making sure players don't follow their instincts and try to do too much too soon. What works best, said Schwarz, is a gradual build through the off-season months.

"This is the toughest phase for a lot of guys, because they want to take three weeks off, then they want to go a hundred miles an hour, not realizing that it’s mid-May or June and we don’t need to peak until September," he said. "So sometimes, you’re pulling them back and holding the reins back a little bit to say ‘get this done. It’s not going to seem like a lot, but you’re doing a lot to prepare for phase 2, 3 and 4.’"

It's also vital, he added, for players to take a break away from their normal routine once the season ends. Schwarz recommends three weeks of such down time, just to give the body some needed recovery time after eight months of steady pounding.

"That time is mental for them. They need to get away," said Schwarz. "They’ll do something, they’ll go for a light jog. But I just tell them to do something that’s not structured. They’re in a structured format the entire year, so it’s nice sometimes to just wander in the gym and do whatever you want to do, rather than ‘this is what you need to do every day.’

"They’re not cows. You don’t feed them hay and water every day and expect them to obey."

And they're also individuals, meaning Phase 1 isn't the same for a veteran coming off an injury or surgery — such as captain Daniel Alfredsson or forward Alex Kovalev — and a younger player such as defenceman Erik Karlsson, who still has plenty of room to grow.

"To me, it makes no sense to have guys skating and jumping off boxes in the first phase of a program because they’re not ready to do it," said Schwarz. "A Phase 1 program could be two weeks for somebody or it could be eight weeks for somebody based on where they’re at. If we have some players coming off an injury and they’ve had surgery, their Phase 1 program is going to be a lot longer than somebody who had a good season and took some time off.

"This is the toughest phase for a lot of guys, because they want to take three weeks off, then they want to go a hundred miles an hour, not realizing that it’s mid-May or June and we don’t need to peak until September. So sometimes, you’re pulling them back and holding the reins back a little bit to say ‘get this done. It’s not going to seem like a lot, but you’re doing a lot to prepare for phase 2, 3 and 4.’" - Chris Schwarz
"That recovery time is the most important time. They always want to start early now and just take a week off. But I'll say no, take two to three weeks off, you just beat yourself up."

The important part, especially early on, is finding that perfect balance, both in terms of physical training and nutrition, which also has to be adjusted to match the energy being exerted at all times. Complicating all of that is that every player today is likely to have his own personal training coach during the off-season. But Schwarz makes sure he's in touch with all of them to ensure everyone is on the same page in terms of their training goals.

"What we’re trying to do as strength coaches is do some analysis about what is enough and what’s too much," said Schwarz. "There’s a fine line between ‘are we causing injuries?’ and ‘are we preventing them?’ Every player has so much wear and tear and they’re just like tires. If you wear that out, what’s the consequence of that?

"My thought is, I push them along slowly and I get them up and then just maintain them. You can’t keep going harder and harder. These guys train incredibly hard, but it’s about when are they training incredibly hard. Do they have the ups and downs in the summer and their recovery time?"

Important questions, every one of them. With just the right answer required.

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