On Ice Conditioning
Written by Dan Minnicks
It’s a popular belief that the best way to get in hockey shape is by playing hockey itself. While I don’t completely disagree with that statement, there are lots of ways to get you better prepared during your in season and offseason training. No matter which drills you do, it’s near impossible to completely replicate an entire game. Games and scrimmages can provide a lot of value in that regard. Whether you’re at the mite, pee wee, bantam, midget, high school, junior, college, or pro level, the answer is the same: Non-specific drills will only leave you fatigued with nothing to show for it. Intensity and intent in drills will get you where you want to be. Many roads lead to Rome but some roads will get you there quicker and safer.
If you’ve played hockey at any level, I’m certain you’ve done your share of suicides, or “Herbies” at the end of practice. You’ve probably done variations of this drill and other hockey conditioning drills with the purpose of making you feel gassed and tired. Some hockey coaches have their players do these at the beginning of practice! Depending on the day, each practice should consist of drills designed to improve the technical (skating, shooting, passing, stick handling) and tactical (special teams, systems, strategies) skills of the team. When our brains try to learn new skills, the skills get better engrained when we’re fresh and not fatigued. A good example of this would be if you’ve ever tried to accurately shoot the puck or make a pass at the end of a long shift. Doesn’t go so well, does it? In addition to that, all you’re doing is chopping the ice up and making it even more difficult to work on passing, shooting and stick handling. Do your skill work first, and then do your dedicated conditioning work at the end of practice. Keeping your conditioning level up throughout the season is beneficial, however, if it’s in the middle of the season and you’re trying to get in shape, you’re fighting a bigger uphill battle than you realize. The base of your conditioning should begin in the offseason so that when the season starts you’re ready to go and not playing catch-up.
When working on conditioning, yes, you need to be a little uncomfortable in order for your body to adapt. As the old saying goes, “nothing worth having ever came easy.” However, that doesn’t mean you need to feel like you’re going to vomit while doing so. When you feel nauseous, light headed, or dizzy this is your body telling you that you’re doing too much. The key is finding that sweet spot where you know you exerted yourself, but don’t need a half hour to recover from it. Now, if you’re completely out of shape then yes, drills like these can help and you will certainly see a difference in your conditioning. Something is always better than nothing, although there are better, more effective ways such as:
- Power skating drills
- Game situation drills
- Making drills competitive and fun
Power Skating Drills
Power skating drills are a fantastic way to work on your skating while also improving your conditioning. Working on your inside and outside edges and turns with figure eight drills and variations will get you much needed skill work while keeping your heart rate up. Try varying the distance between the cones to further challenge yourself. Go for 30 seconds and rest for two minutes. The iron cross drill and its variations are great as well. With power skating drills, start in small areas then expand to full ice. These can be done with or without the puck as well.
Game Situation Drills
Shift simulation. Battle drills. Small area games that are game situational can be really beneficial from not only the technical and tactical side of things, but from a conditioning aspect as well. Hockey is a random game. No two shifts are exactly the same. The type of player, position, and role can all influence how their shift will go. Skill players are more apt to take risks and stay toward the middle of the ice. Depth players are more apt to play along the boards and make the safe play. Giving your body some of both is ideal in order to prepare yourself for whatever situation the game throws at you. In a team setting, this is a great time to work on specific plays and special teams. The repetition of drills engrains skills much better than playing. As a player, you might get a couple shots off in a game or scrimmage. By breaking down certain game situations into drills, you can get a lot more shots in and still get your conditioning up. As a coach, controlled scrimmages could be beneficial if done correctly. Setting a timer for special teams, blowing the whistle and forcing a faceoff and even calling penalties are more useful than just playing aimlessly end to end. These can make things more game specific if drills don’t want to be used.
Making Drills Competitive and Fun
Some of these can fall under the game specific category but there are lots of ways to make drills competitive without being game specific. Even the figure eight drills listed above can be made competitive. See how many trips you can get through in 30 seconds then try and beat that number. Compete against a teammate. Split into groups and compete against each other. Competing against something like the clock or against a teammate will make you push yourself harder. Pushing yourself will certainly make you get more out of the drill and therefore get better conditioned. It’ll also make things fun and seem less like work, which will make you go harder in the drills as well.
Have you ever watched Sidney Crosby practice? In addition to being well known for his talents, he’s also highly regarded for his work ethic during and after practice. By working on a myriad of drills for specific situations, he’s constantly working on rounding his game. By doing the drills with intensity, he works on his conditioning at the same time. He’s going against other top NHL players in these drills. Yes, these are mostly small area and game specific. You can do a lot of hockey drills on your own but when you’re battling for the puck with someone hanging all over you, it’s a different story. You’re forced to go harder in competitive drills or you lose. As you watch all these videos, focus your attention to their work ethic and hustle and less about if they scored the goal or made the pass. Those things are important, yes, but the purpose of these drills is the tempo. They’re putting themselves in as realistic game scenarios as they can.
On ice conditioning should be taken seriously as the better conditioned team will certainly have a leg up on the competition. In order for it to be most effective however, it’s crucial that the bulk of your conditioning be done leading up to the start of the season, rather than during it. By instituting power skating drills, game situation drills, and making the drills competitive and fun, you will see much greater results than doing endless suicides and other drills that leave you gassed and not better conditioned.
Dan Minnicks is the Head Fitness & Sports Performance Coach at Umberger Performance in Pittsburgh, Pa. During his tenure, he has worked with hockey players at all levels from youth to the NHL. Dan also works with a variety of athletes of all ages including Adult National Figure Skaters and competitive endurance athletes. Dan’s clients also include a wide range of the general population plus law enforcement, SWAT, and members of the United States Military, including the Army, Navy, and Naval Special Warfare.