First and foremost, conditioning is about efficiency. Your players can be in better physical shape than your opponent in terms of strength and endurance, and you can still be out played on a physical level due to inefficiency. A player can work out by skipping rope, treading water, doing core training, specific strengthening exercises using resistance, etc. and forfeit the gains made by these methods of training due to inefficient movement in games. Movement from a conditioning/stamina perspective is thought of in two ways. One is the mechanics of skill execution in terms of technique, and the other involves skill execution and positioning as it relates to basics and fundamentals and the team’s system and strategy.

Fatigue due to poor mechanics is easy to comprehend – just try doing the Grouse Grind backwards. The human body is a very interesting organism to say the least. It remembers movement patterns and repeats them as a reflex action. The reason for this is simply that it eliminates the need to relearn the same things over and over, and to learn other movements that may be similar – saving reaction time and brain space. It doesn’t take long to hardwire a movement sequence into our sensory response system. Anyone who has twisted their ankle knows how quickly they ‘learn’ to limp, and how difficult it can be to stop it once their injury has healed.

If you use suboptimal movement patterns you will over-tax your muscles. Even a well conditioned muscle will fail under the right (wrong) circumstances. Muscles lose their ability to contract with velocity, and to hold a contraction under stress because they lack fuel (glycogen), and/or efficient waste removal of used fuel by-products. The physical dimensions and characteristics, in terms of design and function, of the muscle body and connective tissue has much to do with this factor. It stands to reason that smaller muscles have less storage capacity. Repetitive movement injuries are becoming more of a concern for trainers and coaches. The manner in which goaltenders are being instructed is evidence of this fact as goaltender specialists are now steering their students toward a hybrid style. The obvious reason for this is that it makes sense to remain standing as much as possible for mobility and recovery, however, goaltenders that play strictly a butterfly style run the risk of damage from repetitive movement – primarily in the knees and hips.

Another major contributor to fatigue is the intake capacity and storage of oxygen and water in the muscle. Lactic acid is a substance that is a by-product of fuel consumption. Simply put, lactic acid (being acidic) upsets the chemical balance in the muscles cells and disrupts electrical charges that reach those parts of the muscles that trigger an action potential twitch. Blood carries waste away and brings oxygen and fuel, and oxygen is given the role of converting lactic acid back into fuel that can be re-used. Up to 80% of the lactic acid a muscle produces can be used as fuel by the intake of oxygen! That’s one reason to do an aerobic activity after practices and games. The problem arises for the athlete when he needs or burns more fuel than his system can manage. Once he has reached his lactic threshold or exhausted his glycogen and water supplies, he will feel aches as muscle fibres tighten, or lose general contractile function. Depending on who you talk to and how well the athlete is conditioned, it normally takes 24-48 hours for acid build-ups to dissipate completely without oxygen.

Using muscles in the most effective way, and staying loose and relaxed is paramount. The player must be sufficiently warmed up and stretched in order for the body to perform it’s internal functions. The fact that a player has broken a sweat is an indication that he is warmed up. Getting and keeping the blood flowing and the oxygen passages open is also key. Taking long deep breaths instead of panting is recommended, as well as keeping good posture during rest periods. If players don’t breathe properly, they will exhaust their supplies of energy from their aerobic system and prematurely tap into their anaerobic lactic system.

It is usually considered that aerobic training is good for sports such as hockey that are mainly characterized by explosive activity followed by a rest period, and that endurance training requires performing an aerobic activity for long periods of time. Actually, interval training (short bouts of exercise followed by short bouts of rest) is the best way to increase endurance and tolerance to fatigue. That is because you must develop the system of recovery. The rate at which your body uses glycogen and removes waste is called your metabolic rate. Constructing a higher metabolism through proper diet and activity will help the athlete compete and practice harder for longer periods of time. Being able to achieve a quicker rate of recovery is important for the player in practice so that he can raise the intensity, and thereby the quality, of his drill repetitions. More quality reps is the ultimate goal in practice.

The other half of the conditioning equation for the coach involves the way in which you direct your players in terms of your system or style. Developing habits that promote the type of action that reduces unnecessary skating and other physical play is key. We call this playing smart. Playing hard is one thing, but if you promote play that continually puts your players in situations that require excessive amounts of hard work to be successful, you are putting added stress on a player which is going to cause early fatigue. If your players empty their guns in the first period, no matter what shape they’re in, they’ll have a tough time competing late in games. Many teams have gone into games with better skill and superior physical conditioning and lost those games because they played the type of game that caused them to run out of gas. Often coaches diagnose such a loss as a conditioning deficiency and skate the you-know-what off their players the next practice. A good hard skate never hurt anyone in the long run … but then they go off and practice the same old things in the same old way. Next game … same result! You have to be careful about which conclusions you draw from your perception of what is actually happening to your team. You may do something like evaluate a poor calorie or fluid intake as a physical conditioning deficiency. A tired player can result from not peaking physically for games and practices, or it may be a motivation/leadership question which is an issue of accountability and responsibility.

Successful coaching always centers around finding and maintaining a balance. Developing and maintaining the physical conditioning of players for games is about getting the correct balance of practice intensity, skill execution, conceptual understanding of basics and fundamentals, and employing a style of play that makes sense in games. Insist on a good solid work ethic from everyone and back that up with intelligent heads-up play and you will have a team that can practice harder for longer, and wear teams down in games.

Here are some ideas that may help you. Players have 5-6 minutes on the ice at the start of a game to get ready to play. Give your team the same time in practice and insist they get themselves ready. Younger players may need to actually practice their warm-up. Get pucks on the ice at the start of practice (not 15 minutes in). It is not possible for a player to skate perfectly in drills if they have not handled a puck. They may develop technical inefficiencies. After the warm-up in games it’s full speed ahead. Do the same in practice. Your first drill or two should be flow or quick developing drills with lots of quick movement in groups of 2-4 players – include passes and shots from various angles. The closer these drills mimic your system with an emphasis on basics and fundamentals the better your practice will transfer to a game. Why do a drill that doesn’t transfer to a game anyway? The only reason we have practices is to prepare for games … we’re not entering a drill contest! Doing these things will raise the players metabolic rate and prime them for the learning part of the practice.

Great hockey players do simple, ordinary things in extraordinary ways. Try to put importance on as many ‘small’ aspects of the game as you can at once. That way … you can kill two birds with one stone. If you can overlap four or five things you can save valuable practice time. Why not run through some breakout passes and some net drive plays while you’re getting some tempo established and warming up the goaltenders? (while you’re at it … you might as well get the goaltenders their practice looking through screens or deflecting rebounds, etc.) From a conditioning standpoint, if you run meaningless/go-nowhere drills, you can expect to see those patterns in games. You’ll probably have to do a lot of back-peddling and chasing to make up ground you never should have lost in the first place! Giving the players more ‘simple’ tasks to focus on in drills also affords you the opportunity to reinforce your philosophy and gives them focus to the very end of their rep which prevents coasting back to line. It also forces them to concentrate on their mental reps.

One way to condition their recovery system is by getting them to hold their breath during a workout. What this does is drive them into an anaerobic state in a short period of time. It is a practice used in other sports, such as running, and can be very effective for hockey as well. Here is an example of one way to implement this method of training – you don’t have to follow this exactly. Have the players do a continuous relaxed, medium intensity skate such as a figure 8 (butterfly) with their breathing pattern steady and normal. On a whistle … they hold their breath for 3-5 seconds and then let it out and resume breathing normally – again while skating. Do 5-8 reps with an interval work to rest ratio of 1-3 when they are first introduced to it, and work up to a 1-2 ratio. Then do a 5-8 frequency hard skate using the same work to rest ratio with the rest being a slow skate or even a glide-skate. Follow that up with a hard all-out skate of 30 seconds and then a real slow down with long deep breaths. This will expand the capillaries inside the muscle body (bringing more oxygen) without driving the muscle into a total state of fatigue which will cause a meltdown of skating technique.

The hot/cold method is a good way to expand blood/oxygen passages in an off-ice setting. Sit in a hot tub and follow that with a cold shower – particularly on the larger leg muscles. It has a similar effect as the holding your breath method by bringing more blood/oxygen to the muscle. 30 seconds of each is good enough, and it is best to start and end with the cold. There are many great books on conditioning that go into detail on many and varied strength, movement, and conditioning exercises. As a coach you must beware of running on-ice drills that tire your team out in short periods of time (don’t forget that a hockey shift is about 1 minute long), and running them for too long. A tired player will practice tired and develop technical flaws. You should be encouraging your players to increase strength and endurance off-ice, and use on-ice time to make the connection between off and on-ice training and develop skills and fundamentals with the purpose of maintaining conditioning levels with game-like intensity.

Do your systems breakdown in the middle of the practice as a general rule. That way you can regulate the intensity of the activity in terms of conditioning. Your schedule will dictate how you do this – obviously, you don’t want your players to ‘hit the wall’. Use lower intensity drills (which usually means individual or non-competitive), or high intensity for a shorter period if that’s what it takes. You want your team to have ‘jump’ in the middle of the game and pace themselves … so make them jump in the middle of the practice. A short over-speed activity works as well.

You also want your team to have plenty of gas at the end of games … so do your real hard physical skating at the end of practices. That way they can totally give it up in the name of conditioning. Have a cool down and end the practice. Emphasize recovery techniques at all times, but especially at the end.

In terms of skill execution, the activity of the players at the beginning of practice is extremely important. Having your players run through a variety of specific routines is an excellent way to clarify their focus on mechanics. Goaltenders traditionally have a set sequence of movement exercises that prepare them for shots. Players can benefit from this thinking as well. Having the D and forwards at either end with a set routine of short skill exercises for 3-5 minutes gives the players a chance to mentally connect with their actions … and the coach a chance to encourage quality execution. The way in with a player controls his body is a major (I repeat … major!) factor in conditioning.

The bottom line for a coach is that he must place a good portion of his planning energy on conditioning. Every drill you use should be subjected to the question of how it will keep the players active. The players will also feel better. Just think of what happens to a person when they sit at work or school for any length of time. Their metabolism starts to slow down and along with that, their thought process. At school they give the students recess to ‘jump start’ their system. A coach should have a well planned active practice to keep the players mentally sharp as well. Notice the draining effect slow drills have on your team. Sometimes it is necessary to slow down the practice to get quality etc., but watch for inactivity or players getting lulled into a state of ‘casualness’. This will do nothing for their over-all conditioning, or their playing habits in general.