Does a hockey player really NEED long, steady state cardio? What is the best cardio for hockey players? It’s been a hot topic in the fitness world for some time and most folks are leaning towards the HIIT (high intensity interval training) route in order to develop their “hockey specific” energy systems.  There’s even folks out there that talk about Tabata style training for energy system development like it was the original cure for polio.

A hockey player generally performs in shifts of less than a minute and then heads to the bench to rest and recover for the next shift.  Scientifically, this would be looked at as the anaerobic energy system being used because this system provides energy to the body for up to 2 minutes approximately.

So why would a hockey player NEED to include some form of long, steady state cardio into their training program where they work to improve their aerobic energy system?

For readers that aren’t completely aware of the energy systems our body uses to perform work, there are basically three types:

1. ATP-CP- Provides energy for the first 6-10 seconds of work.

2. Anaerobic/Glycolytic- Provides energy for approximately the first 2 minutes of work.

3. Aerobic- Provides energy for work done up to and beyond the first 2 minutes of work.

And to be extra clear, and something that you need to keep in mind, is that as soon as you start exercising, all of these energy systems begin to work at the same time.

To be honest, I’ve always hated including long, boring runs into my workouts.  For me they seemed like a chore that I was always made to do as a kid.  I knew it had to be done in some capacity, but I always questioned if it was the best cardio for hockey players.  And for a hockey player, what benefit would it bring to take a 30 minute run or to move around a circuit of low intensity exercises if they don’t primarily use the aerobic system for energy production?

The answer is that there are MANY benefits to doing long, steady state cardio.

*Before you read on, please note that I’m talking off-season training and realize that this type of workout during the season would be counter-productive.*

I’ll be honest that I wasn’t on this wavelength of thinking lately because I was all aboard the HIIT bandwagon thinking it might be the best cardio for hockey players.  Now, I’m not saying that HIIT is all of a sudden a thing of the past.  Actually, I’m still all over that and think it brings huge benefits to hockey players, but at the same time, it’s not the “end all be all” of energy system development for hockey players. You see, the heart is a muscle that is developed in a similar fashion to the muscles in our body.  You put it through some work and it adapts to get stronger and more efficient.

Have you ever gone hard for the first couple shifts and then all of a sudden you’re completely gassed the rest of the game?

I can raise my hand for that one and the reason being is that I’ve spent the majority of my training lifting weights and doing short, intense intervals for energy system work.  But what I didn’t realize was that energy system work has to be looked at as a pyramid.  The ATP-CP system being at the top of the pyramid (the point) and the aerobic system being at the bottom or the base of the pyramid.  The anaerobic system would then fall somewhere in the middle of the pyramid. So basically with a larger aerobic base, what you’ll find is a higher capacity for improved anaerobic work.  The bottom line is, you’ll be able to perform at a higher level more efficiently with a better developed aerobic system.

There are a number of benefits that long, steady state cardio can bring to a hockey player as well:

1. Improved Recovery

Now I’m not just talking about the day after a tough workout as what the term “recovery” is generally used for.  I’m also talking about improved recovery between sets during your actual workouts.

2. Improved Heart Function

The heart is a major player in how our body works and performs.  The more efficiently this muscle works, the better you’ll be able to perform.  What happens when the heart is forced to do work at a lower intensity you allow a lot more blood to enter the left ventricle.  When this happens over a period of time, that ventricle stretches and adapts to the training.  What you’ll now have is a heart that has more room to pump more blood with each beat.  Look in a textbook and they’ll call this term “stroke volume”.

I know there’s plenty of knocks on longer, steady state cardio type workouts as well.  In fact, I agree with the majority of them.  I think I just need to make this clear that I don’t think this type of training needs to happen on a full-time basis.  At the moment, my thinking is directly related to the off-season. Since it’s the early off-season and players don’t have practices and games any longer, their aerobic energy system is no longer putting in much work.

I also believe that since the off-season should be geared towards making improvements in strength, power, and overall performance, so based on the benefits of an improved aerobic system listed above, including some (2x’s a week) steady state cardio workouts a week for the next 3 or 4 weeks would be beneficial to your long-term development.

Some knocks on steady state cardio and why you can look past them at this point:

1. Makes You Slower

Even if you’ve been working on getting faster and you’ve been making huge gains in your speed lately, adding in a couple low intensity workouts a week for the next few weeks isn’t going to all of a sudden cancel out all that work you put in on getting faster. If you’re also including lifting heavy weights, getting stronger, and working on improving power, your body is going to adapt to all of them and not just one of the training mediums.

2. Not Specific To Hockey

I understand that in order to prepare for your sport of choice, your training should be somewhat specific to the sport itself.  In reality, the only training that’s specific to playing hockey is playing hockey, but that’s another article in itself.  If you watch a hockey game, you’ll notice that it’s the fastest team game out there.  Everything is done at high intensities…..that is, if you only watch the puck. If you keep your eye on one player at a time on the ice, you’ll notice that not everything is done at such high intensities their entire shift.  There are times when the player is going all out, filled in with parts of the shift where they’re coasting here and there when they’re not directly involved with the play.

As noted above, the whole purpose of this period of doing some steady state cardio workouts is to increase the performance of the heart so that it can pump more blood with each beat and work more efficiently.  Doing these types of workouts from time to time can be “specific” because a player needs to improve their recovery times between shifts so that they can perform at high levels throughout the game.  That may not be “specific” in the sense that it doesn’t replicate the movement of a skating stride, but it’s a “specific” quality that elite players need to compete at elite levels.  Oh, and no one is telling you to do sport specific workouts year round either.

Bosu balls are as “hockey specific” as you can get. Note the heavy dose of sarcasm.

What Should You Do and What Really Is The Best Cardio For Hockey Players

Building this aerobic base is going to help you set the stage for a larger anaerobic threshold and ultimately allow you to perform at a more intense level longer and recover from intense bouts of exercise faster.

So here’s a few ideas to include in your off-days:

1. 30 minute light run on the treadmill

2. A series of mobility drills followed by some skill work

3. Light weight dumbbell or barbell circuits

4. Light sled dragging, pushing

5. Using the slideboard along with some skill work

The idea is to get your heart rate working at a light to moderate intensity, so around 120-150 beats per minute (you’ll benefit from a heart-rate monitor here) will do the trick.

Remember, I’m not knocking high intensity interval training at all here, as I’m a firm believer that it brings huge benefits to hockey players.  This is all about creating that aerobic base so that your anaerobic work has more room to grow. So the answer to the question; What is the best cardio for hockey players? You need to work all your energy systems!

If you’re looking for a program that encompasses all aspects of off ice training for hockey you will definitely want to check out Kevin Neeld’s Ultimate Hockey Transformation! Kevin is currently the head Performance Coach for the Boston Bruins and has worked with the Women’s Olympic Hockey Team.