If I were to compare two hockey players with the exact same skills, I would want the one who is the better overall athlete. That's why I am a firm believer that hockey players need to become more athletic off the ice to help their progress on the ice.
They will have a better foundation to improve their skills to skate and shoot better than someone who only knows the on-ice part. Early specialization in one sport is one of the reasons why athletes experience overuse injuries at an early age. They are performing the same repetitive patterns during their developmental stages, and it is causing problems, such as FAI and labral tears of the hip.
The best way to counteract this overuse and its associated negative effects is to expose the body to a variety of athletic qualities.
The first method is to play other sports that have nothing to do with hockey. That is the best strategy for young athletes. If they have not yet hit puberty, they should not be specializing in anything.
The second method is to use a strength and conditioning program that teaches other skills to improve athleticism. Backpedaling and shuffling may not transfer to the ice, but it develops athletic attributes that hockey players often lack. This helps reduce the effect of overuse and build athleticism.
There is only one downside to this notion. Someone who plays a lot of hockey and nothing else should ease back into running. The main concern here is the groin and hamstrings.
These two muscles groups are often insanely weak. Running asks these muscle groups to do a lot. When the strength is not there, something has to give. Since the quads are very developed in hockey players, athletes may be able to accelerate well. But if you ask them to decelerate or change direction, they may be pulling up in pain.
Easing Back into Running
The first few weeks after the season should include almost nothing. This is the opportunity to recover from the season and have fun playing other games.
Next, training should focus on building up the strength of the hamstrings and groins. Again, running is not advised here. Some light aerobic work on the bike could be beneficial to kickstart the aerobic base.
We are now in early summer, when working on deceleration training can be important. When we decelerate from running, we place a lot of stress on the hamstrings. Without adequate strength, injuries can occur, so we need to do light deceleration work while continuing to build strength in the hamstrings.
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As we approach the middle of the summer, we can start to incorporate resisted running. Pulling sleds or running against a bungee reduces the impact of running while training to accelerate. We need to continue working on decelerating to provide the hamstrings with the ability to slow down.
Once this phase is over, we can use sprinting as a means of training for power and conditioning. Now we can use sprints and agility drills by themselves with long rest periods, or we can repeat them with shorter rest periods to elicit a conditioning effect.
This will lead us right up to the season, and you will be ready to hit the ice stronger and faster than ever. If the process had been rushed too early in the offseason, you may still be on the shelf with a pulled hamstring.
One of the best defenses against hamstring injuries among hockey players is to develop a ton of strength in the muscle groups. I like a couple of different categories.
Every hockey player should deadlift. Not everyone will do the same variation, but everyone should so some kind. Athletes with the hip mobility to sumo deadlift will also get some groin strength in addition to developing their hamstrings and glutes.
After that, we have RDL patterns. There are a million variations of RDLs that we can implement depending on how many legs we use and what equipment we have.
The last group is hamstring curl variations. These do not require as much hip mobility but allow the hamstrings to strengthen. Hockey players would be well served to incorporate a lot of them.
Many hockey players complain of tight hamstrings. A lot of hockey players are also in spinal extension for the better part of the year. Excessive arching in the back puts tension on the hamstrings. Therefore, most of them experience the tightness.
To combat this, good anterior core stability can help. Using exercises that discourage extending through the low back are what we are looking for. Different pullovers, leg lowers, and deadbugs are helpful for a couple of reasons. They can be done supine, which gives feedback when the back pops up off the ground, and they are great for resisting extension.
Addressing core stability can help decrease tension in the hamstrings, making them better at handling stress.
Bonus: Groin Strength
If the hamstrings don't get injured, the groin certainly can. Hockey players have weak groins because of the dominance of their hip extenders.
Avoiding a groin injury follows almost the same path as the hamstrings, but the exercises change. Single-leg work requires the groin to provide stability.
Take it one step further by using a slideboard or a towel on a smooth surface. To really hit the groin, perform a Reverse or Lateral Lunge with the foot sliding away from the body.