Optimizing Cross-Training Methods For Hockey

Cross training has been used in sports for decades as a means of improving performance, increasing the rate of recovery, and maintaining conditioning during an injury in athlete’s who are not able to participate in regular hockey training or ice time.

Old school coaches and athletes will simply just tell the common hockey player to pick up any other sport during the summer or when they’re injured. Sometimes this will work, but I don’t really like going by “sometimes” standards. At this point in time we know an incredible amount of information about the human body and when you understand the physiologic demands of certain sports and the adaptations they force on the body you can begin to create a more controlled, prescriptive method of cross training for hockey. Eliminating the “sometimes” factor and instead opting for certainty.

What is Cross Training Anyways?

For the purpose of this blog post, I will be referring to cross training as participating in an alternative training mode exclusive to the one normally used (Not hockey specific stuff).

Regardless of the type of cross training you utilize, the goal is to gain an adaptation in the body that is going to enhance your performance in hockey. For example, playing basketball challenges many of the same energy systems that hockey does which can benefit your conditioning on the ice while simultaneously giving your mind a break from hockey and reducing the risk of overuse injuries from only playing hockey all the time.

Cross-training, of course, is not utilized to get better at other activities. A hockey player doesn’t care about his foul shot percentage or his performance in darts; we are discussing cross-training strictly as a means to improve hockey performance.

Throughout this blog post my main aim is to open up your mind to the rationale behind cross-training and how we can effectively select cross-training activities strategically so it is not just entertainment. Having said this, every athlete and their current situation is always unique to one another so I will not be offering any cookie-cutter recipes and instead will be focusing on breaking down the principles that need to be considered so that you can make the best of your current situation.

The largest benefits coming from cross-training are primarily attributed to the principle of variation, changing in training stimulus, optimal stimulus from the introduction of new activities, psychological break from main sport and decreased risk of overuse injuries due to always using the same movement patterns (I.e. skating overuse leading to the common knee pain hockey athletes run into).

Here’s a couple questions for you:

-What is the weakest point in your conditioning? (aerobic or alactic)
-How much time should you ideally dedicate to bringing up this weakness?
-What type of cross-training should be implemented in either of the above scenarios?

This is where transferability comes in.

Physical activity creates a number of physiological adaptations that better enable the body to cope when you place demands on it (Ex. A hard hockey game in double OT). This type of work creates both a central and peripheral benefit.

Central adaptations refer to the more “total body” benefits you receive such as improved oxygen transport, improved blood transport, increased muscular capillary density and increased cardiac output.

Whereas peripheral is slightly more specific in the sense that the adaptations refer to an enhancement of the muscles capacity to use this oxygen. This is accomplished through an increase in mitochondrial and aerobic enzyme density within a given muscle, meaning, if you spend all day cycling and not working on your upper body; your lower body can receive these adaptations but not your upper body. Basically, just slightly more specific to the muscle group under training stress as opposed to a global effect.

Of course, cross-training work (and all physical activity for that matter) creates both central and peripheral adaptations on the body, although, the magnitude at which your cross-training work benefits your main sport is more likely going to be a function of how well you developed centrally as opposed to peripherally. These central pathways to sport performance are used in all endurance pursuits and involve many system and muscle groups.

Therefore intelligent cross-training for hockey would include utilizing another sport that demands similar physiological pathways for its execution for maximum transferability. In a perfect world, we’d get both central and peripheral benefits.

I cannot stress how crucial transferability is towards proper cross-training. If there is no transfer, there is no benefit. In a similar vein, you would be better off choosing a sport that has maximal transfer as opposed to one with minimal. Cross-training operates on a continuum of effectiveness just like everything else in sports science.

So now that we know a little something about why cross-training can be effective for hockey athletes at certain points in the year, let’s talk about those benefits in a little more detail so we know a little more about why we are doing this and when it should be optimally incorporated.

Injury Reduction and Rehabilitation

Hockey athletes often tons of time training every week including lots of ice time, strength training, power work, speed work and conditioning. In order to optimize their performance on the ice, this often calls for lots of repetition of the same type of on-ice and off-ice work. In an easy world, this wouldn’t be a problem. But unfortunately, becoming a star athlete isn’t easy and repetitive tasks create repetitive injuries.

For example, somebody who spends all day on their computer does not get carpal tunnel syndrome because typing is such a grueling task, no, they get carpel tunnel syndrome because of the repetitive action their job demands.

In the hockey world, as I’ve discussed at length in both video and blog, the repetitive action of skating creates asymmetries within both the upper and lower body that can then create injury issues. This is one of the biggest reasons I shy away from all the slide board stuff and skate mimicking exercises, off-ice work is for balance and development, not for making your injuries worse by doing exercises that look cool on Instagram. But that’s another conversation.

This large training volume hockey athletes endure are necessary for performance increases but also give rise to these overuse injuries. The use of cross-training in addition to a sport specific plan is a perfect recipe to balance injury risk while simultaneously boosting performance. This is a big reason why my hockey athletes perform sprints in their speed work; direct correlation to hockey speed and performance while simultaneously not mimicking the act of skating and creating more issues than we need to.

Sprinting for hockey speed and conditioning can be considered perfect cross-training 101.

This supplementation of cross-training (I’m not just talking about sprinting, I’m talking about any and all cross-training) allows athletes to continue smashing away at the central and peripheral mechanisms we discussed above that are involved in performance while resting the overused muscles that may be accumulating fatigue and require some additional recovery from all the on-ice work. Exposure to cross-training at given points in the year (ideally during injury times or the offseason) help reduce strain on the overused muscles and give hockey athletes the opportunity to improve muscular symmetry through different movements/ranges of motion.

From a rehabilitation perspective, cross-training can be utilized during the transitioning phase when a hockey athlete is going from inactive and/or non-specific activity back to a more hockey specific form of training. Cross-training in this transitioning respect proves beneficial to improve (and prevent the decline in) central and peripheral fitness characteristics associated with hockey performance without exacerbating their current injury and/or currently overused musculature. With cross-training, you can work on your physiologic adaptations so that once you do complete your rehabilitation and recovery you will be back a more fit athlete than you otherwise would have been.

Lastly, cross-training during injury / rehabilitation can help fight the loss of muscle mass during inactivity and also fight the neural inhibition that can come with it (which can result in a loss of co-ordination until training regularly again).

Essentially, to wrap this section up, cross-training during an injury is a must in my opinion. Provided you are picking an activity that doesn’t bother your injury, it can do great things for maintaining your level of fitness and strength.

Improved Conditioning

Hockey is somewhat of an inconvenient sport compared to other sports. To be truly sport specific, you need to get all your equipment on, drive to the arena, arrange some ice time, and then get skating.

Whereas with soccer, you can pretty much go outside to any park nearby completely free of charge and bring a ball. Done.

Cross-training as a means of improving conditioning for hockey is as much about convenience as it is about improving performance. Increasing the training volume required to meaningfully boost conditioning levels on the ice but only using ice-time to do this would result in a whole lot of time on the ice, a whole lot of money spent and a whole lot of inconvenience when similar things could be done to get the job done as well.

Don’t get me wrong, ice time is great, but most of my readers probably aren’t going every day, and for my fellow Canadian’s who, like my Dad back in the day, built me a kick-ass homemade ice rink in the backyard to skate on in between arena trips, rock on my friends. O’ Canada!

Back to reality.

Getting the required amount of training volume to meaningfully improve conditioning requires a lot of work and getting a lot of this work done on land utilizing cross-training just makes more sense for most athletes. Training specificity and transferability is key when choosing conditioning and speed methods for your dryland work. Refer back to some of my conditioning blog posts and videos to make the right choices here.

Just remember, keep it specific to where you’re weak (alactic or aerobic) for greatest transferability of central and peripheral components.

It’s important to understand that these peripheral and central adaptations gained from cross-training will transfer over to hockey and improve your work capacity so that you may perform even more hockey specific stuff and still effectively recover. In this sense:

More cross-training = Greater work capacity for hockey specific training = Increased total training volume of hockey specific work = Better hockey athlete

Psychological Benefit

Nobody operates 24hrs a day, 7 days a week for their entire life at full gear. It’s impossible, and the people who tell you they do are full of crap. Every athlete in the world runs into stale periods during training where they aren’t too revved up to go to the gym, they aren’t very motivated to get to the ice and everything is starting to feel more like a chore than it is enjoyable.

So what’s one way to stay fired up?

Well, aside from goal setting, cross-training is one of the best ways to stay motivated and one of the best ways to stay fired up.

When you’re always pounding away at hockey specific stuff results can slow down a bit during the times where you’re not as motivated as you normally are. Physical recovery has a lot to do with this but so does your psychology.

The addition of cross-training brings a breath of fresh air into your monotonous routine while still applying the required effort and intensity to keep pushing forward. It’s just coming in the form of a different vehicle to get there. A new vehicle, one that you’re excited about and not bored with right now. Incorporating some different cross-training methods for a certain period of time can really help hockey athletes decrease their current level of stress and find that internal fire for training again.

Cross-training can come in the form of structured workouts built for hockey performance such as the workouts I prescribe in Next Level Speed and Next Level Conditioning, or they can also come in the form of some more enjoyment-based activity (Ex. Playing tennis). Doing this type of stuff breaks monotony and reintroduces the motivation for when the more sport specific stuff comes back.

Improving Recovery

I have discussed recovery in some pretty solid depth in the past across a few blog posts so I’m not going to dive into it much here other than stating that recovery comes in two major forms in this sense:

Passive recovery, which is essentially doing nothing.

And…

Active recovery which comes in the form of performing some physical activity but under a certain scenario where it still allows for proper recovery to take place. It’s been found in the literature at times that active recovery (light training sessions) can actually be even more effective for recovery than doing nothing at all.

Cross-training in this scenario by playing a fun, pick-up game of basketball then allows improved blood flow to recovering muscles thereby enhancing both the delivery of recovery enhancing nutrients into the muscle and also the removal of residual metabolic waste products associated with the previous exercise you’re trying to recover from.

Youth Athletic Development

Not specializing early in an athlete’s career is coming up through the ranks to be the most effective way in which to build youth athletes. Meaning, don’t specialize in hockey when you’re a kid. You shouldn’t be only playing hockey in the winter, spring, summer and fall. Expand your horizons and perform a multitude of sports. Doing so is going to create the greatest base possible which in turn heightens the potential a given youth athlete can excel to within his or her hockey career.

For more information on this I have wrote a youth blog and an entire youth hockey training book on this type of stuff.

Considerations Before Jumping on the Cross Training Wagon

Let me back up a couple steps here and say that I don’t recommend just jumping on the cross-training wagon, buying a tennis racket and calling it hockey performance training. Certain things should be considered because if your approach to cross-training is a poorly constructed, poorly transferable and inadequately monitored plan you can make more mistakes than you do corrections. In cases where you play it dumb, it can even lead to injury. (Hey Coach Garner, can I spare in MMA 5x a week? That should work on my conditioning right???)

Cross-training doesn’t differ from any other sports science training theory. Frequency, intensity and volume have to be taken into consideration alongside a priority analysis. I know you guys already know this stuff, but for some reason or other athletes and coaches tend to through sports science out the window with cross-training. Your guess on why is as good as mine.

First of all, what are you choosing to work on? Your aerobic or alactic work?

Choose an activity that properly adheres to transferability and is actually going to work on what you want it to. Couple examples for aerobic stuff could be hiking or cycling and some alactic work could be done through sprint and jump variations. A combination of the two for some enhanced entertainment could be found in tennis, basketball or squash. These are all just off the top of my head, the options are endless. Just ensure you’re matching up energy system demand. One last note here, choose activities that involve large muscle groups and multiple joints as they will allow for the greatest transference (I.e. Not ping-pong).

Second, how often are you going to do it?

The frequency that which an athlete decides to incorporate his or her cross-training work is dependent on the situation they are in and what else they are doing. A balance must be kept within your cross-training goals as to not affect your sport specific goals. Although, the variation always depends as an athlete in rehabilitation will want to perform more cross-training than a healthy athlete during playoffs.

Frequency has a huge window in where an athlete can perform anywhere from 0-4 sessions per week. Closer to zero for the healthy, motivated athletes and closer to 4 for the injured, aerobic-centered or psychologically affected athlete.

Third, how intense should it be?

The intensity should match the goals, plain and simple. If you want to work on your alactic work then it’s has to be highly intense (sprints and jumps) whereas if you’re working on your aerobic capacity it should intentionally be a low intensity session (cycling). Only with the correct intensity can transference of central and peripheral adaptions occur. Intensity is also dictated based on your own recovery ability and current injury status.

Fourth, when in the year would be best to do it?

The best times to incorporate cross-training work for healthy athletes would be during the offseason where training specificity has more flexibility. Cross-training can be performed for the entire offseason at a relatively high frequency and should be decreased during the in-season where specificity decreases as well.

Beyond this, it can be incorporated any time you are either unmotivated or injured as well, something you can’t really plan for.

To wrap things up…

Cross-training is a great tool to have in your tool kit for all of the above mentioned reasons, but, it needs to be used appropriately as well if it is going to be a tool that enhances your on-ice hockey performance. With it, we can increase your training volume without increasing your risk of overuse injuries, continue a form of constructive training during an injury, keep motivation high, improve conditioning and enhance your recovery through active recovery strategies.

As a final note, I want to say once again that cross-training follows the same rules as all other training and that you must program it accordingly and recover from it effectively for it to work.

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About the author

Dan Garner

Dan Garner is the head strength coach and nutrition specialist at HockeyTraining.com. He has coached hockey players and other athletes at all levels from youth to the NHL elite. Garner holds many educational credentials and has been mentored by some of the top coaches in the world.

3 Comments

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  • Hello Dan,

    First, thanks for getting the advice out there, it helps a lot. I train a lot (keeping watch on overtraining all the time) and during the last couple of years hockey has become my no.1 choice of exercise, so every couple of months or so I get psychologically tired of it. I was beginning to approach this phase, when (2 weeks ago) I started to read your articles and now, when I’ve incorporated your conditioning workouts (jumps, sprints, med.ball) into my routine, I feel energized once again. My hockey has definitely improved, I guess mostly due to not overusing hockey muscles anymore, as I’m down to 2-3 skates per week now. Mostly because sprinting those 20-25 yards is so much fun, especially now when I am confident, that it increases my hockey performance.

    But I had a question about hockey asymmetry (structural imbalance) correction. I am structurally well balanced, am training core on regular basis, almost daily foam rolling quads and calves, and during my everyday activities I try to engage VMO and hamstrings (taking stairs with focus on VMO, doing couple of split squats and lunges evey hour or so, etc.), but I don’t lift weights (I’m one of the fastest on the 35+ team with several current and ex-pro players, so strength is not my priority at this point). Are 20 min.conditioning (sprinting + jumping + med.balling, according to your programms) sessions alone enough to prevent structural imbalances caused by hockey games, if the conditioning : hockey sessions are balanced 1:1? Or should it be more like conditioning:hockey = 2:1? Is it possible to quantify the amount of structural imbalance caused by an intense hockey game?
    Regards,
    Kaspars

    • Hey Kaspars, that’s great to hear you have started to incorporate the conditioning work and have seen an improvement on the ice along with that confidence boost, love hearing that. First, it’s impossible to quantify the amount of structural imbalance one game can cause, that’s a drop in the bucket. Structural imbalances occur over a longer period of time of repetitive action. Consider a desk worker, they do not receive carpal tunnel syndrome in their wrists because one day at work the typing was just so extreme. They receive it because they have been typing daily for hours and months on end to eventually build themselves up to causing damage on their body. That is what hockey can do if you do not reverse engineer the movements and create a program to rebalance the body so that you can continue to perform at a high level without the risk of injury.

      To answer your questions, no, conditioning alone is not enough the offset the structural imbalances. No matter what ratio you put it at. You need to get in the gym and perform resistance training, that is what is going to cause the adaptations we are after. Additionally, you mentioned you are one of the fastest on your team right now so strength isn’t a priority for you. Strength will not slow you down, and will only provide more benefit towards your shot power, ability to fight being knocked off the puck, prevention of injury, and will actually make you faster. Don’t avoid the gym, you’re going to be a better hockey player for it.

      • Thanks a lot, Dan! I really appreciate your answer and all the information you’re putting out there. Thanks to you, I’m back again in designing my workout plan, which is fun in itself 🙂

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