Optimizing Flexibility For Peak Hockey Performance

I’ve discussed both flexibility and mobility a lot in the past within my agility, dynamic vs. static stretching, fix muscle tightness and how to skate faster blog posts as well as in a few of my training programs.

So, lots of material to be discussed here including that of which has already been covered!

Naturally, like everything in sports science, there is always more research to go through and more corners to turn when determining what the best possible strategies are for your hockey athletes and how they need to approach each and every area behind their training, sleep and nutrition.

The purpose of today’s blog will be to discuss flexibility and mobility for hockey athletes but under different circumstances.

Essentially, by the end of this blog you will have a much better understanding of flexibility and what is the main cause behind your inability to become more mobile and efficient with your movement.

So, moving on to the two typical scenarios here with most of you reading this. Either the coach says:

“Hey! You are too tight, you need to stretch more!”

Or, one day once you’ve decided you have had enough of walking around like a South Park character, you will say to yourself:

“Man I need to stretch more. I’m always tight”

Those are normally the two stories I hear before athletes start asking questions about how to correct this issue.

All around the world, flexibility is determined and measured by physical screens and used as a key performance indicator and injury-risk measure. Yet, the literature behind the topic can be really contradicting, and when asking around (and avoiding the research) it can be even more contradicting from one coach to another.

Some literature says it prevents injury due to greater mobility, while others say it increases injury due to that very same increased mobility. Some literature states performance decrements, others claim performance enhancement. Coaches advice bounces all over these walls as well.

I always want to evaluate programming with a critical eye and ensure we are doing everything correct for the maximum progress possible within the shortest possible timeframe. So it really lead myself to asking my own question.

Does flexibility programming actually have a place in hockey specific training?

The answer without a doubt is, yes. How we go about setting up a flexibility program specific for hockey athletes will be the exploration for this blog post as well as what the heck a flexibility program actually looks like as well.

To make the reading more digestible for you, I have found defining some terms in the beginning of these blog posts help a lot towards fully understanding the concepts being discussed.

Flexibility: Flexibility is a reflection of the absolute range of motion of a joint. This includes the capsule and tissues surrounding it.

Instability: Abnormal movement of a joint that will not allow it to support a normal load.

Stiffness: Tension increase per unit of change in length of the muscle.

Hypermobility: Above normal movement for a joint. Lots of times people dub this as “double jointed”

Hypomobility: Below normal movement for a joint.

Now that that’s out of the way, I want to further define flexibility for you guys. Over 90% of the time when I hear coaches and athletes talk, the term flexibility is thrown around just as a blanket statement referencing all types of mobility.

The reality is that many factors contribute to the term “flexibility” including your joint capsule, ligaments, muscles, tendons, neural tissue, fascia and the interactions these all have between one another. It’s important to care about this because identifying where exactly you have an issue is the first step towards solving that issue.

Ever stretch for what seems like forever and never see an increase in flexibility?

Well, you could be targeting the tissues that don’t need any help or are not the actual root of the mobility problem.

Joint Capsule

One of the largest factors contributing to your movement is the flexibility of your joint capsule, which depends mainly on the integrity of the capsule itself and the ligaments that surround it. Of important note, the capsule will adapt based on the athlete’s activity and is often a necessary change in order to move efficiently out there on the ice.

An easily visual example of joint capsule adaptability comes with baseball pictures. If you ever watch a pitch in slow motion and witness the external rotation they have in their shoulder it is wild. This is joint capsule athletic adaptation being played out in real life.

Muscle Tissue

The relationship between your ability to effectively contract and relax a muscle contributes towards flexibility while optimal muscle contraction ultimately depends upon the length-tension relationship of the muscle and muscle cells. Of important note, static stretching has been shown to result in decreased power output by effecting this relationship making static stretching a poor choice prior to activity such as hockey or resistance training. Save it for its own day.

Nerve Tissue Damage

The neurological system plays a great role in flexibility as well, but will not be discussed within this blog post due to its extreme complexity and inapplicability to most readers. For example, nerve tissue damage in the back can cause muscle spasms elsewhere in the body as a protective mechanism in order to prevent you from performing a given movement that may further stress the spinal cord. This requires medical attention and a full assessment.

Fascia

Fascia is a type of surrounding tissue that holds all other tissues together. It is made up of collagen fibers, elastic fibers and fatty tissue. Fascia plays many comprehensive roles in the body, so much so that it has created its own field within sports recovery/rehabilitation in that you can become certified as a Fascial Massage Therapist (FMT). It plays a critical role within flexibility, stiffness and even proprioception (body awareness / co-ordination).

Flexibility Programming. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Flexibility is one of those topics in the field to where people for some reason get emotional about it. Coaches just make these bold claims and statements and straight-up insist they are right without taking in any opposing schools of thought. As a field, it’s pretty much cut up into two sides with respect to its use. Probably most of this argument is spawned due to the contradicting research.

From what I’ve seen, there definitely is lots of confliction, but there also is some consistencies as well. Some of its common sense, some of its not so much.

First of all when we talk flexibility most people are referring to creating pain free movement. But does improving flexibility actually improve performance?

The research really says no on this one. Going beyond what is necessary for your sport there is zero advantage to be had by being more mobile and in fact too much mobility can actually decrease your performance and increase your risk of injury. To put it simply:

Does a hockey player need to be more flexible than a couch potato? Of course.

Does a hockey player gain any advantage at all by being as flexible as a gymnast? No.

There is a very clear point of diminishing returns. There is no prize for those who can do the splits. Who cares?

Now from a more broad perspective of flexibility on athletic performance, Shier et al examined 23 studies on the topic of acute effect of flexibility on performance. 22 of these studies showed no benefit towards isometric force, isokinetic torque or jump height. Four of these articles were specifically on running speed (which I feel has good carryover to the ice). Of these four articles, 1 found stretching decreased performance, 2 were inconclusive and 1 found an increase in performance. Overall, the research here is leaning heavily towards one of two scenarios:

a) Performance decrease
b) Neutral effect

Not a good use of time if you ask me.

Within the same review, 9 of the studies were actually done of habitual stretching overtime where it was not done immediately prior to exercise. Seven of the studies found positive benefits towards performance and two of them were neutral.

Now we are getting somewhere. This data suggests that stretching can benefit the hockey athlete overtime, so long as it is not immediately prior to exercise (where we saw negative effects).

But when choosing which type of stretching to do, should it be static or dynamic?

See THIS stretching post to find out my thoughts there.

Now let’s look at it from another perspective, does being inflexible make you more susceptible to injury?

The research here is inconclusive (again…) towards the relationship between stretching and injury / injury prevention. But, lots of studies have shown that increasing range of motion beyond what is needed for your particular sport (as discussed above) can actually contribute to hypermobility AND instability. It is difficult to reach a research consensus on this particular subject due to the variety of study design, but it is of my belief that this theory makes perfect sense and that time will validify it.

Hockey doesn’t require a ton of flexibility, making it a priority in your plan doesn’t make the most sense unless you are devastatingly stiff and run like a baby giraffe. Some people can benefit from enhanced mobility, everybody has played hockey with that one guy on the team whose unathleticism can even leave you in confusion at times. Think about these guys, mostly all super-unathletic people are also totally immobile. This is the population who would actually benefit from having a flexibility program as a priority as opposed to an afterthought.

Enough research talk for now, let’s talk about methods and strategies of which you can actually use to enhance your flexibility. What do we know now that can guide our direction?

1. Static stretching immediately before a hockey game or training session is a bad idea. But, over the long term is has been shown beneficial if it’s not performed pre-game / pre-workout. If we move this static stretching to its own day, the end of the day or awhile after our physical activity, this can be a very good thing.

2. Static stretching before physical activity alters the length-tension relationship of a muscle which can contribute to decreased performance and give us a greater reason to perform dynamic stretching here instead.

3. Your muscles become stiff for a reason. This stiffness is the body’s way of protecting itself due to instability. If you begin to stretch an area and take away that stiffness but do not replace it with adequate strength to support the area you can increase your risk for injury. Ask yourself, “why is this muscle stiff?”. You may have a weak agonist/antagonist relationship here which originated the imbalance where it’s nothing about just being tight, and is instead the body’s way of protecting you.

4. Dynamic stretching has actually been shown to increase performance (power/agility) when done pre-exercise. Using this in your warm up is smart.

5. Long term stretching improves isometric force production and velocity of contraction.

How and where you do it is up to you, but when it comes to doing what is best for hockey athletes I can pretty much give you four golden rules:

1. If you’re going to static stretch, it is best done on its own day all together, or, long after your workout is done.

2. If you’re going to dynamic stretch, it is best done pre-workout / pre-game.

3. If you’re going to do any form of flexibility, make sure you actually need it! There is no prize for being super mobile and you learned here today that can actually be detrimental.

4. If you’re going to give greater flexibility to a muscle group that is tense, make sure you’re doing total body (intelligent) strength training so that you are creating strong enough stability to decrease any risk of injury by you loosening up that area.

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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.

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