A common fallacy is that a player can only improve speed and explosiveness through on-ice training. In fact, with targeted off-ice, offseason work, a player can make on-ice gains in leaps and bounds.
Darryl Nelson has been the strength and conditioning coach for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program (NTDP) since 2000-01. He has been instrumental in establishing the program’s highly regarded off-ice training regiment for players at the NTDP.
For Nelson, explosiveness training is essential for players looking to improve skating speed. Nelson said that steady-state endurance training, like preparing for a marathon, isn’t beneficial for the sport of hockey. Explosive movements are the name of the game.
“The reason those things are so important is because hockey is a sprint-based sport,” Nelson said. “You only play a shift for 40 seconds at a time. If you really think about it, the best players in the world are probably playing between 20 and 25 minutes. The whole sport is about speed and explosiveness.”
Nelson said there’s often a misperception of what makes a player a fast skater. What actually makes someone skate or run fast is how much force and how hard he or she can push the ground. Therefore, the strongest players tend to be the fastest players.
“The players with the highest vertical jumps, the ones who have the longest standing jumps, the highest one-rep max, are always the fastest,” Nelson said.
So, how do you become a stronger and faster player? Well, a steady combination of strength and plyometric training in the offseason will help. However, the level of training is dependent on the player’s age and physical maturity.
Nelson believes that for youngsters, boys and girls who are not yet teenagers, their training should be about participating in a variety of games to improve overall athleticism.
“For kids eight, nine and 10 years old, basically everything should be play based and game based. Any type of ball game that is reactionary and reactive,” Nelson said. “At that age, it’s about getting them moving and having fun. If they’re trying hard, if they’re attempting to sprint and compete, they’re going to get faster. That’s how they’re going to build speed at that level.”
Those benefits can be found in a variety of summer sports. Nelson said sports that are similar in the time and sprint demand of hockey, like lacrosse, track, football, baseball, are great cross-training for youngsters.
Once a player begins to mature physically, typically around bantam age and in their teens, the best way to improve explosiveness is through a combination of weight and plyometric training.
“Plyometric training is always a part of what we do; it’s a part of strength training program in the offseason and preseason,” Nelson said. “Once we get in-season, we stop doing them once the guys get to the point where they’re skating every day.”
Offseason Exercise: Heiden Jumps
This training exercise is named after American speed skater Eric Heiden, who won an unprecedented five Olympic gold medals at the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Start in a strong skating position, balancing on one foot with deep knee bend (if a player is on their left foot, their right arm is forward and their left arm is back). Explode laterally towards the right, pushing off with the left foot. Land on the right foot and recover just like a skating stride, so that their right arm is back and their left arm is forward. Have their non-weight-bearing leg (in this case the left) to recover to the mid-line of their body. And then do it back the other way, pushing off with your right leg. This exercise can be done side-to-side and diagonally at 45-degree angles.
For a more advanced movement with greater hip rotation, make a 90-degree Heiden jump. Start in the skating position facing north. The player will jump off their left foot and face east when they land on their right foot, so they complete a 90-degree turn in the air. When they jump on their right foot, they should land facing south. After four jumps, they’ll be facing north again.
The thing to keep in mind for plyometric training is to keep the number of reps relatively low and take long rests between sets so that the player is not fatigued. Every time a player jumps and bounds it should be an explosive and forceful movement. Three sets of ten jumps (five on each leg) should be used for maximum benefit.
For additional exercises designed to improve leg strength, speed and explosiveness, check out USA Hockey’s age-appropriate dryland training materials focusing on running, jumping and lower body strength.