Conditioning is essential to on-ice success.
It’s no secret, hockey today is faster and more dynamic than ever before. The players who want to dominate at their current level and thrive at the next level need to be skaters. And while most players know the impact of getting faster, they often underestimate the impact elite conditioning levels will have on their game.
- Want to be the player Coach knows they can depend on to be on the ice for the last shift of a 3-2 game?
- Want to be the player who’s still running at 100% while players are slowing down on a long shift or late in the period?
- Want to reduce mental errors and turnovers?
If you answered yes to any of these questions (like we all did), then you need to enhance your conditioning levels.
But the truth is, not all conditioning work is equal.
And as hockey training evolves, it begs the question – is running, jogging, or long distance “cardio” work valuable for hockey players anymore?
In this article we’re answering exactly this.
For the context of this article, we’re going to be calling all slow and longer distant work as “running” or “jogging”. This can also be applied to cycling or hoping on a stationary bike – we just primarily get asked about “going for a run” so we decided we’d stick with that language.
The Pros of Long Distance Running for Hockey Players
When it comes to hockey training, almost everything has its place.
While some Strength Coaches would have a meltdown over hearing about a hockey player going for a jog or getting in some long/slow paced conditioning work – the reality is that there are some benefits to it.
#1: Jogging & Distance Running Creates an Aerobic Base
In recent years, there’s been a strong shift from “long conditioning” work to sprint based work.
And for good reason, hockey player primarily utilize short burst energy systems:
- The anaerobic Phosphagen System for work under 10 seconds such as sprints to chase a loose puck.
- The Anaerobic Glycolysis (Lactic Acid) System for short term work in the 25-90 second range such as a hockey shift. sprints (going from coast to chasing a loose puck) and short term aerobic work in the 20-60 second range (a hockey shift).
But the last energy system is less commonly considered by today’s Strength Coaches and that’s the aerobic system. This is working through an entire game and is vital to maintaining performance.
This is why we encourage players to build what we call an aerobic base.
Simply put, building a better aerobic base allows you to increase your aerobic threshold and therefore delay when your performance starts to decline. This means that you’ll have a greater aerobic capacity for longer.
In a practical context, this means that hockey players won’t feel the third period burnout.
We call this the base because it allows all other energy systems to maintain performance over a longer duration. Essentially it’s what all “conditioning” is built on.
So how does this play into jogging or running long distances?
Research has shown that long distance and steady pace work increases the number of capillaries, the size and quantity of mitochondria and the enzymes involved in the aerobic energy system. It also improves your cardiovascular system (the heart, lungs, and circulatory system) to supply oxygen and nutrients to the muscles.
Ultimately these physical changes allow for players to perform longer and more intense efforts.
Now, there’s an important consideration for hockey players here.
Almost all hockey players can build this aerobic base through games and practices.
The only reasons why we’d suggest a player using slow/steady-pace conditioning would be:
- They’re injured and can’t be skating;
- Players have been deconditioned from time off/reduced ice time;
- It’s the early off-season and skates are minimal or skill focused;
- Players are noticing a notable drop off in the third period performance.
So while players can improve their aerobic base by running or cycling – we’d prefer to see this work on the ice.
#2: Long Distance Work Improves Stamina and Recovery
Alright, the last point went deep – so let’s make this one simple.
Research has shown that endurance work, like running, improves athletes tolerance to lactic acid. While this is helpful for hockey players, the greater benefit is that it improves their ability to clear lactic acid from their muscles.
Both are huge for hockey players.
Lactic acid is the byproduct of the anaerobic energy systems discussed early and a build of a lactic acid (and more so hydrogen) lead to the “leg burn” you’ve undoubtedly felt at the end of a long shift.
By improving your capacity to clear lactic acid from your muscles, you can recover more quickly from a hard sprint or shift.
While we could again suggest that getting on the ice for conditioning work is more beneficial – it is worth considering if you’re not getting in conditioning work on the ice.
The Cons of Long Distance Running for Hockey Players
So while long distance work has some valuable benefits for hockey players, the truth is that there are likely more downsides.
Let’s dive into some of the downsides we want our players to consider.
#1: Lower Return on Investment
It’s important for hockey players to consider the return on investment when it comes to training.
This is both a time and energy investment.
Sure, stick handling a ball at home if valuable – but probably not as much ROI as practicing a quicker release with some shots.
Sure, hitting a heavy bench press in the gym has some value – but probably not as ROI as structured full-body workout.
And sure, going for a 5k run has some value – but probably not as much as sprint or short burst energy system work.
There are three things that reduce this return on investment:
- If you’re skating or getting in team practices – you’re probably getting enough aerobic work. Focus your time/energy elsewhere.
- The stress on joints probably isn’t worth the upside aerobic gains.
- If you’re comparing an hour of aerobic work vs an hour of strength training – you’re probably not going to get the same performance benefits.
As hockey players, whether a junior player/pro player or a beer league beauty – we don’t have a lot of time to fit training in our schedule. That’s why we want our relentless players to leverage high quality workouts and high ROI training activities.
An hour of skill work (on or off ice), a strength session, a mobility/roll out session, or even core and sprint are all higher ROI than going for a run.
#2: Exaggerate Imbalances & Risk Overuse Injuries
Hockey players are notorious for dysfunction in their body.
From tight hips to imbalanced backs to everything in between.
Running is inherently tough on the body. Especially for “non-runner” and occasional runners who aren’t trained to run.
Often we’ll hear of a player who gets bored without hockey in the early off-season and then starts doing some 5k runs and suddenly their back is tweaked, they have shin splints or plantar fasciitis, or their knee is in constant pain.
They’ve essentially taken their movement dysfunctions from hockey and taken them to an activity where they’re going to perform thousands of reps.
And the body hates it.
So while we like our players to use running in short and intense burst, using long distance running isn’t with the injury risk for hockey players.
#3: Neglects More Valuable Energy Systems
Our last reason that we don’t love long distance work for hockey players is that it’s a big time/energy commitment that really only addressed one third of the conditioning demands of hockey players.
Going for a jog won’t improve your phosphagen system or the ability to repeatedly sprint at maximum capacity. It also won’t improve your anaerobic glycolysis system or the ability to endure an intense 30 second shift.
But doing structured high intensity interval training and sprint work can improve your aerobic base.
If you structure your conditioning work to be high intensity and minimize your rest times – you'll leverage all three energy systems, and thus build an aerobic base.
So Should Hockey Players Run Long Distance?
Our answer is typically no, hockey players should not run long distances or do low steady state conditioning.
Sure, there are cases when hockey players could benefit from building an aerobic base – when they’ve been off the ice, when practice intensity is low/game time is low, when they’re injured and can’t skate.
But generally speaking, players would be better served with “higher ROI” off-ice training like strength work, sprints, or mobility exercises.
While you’re here & obviously committed to finding ways to take your game to the next level – we encourage you to check out one of our workout programs for hockey players. Each program goes beyond just workouts in the gym, and lays out the exact game plan hockey players need to enhance their conditioning, develop explosive power, and take their game to the next level.
Kyle is a Hockey Performance Specialist who’s worked with hundreds of hockey players from Peewee to Pro. A former elite hockey player, Kyle earned his degree in Kinesiology before becoming a Strength Coach that specializes in hockey performance. Today, he runs Relentless Hockey where he works with players across the world, including pros in over 20+ leagues including the NHL, KHL, and OHL.