Speed is the variable of success for hockey players.
At Relentless Hockey, this has been the mantra that we’ve preached for years to players at all levels, and it continues to get more and more true each season. Talking with Coaches and Scouts from around the game they all say the same thing - the number one attribute to thrive in today’s game is speed.
Not only does the game continue to get faster each season, but if you have the ambition to take your game to a higher level - you need to prepare for a whole new level of speed.
Whether it’s going from AA to AAA, Junior A to NCAA, or the AHL to NHL - the speed needed to thrive at your current level won’t be enough to dominate at the next level, in fact it might not even be enough to keep up and play your game.
While speed continues to evolve on the ice, so does the training off the ice. Speed can no longer just be chalked up to being a “natural talent” that some players are gifted with. But rather, a set of attributes that you can deliberately enhance with structured training both on and off the ice
In this article we’re taking a deep dive into the different facets of speed training, the current research of speed and hockey, and more importantly how ambitious hockey players can put off-ice speed training into practice to take their speed, and their game, to the next level.
Let’s dive in.
Understanding Speed for Hockey Players
Speed training is complicated. And, even more complicated for Hockey Players.
In biomechanics, speed is often broken into stride frequency x stride length. This simply means the amount of steps a sprinter can make is multiplied by the distance of their strides to determine their speed.
In hockey, we have completely different demands. On a frictionless surface, we’re not making steps - we’re making pushes. Every movement, whether a small push to coast or breakaway strides is propulsion based. This means that, while stride length is important, it’s the stride output that truly matters. That’s why we propose a whole new speed equation for hockey players:
On-Ice Speed = Stride Frequency x Stride Output
There’s a reason that all Pro and NCAA fitness tests place far more emphasis on power output measures such as the vertical or broad jump than just a sprint measure like a 40-yard dash. Multiple studies using NCAA hockey players have shown that jump measures were the best predictors of on-ice speed (1, 2).
The intended takeaway from all of this that focusing on faster feet isn’t necessarily the answer to getting faster on ice. While doing “quick feet drills” were considered speed training the norm in the past - a multi-faceted approach to speed training is what actually translates to the ice.
Lastly, whenever discussing speed and hockey players, it’s inevitable that an old school coach or power skating instructor weighs in that skating can only be improved with more skating and refining the stride.
While we’ll be focusing on the off-ice attributes of speed in the article, it’s important to not understate the importance of refining on-ice mechanics. All elite players carry a level of technical proficiency that allows them to more efficiently and effectively express force in the ice.
It’s no secret, the most elite skaters in the world continue to work with skating experts. Every NHL team currently has 1-4+ power skating coaches on staff and many players actively seek out coaches in the off-season to refine and dial in their mechanics.
Saying that, even the most refined F1 race cars aren’t competing if they have a Honda Civic engine.
This is why Strength & Conditioning and Skating Coaches will often work hand in hand. With the pros and elite players we work with through our Coaching Program we’ll often be in communication with their skating coach to see where we can maximize their off-ice training to support their on-ice results.
At the end of the day, Hockey Players need to focus on improving foot speed and athleticism, getting stronger and powerful, and more technically proficient.
Let’s dive into how you can unlock and develop more speed that translates.
Quick Feet for Hockey Players
Remembering that on-ice speed is stride frequency x stride output means that we need to be actively trying to improve our ability to move our feet faster.
While this is the most common area players focus on to get quicker, faster, and more agile - it’s also the area of training where players can waste a lot of time.
For younger players, the classic quick feet and ladder drills are super valuable. These drills improve both coordination and kinesthetic awareness, ultimately allowing players to refine their movement skills and have a better basis for more motor learning on ice.
But this is where some debate starts - are quick feet drills valuable for older and elite hockey players?
While this is often a spirited debate amongst Strength & Performance Coaches at all levels, let’s skip the philosophical discussion and keep it practical. I can say that after working with thousands of hockey players including pros at all the highest levels in the world - I’m confident that quick feet drills are valuable for hockey players.
Saying that, it’s important to make each one of these drills intensely intentional and deliberate. Going through the motion of these drills makes them essentially just a poorly executed conditioning drill. Instead, we want to make sure that players are focusing on getting dialled into their movement mechanics and finding better positions while pushing the upper limits of speed capacity.
That means that for quick feet drills, Hockey Players should focus on three primary aspects:
1) Lighter feet
Hockey Players have the natural inclination to get “heavy” in their feet. The golden rule here is that loud feet are slow feet. The slowest players tend to make a lot of noise in their footwork because they make heavy and aggressive steps, whereas the fastest players tend to be light and quiet in their footwork. We want to practice being light and on our toes for all of our quick feet drills.
2) Better Movement Patterns & Postures
This is essential for players at all levels. Often when hockey players are challenged to move quick and fast they default into tall postures and can find sloppy movement patterns. We want to use quick feet drills to challenge players to find low-hip positions that allow them to get low and athletic and thus find better movement patterns.
3) Athleticism & Fluidity
A fast player is an athletically fluid player. For younger players this is essential, but even for our elite players we want to find drills that challenge them to move multi-directionally and find new movement patterns that we can master. This means choosing drills that aren’t just straight lines, focusing on one repetitive movement, and require novel movement skills.
So while Hockey Players tend to love doing footwork drills, we need to make sure that we’re hitting them with intensity and intention. More reps and pushing the pace aren’t necessarily better here.
As we try to enhance that upper limit of speed capacity, it’s important to recognize that we’re not just making physical changes - but neuromuscular changes. This means that we don’t want to turn this into an absolute bagger, but instead allow our body to recharge and find more speed for the next rep or set.
Recommended Further Reading:
Quick Feet Drills for Hockey Players - This article takes a deep dive into some of our favourite drills (with videos) that Hockey Players can use to improve their foot speed and athleticism.
The Best Ladder Drills for Hockey Players [Youtube Video]- Speed ladders seem to be a staple for most athletes, but these are one's that deliver the most value for hockey players.
Change of Direction Development for Hockey Players
Improving your ability to change direction can completely transform your game.
If you look at all of today’s most impactful players, they’re often the players with the highest ability to change direction.
When you have the elite ability to stop and start, cut back low, or shift directions off the rush - you have the ability to determine and dominate the play. Not only does this allow you to completely burn defenders, but suddenly they have to start playing more reactively and start giving you more time and space so that they don’t get burned.
Simply put, more offensive opportunities come from the ability to rapidly change direction.
So does this mean we need to do more quick feet drills? Not quite.
While rapid and explosive first steps are essential for changing direction, there’s also an intensive power and technical demand.
Let’s think about coming out of the corner with a defender on us, making a stop, cut, or punch turn, and then aggressively attacking the net down low.
This sequence means that we’ve started with speed, we’re then rapidly absorbing that speed, and then expressing it in a completely different direction. A challenging set of movement patterns if we’re really breaking it down.
Researchers and Sport Performance Coaches have broken this sequence (and all change of direction) into three distinct phases (3, 4):
- The Braking Phase – taking speed and rapidly decelerating
- The Transition Phase – also called the “planting” phase, in which athletes have absorbed speed and are in a position to express power.
- The Propulsive Phase – where athletes have expressed power to accelerate in the opposition direction.
This is helpful to understand, because it allows both players and coaches to create drills that focus on these demands, while also intensely feeling and finding better movement skills through these phases.
For hockey players, we place a lot of emphasis on trying to that transition/planting phase. In comparing an elite player with a lower level player, this phase is where we can see the most significant differences.
The elite players, regardless of the type of change of direction, typically find lower positions that allow them to generate explosive power out of. In contrast, lower level players will often leak power by standing up, being too tall, or not fully absorbing into low positions that allow them to generate more power.
So while the video below takes a deeper dive into this topic, along with specific drills to improve your change of direction capacity, there’s three area to focus on if you want to take your CoD to the next level:
- Power Expression - You want to get explosive? You need to train your strength and power to be able to generate more in each push.
- Finding Lower Postures - Sometimes this is a mobility challenge, especially with players with tight ankles or hips, but in most cases this is a movement skill that can be challenged and improved with deliberate practice.
- Aggressive First Steps - Note that this isn’t just quicker first steps. The ability to plant and generate power the opposite direction requires aggressively hitting the gas. This is a combination of both short burst power expression and foot speed.
Agility for Hockey Players
What’s the difference between change of direction and agility?
Agility is commonly (and wrongfully) used as a blanket term for everything from quick feet training, to change of direction, to speed work. The truth is, while agility may be the single most important attribute for hockey players - it’s also the most complex.
Let’s quickly define agility so that we can look at it from a deeper perspective.
Agility has been defined as: “a rapid whole-body movement with change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus” (5).
This last part is the most important.
Agility is the ability to read and react to a play, see an opportunity and act on it, mirror a forward off the rush - it’s the ability to be responsive to the game.
Researchers have broken agility down into three key components (6):
- Cognitive - this is the ability to read a stimulus (a play, an opportunity, etc) and choose the appropriate physical response as quickly as possible. Mental agility could be an article in it’s own right.
- Physical - after choosing the right physical response, how well can you physically respond? This involves strength/power, speed, footwork, etc.
- Technical - this is more motor skill related, and can be closely related to our section on change of direction. How good are you on your edges, how low do you get in your CoD, simply put - what skills do you have to respond to a stimulus.
If we understand this, we can then understand that ladder drills or any sort of repeatable pattern drill isn’t going to improve our agility. It might improve aspects of our agility, but unless we’re intentionally creating drills that challenge us to read and react - we’re not improving agility.
So if there’s a heavy cognitive or mental component of agility - is it actually trainable?
The answer is absolutely yes.
Both in the gym, and in research, we’re seeing that athletes can actively improve their agility with reactive based drills designed to challenge their ability to “read” and then “react” with the appropriate movement skill or pattern.
Most commonly these are with a partner or coach.
With a partner, these often involve “mirror” drills - where one player leads and another player must follow. The most basic version of this can start with something like a mirror shuffle, and evolve into more complex drills that allow the lead player to create more movement variance and options. If you have a training partner or teammate nearby - we highly recommend you use these drills. Not only are they super beneficial, but they also demand a compete level that can be tough to find off ice.
This video here isn’t from Relentless, but showcases some high-quality mirroring drills.
With a Coach, parent, or anyone else, you can use an assortment of drills that involve responding to verbal or physical cues.
This could be as basic as having different coloured cones laid out and having a Coach call out a colour or number that you need to respond to.
As this evolves, we often like to challenge players to read our body positions starting with a point in a direction and evolving to reading postures such as what way the hips are pointed and responding to the opposite way (just like you would burn a defender on the ice).
As long as you’re creative in creating a mental stimulus that requires you to read and react to - you can be endlessly creative with agility drills.
A couple of training considerations:
- Make sure you do agility drills at the start of your workout. We want to make sure that you’re fresh for all your agility work. Do these types of drills immediately after a warm up so that both your body is ready to fire and your nervous system is primed.
- Make sure you’re giving yourself adequate rest. Because agility is both cognitive and neuromuscular, research has shown that ideal work to rest ratio is 1 to 4-6 (7), meaning that you should work all out in a short burst (e.g. 10s) with a long break (e.g. 40-60s). Focus on quality not quantity.
- Compete and get aggressive. These drills are the perfect opportunity to really push the pace. Going through the motions here, or even just going 80%, essentially turns these drills into conditioning drills. We need to push the upper limit that we can read, react, and fire.
Strength & Power for On-Ice Speed
Enhancing power is by far the easiest and most effective way to improve on-ice speed.
That might seem like a bold statement with so many coaches and players focusing on quick feet drills - but we’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of players who unlock that extra gas in each stride through structured and intensive strength work.
Most of the pros and elite players we work in our coaching program will typically take the spring off from skating and focus strictly on work in the gym. The number one thing they nearly all say getting back on the ice is that they can’t believe how much extra gas they have in each stride.
The research supports this thesis too.
In one study of pro hockey players, vertical jump was the single best predictor of on-ice speed (8). Off-ice power measures as the best predictor of on-ice speed has been further proven out in a number of studies focusing on NCAA athletes as well (9).
So, what is power? Power = Force x Velocity.
We’ll spare the sports science nerdy definition and simply say that power is the ability to express strength (force) as rapidly as possible (velocity).
This is actually super helpful for players to understand, for a handful of reasons:
1) Strength is paramount. Your ability to express power is ultimately defined by your level of strength. Strength can essentially be considered the horse power of our engine. If you want more fire power, you need to strength to express.
2) Power has a central nervous demand. Your ability to fire your strength is intensely CNS dependant. This means your power is defined by how efficiently and effectively your nervous system can recruit and fire your muscles.
3) Power isn’t trained by doing 100s of box jumps. This is likely the most important takeaway. A lot of players hit box jumps for rep after rep and think that they’re getting more powerful. You might be getting more efficient at jumping on a box, but you’re not developing the strength and power that translates to a more explosive stride on the ice.
Understanding this means that there’s two areas of focus for all hockey players in the gym.
First, they need to be actively developing strength. This isn’t just functional exercises. It’s developing the lower body strength that matters. In all of our programs, we make sure that we’re developing the strength that translates with heavy lunges, split squats, hip thrusts, and deadlifts. Players that want to get faster need to get stronger.
Secondly, hockey players need to be developing the power that translates. There’s a wide variety of training methodologies that hockey players can use to improve their power output. Popular methods such as plyometric exercises have been shown to specifically improve power output and speed measures in hockey players (11, 12) We’ll dive deeper into the types of power and the best way to train each in a separate article, but simply put - hockey players need to practice expressing force as rapidly as possible.
In this article we look at the top 10 lower body exercises that hockey players can use to develop strength.
Other Factors that Improve Speed for Hockey Players
If you’ve gotten this far, you likely realize that speed is a complex topic for hockey players.
While foot speed, strength/power, and agility/change of direction capacity are the core tenants that all hockey players should be focused on - there are a couple of other factors that we should consider.
We could consider this the bonus material. For most players, 90% of their speed gains will be from improving the above attributes, but these facts do make an impact.
Mobility & Speed
Stretching and mobility exercises can make you a faster skater.
It’s a concept that players rarely consider as enhancing performance, but optimal mobility
is vital to skating mechanics and optimizing the stride for speed and power.
Hockey players are infamously tight and riddled with limited ranges of motion. While often players and coaches consider this a health focus rather than a performance focus - poor mobility will make you slower.
This can be attributed to creating suboptimal movement patterns that causes players to incorrectly utilize their body’s natural kinetic chains and often find sloppy mechanics.
While the most notable example of this can be tight hips shortening the length of stride (and thus limiting the range to express power), it doesn’t just stop there. Lack of ankle mobility prevents players from getting lower, lack of internal shoulder rotation creates a suboptimal arm swing, and the list goes on and on.
A stretching and mobility routine isn’t just to stay healthy, pain-free, and injury proof the body - it pays dividends when it comes to performance.
Feel tight and restricted? It’s slowing you down. Get into focused mobility work.
Recommended Further Reading:
5 Mobility Exercises Hockey Players Should Do Every Day
The Importance of Ankle Mobility for Hockey Players
Body Fat & Speed
There’s no way around this - the more extra fat you’re carrying, the more you’re slowing yourself down.
This is the specific reason why we created our Lean & Agile program. We’d constantly see players who were strong, powerful, and highly talented skaters just always missing that extra gear because they were too heavy. This isn’t just opinion, research has shown this too, with body fat and speed being directly correlated in NCAA players (13).
It’s easy to conceptualize. A player carrying that “spare tire” needs to work harder, express more power, and has a higher cardiovascular and physiological demand on every stride.
We take a deeper dive into this topic in the recommended article below, but the important takeaway is that if you want to be fast - you need to be lean.
Recommended Further Reading:
The Optimal Body Fat for Hockey Players
To Wrap It Up
Players at all levels know why they want to get faster and the impact speed has in the modern game - but we hope with this article & additional resources players start to understand how to get faster.
Speed can be improved off-ice. But it isn’t just focusing on going faster. It’s the intense and intentional focus on improving all the attributes that translate to speed.
Structured Strength & Conditioning is the answer when it comes to speed development. That’s why we created the Relentless Explosive Power program that was designed to attack, challenge, and develop all of these attributes. That may seem like a shameless plug, but we truly believe it’s the single best program in the industry for developing speed in hockey players.
Regardless if you’re training with a Coach, following a program, or going at it solo - these are the attributes that you need to be training to take your speed to the next level.
Speed is the variable of success for hockey players.
Now go act on this information. Get out there and get relentless.
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.