While most players understand the intensity of off-ice work necessary to become an elite hockey player, performance optimization goes far beyond the lifts, sprints, and pre-hab work done in the gym. Whether it be the grueling three-game weekends on the road late in the junior season, or the two-a-day summer workouts and skates – recovery is the hidden gem for elite performance.
If you’re not recovering – you’re not growing, and you’re certainly not performing.
How a player’s body grows and repairs in response to this stress will not only dictate short-term performance (like next game or next week) but also how they’ll perform over the course of a season. Despite often looking for the latest workouts, drills, supplements, or training “hacks” to get better – investing in 4-5 regular recovery strategies could be a game-changer for a lot of player’s on-ice performance, and for some players (especially in-season) is likely significantly more valuable that extra training.
At the highest levels, traditional “Strength & Conditioning” is expanding to support lifestyle and training optimization that supports elite performance. Speaking with NHL Strength/Performance Coaches, recovery is the largest area teams are investing in and it’s continuing to grow.
While most players won’t have access to high-tech solutions such as load monitoring, power output stability, or heart rate variability tools – this series is meant to highlight some of the recovery strategies I recommend most to my hockey players/teams. These are strategies that all players can be doing regularly and don’t require any fancy tools – they’re both tried and true, and research-based.
In this article specifically, we’ll explore the significance of recovery, and look to understand the mechanisms, while also addressing our first (and most significant) recovery tool – sleep.
The Nervous System and Recovery:
(You can probably skip this part if you’re not interested in the science of recovery. It can largely be summarized as: Sympathetic state = High Stress/Fight-or-flight; and Parasympathetic= relax/rest-and-digest).
The nervous system is associated with every facet of performance. From the contraction with how your muscles fire, your motor skills on-ice, all the way to decision making and arousal levels – your nervous system ultimately dictates your performance.
This is why rookies make uncharacteristic mistakes like missing an empty net (over-arousal of the sympathetic state) or why, despite not being muscularly fatigued, a poor night’s sleep can leave you feeling slow the next day.
While many players focus on increasing arousal for that autonomic nervous system response (sympathetic state) with pre-workout drinks, loud music, and anything else to get “hyped up” – very few players focus on purposefully decreasing arousal levels to get into that parasympathetic state and relax. The ability to downregulate and enter this parasympathetic state is essential to recovery, and ultimately longevity of performance.
That parasympathetic state essentially allows us to return back to baseline levels, and/or grow, in response to the repeated stress of training and competition. This is why focusing on recovery strategies is essential for hockey players to stay healthy and maintain performance throughout the season.
Sleep, The Ultimate Recovery Tool:
The significance of sleep for hockey players can’t be understated. So much so, that we actually have a separate article explaining the benefits of sleep for hockey players.
It’s important to shift the framework of sleep from just “rest” to being more “repair and recover” in nature.
High quality sleep allows for not only nervous system rest and repair but also is the time that your endocrine system releases a variety of hormones (such as testosterone) that are essential to repair across the body.
So how much sleep should hockey players be getting? This question is most easily answered by assuming at least 8 hours.
Focusing on getting to bed on-time so that you can enough hours be priority number one. With all the distractions of Instagram and Snapchat, many (well over 50%) of the youth athletes I talk to aren’t getting to bed until somewhere between 1:00-2:00 am. With having to wake up for school at 7:30, this makes getting adequate sleep impossible. Almost to a tee, I can guess the athletes that are 2 am sleepers. Not only do they tend to drag around the gym, but they’re also the ones that are usually sick an uncommon amount, or constantly dealing nagging injuries.
While the adage of “an hour of sleep before midnight equals two hours” may not be fully rooted in research, in my experience getting to bed before midnight is a game-changer for performing optimally that next day.
After we’ve committed to getting serious about shutting things down early to get at least 8 hours of sleep, the next factor to consider is sleeping quality. Simply put, it’s possible to get 10 hours of sleep that aren’t as restorative as high quality 7 hours.
Some of the controllable factors that hockey players should utilize to improve sleep include:
- Reduce Caffeine Products – not only can consuming caffeine make it difficult to sleep, but it also can prevent the body from entering the “deep sleep” stages associated with growth and recovery. While people metabolize caffeine differently (either fast or slow), caffeine ultimately has a half-life of 3-5 hours, meaning that it can remain in your system for hours beyond consumption. While you might feel that you’re a fast caffeine metabolizer, an evening pre-workout, energy drink, or coffee might still be decreasing your sleep quality.
- Eliminate Screen time – The blue light emitted from screens is one of the most researched topics today in sleep science. There’s consensus among researchers (summarized in this article from Harvard Medical School) that this artificial light can negatively impact your sleep, including reducing melatonin levels and interfering with the circadian rhythm. While there are tools such as F.Lux (https://justgetflux.com/) that dim the blue light in your screen to reduce these effects, it’s still advised that athletes put away their phones and turn off the TV at a minimum of an hour before bed.
- Improve your sleep environment – In addition to eliminating the iPhone from the bed, your sleep environment should also be optimized for sleep. This means no bright glaring lights (including a TV or giant digital clocks next to bed). This also means finding the right room temperature (ideal sleep environments are cooler than average) and making sure that you’re not bringing any work or distractions to bed.
- Create a “Wind Down” Routine – Creating a routine to slow down and relax can be incredibly helpful of high-strung hockey players and having a structure at the end of your day can support your body/mind in down regulating and getting ready for sleep. I currently recommend that my athletes shut down the phone, get whatever they need ready for the morning, and then spend 10 minutes foam rolling (this triggers a relaxing parasympathetic response), followed by some slow breathing/stretching exercises and then getting into bed. Creating your own routine can be super helpful for getting to sleep quickly.
If we breakdown how hockey players (or any athletes) get better, it’s essentially a stress event challenging the player’s capacity (such as a workout or complex skill session) followed by the body responding to grow to this demand. While most hockey players and coaches focus on the challenge – the ability to recover and grow is ultimately one of the determining factors of getting better.
This series is for athletes who are truly serious about optimizing their lifestyle to take the development and performance to the next level.
For the rest of our Recovery Strategies for Hockey Players series you can find the articles here:
Part 1: Significance of Recovery for Hockey Players
Part 2: Foam Rolling & Active Recovery
Part 3: Temperate Changes – Using heat and cold for Recovery
Part 4: Meditation and Breathing
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.