July 7, 2015
Would a faster first step, acceleration and top speed help your game? Of course it will! How are you going to do that? Train more? Lift more? Sprint more?
More is more? No. Not always.
I’ve written time and time again that the thesis of “working harder” and “doing more”
is an old and obsolete one. To improve in the old days, since no one trained using weights, if you simply trained using weights, you’d probably get ahead. Nowadays, everyone is lifting weights, running, doing WODs and snorting pre-workout to get ahead. As a trainer, if I’m not finding, distilling and instructing my athletes with the most carefully curated information, I’m wasting your money and worst of all, your time.
When it comes to improving skating speed, it’s wildly tempting to try the following things:
- Hill sprints
- Lifting Weights
- Olympic Lifting
- AMRAP Powercleans (or equally ridiculous physical challenge)
- Agility Ladders
But if we’re serious about getting you a faster step, faster, then we need to RESPECT THE PROGRESSIONS FOR SKATING SPEED DEVELOPMENT. Respecting the progressions will speed your development more than going for “quick wins”, “doing more”, and “doing what everyone else is doing”.
Aaron Chew of Saltus Athletic Academy wrote a series of good articles on common myths in Speed & Agility training: here
, and here
I’m writing this article to distill the principles of speed training as it relates to skating. I think that most of the information on developing skating speed is unreliable and is not based on sound logic. I see lot’s of hockey strength & conditioning coaches posting videos online, and the first thing I see is their athletes in crappy posture, and then moving with crappy movement patterns. In both situations, that coach is skipping steps in the development of that player…which might get them quick wins, but won’t support their long-term development.
This guide will not cover absolutely everything I could teach you, but it will cover my entire framework, and point you in the right direction for finding more information.
Here are the principles I consider when coaching speed for hockey players:
- Mobility – First to establish proper posture, second to get in optimal positions for stride mechanics
- Core Stability/Connection
- Generating Tension – with the entire body, in the right (emphasis on skating) shapes and movements, and into the ground
- Generating large amounts of tension quickly, balanced with relaxation
First, if an athlete is standing and moving about in everyday life in a poor position, we use mobility exercises to get them in a better position. Mobility implies CONTROL over a range of motion, so you are building strength into your flexibility. It’s great if your shoulders can sit in a down and back position if a therapist forces them there, but you need motor control of that position in order for it to be useful. We first target the areas that are preventing athletes from getting into good postures, then we target areas that are preventing hockey players from getting good biomechanics with their skating stride. Common areas that we target are:
- Hip Flexors
- Hip External Rotators
- Thoracic Spine
Remember, we target those areas not just for flexibility, but control within that range of motion.
Hint: One of the quickest ways to get extra speed on the first step is to get mobility of the hip flexors. Hip flexors sit on the front of your hip, and their job is to flex (knee up) and internally rotate (toe in). When they are tight, they prevent skaters from externally rotating. Players who cannot externally rotate end up with their blades sliding along the ice, instead of externally rotating and digging in to accelerate. Mobilize hip flexors for an instant improvement in first step acceleration.
Getting athletes into good posture while doing everyday tasks is a baseline expectation. We expect our athletes to be able to maintain that good posture in demanding position in the weight room…and skating is a demanding position.
Now posture isn’t as boring as it sounds. Yoga poses are known as “postures”. Tai Chi is said to help practitioners cultivate “Chi” through moving with optimal posture through a series of movements.
When you have excellent posture, your breathing mechanics are more efficient (better aerobic/cardio capacity), your core strength is rock solid (more strength/more speed), and you fatigue less quickly.
If you thought posture was just about pulling your shoulders back, think again. Everything from how you set your feet, your pelvis, and breath contributes to your posture. Not to mention the bio-psychological loop that occurs with good posture – good posture cultivates confidence and mental poise. And your posture contributes to your performance.
Core stability as a term is a little vague, because it might be possible to demonstrate core stability through a balance test or a plank with crappy technique – but not have it translate to something functional. The idea of connection implies function. So the core functions to connect the lower body to the upper body. When the core is functioning properly, it holds the spine in a “braced neutral position” and allows for optimal breathing – so it functions in a cycle with good posture.
(A note on breathing mechanics: when posture is optimal, and breathing occurs through the diaphragm. This strengthens the core, but also allows the mind to stay calm under pressure).
I mentioned here how central stability is critical for distal mobility of the limbs. Force should initiate from the centre of the body for it to be most forceful and also for the rest of the joints to differentiate in an efficient manner.
Core stability isn’t about situps or planks. It’s about something more functional: connection. Connection requires the involvement of ALL muscles of the core, and for them to all be firing in the way they’re meant to fire. All the muscles include: rectus abdominus (6 pack muscle), transverse abdominus, obliques, and pelvic floor muscles. Here’s a hint: if you EVER get lower back pain, some part of your core is not functioning optimally. Connection of the lower to upper body allows the athlete to generate power in the legs, and translate it to their upper body for top speed.
As Pavel Tsatsouline would say, tension = strength. Your ability to generate tension is also your ability to be strong/create force with your muscles. But your ability to organize that tension in the correct shapes and movements dictates your effectiveness. By correct shapes and movements, I mean ones that use your muscles in the most effective, efficient and safe manner possible. So when you squat, do you bend you knees forward first? Or do you hinge your bum back? One places your knees at risk and uses less musculature, the other is safe for your knees and recruits the most powerful muscles in the body.
To learn to generate tension, you simply need to systematically increase the load you have to move/the force you have to generate. So to generate more tension in a pressing motion, start a bench press with 100lbs, and move to 105lbs the next workout.
Nerd Alert: Generating appropriate tension and maintaining requires optimal posture and core connection – and then challenging both systematically with more and more complex movements. Complex movements by definition are functional and differentiated. Functional has multiple definitions, but for the most part it means that it translates to meet task demands better. Differentiated means that the segmentation (joint angles) at the limbs is variable rather than being fixed.
Generating Large Amounts of Tension Quickly
This is generally known as “influencing the force-velocity curve”.
Simply put, there is a relationship between the amount of force (or tension) a muscle can generate and how fast it contracts. As a stronger contraction is required, less velocity can be generated and vice versa. That is why coaches have athletes lifting weights, doing olympic lifts, doing sled pushes, plyometrics, and sprints. Another facet of these exercises is that they teach the athletes to put force into the ground, which is important for generating speed.
There is tons of information out there on this. What I’d like to emphasize though, is that many coaches start here. They start with trying to push the force-velocity curve to the right, but skip over the other factors: like mobility, posture, and using correct movement patterns. What ends up happening is that some athletes, whose bodies are set up to tolerate punishment, end up excelling. Other athletes, whose bodies aren’t prepared for the load because they don’t move well and have crappy posture, end up maladapting and getting injured. Some athletes are able to put large amounts of force into the ground and move quickly in spite of good mechanics – but they also end up at risk for injuries, and they also move less efficiently that they could.
Manipulating the force-velocity curve is an important aspect of strength and conditioning, but it shouldn’t be the first and last component.
Yet another aspect of speed that is not usually covered with typical training is relaxation. Your ability to generate force quickly is important to generate the impulse into the ground (or ice), for movement…but your ability to relax is important for moving quickly. It’s also important to be fluid and efficient.
“In all activities of life, the secret of efficiency lies in an ability to combine two seemingly incompatible states: a state of maximum activity and a state of maximum relaxation”
– Aldous Huxley
Wrapping It Up
So a faster first step isn’t about loading up weights, choosing exercises, and starting to train. It’s about precision first, then speed & power. Mobility, posture and movement are precursors to precision. Speed and power come from affecting the force-velocity curve through lifts, plyometrics and sprints. If you understand the proper order of progression for developing skating speed, you can develop a faster first step more quickly than if you skipped right to weights, plyos, and sprints. If you start at lifts, plyos, and sprints, you might get some quick wins…but at the sacrifice of long-term development and at the risk of injuries.
Use this understanding to guide your training decisions so that you can get faster, with no wasted time, and no wasted money…I hate wasting both of those things. Put your training hours to better use and get a faster first step, faster than your opponent.
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