For starters, I think it’s important to establish how crucial in-season training is. In-season training has certainly gained favor over the last decade or so, but there are still thought-leaders’/organization heads with an old-school mentality that don’t emphasize it nearly enough.
This, in part, might be explained by a lack of understanding of the goals of in-season training:
1. Maintain physical qualities (continue to increase in lesser trained players)
2. Reverse negative changes in soft-tissue length and quality (Via Myofasical release techniques & R.O.M)
3. Facilitate recovery
These factors are very important to facilitate sport performance and minimize the risk of injury.
For example, take a look at the numbers for the Nanaimo Junior ‘A’ Clippers:
*Before Prime’ was in charge of athlete performance and strength and conditioning
2012/13 season: Man games missed due to soft tissue injury: 15
2013/2014 season: Man games missed due to soft tissue injury: 18
*Prime takes over as strength & conditioning and performance coach
2014/2015 season: 1
2015/2016 season: 0
That is a 94.5% decrease of soft tissue injury in the first year of Prime’, and 100% decrease the following year.
In-Season Training Composition
Some of the uncertainty with implementing in-season training programs boils down to not understanding how to design and implement the in-season program. If a player takes their off-season program and follows it through the year, they will be completely buried before Thanksgiving. The off-season is about developing capacity; the in-season is about maintaining capacity while correctly loading movement patterns that are non-sport specific, and correctly identifying movement patterns that need to be offloaded to facilitate injury prevention. These are much different goals and require drastically different approaches.
Three In-Season Program Changes
1) Speed and conditioning work is on the ice
In the off-season, we sprint twice per week and condition between 2-3 times depending on the phase. In-season, the players’ speed and conditioning work should be done on the ice. If players perform drills at a high tempo, they’re getting the most hockey-specific form of speed training possible, and most practices are of sufficient tempo to prepare players to compete in a game.
Hammering sprint and conditioning work off the ice will put excessive wear and tear across the muscles of the hips and lower body. In-season, sprint work should be limited to very low volume (e.g. 4-6 sprints of 10-15 yards). Conditioning should be low impact, and be used to compliment on-ice conditioning.
2) Avoid rotation
This is anti-sport-specific training at it’s finest. Hockey players rotate several hundred times per week during practices and games to turn, give and accept passes and hits, shoot, and orient their eyes in a more optimal position to read the play. All of this is stress in a rotation pattern. Like speed work, rotation-based core work should be limited in volume and frequency.
During this time, however, it is extremely important to maintain rotation-pattern mobility. Amongst others, hips and thoracic spines tend to stiffen up as the season prolongs. Maintaining this mobility is a top priority and should be done on as close to a daily basis as possible. In our setting, we built our warm-up to encompass these qualities so we know they’re hitting them every time we see them.
3) Strength and Power is Key
In general, the physical qualities stressed on the ice during the season are: multi-directional speed, low load power, and work capacity/conditioning. To design a program that compliments on-ice work, it’s important to consider what qualities ARE NOT being stressed on the ice. Strength and high load power are visibly absent from the list above.
ALL in-season work should be low volume, but there should be a greater proportion of the total training program allocated to these qualities than the others that receive more on-ice attention
The key is to get a low volume of high intensity high quality reps in, and then call it a day. There is a time for tough sessions in the interest of team building or developing mental toughness, but this is the exception, not the rule.