In-season and Offseason Training: A Comparison


There are some significant differences in how NHL players (and other professional athletes) train during their season compared to the offseason. The wear and tear that comes with playing games means that players are unable to push their bodies as hard as they do in the summer. But that doesn’t mean that training during the season is any less important than during the summer. In fact, it can go a long way to prevent injuries, improve recovery time, and in turn improve performance.

It will be interesting to note how NHLers who continued to train instead of play (either in Europe or North America) fare as the 2013 season continues on.

On that note, let’s take a look at some of the key differences between the two types of training.

The Differences

I spoke with quite a few NHL coaches and trainers this past summer, and received an immense amount of information regarding offseason training. Some of the more relevant comments:

Jim McCrossin, head trainer for the Philadelphia Flyers:

In season is dictated to our schedule. Offseason is dictated by ones dedication.

Right now we’re in our building phase. Then we go to what we call our complex training phase, which involves heavy lifting and plyometrics for speed and agility through around mid-August. After that we’re back down to our maintenance phase because you don’t want to burn out before [training] camp.

“Then we get into more on-ice cardio and more functional drills out on the ice. Once camp begins it’s a whole new ball of wax.

Nelson Ayotte, head trainer for the St. Louis Blues:

In-season, my role is to support the St-Louis Blues organization as a whole. I have to give the best service I can to the head coach and his coaching staff. This is the head coach’s call not mine. I can provide advice but contrary to the off-season, the final decision is not mine.

In-season I have to make sure that the players keep what they’ve acquired during the summer, otherwise it doesn’t make sense. Why would you train all summer and lose it all during the season? My job is to make sure every single player stays on top of his overall fitness level all winter long.

Ryan Van Asten, head trainer for the LA Kings:

During the season the number one priority is on-ice preparation and performance.  Off-ice training should not take away from this.  The game schedule generally guides the intensity and volume of training in a given week, whereas in the off-season this is not an issue.  Various forms of fatigue are important for adaptation in the off-season, but need to be minimized in-season so on-ice performance does not decline.

Kevin Neeld, Director of Athletic Performance at Endeavor Sports:

Programming really depends on the needs of the player, but with 4 months, the general structure of an off-season program for a higher level player would look something like:

Phase 1 (3-weeks): Focus on “corrective work” geared toward reestablishing optimal alignment, structural balance, functional strength, and aerobic conditioning. Hypetrophy work for the players that need it.

Phase 2 (3-weeks): Continued emphasis on corrective work and aerobic work, but greater emphasis placed on improving strength and hypertrophy (for the players that need it), and the introduction of power work.

Phase 3 (3-weeks): Decreased emphasis on corrective, hypertrophy, and aerobic work; increased emphasis on maximal strength, secondary emphasis on high load power, and conditioning transitions into mostly alactic power work.

Phase 4 (3-weeks): Transition to strength maintenance with an increased focus on high- and low-load power, speed, and alactic capacity conditioning. We also start to introduce more “hockey-specific” patterns in this phase to begin transferring the development of certain qualities into more on-ice relevant patterns, and to begin to prepare the hips for more on-ice skating work.

Phase 5 (3-weeks): Maintained attention to speed and power work, with the introduction of transitional speed training, and more advanced power training progressions. Strength work is at very low volumes and is largely maintenance oriented. Conditioning work progresses to a combination of lactic and aerobic work, on different days.

Kevin does a great job of highlighting the typical progressions that hockey players (and most athletes) undergo during the summer months.

In-Season Training 

A great example of a player who completely dedicates himself to his craft is Dallas Stars forward Jaromir Jagr, who at the age of 40 is still one of the fittest players in hockey. Jagr’s focus and work ethic off the ice were both significant reasons as to why the Flyers signed him in 2011 (his impact on the likes of Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier cannot be overstated), and Dallas did the same a year later (hoping for a similar impact on the likes of Jamie Benn and Cody Eakin).

Being in shape is a year-round endeavour for pro athletes. There is a difference to being “fit” and being in “game shape,” as the conditioning that comes with playing games is very hard to replicate in the gym or at practice (but it isn’t impossible, as Minnesota head trainer Kirk Olson informed me).

Here are a few general tips from Mike Boyle:

Train Frequently

Realistically, you should train two workouts per week with higher intensities but lower volumes. Intensity is the key to training, not volume, and this applies even more during the season. Never skip an in-season workout. A 15-minute, one-set workout is better in the long run than a missed day of training.

Work Lower-Body Strength and Power In-Season

Don’t “save the legs.” If you save them in September, they will fail you in November. See number one above. High intensity, low volume. One or two sets of an Olympic lift and one or two sets of a squat or variation go a long way.

No Excuses

Only listen to “workers,” not “whiners.” Athletes hate in-season lifting. It’s like going to the dentist. Painful, but necessary.

Andy O’Brien specifically told me that Sidney Crosby has never missed a workout in all of their years of training together. Don’t make excuses. And if you are prone to make excuses, train with other people who will get on you if you start missing workouts. And if that fails, put up some motivational quotes or videos on your computer or in your room for a friendly reminder to get training!

No Optional Workouts

Don’t make excuses with “choices” of lifts, or phantom injuries that get you out of working your lower body. We need to convince sport coaches that if athletes are too injured to lift, they are too injured to play. You’ll be amazed how fast kids get healthy.

Recovery has also become a huge part of in season training in recent years (it is why you see so many foam rollers in NHL training facilities, for example).

And here are some hockey-specific in-season training tips from Mr. Neeld:

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.

Strength and Power are 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. To be overly simplistic, if all players did was follow this template:

And a few more tips from Charles Poloquin, the fitness guru who taught Gary Roberts much of what he preaches today to the likes of Steven Stamkos and James Neal:

Stay strong by reducing volume, not intensity.

I saw two studies on this, one dealing with strength training and another on energy system training. The researchers found that it was possible to reduce the volume of training by more than two thirds without a drop in conditioning levels as long as the intensity level was sufficient. So, on the Thursday workout I had our athletes perform the major lifts with maximal weights and low reps, but for only a few sets. For example, during the off-season our athletes might do 12-15 sets of power cleans in a workout, but in-season they might only do 5 sets – but heavy!

Use general, not specific, training.

Charles advised me to focus on compound exercises that work a lot of muscle mass, such as squats and incline bench presses, and to avoid sport-specific exercises. This is because the sport itself will take care of specific exercises. So plyometric and muscular endurance exercises, for example, were not necessary. Besides, Charles told me that if you add something to an athlete’s training – such as practice and games in the case of in-season training – you have to take something away. The body can only handle so much.

Key Takeaways

At the end of the day, training in-season may not be as important as offseason training, but it isn’t far behind. Proper training (and nutrition, of course) over the course of a full season can help significantly in terms of performance, reducing injury risk, improving energy, and maintaining speed, muscle mass, and power.

If you are looking for a solid hockey-specific offseason program to try, here is the Nike program put together by Gary Roberts. And even if you aren’t a professional athlete, chances are you will benefit tremendously from learning to take care of your body better during the season. If you sit at the desk all day before heading out to your game after, your body is going to be stiff and immobile – learning how to change that will improve how you feel (and how you play) significantly.

And with regards to offseason and in-season training, here are some things to keep in mind if you want to make your training more hockey specific (without wasting time on pointless exercises). 

I’d highly recommend learning more about self-myofascial release (foam rolling, for example). It is much more effective than static stretching, and the improvements are almost instantaneous in many cases. The key with this, like anything relating to fitness, is consistency. Even if you feel good, you should still spend time warming up properly.

Good luck with your training!

Read my other fitness/nutrition posts here.