Conditioning and Fitness

One of the biggest fallacies in hockey is the idea that the more hockey you play, the more fit you become –  “I’m going to get in shape by playing more hockey.” This is true to a degree, but to play hockey at any level requires good conditioning and exercise off the ice too.

In a scheduled game the only exercise you receive is during “your shift.” It is impossible to build muscle strength, aerobic and anaerobic capacity in short shifts during the course of a timed game. It can help, but you are only fooling yourself when you rely solely upon the game to get into condition to play hockey. Hockey players need to condition themselves at a higher level than they will ever experience in a game.

Another fallacy is that your genes determine how fast your can run or skate.  “I was born slow.”  Untrue. Utilizing plyometrics and other exercise techniques a player can actually become quicker and faster. You might have been born slower than other players, but that does not mean you cannot get faster.

To be fit to play you should understand the major aspects of conditioning and exercise and then develop a pre-season and in-season training program.

If you are over forty and are just beginning to play hockey or have any risk factors such as diabetes or being significantly over weight, you may need to get a physical examination. Be sure to tell your physician that you are playing in an adult hockey league and are playing with others of similar ability (hopefully that is the case). A physician can assist in identifying physical conditions that may place you at risk of injury.

To build aerobic capacity start simply.  If you have access to a stair stepper, stationary bike, rowing machine, you can improve your aerobic capacity as well as leg or arm strength. Of course you can run, skip rope or skate too.  Assess your starting level and build-up your capacity from there.  Keep a record of your efforts. You can also assess your capacity by the amount of time it takes to run or bike a certain distance or during a timed period. This assessment is a good starting point for recognizing progress in increasing aerobic capacity.

Jogging or running is excellent in building aerobic capacity.   In bad weather, try a treadmill.  Of course, recreational ice skating or in-line skating is excellent in building aerobic capacity while improving your skating ability as well.  Bicycling can also build aerobic capacity and uses muscle groups very similar to those used during skating.  A bike (regular or stationary) is also less harsh to your knees.

A reminder—stretch your muscles after exercise.  Light stretching before exercising is helpful, but stretching after exercise is critical for several reasons. It reduces muscle soreness and increases your flexibility which helps prevent injury.


Building strong leg, arm and abdominal muscles along with other muscle groups will assist in the execution of hockey fundamentals and the enjoyment of the game. All strength training involves the microscopic tearing of the muscle fibers by exceeding their capacity to move a weight or resist a force. As the body rebuilds the fibers, strength increases.

Strong leg and arm muscles will increase a player’s ability to maintain balance on their skates and increase the force exerted while skating. Strength is also useful in the corners when you are pushing an opposing player in order to get the puck. Many times you may wonder how a player can shoot that hard slap shot or skate so fast ?—much of it has to do with muscle strength.

There are innumerable types of strength training equipment available including machines, bar weights and dumbbells to the simple pushup and chin-up.  Some hockey programs have embraced certain strength training systems and have had success on the rink.  For example, a few years ago Nautilus was used by the U.S. Olympic Hockey team and more recently the national champion Boston University Terriers used the air pressure system called Kaiser.

The best approach is to consult with a personal or weight trainer at the gym for assistance in designing a strength training program.

Whatever system or equipment chosen, start out with an aerobic workout first to warm-up and to stretch all muscles groups.  Jog, bike or stair step.  Then start strength training with the largest muscles groups—the legs and buttocks.  Do leg lifts, leg pushes, quadriceps lifts and so on. Then move to the upper body’s muscle groups.  Be sure to alternate muscles groups—if you work the hamstrings be sure to work the quadriceps and if you work the abdominal muscles be sure to work the back muscles.  These muscle groups complement each other and working one group without the other leads to weakness, instability and injury.

The basic principles of strength training is the amount of resistance or weight chosen for specific muscles, the number of repetitions, and the numbers of “sets” and how often you train.  Again, there are innumerable strength training philosophies—everything from one set to three sets to every day to a rest day between.

Our philosophy is to keep it simple and to force yourself to continually progress in adding more weight or resistance and increasing the number of repetitions and sets. A day of rest between working muscle groups is a good idea.

A simple method is to begin with eight repetitions at a weight or resistance that is a challenge but not overwhelming. Do two sets. If you are able to complete two sets of eight repetitions, then increase to nine repetitions and when twelve repetitions is achieved for two sets, then increase the weight or resistance. A rest or recovery period between sets is helpful and can also help your attitude.

Try to include all of the muscles groups that are used in hockey in your strength training program. These include abdominal, back muscles, quadriceps, hamstrings, chest/shoulder, upper back, calf, biceps, ankle flexors, triceps, wrist flexors, and wrist extensor.

In-line skating

In-line skates were invented in Minnesota by a hockey player who was looking for an off-season/off-ice training skate. In-line skating and in-line hockey have exploded with interest. They are wonderful for strength training and are one of the exercises with the highest aerobic potential (right up there with cross-country skiing).  One caveat for ice hockey players, in-line skating limits your ability to perform rapid leg movement due to the drag of the wheels and the non-ice surface.  In addition, the skating technique for in-line skates is slightly different than ice skating.  As the ice hockey season draws near and during the season, we don’t recommend in-line skating training for this reason.  Oh, please wear wrist guards and a helmet when you are skating.

In the off-season, in-line skating is an excellent training exercise.  A player can practice skating while enhancing aerobic capacity and leg strength.  Turns, cross-overs, swizzles and other maneuvers can be practiced on in-line skates.  The inside and outsides of the wheels mimic the inside and outside edges of ice skates.

Backward skating can also be practiced with in-line skates. Be careful and practice  backwards skating on only the most smooth surfaces, like a parking lot. The skating chapter also includes information on in-line skating.

For aerobic training, skate sprints and then skate slowly. Maintain a 3 or 4 to one ratio of slow skating to sprint skating. Strength training can be practiced by skating up hills or inclines. Skating longer distances will also increase leg strength.

Speed and quickness are essential to the game of hockey. A player’s ability to get to a loose puck first and  move up the rink are a key skill.  Wrist quickness in shooting or intercepting a pass and for goaltenders good hand and foot quickness are all assets that can be improved through training.  Speed and quickness training is very specific because the athlete is teaching certain muscles and nerve pathways to respond in a new way—quicker and faster.

Speed Training

Speed training  involves an all-out effort for thirty to ninety seconds and the work to rest ratio should be 1:1 or 1:2. The speed training exercises should be repeated five to ten times and should be utilized on an every other day basis.

A good off-rink speed training exercise is to run as hard as you can for a distance which is timed at forty to ninety seconds. Start with thirty seconds and then walk back to the starting spot during the rest period and start again.
The same exercise can be achieved on the hockey rink utilizing marks on the rink. Skate as fast as you can for thirty to sixty seconds and skate back slowly to the starting point during the rest phase and repeat the exercise.

Quickness Training

Quickness training requires an “all out effort”, an exercise duration of five to ten seconds repeated six to twelve times several days a week. The rest interval between exercises should be five times the exercise period.

An off the rink leg exercise program for quickness consists of running up an incline—it could be a hill or stairs in which the athlete runs up the incline as quickly as possible for ten seconds and then takes a fifty second rest before beginning the exercise again.
Arm quickness can be enhanced on the rink by shooting a puck or ball rapidly at a target on the boards for ten seconds and then again rest for fifty seconds and repeat.

Stretching muscles increases a player’s flexibility which enhances range of motion and prevents injury.   Before stretching muscles, a player needs to warm-up the muscles.   A cold muscle does not easily stretch and is more likely to be injured.  The best time to stretch is after exercise or a game because the muscles are sufficiently warmed up.  Stretching after a hockey game or practice also helps prevent muscles soreness and injury.

Hockey players are in special need of flexibility – especially the lower back and legs.  Due to the bent leg nature of skating, many hockey players are unable to fully extend their hamstrings muscles which leads to tight hamstrings.  Tight hamstrings can lead to their injury or injuries to the lower back and to the groin. Special attention should be paid to the hamstrings, groin, lower back and hips.  These muscles and joints are under stress while skating and executing the maneuvers required by hockey.  Good flexibility in those areas will enhance a player’s ability to play hockey.

The following stretches should be made after a hockey game or practice:

  • Upper Hamstrings
  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Lower Hamstrings
  • Lower Back and Glutes
  • Groin
  • Groin & Hamstrings
  • Groin
  • Ankles, Achilles, groin and lower back
  • Upper Calf
  • Lower Calf, Achilles
  • Arms, shoulders, and back

Follow these rules while performing a static stretch. First, don’t over stretch—a good stretch is one where you feel a slight tension but it is still comfortable. Two, hold the stretch for twenty to thirty seconds. Third, move slowly into and out of the stretch in a fluid motion. Fourth, progressively move into the next stretch. Oh, breath while you are stretching.

After the initial stretch of a muscle, back off and then progress a bit farther.  Finally, always stretch a warm muscle. Warm it up –  even five minutes of movement is better than stretching a cold muscle.

The biggest challenge for adult hockey players is finding a space large enough after a game to stretch. It seems as if most locker rooms were constructed for children and when you get ten or fifteen adults in there with all their equipment, it is next to impossible to find the space to stretch one’s hamstrings.

“I am always amazed when I see hockey players who skate around the rink once and then are along the board “winging” on their hamstrings.  If they would only skate around a bit and warm up their hamstrings and then do their pre-game stretch they would substantially reduce their risk of injury.”   –  Mark


Overweight hockey players are not effective and don’t have as much fun. This isn’t softball folks! A balanced diet is important.  Okay, enough lecturing.

Eating before a Game

Nothing is worse than practicing or competing while you’re so hungry that your mind is on your stomach instead of your performance. For pre-hockey meals and snacks, a little planning can make a big difference in your on-ice success. Choose foods that are high in carbohydrate, they will give you the quick energy without slowing you down. The general rule of thumb is this: 30 minutes-1 hour before competition, choose liquids such as a sports drink or water. If you eat 1-2 hours before playing, a small snack such as a cereal bar, grapes or apple juice will empty out of your stomach by the time you hit the ice. If you eat 2-3 hours before, having a small meal of a 1/2 turkey sandwich, banana and sports drink would be appropriate. If you have 3-4 hours, a regular-size meal such as pasta and sauce, salad, bread and water is ideal.

Skipping Breakfast?

Players often ask if they should skip breakfast during Lifetime Hockey’s summer School. One of the easiest ways to boost your energy level for the entire day is to eat breakfast. Do NOT skip it. Even if a player doesn’t have a lot of time and are running late, it is very important to get fuel to the muscles, brain, and bloodstream early in the day. Cereal bars, fruit, fruit juice, yogurt, bagels are great quick breakfast ideas.

(This Nutrition section contributed by: Carrie Peterson MS, RD, LD, CSSD, Director, Dietetic Internship for Graduate Students, Sports Nutritionist, Department of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Minnesota; Nutrition consultant to the Minnesota Wild).

What do you eat and drink before a game?  How close to game-time can you eat?  What stretches and warm ups should you do?

Food and Drink

Hydration is the key to pre-game conditioning. Drink several glasses of water or fill a water bottle and drink from it on the way to and before the game.   Sufficient hydration will enhance the body’s ability to rebound from the stress during the course of the game.

A pre-game meal is an individual choice. Some players are able to eat a meal or a sandwich right up to game-time without apparent adverse effects. A prevailing view among players is that food should not be eaten any later than two hours prior to a game.

Eating food any closer to game-time may affect your ability to play in several ways. First, an upset stomach or heartburn is a possibility which is an unpleasant experience while you are being pushed to your physical limits. Second, the blood supply is directed to digesting food which takes it away from the supplying the muscles needed to play hockey.  A meal close to game-time will deprive a player of needed energy for the game.


Pre-game stretching enhances flexibility and helps prevent injuries.  Until muscles are warmed up, aggressive stretching is counter productive.   Pregame stretching to loosen up muscles can be performed in the locker room before putting on equipment.

Try pre-game stretching on the ice as a substitute or as a supplement to stretching in the locker room.  Before stretching on the ice, skate several times around the rink first to warm-up arm and leg muscles.  A mistake many hockey players make is to begin stretching their hamstrings before warming up their muscles.  A cold muscle cannot be easily stretched and risks injury.

Exercises on the ice include hamstring stretches on the boards. This exercise is risky depending upon the player’s physical size, the height of the boards, the player’s ability to balance themselves on one skate, and the slipperiness rink’s surface. It is safer to stand on the bench side of the boards and stretch the hamstrings on the players’ bench or the boards.

Stretch the legs first then the arms. A good groin stretch is to place one leg behind while maintaining balance on the skate of the other leg.  Leg kicks and calf stretches (pull one leg up by the ankle toward the torso while balancing on the flats of the other skate) are good pre-game stretching exercises.

A good back stretch is to go to the knees and bend backwards stretching the back and neck.   Arms and wrists can be stretched by spinning the hockey stick like a baton in a twisting action. Another back and arm stretch is to place a hockey stick behind the back in an arching and uplifting action.

Goaltenders have an entire regiment of pre-game stretching which is outlined in Chapter 9 on Goaltending.

Conditioning and Fitness – Post-Game

Many hockey players are unaware of the secret of post-game stretching. Stretching after an athletic event, especially a hockey game is the key to minimizing injury and reducing muscle soreness.  It is surprising how few players know this.

Once the equipment is taken off,  the same pre-game stretching routine should be followed. Sometimes this is difficult due to time constraints or the size of the locker rooms. At a minimum stretch the legs.  Make sure to do a groin stretch,  a calf stretch, and stretch the hamstrings..  This becomes more important over time as a player becomes older and less able to bounce back from the stress and strain of hockey.  Continue to drink water after the game.  Fill up the water bottle and drink it on the ride home!