Hockey Dryland Not the Only or Best Option

January 11, 2011

Over the past few years a disturbing trend has started to develop, young, developing hockey players using dryland as their only means of physical conditioning. I am not anti dryland, it does have a place and if done properly can be a valuable tool for building some aspects of hockey fitness but it can’t be the only tool. A well designed balanced program that includes strength training, aerobic training, hockey specific conditioning and dryland is the key to long term development.  Dryland alone has some severe limitations that will prevent a young player form reaching their full potential.

Not Hockey Specific

Dryland is not hockey specific. If you watch a hockey dryland session and a football dryland and a baseball dryland they all look the same. In fact dryland was designed for and transfers over to field based sport performances much better than it does on ice performances. There have been studies that show improvements in on field performance tests in football and soccer following drland agility training because the exercises used are similar to movements used on the field. All the data available on hockey actually shows no improvement in on ice agility following dryland agility training because skating and running are too different.

Hockey is a speed and power sport but the structure of most dryland sessions may be making athletes slower. Most dryland sessions are set up so that the athletes are exhausted at the end, they are constantly moving for the whole session with very little rest. In many cases the parents are at fault for this because they don’t want to see the kids standing around. Humans have an innate pacing ability, when they know that they have to do something hard for a long period of time they naturally pace themselves. If an athlete knows they have to do 25 sprints they won’t go as fast as if they only have to do five. Developing speed requires maximum speed on each sprint . A couple of years ago an NHL team approached us to analyze their practices. The media had been going on about how the team was slow and needed to develop some speed. We knew from seeing the on ice sprint testing that the strength coach had done in camp that the team actually had some of the faster players in the league and on average was a much faster team than several others that the media said were faster.  We shot video of the practice and analyzed it using biomechanics software to get skating speed during the different drills and then compared the practice speeds to the training camp testing speeds. At no point in the practice did the players skate at more than 80% of the peak speed. They paced themselves through the whole practice because the coach liked to run up tempo practices that tired the guys out. They learned to play slow because this is how they practiced, and they could not improve on ice speed because they never skated fast enough in practice. After adjusting the practices the team went on a winning streak and the media stated commenting on how much faster they were playing. Continuous motion dryland is only going to teach a player to pace themselves not build speed.


Elite athletes us individualized programs to address their weakness and build on their strengths to make them complete athletes. All the top NHL players hire strength coaches for personal training over the summer months. Every NHL team has a full time strength coach who is expected to individualize the programs for each player during the season. They make this investment because every athlete responds a little differently to training and has different needs depending on their age, fitness, position and role on the team. It is no different for a developing athlete, in fact it may be even more important for a developing athlete to get the individual attention.


Any good program starts with a detailed assessment of all aspects of hockey fitness and then uses that information to build the program that is specific to each athlete. Group fitness, yes dryland is group fitness, treats everyone the same way, they do the same workouts regardless of their fitness or individual needs.

Long Term Development

Development is a favourite word of hockey coaches and parents but few actually pay any attention to the principals of long term athlete development. Several years ago Sport Canada started investing money in the creation of a long term athlete development model. They brought in top experts on sport and child development from around the world. The results of this can be seen at One of the key results of this work is that we now know that as kids grow and develop there are period s of time when different fitness qualities develop most effectively. For instance between the ages of 7-9 is period where kids are most adaptable to speed training, particularly hand and foot speed. Missing this period can affect speed later in life. Just going into the growth spurt is a period where aerobic fitness is most trainable and in the 12-18 months immediately following the growth spurt is a period where strength and muscle mass is most trainable. Dryland training alone does not and cannot address these key developmental points. Group programs don’t account for the individual maturation and development rates of each athlete in the way that an individualized program does. They are also not structured to effective develop strength and size. If an athlete is not in a proper strength program by the time they go through their growth spurt, they will have a much harder time developing the size and strength they need to play at the highest levels of hockey.

Dryland can be a valuable part of an athlete’s development but only if it is combined with an individually designed, testing based program that respect the principals of long term athlete development.

Intermittent Hypoxic Training

October 3, 2010

Even small improvements in performance often take hours of training, hours which for the recreationally competitive athlete are often difficult to find when they have to juggle family life, work and training. One of the most overlooked adjuncts to training that has continually shown performance benefits is intermittent hypoxic training. Intermittent hypoxic training (IHT) makes use of a machine that decreases the amount of oxygen that you breathe, simulating altitude. IHT training has been shown to increase power at both anaerobic threshold and VO2 max by 4-6% in as little as three weeks with daily use of IHT for an hour at a time. This is about the equivalent of six months or more of improvements from actual training for most age group athletes. The real advantage to IHT training is that it is a passive form of training, you sit there attached to the machine and breathe while reading, watching TV or responding to e-mail.

How Does it Work?

Hypoxia, a decrease in the oxygen content of the air you are breathing stimulates the release of erythropoietin, the hormone responsible for producing red blood cell. With repeated exposure you will gradually increase the total number of circulating red cells and the oxygen carrying capacity of your blood.

Many people mistakenly believe that the use of hematocrit, the cell component of blood, levels are a good indicator of whether the IHT is working or not. If you were to take hematocrit measures every day while using IHT you would likely see an increase in hematocrit for a short time and then a gradual decrease back to normal levels as blood volume increases. If you only take a hematocrit reading at the beginning, middle and end of the IHT program you are unlikely to see any changes.

The human body likes to maintain hematocrit within a relatively narrow range, normal variations in hematocrit are typically less than 4% over the course of a year. One of the primary adaptations to aerobic training is an increase in blood volume, resulting in a decrease in hematocrit levels, reducing blood viscosity and resistance to blood flow, and improving cardiac output. There is a strong positive correlation between blood volume and endurance performance but contrary to what many athletes believe there is a negative correlation between hematocrit and performance. In other words high hematocrit levels actually decrease aerobic capacity. A lower hematocrit keeps blood viscosity lower and improves blood flow rate which improves oxygen transportation and transfer of oxygen to the muscles.

Given the amount of time and effort that you put into your training, the investment in IHT training is well worth the possibility of doubling the amount of improvement most people typically see in a year.


Thirup, P. (2003). Hematocrit: Within subject and seasonal variation. Sports Medicine. 33(3) pp 231-243.

El syaed, M., Ali, N., and El sayed -Ali, Z. (2005).  Haemorohlogy in exercise and training. Sports Medicine. 35(8) pp 649-670.

Planning Your Program: A New Look at Periodization

July 27, 2010

Periodization is the process of breaking the year into training blocks or periods. Each period has a set of goals and a training focus so that the physical qualities needed for rowing are developed in a logical fashion so that you peak for your main race of the season. Traditional periodized models for rowing focus on the development of aerobic base early in the off season, move to anaerobic threshold level work and then to specific race pace and speed work just before the racing season. While this progression works well for some it does not take into account your individual needs nor does it take into account what types of training you are most ready for. An alternative form of periodization that is becoming more popular is one I like to call Reactive Planning.

Reactive Planning

Reactive planning uses the results of a set of tests to determine training priorities and periodization. Tests are repeated every 8-12 weeks and new priorities are set. Reactive Planning is an examination of how peak anaerobic power, VO2 max, anaerobic threshold, and aerobic threshold compare to each other. In an ideal situation you would expect to see the following relationships: Anaerobic threshold should be 80-85% of VO2 max, aerobic threshold should be 65-70% of VO2 max and VO2 max should be 40-45% of peak power.

Of course if you went to an exercise physiology lab and had all these variables measured you could get a very accurate picture of where you stand but this isn’t possible for everyone. Instead several simple tests you can perform on your own will give you a decent estimate of your proportional fitness. You will need to find all your data using the wattage setting on your erg because it is much easier to do calculations with wattage than it is with time.

VO2 max can be estimated as the average watts from a five minute test. Anaerobic threshold is close to the average watts used during a 20 minute test and aerobic threshold is approximately the wattage that corresponds to a 90 minute steady state workout. Peak power is the maximum wattage you see during an all out 10 second sprint working against a relatively high resistance. Do each of these tests on a separate day so that fatigue from one test does not interfere with the results of another test. Let’s assume you do all the tests and come up with the following data:

Table 1. Sample Data

Test Wattage
5 min 400 watts
20 minutes 295 watts
90 minute 180 watts
10 second sprint 750 watts

From this data we can calculate:

Table 2. Comparing the Sample to the Ideal

Actual Ideal
VO2 vs peak power 53% 45-48%
Anaerobic threshold vs VO2 74% 80-85%
Aerobic threshold vs VO2 45% 65-70%

Interpreting the Data

To understand the data we need to understand the relationship between the physiological points we are discussing and the concept of ceilings. Each of these physiological points can only get so close to the point above before you stop seeing progress. For instance if your anaerobic threshold gets to 85% of your VO2 max it becomes very difficult to move it any higher, this is not to say that you couldn’t get it to 90% but it may take years to get it to do so. You would probably get better race results by focusing your training elsewhere. If your VO2 max scores gets beyond 48% of your peak power you will have a really tough time improving your VO2 until your peak power goes up. Table 2 shows the results of our example and the ideal relationships between the physiological variables.

Looking at the results we see that VO2 max is a higher percentage of peak power than it should be, 53% versus the 45% ideal, suggesting that this person needs to improve their peak power or they will have difficulty improving their VO2 max.

Anaerobic threshold, as measured by a 20 minute test is 74% of VO2 max as opposed to the 85% ideal. This means the person in our example also needs to raise their anaerobic threshold but it is not being limited by their VO2max.

Finally we can also see that aerobic threshold, as measured by the 60 minute test is 45% of VO2 max instead of the 70% ideal, indicating a need for more low intensity long duration work.

Setting Your Training Focus

Now that you have the data and have determined what needs to be trained you can now set training priorities. Peak power always becomes the top priority if it is not within the expected ranges, since it can limit all the other variables. The secondary priority is the area with the biggest percentage difference between your score and the ideal. In the case of our example this would be aerobic threshold, which is 25% away from where it should be.

In our example this athlete would be doing some short very high intensity sprints during their training. It does not matter what time of year it is, their performance is being limited by their peak power so it must be improved before the other variables can reach their full potential. This is not to say they will only do the sprints, rather they become a priority and focus for the next period of training. The other fitness variables like aerobic base, and anaerobic threshold still need to be trained but they are not the priorities. When the tests are repeated before the start of the next training phase there may be a completely different set of priorities.

Reactive planning allows you to modify the traditional periodized training model for endurance sports based on your strengths and weakness and the variables that will be most adaptable. This may mean doing more speed work in the early winter when you may be used to focusing solely on aerobic base building but without addressing your weaknesses first you can spend a lot of time training with very little improvement.

Interval training

July 20, 2010

Interval training is a popular form of training amongst many athletes. While most rowers will use intervals at some point in the year few really understand the purpose of intervals or how get the most from this valuable training method.

Physiology of Interval Training

Interval training involves alternating periods of high intensity work with periods of lower intensity work, usually, but not always above and below anaerobic threshold. By alternating periods of higher intensity work with lower intensity work several things are accomplished:

The amount of high intensity work is maximized. If you were to try to hold an intensity above anaerobic threshold for as long as possible you would fatigue in just over 20 minutes. If you were to do 6 x 5 minute work intervals with a rest period in between you would have done 30 minutes of work above threshold. Since the volume of work above threshold was higher it should give you a greater training effect. The same holds true for VO2 max and anaerobic intervals.

During the work period of the interval you will be producing lactic acid, which your body will have to deal with during the rest period. Active slow twitch muscle fibers are capable of using lactic acid as an energy source. Repeatedly exposing your body to moderate levels of lactate and then allowing it to recover gradually trains your body to become more efficient at lactate removal as you r body develops the enzymes necessary to convert lactate back to glycogen or glucose. This will translate into lower lactate and faster times during a race since you will be able to deal with the lactate as it is produced. Of course this training effect will only happen if you have done adequate base training.

The aerobic capacity of fast twitch fibers is improved with interval training. The more often a fiber is activated the greater it’s oxidative capacity. Interval training is the only ways to activate the fast twitch fibers frequently enough to improve their aerobic capacity, making them behave more like slow twitch fibers.

Designing an Interval Training Program

Interval training is high intensity and needs to be planned very carefully in order to avoid overtraining. The most important component of an interval program is the base work that is done prior to starting intervals. The initial 6-8 weeks of your training should be devoted almost exclusively to low intensity long duration training, 60 minutes or more per session. This will prime the slow twitch fibers and improve their fitness, so that they can accept the lactate that will be produced when intervals are started, allowing you to make effective use of interval training.

The Work Period

The duration of the work period will vary depending on the intensity of the interval. A work load just above anaerobic threshold will need long intervals, 5-10 minutes, while higher intensity anaerobic intervals can be as short as five seconds. Consistency is the most important factor in interval training. The power output or split time should be the same for each work piece of an interval session. In other words if you are doing 5 minutes at 1:55/500 on the first interval all other intervals should be done at the same pace. This ensures that you are maintaining the appropriate intensity and recruiting the same muscle fibers in each interval, improving the training effect. It does very little for you to do an interval session where the first interval is 1:55 the next is 1:59 the next 2:02 etc. Be sure to choose an interval duration and split time that allows you to be consistent throughout the workout.

Choosing paces for the work intervals requires a little up front work on your part. You need to have an idea of your splits for both anaerobic threshold and VO2 max. Procedures for determining these points were set out in my article “Is Your Training Focused Properly?” published in IRN February 2003. Training splits will normally be set at anaerobic threshold, VO2 max or half way between.

The Rest Period

The rest period is as important as the work period. The purpose of the rest period is to allow time to remove the lactate created during the work interval, and allow the anaerobic alactic energy system to replenish itself. During aerobic intervals, intervals longer than two minutes, the rest period is active, meaning you continue to row but at a lower intensity. The duration of the rest period will depend on the duration and intensity of the work period. Aerobic intervals will vary for a 1:1 to a 1:4 work rest ratio. Anaerobic intervals were covered last year in another article. When choosing the duration of your rest period, follow these simple guidelines: 1). The longer the work the shorter the rest

Longer intervals are normally done at lower intensity, requiring a shorter rest period. A five minute interval just above anaerobic threshold will produce moderate levels of lactate requiring less time to recover so a 1:1 or 1:1.5 work to rest ratio can be used. A higher intensity two minute interval will produce more lactate and therefore require a longer recovery. 2). Adjust the duration of the rest period so that you can maintain a consistent split during the work period. It may happen that you decide to do 5 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes of rest, repeated 5 times. Half way through the workout you notice that you can’t hold the same work split. Finish the training session, coming as close as possible to the desired splits. For the next session increase the duration of the rest period by 50%. If you still cannot hold the desired splits for all the work periods drop the splits for the rest period by about 10% for the next workout.

Table 1: Work and Rest Period for Various Interval Intensities

Type of Interval

Work Period



Anaerobic Threshold 3-10 min 1: 1 or 1:1.5 Just above and just below threshold
Supra threshold-Sub Max 2-7 min 1:2 or 1:3 Halfway between AT and VO2 max. Recovery in Zone 1
VO2 max 1-4 min 1:3 or 1:4 Work at VO2 max recovery in Zone 1 VI
Anaerobic Sprints 5-60 seconds 1:6 All out sprint passive recovery

Most rowers who race 2000m will use some combination of all four types of intervals in their training program. For those rowing 1000m races the VO2 max and anaerobic sprints should make up the bulk of your interval training, while those doing only head races will focus their interval training on anaerobic threshold intervals.

While interval training is a great way to improve speed, it is easy to overdo it and do yourself more harm than good so take it easy when starting by doing only one session per week and increasing by one session per week every two weeks until your are doing at most four sessions per week.