By Derek M. Hansen, CSCS @derekmhansen RunningMechanics.com SprintCoach.com
I have been working as a coach and consultant for speed and sprint-based athletes for over 30 years beginning in the sport of Track and Field. As an athlete, I was always competing in sprinting and jumping events from a very young age and was also very capable in a multitude of sports. As such, I have always used sprinting as a foundational element in all of my training programs, regardless of the sport. For the most part, athletes continued to improve as long as we were making them sprint maximally a few sessions per week in their off-season preparation.
It was not until I started to work with Olympic level speed skaters that I realized that the same could be said for athletes who wanted to skate at high velocities. Much of the off-season preparation for these skaters was sprint-based on a conventional rubberized track surface using track spikes. The faster skaters were also fast sprinters. And many of the tendencies – good and bad – they demonstrated in dry-land scenarios, also came out when they were on the ice. When I started to use the same approach with ice hockey players, we had similar outcomes and the players enjoyed the change from all of the conventional on-ice and gym work they were accustomed to during the off-season. As we made the transition to a more comprehensive sprint-based program, in some cases eliminating on-ice work for a significant period of the off-season, we experienced even better results.
We know that over-training a specific movement or activity can quickly lead to a training plateau and diminishing returns, as well as a whole array of over-use problems, particularly in the hip and groin area of the ice hockey athlete. This article reviews an extremely productive alternative to developing on-ice speed without all of the negative side effects of excessive on-ice work.
Distinguishing Between Specific and General Adaptations
Most sport coaches want more of what happens during games and competition. If the game is played on ice, the practice will take place on the ice and any supportive skill work or drills will also occur on the ice. It only makes sense. However, there are many good reasons to consider dry-land solutions to on-ice demands. There are specific aspects of dry-land sprinting that mirror the actions of skating acceleration as we will identify in this article. Additionally, there are a whole host of systemic, general adaptations that occur in maximal sprinting that can contribute to improved on-ice performance. Shorter ground contact times, more profound elastic responses and greater central nervous system demands are just a few of the reasons to sprint maximally at specific times of the year to build a faster and more resilient ice hockey athlete. Chasing specificity can have immediate positive effects, but coaches and trainers must support this work with general activities that bolster physical resiliency, improve overall fitness and performance, and minimize both physical and mental burnout in ice hockey athletes of all ages and levels of ability.
The Myth of ‘First-Step’ Quickness
Many a physical preparation coach have staked their reputation on the importance of ‘first-step’ quickness. It makes sense! Going back to Neil Armstrong’s first ground contact on the moon back in 1969, we were inundated with the “One small step for man… one giant leap for mankind!” and we were hooked. Strength coaches have promoted their weight room routines or plyometric exercises as part of their ‘first-step quickness’ program, rather than placing equal importance on every step and every contributing training element. But even though a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, the quality of all of those steps is critically important. I’ve seen amazing first movements and initial steps decimated by horrible execution of steps 2, 3 and 4. In fact, if an athlete is encouraged to do something sensational with their first step, chances are they will over-commit to that acyclical effort and ruin the smooth execution of the cyclical action of sprinting or skating.
Because both sprint and skating acceleration are cyclical activities, the distribution of effort must be balanced between each stride. Too much emphasis on one stride can rob the other strides of proper position, frequency, range and, ultimately, power. Finding the optimal cadence for any cyclical activity is critical for acceleration performance whether you are on a track or on ice. In ice hockey scenarios, it is more common to initiate three to five strides before gliding on two skates, so it may be unnecessary to sprint far in dry land scenarios. There are a few good reasons to sprint to maximum velocity that we will address later in the article.
The Biomechanics of Sprinting and Acceleration
Sprint – and in particular – acceleration mechanics can be simplified in a manner that divides up the action of the upper and lower extremities into front-side and back-side contributions. Movement along the sagittal plane by the arms and legs about the frontal axis will involve the rapid flexion and extension of joints. While many athletes are initially taught to ‘push’ out back to create propulsion, most of the top sprint athletes understand the importance of attaining range on the front-side of the body. While some coaches may refer to a lifting of the knees, ideally the athlete is bringing their foot to the front side of the body at a height that allows them to accelerate the leg downward forcefully toward the ground to create both vertical and horizontal propulsion. Any extension to the backside of the body is simply a byproduct of front side intent, ground preparation and overall force production. When combined with a stride frequency of approximately 4.5 steps per second (in sprinters) good things can happen.
Some basic statistics on sprinting will help to illustrate what is clearly happening ‘on the ground’ and how this data can support a sprint-based approach to on-ice performance both specifically and generally. Credit is provided to Dr. Ralph Mann and his research work with elite sprinters, documented in his book, “The Mechanics of Sprinting and Hurdling.”
It doesn’t take many steps for an athlete to approach top-speed as illustrated in Figure 1. Horizontal speed is achieved not by first-step quickness, but a well-coordinated array of successive steps. Over-striding, stumbling or standing up too quickly can all significantly impact acceleration rate. This information does allow us to understand that short sprints and accelerations of even three to seven steps can contribute toward overall speed abilities of an athlete. In ice-hockey players, this plays an even more significant role, as more than three to five skating strides are required in game-specific scenarios before a bilateral glide phase is employed. While ice-hockey athletes do not accelerate at the same rate as sprinters in the early phase of a sprint – primarily due to the ice surface itself – a steady rate of acceleration is similarly experience by on-ice athletes.
Examination of athlete ground contact times during a maximal acceleration in an elite sprinter reveals that the amount of time on the ground quickly diminishes as velocity is increased. Figure 2 illustrates the fact that world-class sprinters can quickly achieve ground contact times of no more than 1/10th of a second. While ice-hockey players do not utilize the stretch-reflex in the lower leg complex as much as a dry-land sprinter, the initial steps in an on-ice acceleration will display similarly short ground contact times until the athlete begins to enter a unilateral glide phase. As mentioned previously, this may happen as quickly as the fourth or fifth skating stride.
Once we start to look at the stride/step frequency element of sprinting, we see that consistency is imperative. There are no sweeping variations in stride frequency. Sprint athletes quickly achieve their optimal stride frequency from step one and continue that pattern for their entire race. This is important to realize for dry-land sprinting applications, as athletes must be taught to relax and maintain fast and consistent strides. Athletes that can rapidly cycle through strides will often have better acceleration abilities whether on the track or on the ice. While excessive stride frequency can diminish power, much like a car spinning its wheels without moving, it is recommended that training sessions focus on attaining maximal frequency with a measured amount of relaxation to allow for optimal stride length. Once again, the ice skating athlete will peak in stride frequency much earlier than the sprinting athlete due to the nature of skating mechanics. However, hitting a high frequency as soon as possible should still remain one of the goals of acceleration training regardless of the training environment. Higher stride frequencies also allows for more accessible direction change abilities due to the fact that a step is always ready for force application on the ice.
We have always been taught that good sprinting is the result of the optimal combination of stride frequency and stride length. This is no different for the skating athlete. The only difference is in how the stride length is attained in sprinting versus skating. In sprinting, athletes drive more force into the ground for shorter instances of time to take advantage of elasticity so that the athlete is vaulted further and faster forward on each stride as shown in Figure 4. In skating, athletes modify their stride mechanics to push laterally to essentially move up to larger ‘gears’ to create higher velocities of movement. While stride frequency remains constant in sprinters over a six to seven second duration, stride frequency is skaters will actually slow down to accommodate a modified and more efficient stride mechanic. Pushing laterally and crossing-over substitute bigger gears for high stride frequencies as proven by both science and practice.
So how do we modify sprinting to fit the parameters of ice skating? Fortunately we don’t have to answer that question. When on solid ground, sprint! When on the ice, skate! This may sound all too easy, but it works perfectly. When athletes enter the initial start and early acceleration phase, they assume the same positions. Figures 5a and 5b are of former Canadian Olympic speed skaters (500m distance) in their initial acceleration for both dry-land (inset) and on-ice scenarios.
In both cases, the off-ice posture and limb placements closely resemble the on-ice positions. While these similarities may only last for three to four strides, sprinting still represents a more than suitable means of simulating the positions and stresses of on-ice early acceleration from a pure specificity point of view. Skating will typically have a lower heel recovery position – during the swing phase of the stride – due to a lower elastic contribution from the foot at toe-off and the weight of the skate versus a sprint spike or running shoe. As was mentioned previously, off-ice errors will typically manifest themselves as on-ice errors. This reinforces the concept of ‘fixing’ mechanical errors in dry-land training sessions where more reps are possible, less equipment is required and facility accessibility is not an issue. If you can fix it on dry land, you may not have to fix it once you hit the ice. I believe this is one of the more compelling specificity arguments for dry-land sprinting. And, I would argue that the stretch-reflex throughout all musculo-tendo structures in the lower extremities play a larger role in skating speed than most people would like to admit.
For those of you that are not speed skating aficionados, fortunately, this tendency can also be seen in some of the faster ice hockey players. Fast skaters have to produce adequate force into the ice at a high enough frequency to produce fast locomotion in a limited amount of space in game scenarios. Figure 6 depicts one of the faster NHL players executing a powerful acceleration at an All-Star event competition that looks very similar to the positions of a dry-land sprinter. I superimpose my proprietary “Be the Hashtag” symbol on sprinters and skater videos and photos to show how the posture and limbs should line up during acceleration and maximum velocity sprinting. All good sprinters and accelerating skaters exhibit this posture, and it is a very simple way to convey optimal positions to athletes – particularly younger athletes – with a simple smartphone camera and app such as Dartfish Express.
Figures 7 and 8 show examples of former NHL athletes accelerating maximally on a rubberized track. In both cases, their off-season dry-land preparation was comprised of no less than two sessions per week on the track focusing on starts, accelerations and – in some instances – maximum velocity sprinting. It is also important to note that both athletes readily enjoyed the training sessions, as it was a significant departure from the higher volumes of on-ice work that they were accustomed to during the off-season period. There were no instances of muscle strains or other injuries during the course of the training periods and, if anything, the athletes exhibited a much lower incidence of injury once they resumed their on-ice activities and regular season commitments.
While maximal upright sprinting may not specifically address the requirements of ice skating, hitting higher velocities beyond 20 meters of sprint distance allows athletes to benefit from the greater forces required to run fast. In Figure 9, you can see this former NHL player hitting top speed with maximal velocity mechanics over 40 meters with relatively good technique. This approach is supported by the research of Nagahara et al. in Figure 10 demonstrating that ground reaction forces increase dramatically as athletes hit higher running speeds.
Another one of the benefits of employing a dry-land, sprint-based approach to training is that you also create another means of strengthening the athletes should they have the misfortune of getting injured. Most of my lower body rehabilitation protocols involve the significant integration of sprint drills and accelerations on a daily basis. I have presented on two occasions in the last five years at the NFL Combine for PFATS on the subject of a sprint-based approach to hamstring injury prevention and rehabilitation, and my methods have been adopted by a majority of teams.
The same approach can easily be adopted for ice hockey players as part of a transitional ‘step’ between the clinical rehabilitation phase and return to on-ice activities. Sprint drills and dry-land acceleration work will safely strengthen the muscles and connective tissues to the demands of on-ice locomotion. We even use sprint accelerations for upper extremity injuries to maintain the strength of the upper body, as many athletes comment on how sore they are in the shoulders, biceps, traps and upper back, with some even commenting on hypertrophy gains after as little as three weeks of sprint work.
One of the symptoms of presenting this type of information is that you will get the hecklers from the back row chiming in with, “Well, you can’t take a sprinter and put him in skates expecting him to be an NHL level player!” I would never assert that this is the case, just as I wouldn’t suggest that sprinters would make great basketball, football or tennis players. We all understand that sport specific skill is critical to success in every sport. However, integrating some of the valuable qualities that dry-land sprinting brings to the table for most athletes in various sports – without creating significant over-use issues – is a compelling option for players and teams looking for easy-to-implement solutions for off-season preparation, in-season maintenance and year round return-to-play protocols.
I am not proposing a massive shift towards excessive dry-land training, but simply a subtle re-orientation to some very effective off-ice solutions that don’t require significant equipment or training to implement on a consistent basis. Once all professionals attain a level of comfort and competence around this modality, significant benefits can be made available to all players from the development levels all the way up to the elite performers.
Derek M. Hansen is an International Sport Performance Consultant that has been working with athletes all ages and abilities in speed, strength and power sports since 1988. He has worked closely with some of the top performers in the world as a coach and a consultant – including Olympic medalists, world record holders, Canadian National team athletes, and professional athletes from numerous sports. Most recently, he worked progressively over the last five years on speed development and sprint integration with the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs. He worked as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Simon Fraser University for 14 years, the first non-US member of the NCAA. He also serves as a performance consultant to numerous professional teams in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS, as well as NCAA Division 1 programs throughout North America, specializing in speed development, strategic performance planning, return-to-competition protocols and neuromuscular electrical stimulation programming. Derek also offers continuing education courses around sprint-based solutions via his Running Mechanics Professional curriculum at RunningMechanics.com.