It goes without saying that it has been a strange past 7 months for anyone with a job. The uncertainty of when restrictions will be lifted, what government guidelines will be and when businesses will open, has made it a challenge to plan, prepare and pivot to adapt. For professional athletes, the job of keeping their bodies ready for intense competition, without a known start date has created an interesting dilemma. For Strength and Conditioning Coaches responsible for helping these athletes prepare for uncertain upcoming seasons, it requires creativity and planning that they may not have experienced before and may never experience again in their careers.
For a professional hockey player, depending upon the calibre of their team, the off season will typically start anywhere from early April to the end of June. With the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown in mid March, an exceedingly early off season was thrust upon professional hockey players. After a normal season, a transition phase may last 2-4 weeks for these players (1). In 2020 it was 10-12 weeks after seasons shut down before players were able to get back into strength and conditioning facilities. Once they were able to begin training again, it was unknown when their next season would start. For a Strength and Conditioning coach, not having access to facilities, not being able to see their athlete and not knowing how long to program the general and specific preparatory phases creates an interesting periodization dilemma. However, as Cochran states, with this extended off-season comes the opportunity to program to improve upon deficiencies and allow nagging injuries to heal that do not otherwise get the chance (1). For the first time in my 23-year career, I accepted the challenge of working with a professional hockey player during a Pandemic.
In early May 2020, one of our long-time professional hockey players reached out to me to let me know he and his family were back in Canada. He had spent the previous 6 weeks with no access to fitness equipment isolated in his apartment waiting to hear if his hockey season would continue. We set up a virtual meeting to discuss how we could get him moving again while under quarantine in a house with no equipment and a young baby. Typically, one of our first steps would be to have him come in for a post season alignment assessment with one of our therapists. I was particularly concerned about this barrier knowing he had suffered an SI joint injury from an awkward hit in January. I watched him move during our zoom session and took him through a virtual movement screen. Based on what I saw and knowing he had only been active to approximately 40% of his regular training load during the previous 6 weeks, we determined that starting with an isometric body weight prescription (Tables 1 and 2) would be the start of our general prep period. Based on the AIS recommendations following an imposed or planned break, it was going to take 4.7 weeks to get him back to full training loads (2). Over these first 2 weeks we were in constant communication to discuss how he was tolerating the training (3). Once he got out of quarantine, we added 2 weeks of progressive low impact SAQ and ESD work that he could execute in his condo complex to start to rebuild his base.
Early June my community progressed into phase 2 by the Ministry of Health so I was able to open my facility for Therapy and Kinesiology services exclusively for professional athletes (4). We met in person and did our fitness testing measures and had him assessed by members of our therapy team. Fitness Testing consisted of Static, Counter-Movement and Single Leg Vertical Jump measures with an Opto-jump , Hex Rail Agility(5), Penta Jump, Standing Long Jump, Pro Agility, Standing Medicine Ball Throw (6), 60 sec Lateral Box Jumps (30cm) and Tabata Assault Bike for max and average Power and Speed measures.
During this first week back in the gym, we used a collaborative interdisciplinary approach so we could make sure nothing would slip through the cracks with regards to his alignment, range of motion and his recovery from the in-season low back injury. Our movement specialist Lisa Rennie noticed an inconsistency from left to right when he performed a movement involving a split stance with forward flexion, similar to a skating stride body position. She tried cueing to correct this, but the athlete could not control it even though he was aware it was happening.
Our RMT Gavin Buehler then assessed things globally to check for overall structural balance and tissue health, identifying tissues that needed some attention. Through his assessment, he noted excessive tone in the right QL with a hip rotation. The opposite split stance with the same movement did not have this. Gavin analyzed the movement pattern and assessed the tissues involved with his hands and combed through the rest of his body to see if there may be less obvious tissues causing this effect. In this athlete’s case the QL, hip flexors and lateral hip muscles felt a tension associated with muscles reacting to a disfunction. This was likely a result of the in-season SI joint injury. What was more subtle was the tone and feel of the adductors.
Upon palpation, adductor longus had underactive tone. Following the fascial lines this was also affecting the tonicity and function of the rectus abdominis and right-side obliques. Gavin then worked with his hands to get the tissues feeling healthy and balanced, and relayed his findings to both myself, Lisa, and our Chiropractor Angelica Dimopoulos so we could all work on repatterning and balancing those muscles out. Additional adductor strengthening and hip mobility work was added into his movement prep warm ups for his workouts. Additionally, Dr. Dimopoulos performed her own assessment and recommended integrating specific rehab exercises for a past chronic wrist injury. By integrating her suggested finger bumper plate carries during subsequent strength training sessions, the athlete noted an improvement in his grip strength and wrist function.
In late June, our athlete made the difficult decision to stay in Collingwood with his wife and baby son and not participate in the 2020 NHL playoff bubble. We set up a zoom consultation with me, the athlete and his NHL team strength and conditioning coach. We were given a tentative 2020/21 NHL season training camp date of mid November.
As a group we determined that we would take advantage of this extra five months together to expand on our off-season goals and capture things that we now had time to focus on. We set goals of gaining 5 lbs of lean body mass, improving his upper body and shoulder strength, foot dexterity as it relates to core functioning (7) and lower body power and agility. The upper body and shoulder specific lean mass is often neglected due to the time crunch of a typical 10-12 week off season however there is evidence that it can enhance a hockey players performance (8).
I discussed the psychology of this plan with the athlete. The biggest hurdle in getting athlete buy in was convincing him that despite a potential short term decline in some of his SAQ fitness testing parameters while we focused on gaining lean mass, we would see long term results. As a professional athlete, he has high expectations for himself and likes to see constant, progressive improvements each time we re-assess. Due to the length of the off season and potential burn out, we determined that we would build an ‘unloading’ week every 4-6 weeks where his only structured workouts would be two mobility/stability sessions, one therapy session and some unstructured tennis and hiking in the mountains with his wife and young son.
After some discussion he agreed and accepted this plan. Table 3 shows the 10-week mesocycle that was set up following a tri-phasic strength building model (9). The first 2.5-week micro cycle was an eccentric focus, the next 2.5-week micro cycle was an isometric focus followed by an unloading week. This was followed by a 4-week concentric focused strength/power micro cycle. During this time, he began on-ice skating and skills workouts which were planned around the lower volume workout days where ice time would allow.
With our end goal of improving lower body power and knowing that power-generating capacity is based on the ability to express both force and velocity, both factors needed to be considered in the program. Based on the current body of literature, the development of muscle cross-sectional area is key to strength development and then the transfer of those strength characteristics is necessary to optimize power production (10). At the time of this article, our athlete was up 6lbs of lean body mass from where he began in early June while maintaining, and in some instances, improving upon his alactic variables. Numerous studies have clearly indicated that plyometric training, when coupled with strength training, can result in improvements in neuromuscular control and movement efficiency during high impact activities such as cutting and landing and have the potential to reduce the risk for lower extremity injuries in team sports (10). As we shift into the specific preparatory phase over the final 10 weeks of training, we are focusing on high velocity movements and sport specific lactate capacity.
With many things in professional sports still uncertain due to COVID-19, our hopes are that we have put together a solid plan for this athlete and that he will thrive in the upcoming season.
References: 1) Cochran A. Programming Considerations For Return To Play Post COVID-19. Canadian Strength And Conditioning Association Summer Newsletter Part 2. 2020.
2) Australian Institute of Sport. (2015). Prescription of training load in relation to loading and unloading phases of training (1st Ed.) Australian Institute of Sport. Bruce, ACT, Australia, Australian Sports Commission.
3) Australian Institute of Sport. (2020). Prescription of training load in relation to loading and unloading phases of training (2nd Ed.) Australian Institute of Sport. Bruce, ACT, Australia, Australian Sports Commission.
4) Persad S. Part 1- Return To High Performance Sport: Progress And Suggestions In the Midst of COVID-19. Canadian Strength And Conditioning Association Summer Newsletter Part 1. 2020.
6) Foran B. (2001) High Performance Sports Conditioning. Human Kinetics. Chicago, Ill.
7) McKeon, PO, Hertel J, Bramble D, Davis I. The foot core system: a new paradigm for understanding intrinsic foot muscle function. Br J. Sports Medicine. 2015. 49:290
8) Neeld K. Preparing for the Demands of Professional Hockey. Strength And Conditioning Journal. 2018. 40(2): 1-16.
9) Dietz C, Peterson B. Triphasic Training. A Systematic Approach To Elite Speed And Explosive Strength Performance. 2012.
10) Haff GG, Stone MH. Methods of Developing power with special Reference to Football Players. Strength And Conditioning Journal. 2015. 37(6):2-16.
Sarah Applegarth is the owner and an exercise physiologist at the multidisciplinary training Centre Active Life Conditioning in Collingwood Ontario. She has over 20 years experience working in the field with elite athletes and general population with special interest in physical literacy and adolescent exercise physiology. www.activelifeconditioning.com