Getting an edge

Players from coast to coast are hitting the gym and hiring trainers to outweigh, outskate and outsmart their opponents. It's a laudable goal, but it has to be carried out with great care.

Players from coast to coast are hitting the gym and hiring trainers to outweigh, outskate and outsmart their opponents.

Athletes who work out on their own immediately go to the traditional weights, but now there are many alterntive ways of getting into game shape. ((Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images))

Shannon O'Reilly plays hockey. And she's good.

The 17-year-old plays collegiate AA for John Abbott College in Montreal. It's the most competitive league in the province.

O'Reilly's goal is to play for an American university, but she knows that to get there, being good may not be good enough.

So, she's upped her on-ice game using an off-ice regime.

And it's working.

Since the age of 15, the Pointe-Claire, Que., student has been running, lifting weights and using plyometric training to get faster, stronger, smarter and quicker.

At only five feet four and a half inches, her shot is more powerful, her skating more explosive, and she's winning in the corners -- something she struggled with before.

"Having a presence on the ice and holding your own makes a big difference," she said. "If you're trying to make it to the next level, it's about having the extra little things that are essential to making it further."

O'Reilly isn't the only one trying to get an edge. Players from coast to coast are hitting the gym and hiring trainers to outweigh, outskate and outsmart their opponents.

But is it effective? Should everyone be doing it? And at what age? What should they be doing, and how? Questions surround off-ice training, leaving many parents, coaches and players wondering which is the winning formula.

Hockey experts say what's important to consider is a player's physical development, level of body contact and the type of off-ice training in question.

Weights and the growing athlete

As players get older, strength becomes more important. Lifting weights can help strengthen, but there's risk of injury if a player uses improper technique, is unsupervised and tries to lift too much.

Heavy weights like this are not what young athletes should be training with. ((Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images))

Such problems typically occur with younger athletes, said Karen Decker, chair of Hockey Canada's safety committee and instructor with Hockey Nova Scotia's safety program. She says working out with weights at a young age isn't necessary.

"Before the age of 12, players should focus on agility, balance and the co-ordination of being an athlete," she said.

Ray Mutcheson, a physical education specialist and power-skating instructor in Morden, Man., advises against weightlifting altogether before puberty. He says lifting weights too early can cause damage to growth plates and the spine.

"You can definitely start too early," he said. "There's the danger of lifting weights that are too heavy, which can cause injury."

Corey McNabb, Hockey Canada's manager of player development, said until a player is in their early to mid-teens, strengthening can be done with push-ups, pull-ups and by working out with an exercise ball.

"Until an athlete's body is fully developed, they should focus more on exercises that don't involve weights," he said. "When their muscles are still developing, their bones are still growing. There are too many risks of injuries because they can't handle the weight yet."

O'Reilly said using weights at a young age would have deterred her from training. "If I'd started at 12, I think I'd have been bored with it, and it would have been a chore."

She added that even by starting with weights at 15, she didn't have the proper weight training knowledge.

"I focused too much on upper and lower body. It was less productive, and there were less results on the ice," she said, adding that while she still uses weights, she also focuses on running and other types of strengthening that don't involve weights.

Body contact

Another factor to consider is the level of body contact in a player's division.

"Age groups define your goals," Decker said. "It's usually not until the bantam age (13-14) that they get into more contact in the sport. You've got to be heavier to hit, but you also need to be stronger to take those hits."

If there's little body contact, there's less reason to introduce weights. Decker said athletes of any age can benefit from core strengthening exercises but that weight training to increase muscle is different.

"As they get older, that's when they can start getting into light strengthening. Then, as they get even older, they can begin weight-specific training," she said.

Even when players are more equipped to handle weights, they shouldn't neglect the development of other skills.

For instance, Mutcheson recalled a college level player who spent his summer bulking up in the weight room. The season to follow was the worst of his career.

"He had to carry an extra 15 pounds; it was too much. Sure, it helped him in the corners, but in the new game of hockey, it's all about speed, agility, quickness and balance," Mutcheson said.

Strengthening without weights

The trend now is to train in a way that prepares the body for the strains of the sport being performed. (AP Photo/Montgomery Advertiser, David Bundy) ((AP Photo/ David Bundy))

Instead of barbells and free weights (or along with them, depending on the player), most hockey experts support other forms of strengthening -- not only for young athletes but as part of older players' training programs.

O'Reilly said plyometrics - a type of exercise training designed to create fast, powerful, explosive movements and improve functions of the nervous system - is what's made the biggest difference in her game.

"It's helped me a lot. The power and speed, you can see it on the ice. I feel stronger," she said.

She gets her explosive power, she said, from drills like this one: a player ties a bungee cord around his or her waist, and a partner stands behind, holding the bungee cord in place while the player tries to run.

"There's enough tension that it makes you work harder. On the ice, those first three strides are the most important. This really focuses on improving that," O'Reilly said.

Mutcheson coaches athletes with the same kinds of drills. One involves placing a ladder on the ground and having players shuffle through the rungs as fast as possible, using different variations, such as quickly stepping into each box with both feet, one foot at a time.

"It's all about speed and quickness," Mutcheson said.

Another drill focuses on quick thinking. Players stand on a mat and fall forward as far as they can, putting their foot out at the last second.

"The more you do these things, the faster your brain can send the impulse for your feet to move. That's very important," Mutcheson said.

McNabb says this type of off-ice training makes players stronger and faster and "more able to handle different activities that go on in a game."

For coaches who want to introduce non-weight oriented strengthening to their team's training, McNabb suggests hiring a professional to teach proper technique. Once players know how to complete the exercises, they can do it on their own.

"If they're doing it properly, there's no reason why kids can't get together and do it at home," he said.

While McNabb recommends off-ice training, he also warned against overkill. "Some teams are already on the ice three or four times a week or more. You don't want to add too many training sessions. If you can do it once a week as a team, you're doing great," he said.

Mutcheson noted that another benefit of off-ice practices is that it keeps kids interested.

"With obesity today and the way kids play computer games, today's minor hockey coach is faced with a way bigger task: to out-entertain the entertainment systems. You must make practice dynamic and fun," he said.