Ready for that ice bath? Not so fast …

In recent years, ice baths have been all the rage for recovery in power sports.  From professional hockey players to high school endurance athletes, the jump from the field to the ice-cold tubs has become routine.  Why?  Because modern science has touted the benefits of anti-inflammatory methods to speed recovery and prevent illness and injury that can result from chronic inflammation.

Having several clients that have neither the time nor the convenience of post-exercise ice baths, this past summer I decided to do some research on alternatives.  I will also disclose here an additional motivation:  I personally hate ice baths and was looking for an alternative for my track cycling sprint workouts.  What I found was a slew of studies on ice baths – all inconclusive.  In fact, some relatively large studies showed that the now-accepted “active recovery” (aka cool down) period post-exercise is just as effective, if not more so than ice baths.

Not only have studies questioned the efficacy of the ice bath, but the latest research now shows the importance of inflammation post-exercise.  This also questions the use of anti-oxidants, such as vitamins C and E, much to the chagrin of cyclists that pound recovery drinks high in antioxidant vitamins.

How can this be?  Let’s look at the science.  After a tough workout, your body goes into a state of inflammation, particularly in the muscles that have been most taxed.  This makes your immune system drop, which in turn triggers your body to push that very same immune system to go into high gear creating what we in exercise science call “super-compensation.”  Thus, the more stress on your body, the higher the response to the inflammation.  During this phase of super-compensation, you body doesn’t just heal but, for lack of a better term “overheals,” giving you more gains than if you had blunted the anti-inflammatory response.

So, next time you work out, instead of suffering through an ice bath and a slew of antioxidants that may cause stomach upset, take 5 minutes to spin out easy on your bike or take a light jog and consume plenty of water along with some protein and carbs.  Then you can take a nice hot bubble bath as you sip on your favorite beverage, knowing that you’re actually ahead of your competitors.


Training to skate – Strength and Conditioning vs. CrossFit and other programs

One of the most common questions I am asked by my hockey athletes is “What do you think about …” and they proceed to ask me about the latest fad in training  — P90X, CrossFit, etc.

While each of these have their merits you have consider your goals.  Do you want just general, overall fitness?  Do you want to merely look good?  If those are your top priorities then CrossFit might be for you.  Do you have pounds to shed?  If so, then maybe incorporating some portions of P90X can help accelerate that process.

Yet if your primary goals include becoming a faster skater, developing more power or becoming stronger on your skates then these programs will have minimum impact on your game.  That’s because of something called “specificity.”  Just as it sounds, specificity means you need to do exercises that use your muscle specifically like you would for your sport.  A seasoned Strength and Conditioning Specialist has the education and experience to analyze not only your sport, but your specific discipline (for example a 500m sprint or a 10k distance speed skater,) or your position (goalie vs. winger.)  That doesn’t mean that every exercise will mimic what you do on the ice (or ground) but in simple terms it will progressively build the specific muscles to work a certain way, giving you the best transfer to your sport.

CrossFit, on the other hand, boasts on their web site that “Our specialty is not specializing.”  That’s not to say that many people benefit from CrossFit.  Many professional athletes will do some CrossFit during their “active recovery” period (usually a month) after their season. This develops muscles that don’t see much work during the athlete’s season and keeps a level of fitness.  But the majority of your training (off-season, pre-season and during-season) should be done with a Strength and Conditioning coach who can plan an entire year’s program based on the physiological demands of your sport.

What about P90X and other comparable programs?  In addition to the issues I touched upon with CrossFit an added problem with these fad programs is that there isn’t sufficient recovery built in.  Your body needs a very specific volume of training for optimal gains — and no more.  That doesn’t mean working until you drop day after day.  If you want to lose weight fast, then doing this usually short-termed program might do the trick.  However, it’s more likely to hurt your game than help.

Just remember:  All NCAA and NHL teams have Certified Strength and Conditioning Coaches (CSCS) for a good reason.  If you want to make it to The Show, you’ve got to train like the pros.


Training for Speed in Hockey

One of the most common requests I get is how to translate strength to speed on ice.  It never fails — each spring several parents will call about “training” their son or daughter.  Upon further discussion, they actually have a strength program, either through their team, a highly touted personal trainer, or another program such as cross-fit.  Some of these trainers even work extensively with hockey players or have impressive certifications.  The explanation I get from the parent is that their kid is very strong, but somehow can’t gain speed.  The speculation by the parent is usually poor technique, and they’re looking for a one-on-one session on ice to help correct this, but more often than not the problem actually originates from the wrong training,

In what I call “macho” sports, the old style of “train til you drop” is still very prevalent.  The premise of this is that if you train longer and harder, you have to be getting stronger which will translate directly to the ice.  Unfortunately, hockey players need to be trained for strength and power — two totally different things.  Power is the ability to generate force quickly, not just force alone.  While you must have a good strength base, training for power means lighter loads and longer recovery time between sets.  Too many times I see either too much time spent trying to push heavy weights or set after set of plyos done without enough recovery time, essentially diminishing any power gains.

Exercise Science has come a long way in the past decade or so and monumental discoveries about the most precise training of muscular and metabolic systems have arisen in the past five years.  Unfortunately, many personal trainers or strength and conditioning coaches hold fast to the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” approach.  I hear from clients and parents that if their son or daughter doesn’t feel completely wiped out after a workout then they don’t feel like it did them any good.  While it can be counter-intuitive, in order to make the proper gains one must be willing to accept the latest science and focus on both the work and the recovery.   In fact, the recovery time between sets when doing resistance training or plyometrics is even more important than the actual weight (to a degree.)

It’s hard to accept that fact that you may have spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars on the wrong training.  And let’s face it — it’s not all wrong.  Building strength and discipline is important.  But recognizing early that the training is not resulting in the desired changes is crucial.  Ask the personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach how your child should be progressing.  Have them explain to you what kinds of exercises will be done for power and when.  If they say it’s all the same, it’s probably time for a new trainer.  Secure a trainer who is not only CSCS certified, but ask them to explain the science behind what they’re doing.  Finally, make sure that trainer knows about skating and what specific exercises will translate directly to the ice.  Strength is great, but if you’re training the wrong muscles, or the right muscles in the wrong way, you’re wasting valuable training.