"Training tolerance" and how much is too much?

Have you ever noticed that some people seem like they can train hours a day, every day, while others pace themselves throughout the week?  Are the former overtraining – breaking down their bodies?  Or are the others simply not pushing enough?  It may not be as simple as we have traditionally thought.

Old school thinking was that the more you trained, the better you performed and the faster you became a top athlete.  Throughout the years, we came to realize that some people were taking performance enhancing drugs, allowing them to maintain the ability to seemingly train non-stop and make huge gains in a short amount of time.

Perhaps because of this, we became very cautious about how much time one really could train, and the shift to focusing on recovery became front and center.  We began to be meticulous about hydration, nutrition and nutritional timing, and days off became the utmost importance.  “Train smarter, not harder” became the mantra.  But did we go too far?

Lately, there has been a lot of attention to a theory of “training tolerance.”  If you look at NHL players, some of the seasoned vets will still crank out days that are seemingly unsustainable.  Hard workouts in the gym where max weight is hit multiple times and training continues, often followed by a hard practice. Day after day these men tackle these workouts, taking only an occasional optional skate off.   The secret may not be in the “juicing” after all, but in the tolerance their bodies have built up to these demands.

When certain players reach puberty, they suddenly want to work. No longer are they content to go through the motions, but they want to spend extra time on the ice and the gym, pushing maximum speed on the ice and maximum weight in the gym.  So what’s the best approach? Let them do what they want to get better, faster, or make sure their ice time and gym time are carefully spaced and limited to prevent fatigue, especially during a season?

We are now seeing that adding a strength and conditioning program on top of a rigorous practice and skating schedule is idea.  As seen below in this chart provided by USA Hockey, ages 14-16 for boys are when the most gains are made in speed (move this back a couple of years for girls, and back or forward for early or late bloomers of both genders).



We also know how important starting a weight program is, especially for high school players who play against players who may be 4 years older than them!  Therefore, building up training tolerance becomes crucial.

What’s the best approach?   There is no miracle solution to battling fatigue and motivation. We know that school is demanding, and mental stress adds to cumulative fatigue, so balancing often means sacrifices.  Then, determining how much training you can add is something that will require careful monitoring.  Below is a guideline with suggestions to help you or your skater build training tolerance.

1)    Accept muscle soreness and fatigue as a normal part of developing training tolerance.  We are finding that the “no pain, no gain” really is important in sports such as hockey that put a demand on both aerobic and anaerobic systems.  While literature regarding the merits of heart rate training and careful workout prescription has dominated the world of adult endurance professionals, such modification is not appropriate for youth athletes in a sport that requires extensive training loads.  Teenagers have the ability to recover much faster than adults due to increased hormone levels, so these years become critical for building the training tolerance they will need to make the most gains throughout their careers.

2)    Gradually build your training tolerance.  Extremely motivated kids newer to the sport, or who have more recently developed the drive to become a top player (this usually happens a few months after puberty begins) may tend to overextend themselves.  The new-found energy and growth due to testosterone is a powerful motivator, but kids often find themselves adding too much training too fast, leaving them open to illness, injury and burnout.

3)    Don’t get too prescriptive.  Just because you’re overly tired one week doesn’t mean you have to completely change your training plan for the season.  Track some basic variables like sleep and food intake.  Maybe just a couple of days off is enough to help you recover.  Plans can and should be adjusted regularly as your body adjusts one way or another to stressors and extra training.  And remember, if you’re starting a resistance training program, your performance will suffer for 4-8 weeks while your body is adjusting.

4)    Sacrifices.  No, really.  Social time via digital tools (i.e. phones) is at everyone’s fingertips and is a constant distraction, extends homework time and causes kids (and adults, who are we fooling) to go to sleep much later than in any other generation.  Talk to your kid about where he or she does their homework (maybe the bedroom with their phone is not the most productive,) how to limit distractions, and learn to prioritize.   Sleep is one of the biggest factors in being able to build training tolerance, and missing out is a double whammy due to both the increased fatigue and the need to skip those extra morning development sessions.

If your high schooler truly wants to play college hockey, the harsh reality is that having a traditional high school experience may not be possible. Missing social events in lieu of games and training is part of the dedication needed to develop training tolerance to play at the top level. It’s no surprise that my skaters that go on to play at the highest junior levels are those who have been completely disciplined – no partying (and all the activities related,) bed at 10pm with no exceptions, extra morning skills and lifting, limited social activities that can disrupt training and sleep (e.g. time with girlfriends/boyfriends) – the list goes on.

Just remember, any supplemental training such as skills or skating sessions, or a resistance training program should be done with professionals who have a sound understanding of physiology and will work in tandem with your other coaches to ensure proper training loads.

Feel like you missed the boat on development?  Don’t. Hockey is a late blooming sport.  Just because you or your player may have started late or missed the most opportune window, there is still time to catch up.  Start today. Build the training tolerance. Become the player you’ve always wanted to.  Remember, there is no magic formula – it is very individual.  But what we now know is the simplest of training philosophies:  The harder you work, the further you will get in your athletic career.