Jack Blatherwick

Aerobic fitness is essential in hockey; aerobic training is not


By Jack Blatherwick
Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Review: Aerobic metabolism combines oxygen with dietary and stored fuels to produce energy for muscle contraction. Anaerobic metabolism also produces energy, but uses no oxygen. It is less efficient, and the principal fuel is stored in the muscle, not delivered in the blood as it is for aerobic metabolism. 

Aerobic fitness increases stamina for long, slow exercise. It also increases the ability to recover between shifts of a hockey game. Long, slow aerobic training, sometimes called “cardio,” is popular among adults seeking cardiovascular fitness, low body fat and a healthy lifestyle. 

However, it has been known for decades that a high intensity anaerobic interval training program, can (if planned well) reap the benefits of aerobic training and also increase speed, quickness, and explosive strength (Fox EL, Mathews DK. Interval Training: Conditioning for Sports and General Fitness. Publ: WB Saunders, 1974).

Aerobic and anaerobic metabolism use different enzymes so, of course, they are taught separately. This should not lead us into the trap of training them in separate workouts, because in a hockey game, both are working simultaneously in different types of muscle fibers (long, thin muscle cells). 

Slow-twitch fibers (ST) are active at all levels of intensity, from walking or jogging to fast sprinting, and they specialize in aerobic metabolism. When exercise intensity increases, as in sprinting, jumping, skating and strength training, fast-twitch muscle fibers (FT) are recruited, working alongside the ST fibers to meet the challenge.

ST fibers appear reddish (like the red meat of a turkey) because they have a greater density of capillaries (small blood vessels) and iron-rich molecules (myoglobin) that bind oxygen in the muscle cell, causing a reddish color in the same way iron combines with oxygen to form rust. 

FT fibers are only activated when exercise is intense. Because they contain enzymes for anaerobic metabolism, they are much more explosive, but do not have the endurance of ST fibers, until they are trained with appropriate intervals. 

For young players, the major targets of development are hockey sense, stick skills, skating skill, speed, quickness, agility and explosive strength. NONE of these is enhanced by long, slow aerobic training, but endurance is gained from the sum of all on-ice and off-ice interval training.

Notice I refer to young players, because established NHLers should include some aerobic training in the spring and summer to recover from the intense interval training and competition during the season. They established their skills and athletic abilities at a younger age, often by competing in other sports, so in many cases they are just training to maintain – not develop – these abilities, so you should NOT copy their workouts.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently published an article about Tabata interval training that is becoming popular with adults. The format follows a study done in 1996 by Izumi Tabata, which verified the findings by Fox and many other investigators from decades earlier: Appropriate anaerobic interval training can improve cardiovascular (aerobic) fitness while at the same time increasing dynamic, explosive anaerobic qualities (Tabata, I. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996 (10), p.1327).

Biochemistry textbooks must isolate aerobic from anaerobic metabolism to detail the separate pathways, and these are further separated in physiology lab tests. This has led many instructors to advocate training aerobic and anaerobic attributes on separate days. 

However, the phrase “hockey endurance” is more profound and helpful than labels from academic laboratories, because it implies that the metabolic training should be integrated in much the same way it is required in a hockey game. 

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