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On-ice testing with the Philadelphia Flyers

The Philadelphia Flyers sit fifth in the East with 58 points. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

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The Philadelphia Flyers sit fifth in the East with 58 points. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

Over the past few months, my associate François Ruel and I have been working on the development of a new on-ice testing protocol for hockey players, using biosensors and accelerometers (you can read a little bit more about the subject in my article: The Development of On-Ice Testing, published here on thn.com).

This year, we brought the new technology to the Philadelphia Flyers training camp. Since all players arrive at camp in good shape, our goal is not to repeat what is being done, but to find ways to help the team move from general to surgical training strategies. 

To do this, we brought in a portable lab of our own, strapped a sensor-loaded chest band onto the players to be tested, and asked them to skate as fast as they could for up to three minutes. From that simple test, we obtained approximately 25,000 samples of physiological data, which could then be analyzed to extract the following information:

•    Power (rated in watts) that the player generated on the ice throughout the test.
•    Maximal power generated.
•    Power generated by each leg.
•    Speed profile throughout the test.
•    Length of time the player could sustain his maximal power.
•    Critical Power (also known as the maximal lactate steady state).
•    Biomechanic efficiency of the skating technique.
•    Body posture (upper body inclination).
•    Lateral, vertical and sagittal body movements.
•    Breathing rate and breathing amplitude (for oxygen delivery efficiency measurement)
•    Depletion of bioenergetic reserves

Indeed, we obtained a wealth of information from these tests. I’ve been testing athletes for many years now and one thing is sure, at the physiological level, hockey has nothing to do with other sports. Its nature is complex. Players need power, good aerobic capacity and amazing anaerobic reserves. This combination of qualities is quite difficult to achieve.

But once you have what it takes to play with the pros, what makes the difference? More training time? More training intensity? Not at all. You need to take a closer look at very specific details, so let’s consider some of the findings from our tests with the Flyers.

But just before that, I would like you to do a little test. Climb on a bike, set it at 300 watts and then start pedaling. Most of you will have a hard time reaching an honest 65 revolutions per minute and hold that pace for a few seconds. At the “go” signal, most hockey players can instantly generate around 300 watts without even thinking about it, and keep generating this blistering power for longer periods than a sport scientist like me could ever imagine. And remember, on the ice, you can’t use inertia as you would on a bike. We’re talking about pure power - raw and mean, these guys are really in shape.

Let’s get back to some of our findings:

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• The breathing pattern matters. At high intensity, when pain increases, some players engage in a disrupted breathing pattern without even noticing it. Breathing amplitude decreases, while the breathing rate increases, to compensate for the reduced capacity of the respiratory muscles to inflate the torso and bring oxygen to the muscles. Since the breathing rate compensation is not enough, exhaustion occurs faster. In this situation, train the player to breathe effectively and you increase his fitness level immediately.

• If a player has not fully recovered from a lower extremity injury, the injured leg obviously generates less power than the other one. At some point, the injured leg can’t keep up with the increasing demands of the test and the maximal capacity occurs before we would normally expect. Train that leg in order to recover the proper balance of power generated by each leg, and you get your guy back at full speed.

• A player can generate amazing instant power, but only for a few seconds. Test results reveal that the anaerobic reserves are low. With proper training and nutritional strategies, you can increase the anaerobic reserves quickly, and thus help your player sustain high levels of power for longer periods of time.

• When fatigue and pain increase, the player adopts an almost upright position, rather than keeping the upper body inclined. As a result, his biomechanic efficiency drops, fatigue and pain increase exponentially and exhaustion occurs quickly. Correct this problem and you increase the player’s efficiency in no time.

These are some of our findings and recommendations given to Mr. Jim McCrossin, athletic trainer and strength and conditioning coach for the Philadelphia Flyers. As a sport scientist, to help professionals like him, it is not necessary to explain how to train players, because they have extensive expertise in this area. We just need to help them find new ways to bring to light specific physiological and biomechanical details, for each player, that can make a difference - fast.

More interestingly, the Flyers don’t really need us to do the tests. They have our portable lab, some chest bands (loaded with biosensors and accelerometers) and they can use our protocol and do as many tests as they want, over and over, throughout the season. When a test is done, data is collected automatically, analyzed through our algorithms, and I then look at the report to make sure it is correct before it is sent back to the Flyers.

The combination of science and technology: a great thing, don’t you think?

Dr. Denis Boucher holds a Ph.D. degree in experimental medicine. He manages an exercise physiology laboratory in Quebec and a human performance consulting company in the United States. He has conducted the pre-season on-ice fitness evaluation program for the Philadelphia Flyers. His clinical expertise is in the fields of exercise physiology, nutrition and sport performance. He currently hosts and produces a weekly radio show on XM172 entitled ‘The Little Scientific World of Doc Boucher’ (in French). He will blog for THN.com throughout the season.

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