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Player fitness in the playoffs

Zach Parise and his New Jersey Devils are off to the Stanley Cup final against the Los Angeles Kings - which team will outlast the other? (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Zach Parise and his New Jersey Devils are off to the Stanley Cup final against the Los Angeles Kings - which team will outlast the other? (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

As intensity rises during the playoffs, players with the highest fitness levels will have the best performance and recovery process. The higher their fitness levels, the better their chances of exhausting the opponent and winning.

We all have a general idea of what a good fitness level is: pushing harder than the opponent and leaving him behind without exhausting yourself. But how can this be explained physiologically?

The table below presents the on-ice testing results of three different hockey players. I will use these results to explain their different performance levels. First, I want to emphasize that hockey players are neither cyclists nor runners and that their physiological reactions are very different. So, even if you conduct the same kinds of tests with runners, cyclists and hockey players, the patterns on the ice are very different from those you would see on a bike or treadmill. In my opinion, hockey is the most physiologically complex of all sports and this is why we see such unusual results.

Let’s start with some definitions. The anaerobic threshold (AT) is the power at which a player begins to produce blood lactate. Below this level, he could skate for hours. But, as you know, hockey players rarely skate for long periods because of the high intensity of the game. Above the anaerobic threshold and below the maximal lactate steady state (MLSS), the body reuses blood lactate to produce energy. So, when a player skates at a power level between these two margins (AT- MLSS), the player can skate for a few minutes. The maximal lactate steady state (MLSS) is the point at which the body starts building up blood lactate, so keeping the pace above this threshold will inevitably lead to exhaustion. The closer a player skates to his maximal power (MAX), the faster exhaustion will occur.

PLAYER TESTS
PLAYER
ANAEROBIC THRESHOLD (watts)
MAXIMAL LACTATE STEADY STATE (watts)
MAXIMAL POWER (watts)
1
110
145
300
2
124
162
296
3
105
122
307

We’ll now look at the on-ice testing results of our three players.

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Player 1 is a versatile, but incomplete player. He is powerful (reaching a max power of 300 watts). His AT at 110 watts and his MLSS at 145 watts indicate that his fitness level is quite good, but there is still room for improvement. This player can be intense for 20 to 25 seconds, after that he has to deal with fatigue. However, he will recover much better than Player 3.

Player 2 presents the best physiological profile you can find. He is not the most powerful player in the league (reaching a max power of 296 watts). However, he presents some advantages. He starts to use his anaerobic reserves much later than the other players (AT appearing at 124 watts) and he also builds up blood lactate much later as well (MLSS appearing at 162 watts). He can push hard and can keep pushing hard for longer  periods of time (one to two minutes). He’s also highly resistant to fatigue and recovers quickly. At high intensity over long periods of time on the ice, he will leave every other player behind.

Then there’s Player 3. With a maximal power of 307 watts, he is the most powerful skater. However, as you can see, he starts to use his anaerobic reserves sooner (reaching AT at 105 watts) than the two other players. We see similar results with the maximal lactate steady state (MLSS at 122 watts). What does this mean? Player 3 has powerful legs, but the same muscle cells that generate high power quickly reach fatigue. Our player can be explosive, but he can’t sustain the distance. Twelve seconds of maximal effort is what he can give.

After that, he has to considerably reduce his pace if he wants to “stay alive.” Fatigue leaves him falling behind really fast.

This is a quick physiological overview of what can happen with three different players on the ice and how these processes affect their performance. I hope this will help you see players from a different angle during the Stanley Cup final and recognize how many amazing athletes are performing on the ice.

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