Anyone can exercise for 30 minutes, but hockey players endure assaults on the nervous system while doing so
If some gym bro said he works out for half an hour but it takes him almost three hours to do it, you’d probably laugh him off. And you’d be perfectly justified in doing so.
Why, then, is it any different for an NHL player?
Throughout the playoffs, a ton of talk surrounded Duncan Keith and the minutes he logged: 31:06 per game. Fans know that’s a dump-truck load of hockey, but most would be hard-pressed to prove why. After all, numbers-wise, it’s no more than what our gym bro does.
Consider this: Most NHLers average 10 to 20 minutes per game. Only the best play more than 20, while some play fewer than 10. The average shift lasts merely 45 seconds, and players clear the boards 20 to 30 times. All of this occurs over as much as three hours to play an NHL game. Endurance athletes like runners, cyclists and swimmers can go for much longer and do it without pause.
Everyone in the hockey world knows this is one of the most demanding sports to play. Yet few understand what players endure physiologically that makes what they do so difficult.
The Captain Obvious argument is that hockey is a contact sport. But there’s much more to that than just the bumps and bruises from hitting.
“When you experience physical trauma to muscle tissue when you get hit, there are consequences to your nervous system,” said Andy O’Brien, director of sport science and performance for the Pittsburgh Penguins. “Hockey has a lot of stop and start, change of direction-type stuff. We know there’s a greater impact on your muscle tissue and nervous system just from that, but then you add the component of contact in there, and that also becomes that much more taxing to your body.”
That’s one reason why players require so much rest. When you break down a player’s minutes, excluding intermissions, the ratio of rest-to-resistance is roughly three to five minutes of recovery for every minute of play. That still seems like a lot of rest, but it isn’t when you understand what type of physical stress players perform under. Ryan van Asten, strength and conditioning coach for the Calgary Flames, compares it to sprinting.
“Elite sprinters train at 100-percent intensity, and they do one sprint every five to 10 minutes,” he said. “To us, it looks easy, but their nervous system is fried after that. For them to recover from that is really hard. Even though it doesn’t look like they’re sweating…the reality is the nervous system takes a lot longer to recover than your metabolic system. And on the ice, players are going at this really high intensity for really short bursts all the time, over and over.”
Another element to consider is the sheer intensity of the game. Players have to be on high alert all the time, and that takes a toll on their bodies.
“I’ve actually seen heart rate reports of players, where we track their heart rate during the game,” O’Brien said. “And what we can see with that is that the second they step on the ice their heart rate actually skyrockets above 80 percent of their max heart rate immediately before they even begin any kind of high intensity movement.”
The game requires an extremely heightened level of awareness, which can only be reached through an elevated heart rate. Otherwise players wouldn’t be able to react to the rapidly changing circumstances within a game. That’s why playing 30-plus minutes over as much as three hours, like Keith did, is such a superhuman feat.
“The movements are very intense and it’s very physical,” O’Brien said. “To have that kind of reaction time, their heart has to beat relatively high. There is actually a high, high demand just related to the fact that it’s a game, and there’s this high reaction time and high level of awareness that takes place. Then you have to add that to fast accelerations, the accumulation of lactic acid and the physical contact that comes with the game. It actually ends up being more taxing than just that simple time on, time off that you would have in an endurance sport.”
Or a workout with your average gym bro.