Many high-end high school hockey players will wrap up their regular seasons with their teams in the coming weeks and often times, these athletes will have the opportunity to play junior hockey in the spring. It’s a great opportunity for athletes but it comes with risks that players should understand and most importantly, work to reduce.
High school hockey players that are offered spots on junior hockey teams in the spring generally either played in the HS Midwest Elite League in the fall or played for a junior hockey team during that time period. This means they started competitions and practices in August. By the time their regular seasons end with their high schools, many of these athletes will have played roughly 50 games, possibly more. Their summer training schedules, based off of an erroneous notion that their joints are able to withstand the repetitive strain they once did with far more muscle mass, don’t usually account for the long-term consequences of a skating five days a week from June-April or May.
Once athletes join the junior hockey ranks, they almost always wise up. They realize they need to take a break post-season. And they know that skating a lot in the summer is counterproductive. A few times a week is plenty and it’s good to have weeks with even lower on-ice training volumes. The skates themselves will emphasize individual skills and won’t be as strenuous as in-season training sessions.
But the situation many Minnesota high school hockey players find themselves in is one that has a high risk of overuse injury. The wear and tear of applying the same stimulus (skating) on the hips and low back for months on end increases the risk of a variety of overuse injuries from L5 stress fractures to hip issues to groin strains.
What should hockey players do if they’ve skated consistently and frequently since June, or even earlier, and have the opportunity to play junior hockey this upcoming post-season? First, they should allow themselves some time to rest between the high school season and junior hockey. A week is better than nothing. Two, they should learn recovery techniques and prehab exercises and begin applying them immediately – even in-season. These programs include but aren’t limited to:
Breathwork: deep nasal breathing can help athletes accelerate their recovery, enhance sleep, and calm nerves. Even five minutes before going to bed or after a difficult game can be beneficial.
Soft Tissue Work: foam rollers or manual massage work best when done consistently. Fifteen minutes a day can go a long way in helping athletes reduce tightness and avoid overuse injuries that arise from immobile joints and inflexible muscles.
Mobility Training: active stretching and dynamic movements are helpful in maintaining mobility, or possibly even increasing it, during a season. Kevin Neeld, the strength coach for the Boston Bruins, notes that it is common for hockey players to lose 10-15 degrees of hip mobility in a season! Considering that many hockey players have restricted internal hip rotation when they start the season, further constriction can lead to significantly reduced hip mobility, which can then cause Femoroacetabular Impingement (FAI) or hip impingement and damage to the labrum.
Prehab Activation and Strengthening: the hockey season often causes hockey players to have reduced glute activation and reduced strength in the adductors (groin), hamstrings, and back extensors. Weakened adductors can lead to groin strains and a lack of sufficient glute activation often is correlated with low back issues. The hip flexors can also wear down, resulting in hip pain and/or low back issues.
The key to reducing the likelihood of overuse injuries is simple: consistently engage in breathwork, soft tissue work, mobility training, and prehab activation and strengthening exercises throughout a season. Small doses (15-20 minutes) of daily attention can save athletes from overuse injuries that’ll derail their training in the offseason and possibly beyond.
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