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Acceleration: More Important Than Speed

03/25/2016, 12:30pm MDT
By Michael Caples - Special to

Darryl Nelson likes to remind people that in hockey – or any other team sport – a player’s top speed doesn’t really mean anything.

Why? Well, think about it. How often does a hockey player ever have an opportunity to truly reach his or her top speed?

That’s why working on a player’s acceleration, not their speed, is a crucial focus for offseason training.

“Acceleration is important in all team sports,” said Nelson, USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program strength and conditioning coach. “People talk a lot about speed, but the reality is you don’t ever use top speed in team sports because you’re always starting and stopping. There are lots of changes of direction; you’re always involved in some kind of hit or body contact. What you’re really doing is accelerating. Speed, really, is only in track and field and speed skating. That’s why the ability to accelerate is important.”

Separating the Good from the Great

Nelson said that hockey can be a difficult sport to gauge acceleration speeds, so he likes to use the example of the NFL Combine to explain how acceleration separates good players from great players.

“We know from football, they have great numbers because they do 40-yard sprints – the 40-yard dash – at their combine, but they also do split times,” Nelson said. “They do a 10-yard split and a 20-yard split, and the differences between the fastest and the slowest guys at the combine is always in the first 10 yards. From Yard 10 to Yard 40, there’s less of a difference. The fastest players are always the players that can accelerate and get up to or near their top speed the most rapidly.”

How to Improve Acceleration

Improving upon one’s acceleration is a year-round activity, but players can achieve the greatest growth during the offseason.

“Really, you need to work on it year-round, but especially in the offseason,” Nelson said. “Improving strength and power is the No. 1 way, so, a strength training program – a lot of single-leg squatting and deadlifting exercises. Even upper-body – pulling and pushing exercises – are very beneficial. You can generate a lot of power from your upper body. When you think of the fastest skaters or football running backs or track-and-field sprinters, they always have really big shoulders and necks, because you generate power when you drive with your arms. A good strength training program, lots of repeated short sprints and change-of-direction type of sprints, plyometric type of progressions where we’re really emphasizing the work we do within the first three to five steps – the sprint.”

Sideways Starting Position

While working on sprints or other training exercises during dryland workouts, Nelson likes to have his players start sideways to better mimic a hockey stride.

“We start from all different positions, but we start sideways because it mimics the hip rotation that you get when you skate,” Nelson said. “One of the differences between skating and running on dry land is that, when you skate, you push off and you rotate your hips so you can push off of your inside edge. Obviously you don’t have edges when you’re on dry land. The way you mimic that type of hip motion is that you either start standing or kneeling but in a sideways direction, 90 degrees to the way you’re going to run, so that it more closely mimics skating mechanics.”

Hard Work Rewarded

Through his work with the NTDP, Nelson has seen many notable players put in the offseason effort necessary to improve their acceleration, and be rewarded for it on the ice.

“We do a 10-yard sprint as one of our tests that we do with our players, and I would say always, across the board, every spring and summer, the whole team is faster,” Nelson said. “The good example right now is Dylan Larkin, because he won the fastest skater event, but he’s a guy who worked really hard in the offseason. Jack Eichel is the same thing. You can go through the board of all those guys, good college players like Louis Belpedio, another example, Tyler Motte – they really worked hard and came back a lot faster in their second year.”

Nelson reminds players that there are two main goals to offseason training – improve your acceleration and power and strengthen your entire body to help prevent injuries.

“Our two primary goals are to increase power for speed and explosive ability, and we always want to promote proportion or muscular and strength balance from the left and right side of your body, the front and the back, the top and the bottom, to try to reduce the likelihood of injuries,” Nelson said. “Non-contact injuries – sore back, sore hip flexors, torn ACL – those kinds of things, most of the time you can reduce their frequency and their severity with a good strength training program.”

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