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Off-Ice Fitness of Elite Female Ice Hockey Players by Team Success, Age, and Player Position

Ransdell, Lynda B.1; Murray, Teena M.2; Gao, Yong1

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: April 2013 - Volume 27 - Issue 4 - p 875–884
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182651fd2
Original Research

Ransdell, LB, Murray, TM, and Gao, Y. Off-ice fitness of elite female ice hockey players by team success, age, and player position. J Strength Cond Res 27(4): 875–884, 2013—This study examined off-ice fitness profiles of 204 elite female ice hockey players from 13 countries who attended a high-performance camp organized by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) in Bratislava, Slovakia, in July of 2011. Athletes were tested using standardized protocols for vertical jump (centimeters), long jump (centimeters), 4-jump average (centimeters), elasticity ratio (4-vertical jump average/vertical jump), pull-up or inverted row (n), aerobic fitness (V[Combining Dot Above]O2max), body mass (kilograms), and body composition (% fat). These variables were examined relative to team success in major international hockey competition (group 1: Canada and USA, group 2: Sweden and Finland, group 3: All other participating countries), age group (Under 18 and Senior/Open Levels), and player position (forwards, defenders, and goalies). The athletes from countries with the best international records weighed more, yet had less body fat, had greater lower body muscular power and upper body strength, and higher aerobic capacity compared with their less successful counterparts. Compared with the younger athletes, athletes from the senior-level age group weighed more and had higher scores for lower body power, pull-ups, and aerobic capacity. There were no significant differences in anthropometric or fitness data based on player position. This study is the first to report the physical characteristics of a worldwide sample of elite female ice hockey players relative to team performance, age, and player position. Coaches should use these data to identify talent, test for strengths and weaknesses in conditioning programs, and design off-ice programs that will help athletes match the fitness profiles of the most successful teams in the world.

1Department of Kinesiology, Boise State University, Boise, Idaho

2Department of Athletics, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky

Address correspondence to Lynda B. Ransdell, lyndaransdell@boisestate.edu.

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Introduction

Ice hockey is a fast-growing sport that demands a high level of metabolic, physical, and biomechanical fitness (3,8,21). During the past 20 years, participation in women's hockey in North America has grown over 900%—from approximately 6,000 in 1990 to 65,609 in 2010 in the USA (22) and from 8,146 in 1990 to 85,624 in 2010 in Canada (6). Despite rapid growth in women's hockey participation in North America, worldwide growth of women's hockey has been slow. For example, in comparison with participation numbers in North America, there are only 4,760 registered female hockey players in Finland and 3,075 in Sweden (15). Despite these drastically lower participation rates compared with that of the USA and Canada, Finland and Sweden are considered the next 2 most competitive countries in the world.

This large discrepancy in the participation of girls and women in hockey—between North America and the rest of the world—has led to competitive domination on the ice. In the Women's World Championships (sponsored by the International Ice Hockey Federation or IIHF), held since 1990, Canada has won 9 out of 14 tournaments, and since 2004, the USA has won 4 of 5 tournaments (16). Moreover, when Canada or the USA did not win the gold medal, they won the silver medal. In the 4 Olympic games that featured women's ice hockey (starting in 1998), Canada won the gold medal 3 out of 4 times, and the USA won gold in 1998 (14). At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the USA and Canada outscored their opponents 88 to 4 (26). It is not an understatement to say that both North American countries have dominated international women's ice hockey for decades.

Some of the growth and the continued excellence in women's hockey by North Americans can be attributed to the existence of playing opportunities provided collegiately by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Canadian Interuniversity Sport; others attribute the growth and success of the North American women's teams to media exposure and access to coaching and facilities. Unfortunately, with fewer female athletes playing hockey around the world compared with North America, and the domination of North American countries in women's ice hockey at all levels, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has considered eliminating women's ice hockey from the Olympics—a fate similar to softball (26).

In an effort to increase parity among women's ice hockey teams around the world, and proactively address concerns of the IOC, the IIHF held a high-performance hockey camp for 13 countries, 50 coaches, and 204 athletes to educate, motivate, and inspire countries to more aggressively advance player development for female athletes. The camp, held in Bratislava, Slovakia in July of 2011, involved sharing training philosophies and testing the physical capabilities of athletes in attendance. These data provide information about the physical characteristics of elite female ice hockey players, where little data have previously existed (23). In an effort to advance the sport of women's ice hockey worldwide, the purpose of this study was to examine the physical characteristics of these elite female ice hockey athletes: (a) from the 4 most dominant ice hockey playing countries in comparison with the rest of the world, (b) in younger (<18) and mature (senior/open) athletes, and (c) by player position (goalies, forwards, and defenders). If we can learn more about the anthropometric and off-ice fitness characteristics of elite female ice hockey players, we can establish baseline data that will assist future coaches, athletes, and researchers in designing evidence-based training programs, identifying strengths and weaknesses in training programs, and ultimately improving performance and increasing parity in women's ice hockey at the international level.

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Methods

Experimental Approach to the Problem

This retrospective, cross-sectional descriptive study examined the off-ice fitness profiles of elite female ice hockey players relative to international team competition success, age, and player position. Eight dependent variables were used to establish an off-ice fitness profile: body mass (kilograms), percent body fat (% BF), vertical jump (centimeters), 4-jump average height (centimeters), elasticity ratio (4-vertical jump average height/vertical jump), standing long jump (centimeters), pull-ups or inverted rows (number), and estimated V[Combining Dot Above]O2max (milliliters per kilogram per minute). These off-ice performance tests were selected based on the recommendations of previous researchers who have studied correlations between on- and off-ice performance (2,3,10,20), strength and conditioning coaches who have worked with ice hockey athletes, and facilities and equipment that were available at the training site. Independent variables included (a) team success in international competition (group 1: Canada and USA, group 2: Finland and Sweden, and group 3: all other participating countries), (b) age group (<18 and senior/open division), and (c) player position (goalie, forward, or defender). Canada and the USA were included in group 1 of team success because of their dominance in World Cup and Olympic Hockey tournaments (see introductory paragraph). Finland and Sweden were included in group 2 because Finland has won the bronze medal at the IIHF World Championships 10 out of 14 times, and Sweden has won the bronze medal twice in 14 tries. All other countries were placed in group 3. Age categories (<18 and senior) were selected because those are the 2 categories used for international competition. Player positions included forwards, defenders, and goalies because those are the positions used in ice hockey.

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Subjects

Two hundred and four (n = 204) athletes from around the world were invited to attend this IIHF sanctioned event in July of 2011. Women who attended the high-performance camp were representative of the top competitors in the sport of ice hockey in their country, but they came into camp with a variety of fitness levels. For example, the North American players were in very good shape because it was the middle of their off-season training program. Some of the athletes from other countries may have been detrained because their off-season training programs may not be as well developed as those of North American countries. This study was approved by the Boise State University Institutional Review Board, and consent was obtained from the IIHF and the participating nations to publish these data. Identities were blinded and information is presented in aggregate form to ensure confidentiality.

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Procedures

Testing was conducted in conjunction with the high-performance camp held in Slovakia in July of 2011. Trained individuals, all with experience in the strength and conditioning field, conducted the testing sessions to ensure face validity. Because of time constraints, reliability testing was not performed. To standardize the testing procedures, the tests were conducted at the same time of the day for each testing session (i.e., in the morning, after breakfast). In addition, the athletes were advised to come to testing well rested (i.e., no strenuous exercise 24 hours before testing) and properly hydrated. Anthropometric measurements (weight and body composition) were collected on a separate day. A standardized warm-up of 10 minutes (i.e., general warm-up followed by a dynamic warm-up that mimicked testing procedures) preceded testing. After the warm-up, the athletes performed tests in the order recommended by the National Strength and Conditioning Association over the course of a 2-hour period on 1 day (11). Vertical jump, 4-jump height, and long jump were completed first. Muscular strength and endurance tests (pull-ups or inverted row, followed by the 20-m shuttle run) were conducted next. Athletes rested 10–15 minutes between all tests.

Body mass in kilograms was collected by having the athlete step onto a calibrated digital scale without shoes and in minimal clothing (e.g., shorts and sports bra). Body composition (percent body fat) was estimated using 7-site skinfold measurements marked and collected on the right side of the body. Each site was measured twice (to the nearest 0.2 mm) with Harpenden calipers (Baty International, Sussex, United Kingdom), and averaged. If the measurements differed by >1 mm, another measure was taken and values were averaged. A 7-site skinfold test (17) that collected standard measurements at the triceps, subscapular, axilla, chest, suprailiac, abdomen, and thigh was used to estimate body density. Body density was converted to percent body fat using the Siri equation (24).

Lower body muscular power was assessed using vertical jump, 4-jump, and long jump (12). A Just Jump mat (Boston, MA, USA) was used to determine vertical jump height (centimeters). To complete this test, the athlete flexed her ankles, knees, and hips and swung the arms in an upward motion jumping as high as possible. Each athlete took 3 jumps with 40- to 60-second rest between each jump. The best of 3 trials was recorded to the nearest 0.1 cm and used for statistical analysis.

The 4 jump test was conducted by asking the athlete to jump vertically 4 times in a row on a timing mat (Just Jump Mat) as fast and high as possible. The average height (centimeters) of 4 jumps was used for the 4-jump value. An elasticity ratio was calculated by dividing 4- vertical jump average height (centimeters) by vertical jump height (centimeters). The elasticity ratio provides an indication of muscle elasticity or ability to jump repeatedly and maintain power endurance. The best athletes will maintain 85% of their maximum vertical jumping power across 4 jumps (5).

Standing long jump (centimeters) was also used to assess lower body power (12). A flat jumping area of 20 feet was marked on a gymnasium floor. A tape measure, stretched to 10 feet, was placed next to the jumping area. Starting with toes behind the starting line, athletes performed a countermovement and jumped forward as far as possible. A marker was placed at the back edge of the athlete's heel and the best of 3 trials was recorded to the nearest 0.1 cm.

Upper body strength and muscular endurance were examined by asking each athlete to complete the maximum number of pull-ups (if they could do at least 1 pull-up) or inverted rows (if they could not complete any pull-ups). Pull-up testing was conducted on a pull-up bar with an overhand grip. Inverted row testing was completed with the athlete in a supine position, overhand grip, heels on the floor, legs straight, and the Smith machine bar set so the arms were fully extended at the start (7). The athletes completed as many pull-ups or inverted rows as possible in good form (e.g., with the chin above the bar for a pull-up or the chest at the bar for the inverted row). Only full repetitions counted toward the pull-up/inverted row count total.

Aerobic fitness was assessed using the 20-m shuttle test, also known as the Beep Test, or Leger-Boucher Shuttle Test (18,19). To run this test, 17 athletes were placed in a group, cones were placed 20 m apart on a gymnasium floor, and a CD with the cueing for when to run back and forth was played until all athletes in a group completed the test. The athletes stood behind the cones and started when the first beep sounded. They ran back and forth between the cones (20 m), at the speed cued by each beep. The beeps started out slow, and the speed of the runs increased every minute, such that the running got progressively faster with time. If the athlete arrived at the cones before the beep, she waited until the next beep to start the next run. If the athlete arrived at the cones after the beep that cued the next run, she had one more chance to catch up to the cadence. As soon as the athlete could not keep up with the cadence of the beeps, such that she arrived at the cones after the prescribed beep, her test was stopped and the level of her last successfully completed lap was recorded. The highest level achieved was used to estimate aerobic capacity using the Beep Test Calculator (Top End Sports). Test-retest reliability for administering this test with adults (20–45 years) is high at 0.95 (18).

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Statistical Analyses

SPSS (V. 19) statistical software was used for data analysis in this study. Means and SDs were calculated to provide a descriptive profile of elite female hockey players from around the world. Analyses of variance (i.e., analyses of variance [ANOVAs] for pull-ups and inverted rows and a multivariate ANOVA [MANOVA] for the rest of dependent variables) were used to detect differences in dependent variables using team success, age, and player position as independent variables. The MANOVA was used to control type I error that may occur because the dependent variables were likely correlated (e.g., body fat, vertical jump, long jump, 4-jump average, predicted V[Combining Dot Above]O2max). Because the athletes in this study performed either a pull-up test or an inverted row test when tested for upper body strength and muscular endurance, MANOVA was not conducted when these 2 variables were included. Instead, ANOVAs were conducted for these 2 variables. Alpha level for significance was set either at 0.05 for the analyses of variance, or lower when Bonferroni corrections were applied for the follow-up multiple comparisons. In addition, 95% confidence intervals (95% CI) were reported for the means of all anthropometric and fitness variables by team competition success, age group, and player position. Cohen's d, a measure of effect size, was also computed (4) to indicate the magnitude of mean difference in each anthropometric and fitness variable between the comparison groups (e.g., competition level, age, player position). Typically, an effect size is considered small if Cohen's d = 0.2, medium if d = 0.5, and large if d = 0.8 (4).

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Results

Table 1 presents descriptive anthropometric and fitness test data by country and for the overall sample. Data were not statistically analyzed by individual countries because of the small number of subjects representing each country. Information about the number of registered female athletes in each country who play ice hockey is also provided. The overwhelming majority of women who play ice hockey hail from Canada and the USA; much smaller numbers of female athletes play ice hockey in Kazakhstan, Slovakia, Norway, and Russia. Overall, the athletes were relatively lean (18.46 ± 3.45% body fat; range = 9.9–30.8%) and body mass was 62.82 ± 7.67 kg (range = 43–90 kg). Mean lower body power scores were 47.25 ± 5.76 (range = 34–63) cm for vertical jump, 42.59 ± 5.39 (range = 30–59) cm for 4-jump, 89.87 ± 5.67% (range = 72–100%) for elasticity ratio, and 197.70 ± 15.16 (range = 153–242) cm for long jump. Relative to upper body muscular endurance and strength, similar numbers of athletes were able to complete pull-ups and inverted rows (96 athletes completed an average of 3.66 ± 3.03 pull-ups [range = 1–14] and 103 athletes completed 5.00 ± 4.24 inverted rows [range = 0–12]). Predicted V[Combining Dot Above]O2max for the sample was 45.37 ± 4.77 ml·kg−1·min−1 (range = 33.7–55.4 ml·kg−1·min−1).

Table 1

Table 1

Table 2 presents anthropometric and fitness test data by competitive success in major international events. In general, athletes from group 1 had superior test scores compared with their counterparts in group 3. Specifically, athletes in group 1 had higher body mass but were leaner than those in group 3. The athletes in group 1 completed more pull-ups and had better aerobic capacity than those in group 3. Lastly, the athletes in groups 1 and 2 had higher scores on the vertical jump, 4-jump average, and standing long jump compared with those in group 3. There were no group differences in elasticity ratio or inverted row scores. Effect sizes (Cohen's d) for comparisons based on level of competition success ranged from small to large.

Table 2

Table 2

Table 3 presents anthropometric and fitness data by age. In general, the athletes in the senior-level age group had superior test scores compared with their younger counterparts. Specifically, senior-level athletes had higher body mass, greater lower body power (vertical jump, 4-jump average, and standing long jump), a higher elasticity ratio, greater upper body strength (when using push-ups, not inverted rows), and greater aerobic capacity compared with their younger counterparts. There were no age-related differences in percent body fat. Effect sizes (Cohen's d) for comparisons based on age ranged from small to medium.

Table 3

Table 3

Table 4 presents anthropometric and fitness data by player position. Although there were some trends in anthropometric and fitness test results based on player position, none of the differences in dependent variables were statistically significant (p > 0.05). Effect sizes (Cohen's d) for comparisons based on player position were mostly small.

Table 4

Table 4

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Discussion

To the best of our knowledge, this study is the first to describe anthropometric and fitness profiles of elite female ice hockey players from a worldwide sample, representing a wide range of ages and player positions. The most important findings from this study were that (a) compared with athletes from less successful countries, athletes from the countries that dominate world play in ice hockey were heavier and leaner, they reported higher levels of lower body power and upper body muscular strength and endurance, and they had higher levels of aerobic fitness; (b) compared with younger athletes (<18 years), athletes in the senior age category (open, >18 years) were heavier, had more lower body power and upper body muscular strength and endurance, and higher aerobic capacity; and (c) there were no statistically significant differences in anthropometric or fitness data based on player position in this sample of elite female ice hockey athletes. Anthropometric and fitness data from several countries are presented so all countries striving for success in women's ice hockey can use these data to design effective strength and conditioning programs that will help their athletes achieve a level currently demonstrated by the top performing countries.

Table 5 presents a comparison of anthropometric and off-ice fitness data from existing studies with elite female ice hockey athletes. Compared with elite female U.S. ice hockey athletes from a previous study (23), and collegiate Canadian female hockey players (9), the athletes in this sample had lower body mass. Percent body fat for this sample was higher than elite U.S. ice hockey athletes, but lower than Canadian collegiate athletes, and vertical jump was lower than elite U.S. hockey athletes, but higher than Canadian collegiate skaters. Given that this sample is the largest to date, and included a wide age range of athletes from all over the world, it is not surprising that anthropometric and off-ice fitness levels differed from previous research.

Table 5

Table 5

The finding that athletes from the top performing countries in women's ice hockey had higher levels of fitness in many areas was not surprising. This is in agreement with previous researchers who have shown that off-ice fitness is one component that contributes to success in ice hockey (6). It was interesting to note that female athletes from the most successful ice hockey countries demonstrated 6–12% higher values in lower body power (vertical jump, 4-jump, and long jump), 53% higher values in upper body muscular strength and endurance (pull-ups), and 7% higher values in aerobic capacity (20-m shuttle) compared with their less successful counterparts. This is valuable information that should be used to develop more successful training plans for international ice hockey competition.

It was also not surprising that mature (senior-level) athletes were more fit than their younger counterparts—in every fitness category except percent body fat and inverted rows. This is in agreement with the findings of Bracko and George (2) who also noted that age and body mass (along with playing experience and height) were reasonable predictors of speed and agility on the ice. Hockey is a game that requires significant leg and upper body power and strength (2); thus, teams with higher levels of lower and upper body strength, endurance, and power should perform more effectively than less fit teams. Fitness differences between the countries that are more successful and those that are not, and between mature and younger athletes, point to the need for developing more effective strength and conditioning programs for countries that are growing women's ice hockey. Enhancing on-ice coaching with off-ice strength and conditioning programs should enable developing countries to more effectively compete in women's ice hockey. Specifically, strength and conditioning coaches working with women's ice hockey teams should focus on increasing lower body strength and power using unilateral and bilateral multijoint and multiplane exercises. In addition, plyometrics should be added to improve lower body power and elasticity. Pull-ups are typically difficult for women, so implementing upper body strength exercises that progressively develop relative pulling strength and endurance should improve pull-up performance. A solid core program should be implemented that progresses from static to more dynamic and functional stabilization exercises. This will improve all strength and power measures. Finally, because aerobic capacity was higher in countries deemed the leaders in women's ice hockey, attention should be paid to developing aerobic capacity. Previous research has shown that heart rate during ice hockey practice was lower than in games (25); therefore, unless specific drills are included to challenge and develop energy systems, aerobic efficiency may not improve with on-ice practice alone. To develop both aerobic and anaerobic capacity, it is important to focus on a range of metabolic conditioning that includes short, medium length, or longer intervals or training sessions. Because there were no differences in inverted row and elasticity ratio scores for groups based on team success, these variables may be homogeneous within this sample, and other variables may be more important in distinguishing between top level teams.

We reported that there were no statistically significant differences in off-ice fitness based on player position. This is in agreement with previous research on male athletes (1,13), but in contrast to previous research with collegiate female ice hockey players (9) and elite males (3) which concluded that forwards were leaner with better aerobic fitness than their defensive and goalkeeping team mates. It is possible that if this sample was larger, differences based on player position may have been detected because the data trended toward agreement with Geithner et al. (9). It is also possible that statistical differences were not detected because this sample was more homogeneous than previous samples.

Despite our novel findings, this study is not without limitations. Data were collected on a single occasion from a handful of countries that compete in women's ice hockey at the international level. Continuing to collect data from a larger sample of athletes or at a time closer to major competitions may give readers a better perspective on the fitness characteristics of this sample. Test-retest reliability of the measures used in the current study to assess fitness characteristics among high competitive level women ice hockey players should be also established. Further, these data only reflect specific off-ice fitness parameters related to upper and lower body strength, lower body power, and aerobic fitness. Additional factors such as anaerobic fitness, agility, mental toughness, motivation, stick handling, shooting, and skating skills, genetics, coaching, and team chemistry may also play a role in individual athlete and team success. Because we did not test how off-ice fitness translates into on-ice performance and game play, it is possible that more variables can be identified that will predict team success.

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Practical Applications

This study is the first to present off-ice fitness data from a sample of elite female ice hockey players from around the world. Further, it is the first study to examine off-ice performance parameters essential for success on the ice and to compare these parameters across all countries competing internationally, whether they are sport developed or developing. As with any performance testing, these data are essential for effective off-ice program design and goal setting by hockey strength and conditioning specialists. With this information, athletes and coaches will know more about what it takes to be a successful female ice hockey player at the international level. Initially, strength and conditioning coaches of elite women's ice hockey programs should strive to, at a minimum, reach these age-appropriate mean scores for lower body power, upper body muscular strength and endurance, and aerobic capacity; ultimately, coaches can design programs and set goals to achieve physical profiles similar to the most successful countries in the world. If athletes have deficiencies in some areas, coaches can use these published data to identify deficiencies, measure progress over a season or career, or help players return to play after an injury (3). Strength and conditioning professionals currently struggle to find data on elite female athlete populations to use for goal setting, motivation, and comparison purposes, and a need for sport and position profiling is well documented.

Previous research on the link between off- and on-ice fitness in elite hockey players suggests that body composition (total body mass, lean mass, and body fatness), lower body (anaerobic) power, and upper body strength are important qualities for on-ice performance. Our data support that notion because the countries that have the most success in international competition also demonstrate the highest fitness scores across several components of fitness.

Strength and conditioning specialists in the USA have focused on developing functional total body strength through bilateral and unilateral lower body pushing and pulling movements, and upper body strength through vertical and horizontal pushing and pressing movements. In addition, an emphasis on power production is also used, and training is periodized such that more hockey-specific and power-oriented training is used as the competitive season approaches. Specifically, the inclusion and emphasis on lower body plyometrics can improve both explosiveness and elasticity--important for acceleration speed and agility. Likewise, the inclusion of either Olympic movements or similar total body, multijoint exercises (i.e., kettlebell swings) should improve power output on the ice.

Because aerobic capacity was higher in the more successful countries, the development of aerobic capacity during the off-season is essential for the effective and sustained development of hockey-specific anaerobic power and capacity. This type of training should be emphasized during preseason and in-season phases and should be addressed using a variety of impact and nonimpact modalities and a combination of continuous low intensity and long-interval training to optimize the aerobic pathways for lactate clearance. Periodized plans should shift the conditioning emphasis toward more anaerobic (short and medium) interval training during the preseason phase, and more skating workouts should be incorporated in game-like environments whenever possible.

In summary, it is important to be aware that that although these off-ice test differences were noted, a significant piece of hockey success is related to on-ice performance, mental toughness (and other psychological skills), biomechanical factors, and even the total number of women playing ice hockey (which increases the talent pool). However, in light of the expense of ice time, and in the interest of preventing injuries and developing the whole athlete, it is helpful for coaches of female ice hockey players to use a battery of off-ice fitness tests as one piece of information that can help them develop a more effective strength and conditioning program.

This project was not funded by any grant, and the article is not any type of endorsement for any specific type of training program.

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Keywords:

sports performance; talent identification; assessment; fitness testing

Copyright © 2013 by the National Strength & Conditioning Association.