There’s no question that hockey can be a rough sport. Even in a rec league serious injury can occur, quickly turning a night at the rink to a night sitting in emergency.
Many injuries are due to bad luck, bad equipment or bad skills. Some of the injuries sustained in hockey come with the territory of contact sport and it’s hard to prevent these accidents, such as a slap shot to the calf, injuries sustained while wearing your daughter’s ill-fitting helmet, or injuries because you skate like you have two left feet.
However, many injuries, especially those in early-season, are predictable and preventable.
Almost a million Canadian men, women and children play organized hockey. Boy or girl, man or woman, early-season injuries tend to come to only one part of the body… the lower part.
“Most often you’re looking at strains in the lower body,” says Russell Gunner, a veteran Certified Athletic Therapist with a practice in Oakville, Ontario, as well as head trainer for The Oakville Rangers Hockey Club, one of the largest hockey clubs in Canada. “The groin is the most frequent. But I also see hamstring tears and strains, sore backs, and some quad problems.”
The groin is susceptible to injury because it gets more of a workout with skating than with either walking or running. After each skate stride you pull your leg back to the center using your groin muscles, which can lead to either muscle and tendon strains or overuse injuries of these tissues. These injuries can occur in an instant and linger for a long time; therefore it is important to put in the work to prevent this common injury.
For the weekend warrior, flexibility and strength training are the key.
“While kids are always active, grown-ups typically take a break in the summer, and then will hit the ice come winter and wonder why they can’t walk for three days,” Gunner says. “Even if you’ve been running or biking, skating is a completely different motion and demands different training.”
This training ideally begins several weeks in advance and includes working on the explosive power of your legs and core, which we typically don’t focus on when training for running. Plyometrics (a fancy name for jumping exercises) and weight lifting will both improve your strength.
Just as importantly, you need to work on your flexibility: before the game with dynamic stretching, and after the game with static stretching, according to Gunner. Dynamic stretching increases body temperature and allows connective tissue to become active, whereas static stretches are designed to lengthen muscles and ligaments. (Read more about the difference between these two types of stretches and examples of essential lower-body stretches for running that are also great for hockey. Stretch it Out)
This is where we tend to get in our own way. If you stretch your groin out improperly (by doing static stretches before your muscles are warmed up) you can injure yourself even before you tie your skates.
Then again after the game, when our muscles are in the mood for static stretching, we are not. We’re already thinking about chicken wings and tomorrow’s deadline, and so we skip over this essential preventative flexibility training. And we do so at our own peril, so take a few minutes after the game and get those stretches in.
If you do sustain a muscle injury, that’s when things can get really troublesome. A study of recreational hockey players by Pasqualino Caputo and Douglas in 2005 found that 89 percent of those who get hurt have sustained a prior injury. Typically, this is often a chronic injury to the lower body, one that we don’t have the either the patience or the knowledge in order to allow to it heal properly and therefore prevent it from occurring again. Furthermore, it is important to remember that kids and adults do not heal at the same speed. “A strain that keeps a kid out of the game for a week can keep an adult out for four to six weeks,” Gunner says.
Enter the athletic therapists. They can assess the injury and find the root cause of your pain in order to get you back on the ice sooner and safer. Sometimes it is due to improper rehabilitation of an old injury, sometimes its general weakness of the muscles, and sometimes it’s a muscle imbalance, where one muscle group is stronger or tighter than an opposing or opposite muscle group. Whatever the issue, acute injuries, prevention of overuse injuries, as well as treatment of the underlying causes of repeat injuries, an athletic therapist can help. With a little expert advice, you will be able to stick handle around the lonely exile of the bench and straight on to an injury-free season.
A Certified Athletic Therapist since 1996, Russell has been a part-owner of Club Physio in Oakville and Mississauga, Ontario, since 2005. He is currently the head trainer for the Oakville Rangers Hockey Club, and is a former assistant therapist for the Toronto Maple Leafs.