Definitive Guide to Game-Day Hockey Nutrition

STACK Expert Dan Garner explores the topic of game-day nutrition for hockey with heavy doses of performance-nutrition science.

If you want to perform at a high level, you need to understand hockey nutrition and how to properly fuel your body. In this day and age, there are simply too many good athletes out there to rely solely on talent. Some guys slip through the cracks and get through on talent, but they represent the exception and not the rule.

The other 99.9 percent of athletes need to train and eat properly to reach a high level of competition. Super-talented guys can reach a high level while sometimes being on cruise mode, but they will never reach their own personal potential until they take their hockey nutrition seriously.

RELATED: Healthy Pre-Game Meals for Hockey Players

A nutrition analogy I like to use with hockey players is that they are like performance race cars. First, you don't put regular gas in a high-performance car. Porsches and BMWs need premium fuel to hit maximum speed. Similarly, athletes need to be properly fueled to reach their performance potential.

In addition, when race day comes, drivers don't just haul the old Formula 1 out of the garage, blow the dust off, and hit the start line. They fine-tune every part of heir machines year round, so that on race day, no stone has been left unturned and they are as prepared as possible to perform at the highest achievable level.

Before we review the components of a well structured meal plan for game day, an important concept to grasp is that effort does not always equal performance. You may have a high rating of perceived energy expenditure, but it says nothing about how well or how poorly you will perform. It is simply effort.

I bring this up because many athletes justify their poor nutrition habits by saying, "I still go hard out there on the ice." They probably do. But that doesn't mean they couldn't go harder and find that new gear if they were properly fueled and took their hockey nutrition more seriously.

If we break down "I still go hard out there on the ice" to what it actually stands for, it really says nothing about how relevant you are on the ice and what impact you have on the game. Eating properly and eating specific to the demands of your sport help bridge the gap between effort and performance by positively benefiting your endurance, strength, focus and recovery.

The problem is, "clean eating" doesn't always suffice. It's a great start, but different sports burn different energy substrates (phosphocreatine, carbohydrates, fat). Clean eating, albeit nutrient dense, doesn't necessarily provide the fuels you primarily use on the ice and during your off-ice work. That means breaking down hockey from a physiological perspective is critical if you want to do this thing right.

From an energy system perspective, hockey is primarily an alactic-aerobic sport. Sounds fancy, but it's really not. It just means the game from a player's perspective is played through many short, high-intensity/high-power output bouts of effort interspersed with low-intensity, low-effort bouts.

RELATED: Gary Roberts' Diet for Elite Hockey Players

An example of this is you skating as hard as you can, knocking an opponent off the puck to have a clear breakaway at the net, taking a slap shot and scoring—followed by slow, relaxed skating back to center ice or to your bench for a rest. This is alactic (high intensity) work followed up by aerobic (low intensity) work played out in a game scenario.

What does this tell us?

Well, the high-intensity bouts of effort in hockey are so impactful to the outcome of the game that you need to fuel that performance machine anaerobically with some sound hockey nutrition.

How do you do that? Supply and demand.

Make sure your muscles' carbohydrate and phosphocreatine stores are well taken care of. This means programming plenty of carbohydrates in your diet to support performance, but it also gives you a good reason to consider creatine supplementation to support energy substrate availability for those high-power output movements.

Nutrition is the subject of voluminous textbooks. Entire courses, majors, master's programs and fields of doctoral study are devoted to even the most minute aspects of sports nutrition. Which is why I am focusing on only a tiny tip of the nutrition iceberg—game-day nutrition and recommendations for increased performance.

If you resistance trained or had a hard conditioning session Friday and your game is on Saturday, game-day nutrition starts Friday. Hockey game-day nutrition is not just about shaping things up on game day (blowing the dust off the Formula 1?) for two major reasons: insulin sensitivity and recovery.

Recovery is straightforward. If you're not eating properly, there's no telling how well you'll recover from day to day. Your brain coherence (focus, drive, attention span, etc), energy levels, muscles, endocrine and immune systems all rely heavily on your ability and willingness to take the reins here and ensure you recover properly.

RELATED: Game Day Nutrition for Hockey Players

You can only make progress based on what you can recover from, and if you're not recovering, your performance will be the first thing that goes out the window. You have to give your body the raw materials (food!) it requires to recover all systems and come back stronger than before.

Insulin sensitivity needs more of an explanation.

Think of a muscle cell as a nightclub with you as glucose and your buddy with the VIP pass as insulin. In order for you (glucose) to get into that nightclub (muscle cell), you need your buddy with the VIP pass (insulin) to get past the doorman. Once you get in, you become glycogen (stored form of carbohydrate in the muscle cell) and you're good to go. Mission accomplished.

Here's why game day nutrition starts before game day. Resistance training or hard conditioning sessions enhance insulin sensitivity. Insulin sensitivity is where your muscle cells are sensitive to the effects of the hormone insulin and therefore more readily allow glucose into the cell to be stored as glycogen.

So what does that leave us with? More readily available glycogen (energy stores) to call upon at game time.

Here's where I see a lot of coaches drop the ball. Training can and does elevate insulin sensitivity. But, the greater the amount of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) in a particular muscle group, the more insulin resistance it creates. So if you and I both did 10 sets of 10 Squats today, our legs would be totally busted up. Post-workout, our legs would be starving for glucose due to various hormonal reactions and endogenous depletion, which create insulin sensitivity and allow us to drive energy into our muscle cells for recovery and future substrate use.

As we get further away from that window, DOMS steadily increases and the sensitivity we want slowly turns itself into resistance—meaning it becomes much harder for us to replenish our muscle glycogen. Research shows that the sensitivity period typically lasts up to six hours after a training session. Of course, this depends on the size of the athlete, his or her current physiological state and the volume/intensity of his/her workout. But it is my experience that six hours is a pretty solid guideline to follow.

RELATED: Hockey Supplements to Boost On-Ice Performance

Long story short, for optimal glycogen storage and energy capacity on game day, proper nutrition starts immediately after your last workout session. Get those carbs into your muscle cells as soon as you possibly can.

I use the word "optimal." There are differences between OK, good, better and optimal. If you're an athlete looking for every edge you can get, you should always seek "optimal."

Optimal hydration is another critical aspect of performance. You need water for the glycogen process to occur. For every gram of carbohydrate you store in your muscle cells, your body needs 3 or 4 grams (about .1 ounce) of water to store along with it. How much glycogen storage do you think you will have if you don't drink enough water? I think you know the answer.

Now that we have covered our bases a bit leading up to game day, let's review some actual game-day nutrition strategies you can implement to become a go-to player on the ice. To do this, we should run ourselves through a few questions:

  • What are the nutritional demands of the sport? Strongman is different from MMA. Marathon running is different from powerlifting. Where does hockey lie here?
  • How long does the competition last? An MMA fight may only take 20 minutes, whereas a hockey game typically lasts a couple of hours. This changes the dynamics a bit. Long-term energy requirements are different from short term ones.
  • What time of day will the competition be held? This determines what strategies we can employ and how much food is plausible pre-game.

Hockey Game-Day Nutrition Phases

Definitive Guide to Game-Day Hockey Nutrition

Phase 1: 1-3 hours prior to game

This meal is in place to top off your glycogen stores and have readily available glucose circulating around waiting to be burned off as energy. It is ideal to have a 1:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein in a solid meal one to three hours before the game.

The carbohydrate option should come in a low glycemic form such as sweet potato, brown rice, oats or quinoa, and the protein should ideally be from an animal source such as meat.

I give the range of one to three hours pre-game because you know your body better than I ever will. You have to gauge this based on your own rate of digestion to find the sweet spot where the food does not sit in your stomach during the game, but you're also not hungry during the game. I recommend trial-and-error to stay on the safe side. Experiment before a workout or practice, where a little gastric upset is not so consequential.

RELATED: 12 Foods Every Athlete Should Eat

Once you get your time down, stick to it.

If you choose a fatty meat, you should eat it further in advance of the game, since fat tends to slow the digestion of carbohydrates and protein—while adding no performance benefit.

A good example of a Phase 1 meal would be a 6-ounce chicken breast with one cup of cooked quinoa.

Phase 2: During the game

It is of the utmost importance to consume a high glycemic carbohydrate source, whey protein or free-form amino acids and electrolytes during the game in liquid form.

I don't recommend any marathon/triathlon-style strategies for hockey nutrition—i.e., I don't recommend using candies, gels, bars or any type of solid substance during the game. Liquid nutrition causes the least amount of gastric distress, and due to the explosiveness of hockey, players are more susceptible to gastric distress. Keep it liquid; it won't bother your stomach, it is easily accessible on the bench and it pays forward to your hydration.

Inside your bottle should ideally be 20 to 40 grams of high-GI carbohydrates (sugars), 8 to 15 grams of whey isolate (or 5 to 10 grams of amino acids) + magnesium/potassium/sodium.

Your liquid mix should come in the form of a 6- to 8-percent solution, meaning the powder should comprise only 6 to 8 percent of the total drink. Research has shown that going higher delays gastric clearance, meaning the liquid sits in your gut longer and takes longer to get to your muscles. Delayed gastric clearance can also cause G.I. distress and that "waterlogged" feeling.

Here's an example of how to set up an 8-percent solution: 500ml x 0.08 = 40g.

If your drink has 40 grams of powder, the water content should be a minimum of 500ml. Post-game, you don't have to worry about the percentage—it can be over 10 percent because absorption will occur anyhow, and performance is no longer at issue.

If you don't have carbohydrate powder, you can use Gatorade (make sure to measure out 20-40 grams of carbs), and because the Gatorade formula has enough electrolytes already, you only need to add whey isolate or BCAAs to the mixture.

Carbohydrates are in there to keep your glucose and energy levels high throughout the game—plus, glucose pulls water and electrolytes through the small intestine for enhanced hydration. Protein/amino acids are there to prevent muscle tissue breakdown (loss of muscle) and to provide energy substrates if needed. Certain aminos also contribute to enhanced absorption of sodium through the small intestine for further enhanced hydration (aspartate, glutamine, alanine, cysteine, serine, and glycine).

Branched chain amino acids (BCAA's) specifically regulate neurotransmitters in the brain that are correlated with exercise-related fatigue, although they come up short in the sodium transporter process. Neurotransmitters in the brain are what your body uses to communicate back and forth and give signals to your body; and BCAA's help prevent fatigue-signalling, allowing you to go harder, longer.

The electrolytes in the drink drive maximal hydration and optimal muscle pH levels to help delay the onset of fatigue.

Phase 3: Post-game

Take advantage of the six-hour window after intense physical activity to maximally synthesize glucose into glycogen in your muscle tissue as we discussed previously. A combination of carbohydrate powder and protein powder or a big meal soon after the game will do the trick!

So what does the big picture look like? What about the rest of the day?

From a macronutrient perspective, hockey players on game day should typically be getting around one gram of protein per pound of body weight (daily total), two grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight (daily total) and enough fat to complete your current caloric intake. Your total caloric intake (and therefore leftover allotted fat intake) will vary depending on your current body composition goals.

On game day and the days leading up to it, the main thing is to ensure that you're properly fueling yourself, following these guidelines when it's time to perform. Here's an ideal intake on game day:

  • MEAL 1: Protein / healthy fat
  • MEAL 2: Protein / Healthy fat
  • 1-3hrs PRE-GAME: Protein / Low glycemic carbs
  • INTRA-GAME: Protein (or) amino acids / highglycemic carbs / electrolytes — all in liquid form
  • POST-GAME: Protein / Low glycemic carbs / Healthy fat

To wrap things up,  nutrition is such a monster topic that I could talk about it forever, covering a myriad of aspects it can serve you in your health, body composition and performance.

My primary motives for writing this article were to shed some light on the topic and bring much needed performance nutrition science to the world of hockey. The hockey world does not have enough guys barking the truth on this topic, and many players could benefit immensely by incorporating some of these strategies into their routines.

Some takeaway points:

  • Game-day nutrition is not just about pre/during/post-game strategies; you have to look at the big picture of the entire day and days leading up to game day.
  • The main objectives for game-day nutrition are to maintain hydration, maintain blood glucose, maintain amino acid levels and decrease any and all gastric discomfort.
  • Nutrition is truly a primary pillar for athletes looking to optimize their performance, recovery and body composition.
  • You cannot perform at your best if you are not fueled properly, no matter who you are.

For more information, check out HockeyTraining.com and my Facebook page.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: HOCKEY | PROTEIN | ENERGY | RECOVER | GLUCOSE | INSULIN | GAME DAY