In this Hockey Game Day Nutrition Guide, you are going to learn exactly what to eat leading up to your games in order to perform at top levels on the ice.
Before I get started – We are giving away a FREE Game Day Nutrition “Cheat Sheet” For Optimal Hockey Performance that you can get here.
Jump To Each Section:
- The Importance of Game Day Nutrition
- Why Hockey Players Need To Eat Carbs on Game Day
- Water And Its Hockey Performance Benefits
- What To Eat On Game Days (Full Menu)
The Importance of Game Day Nutrition
If you want to perform to the best of your ability on the ice you have to be properly fueled.
It doesn’t matter how talented you are or how good you are – if you aren’t properly fueled you will never be playing to the potential that you could otherwise be playing at.
You cannot create a fuel source for physical energy expenditure out of thin air.
The body needs certain nutrients in order to perform at its best and depending on the demands of the sport those nutrients may vary in amount and type.
Different activities require different substrates in order to maximize sport-specific energy efficiency.
Hockey is an alactic-aerobic sport, meaning it involves high intensity/high power output efforts interspersed with low-intensity aerobic work.
For example, skating as fast as you can down the ice on a breakaway and then performing a slap shot that ends up getting passed the goalie and scores you a goal.
This is very high-intensity skating plus the shot was high power output, but immediately afterward you did a calm stroll either back to center-ice or to the bench.
Understanding the energy system demands of hockey allows you to be able to make proper decisions regarding what nutrients fuel those energy systems and how you can create the best nutritional and supplemental strategy for optimal performance.
In this article, I will answer all of your hockey game day nutrition questions so that you can always be performing at 100%.
Hockey players always ask me “What should I eat before the game?” – Which is a great question, but not the right question.
A better question to ask would be “What can I do to be properly fueled for my hockey game?”
Now we’re talking.
The viewpoint of strictly pre-game nutrition is certainly a component of game day nutrition, but not the whole picture.
The “big picture” here comes from your dietary habits including the days leading up to the game in addition to whatever you decide to do on game day.
If you’re a guy who is looking after his nutrition all the time, then you are much more prepared for the game then the guy who is only looking after his nutrition on game day.
The comparison isn’t even close.
I won’t extend this blog post to include the many factors that daily nutritional habits have on athletic performance as this article is to be directly game day focused.
So, I’m going to stick closer to the game day window and factors affecting the game day window—but you will soon discover just how connected all of your habits are just by learning about this specific performance window.
Why Hockey Players Need To Eat Carbs On Game Days
One of the most important factors to note is the fact that hockey is so highly anaerobic that the absence of carbohydrates in the diet is, in all honesty, a defeating tactic for hockey specific performance.
Going “low carb” – “keto” – or “paleo” may all sound cool because the marketing can be done very well, but these are not hockey performance diets.
Carbohydrates are a phenomenal fuel source, especially for hockey players. Do not be sold otherwise.
Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source for both anaerobic movement and the nervous system during anaerobic movement.
This keeps your mind, your neural networking, and your muscles functioning at full capacity during the game.
This is where the above statement on understanding the bodies energy system demands during specific movements comes into application.
I’m sure there are some athletes out there who feel they “get by” on low carbohydrate diets in anaerobic sports, but from both the research and my experience working with thousands of athletes, there is a big difference between good and optimal.
Optimal represents covering all your bases by understanding muscle physiology and sports science to meet the substrate demands of your sport (in this case, carbs for hockey performance).
Going low-carb just doesn’t bring more pros then it does cons from both a performance and recovery perspective.
Now, having touched upon the necessity and importance of carbohydrates in the diet for hockey players, it is also very important that you time your carbohydrates properly for optimal performance and glycogen synthesis (the storage of carbohydrates into your lean muscle tissue for future energy use).
At the end of the day, getting in your total macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) and calorie intake for the day outweighs any other nutritional factor in regards to your performance on game day.
But, when it comes to creating an optimal effect and performing at your best and attaining the best possible body composition for hockey timing is a factor. It’s one of those “Do you want good or optimal?” scenarios.
Especially for glycogen synthesis.
Tying into my statement above regarding the importance of your nutrition in the days prior to the game (but really, all the time), I was mainly referring to your overall recovery and the synthesis of glycogen.
Of course, other important factors are there as well regarding everyday nutrition and its effects on the body (energy, hormone balance, sleep quality, etc), but when it comes to fueling your body for a game of hockey – maximal storage of glycogen is going to bring you that energy you need late into the 3rd period to still be strong and explosive (and have that hockey-specific anaerobic energy you need).
I’m assuming every hockey player reading this is currently resistance training as well. So, this is going to benefit you both during the season and in the offseason.
It is very well documented and agreed upon in the research that glycogen replenishment in the muscle cells is at its best during resistance training and within the 6 hours after resistance training.
Immediately after resistance training, the pathways that your body uses for post-workout glycogen replenishment aren’t even insulin dependent (which most people think) due to the muscles translocation of GLUT-4. I know GLUT-4 sounds pretty fancy, but it’s really not.
The simple process of training hard with resistance activates GLUT-4 (GLUT just means glucose transporter, it’s taking glucose out of the bloodstream and shuttling it the muscle tissue you worked that day) and this sucks up carbohydrates into your muscle cell as glycogen extremely effectively while avoiding nearly all susceptibility to fat storage.
The post-workout window is nearly bullet-proof for avoiding any fat storage via carbohydrate consumption, so this is an area you should be consuming the highest amounts of carbohydrate within your day.
Additionally, moderate amounts of protein support the glycogen process as well as provide the necessary amino acids for optimal muscle repair.
In essence, you are setting yourself up for maximal recovery, and in turn, setting yourself up for maximum performance the next time you partake in physical activity.
You can only perform based on how well you effectively recover — so “pre-game nutrition” really begins once you have completed your most recent bout of intense physical activity, even if it was a couple of days prior.
Additionally, the couple meals you have after that post-workout shake within the 6 hours after training should also contain moderate to high amounts of carbohydrates because it is during this window they are maximally absorbed as energy into the muscle as opposed to being stored as fat.
Put another way, it is either going to be lean tissue on your body or fatty tissue on your body – I think we both know what you’d rather have.
I give my 1-on-1 clients about 70% of their daily carbohydrates within 6 hours after training for all of the above exact reasons.
Why Muscle Soreness Matters
Here’s something a lot of coaches don’t know, but if you really dig into the research you will find that as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) slowly increases at a linear rate after hard training, so does insulin resistance in the muscle group trained.
Meaning, as the muscle you trained progressively gets sorer (think what it feels like the day after a hard leg day) and is exiting further and further out of this 6-hour post-workout window, it is also becoming more resistant to the storage of glycogen from the carbohydrates you are consuming.
For example, if you train your legs and you do your normal routine. Those legs are going to soak up carbohydrates very efficiently for up to and around 6 hours post-workout. But, if you say to yourself the next day:
“Man! I am so sore, I am going to eat a bunch more carbohydrates to help fuel this recovery”
It doesn’t exactly work like that.
The maximal amount of insulin sensitivity within your trained muscles has now passed and now that your legs are extremely sore this is a great indicator that the carbohydrates you are eating are not being optimally stored as lean tissue and are more than likely circulating in the system to be stored elsewhere (perhaps in another muscle you didn’t train, or your liver), burned off for readily available energy, or to be stored as fat.
This is why I have many of my athletes decrease carbohydrates on non-training days, it doesn’t add any greater benefit unless you’re depleted.
To put it short, optimally consuming carbohydrates during and after resistance training OR a hockey game is going to ensure greater synthesis of glycogen and therefore contribute to greater performance in your next game.
This is why it’s so important to eat well throughout the week, it is priming you and fuelling you for future physical bouts of anaerobic effort, just like your hockey game.
Keep in mind I am intentionally leaving other aspects out such as protein and fat as I want to gear the article strictly towards the most applicable game-related material.
This brings me to the next important factor, hydration.
Water and Its Hockey Performance Benefits
People generally overlook hydration in physical performance. They know it’s important, but, they pay no attention at all to the research behind optimal hydration, nor do they have any idea what an optimal intake should look like for them to perform at 100%.
I’m here to tell you right now that it plays several massive roles in all aspects of hockey development. This includes health, muscle building, fat loss, injury prevention, and energy levels both on and off the ice.
Think about it, muscle is literally 75% water, how well do you feel a dehydrated hockey player is going to be able to perform?
Not very well!
Beyond this, research has shown even slight levels of dehydration can not only negatively affect performance but also create rises in the stress hormone cortisol.
Cortisol runs antagonistic with testosterone, meaning; if you’re dehydrated, your testosterone levels are suffering as well. Cortisol is also catabolic to muscle tissue, which means it breaks muscle tissue down.
So, something as simple as chronic dehydration can neutralize what you’re trying to accomplish in the gym.
The above carbohydrate strategy would also not work very well because for every 1g of carbohydrate you want to store in the muscle cell in the form of glycogen you are also going to need an average of 3-4g of water to go with it.
If you don’t have water, you also don’t have stored energy. Water is that important.
Levels of Dehydration and Their Negative Implications on Hockey Performance:
- A 0.5% loss in body water: increase cardiac output (more stress on the heart)
- A 1% loss in body water: Decreased aerobic endurance
- A 3% loss in body water: Reduced muscular endurance
- A 4% loss in body water: Reduced muscle strength, reduced motor skills and increased heat cramps
- A 5% loss in body water: Heat exhaustion, cramping, fatigue, reduced mental capacity
- A 6% loss in body water: Physical exhaustion, heatstroke, coma.
- A 10-20% loss in body water: Death
Put another way, you are weaker, have less cardio, have less muscular endurance, have an unnecessarily elevated heart rate, and have reduced coordination abilities at only a 4% loss in body water.
The decreases in overall performance begin at such an early stage of dehydration.
If you know you are one of these people who don’t drink enough water day in and day out, a simple increase in water intake could be the next push you need in the gym and on the ice to better yourself.
The major point I want to drive here though is that you can’t just drink a lot on game day. Hydration needs to be a seven days per week effort in order to be done properly. Especially when it comes to your electrolyte balance because you can’t just correct potassium, magnesium, calcium, or sodium deficiencies in the moments before a game. Physiology doesn’t work that way.
There are many water intake guides out there, but my personal favorite is:
Body weight / 2 = minimum daily water intake in ounces.
Example: 200lbs / 2 = 100oz daily water intake.
Keep in mind that this recommend number shouldn’t include exercise as different people sweat at different rates. This is simply a guide representing what you should be taking in on a daily basis, training or non-training day. If you sweat a lot, you’ll need to add more water to your calculated number.
To dial things in even further, your pee should be clear or slightly yellow throughout the whole day. If you’re peeing 6x throughout the day and 2x after a workout, you’re doing well.
Also, if you’re somebody with chronic cramping issues during exercise, the amino acid taurine and some added electrolytes seem to help dramatically in this department.
Now having discussed two “big picture” concepts of carbohydrate intake and hydration, let’s take a more zoomed-in look at the common question of “what should hockey players eat before a game?”
What you’re looking to do on hockey game days is:
- Minimize junk food for the entire day
- Consume primarily protein and carbohydrates pre and post game
- Avoid high levels of fat intake (oils, fatty meat, etc.) in the pre and post game window
- Avoid high levels of fiber intake (large servings of vegetables) in the pre and post game window
Essentially, we want to avoid junk food because it does nothing but slow you down on the ice and reduce the rate at which you recover. I don’t think I need to present any scientific reasoning for you on this one (just common sense).
Beyond this, we want to avoid high intakes of fat and fiber as they both slow down the rate at which we digest food and therefore result in reduced rates of recovery when eaten post-game, and increased rates of GI distress when eaten pre-game.
I’m not saying avoid fat and fiber all day, they are fundamentally important in your diet. But, what I am saying is that they should be kept further away from the pre/intra/post-game window for the best results.
For most people, this means that the majority of your breakfast and lunch meals would be composed of healthy fats, protein, and fiber — whereas your pre/intra/post nutrition would be much more carbohydrate-dense (as we’ll get to in the following sections).
Example Game Day Breakfast
An example breakfast would be a spinach omelet plus your fruit of choice.
Here’s an example of a great breakfast for game days:
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 cup of egg whites
- 1-2 handfuls of spinach and some chopped tomatoes
- Mix all of the above together to make an omelette
- Enjoy one cup of blueberries on the side
Example Game Day Lunch
An example lunch option would be some wild salmon, vegetables, side salad with extra virgin olive oil, plus a fruit of your choice.
Here’s an example of a great lunch for game days:
- 6oz wild salmon
- 2-3 handfuls of leafy greens mixed with bell peppers
- Add 1 tbsp. of olive oil, salmon, 1 cup of sliced strawberries, and salad dressing of your choice to the above to create a large salad
The basic formula for both breakfast and lunch on hockey game days would be:
Protein for men: 30-40g
Protein for women: 20-30g
Carbohydrates for men: 25-35g
Carbohydrates for women: 15-25g
Healthy fats for men: 20-30g
Healthy fats for women: 15-25g
Smaller individuals stick to the low-end of the recommendations while larger individuals should stick to the high-end.
The Four Phases of Game Day Nutrition
While breakfast and lunch are important on game days, when we talk about the four phases of game day nutrition we are focusing on the 5-6 hour window before, during and after the hockey game.
The research behind game day nutrition can become extremely complicated, but the main objectives are simple:
- Maintain hydration
- Maintain blood glucose
- Maintain amino acid levels
- Add in performance supplementation if desired
To accomplish these with the highest degree of effectiveness we approach the game in 4 different phases:
Phase 1: 1-3 hours prior to the game
Phase 2: 20-45 minutes prior to the game
Phase 3: During the game
Phase 4: Post-game
Let’s dive into each phase…
Phase 1 – 1-3 Hours Prior To Hockey Game
To top off your glycogen stores and have readily available glucose circulating around waiting the be burned off as energy during the game, it is ideal to have a 1:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein in the form of a solid, whole food meal approximately 1-3 hours before the game.
The carbohydrate source should come in the form of a low glycemic index choice such as sweet potato, brown rice, oats, brown pasta, or quinoa – and the protein should ideally be an animal source such as meat or egg whites.
I give the range of 1-3 hours pre-game because you know your body better than I ever will. You need to gauge this based on your own rate of digestion speed/clearance and have this meal pre-game.
Your goal is to find that sweet spot where it is not sitting in your stomach during the game (causing gastrointestinal distress) but you’re also not hungry during the game.
Find that time and stick to it.
It is important to note here that if you choose a very fatty meat (such as steak, ground beef, or salmon), you should keep it further away from the game as fat tends to slow the digestion of carbohydrates and protein down while simultaneously not adding any performance benefit (this also means it’s not exactly ideal to add a bunch of avocado or oils to this meal either).
If you can stick closely to the 1:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein and keep the fats and fibers low, you’ll be doing a great job. It’s also permissible that you bump the ratio up to 2:1 if your workout and/or game exceeds two hours in duration.
Example Pre-Game Meal Option
A good example of a phase 1 meal would be 6 oz of chicken breast with 1 cup of cooked brown rice.
Or if you’re playing in the morning, 1 cup of egg whites with 2/3 cup of oatmeal (measure both the egg whites and oatmeal uncooked before cooking).
If you want more example meals check out our best hockey pre-game meals article.
Phase 2 – 20-45 Minutes Prior To Puck Drop
Phase 2 is an option for you if phase 1 doesn’t work. For whatever reason, you couldn’t get a proper pre-game meal in.
Here at the 20-45 minutes pre-game mark (ideally closer to 45 minutes) you would have a combination of liquid protein and carbohydrates.
We use liquid in this phase as it absorbs much faster through the G.I. tract allowing you to be fueled for the game.
If you were able to get your Phase 1 pre-game meal in, you could use Phase 2 for performance-enhancing supplementation such as caffeine, neural stimulants, creatine or beta-alanine (or all of the above).
These nutrients heighten alertness, focus, concentration, and will get you “in the performance zone” faster.
They do not just work through a physical anaerobic energy component, but they also work to bring the brain up to another level of performance. You could say they allow the brain to fire at a higher RPM.
I left out the dosages as when it comes to stimulants/neural stimulants as everybody has such a wide range of sensitivity and if I’m not working with you one on one it is tougher to call.
For example, some people go nuts on 1 cup of coffee whereas others could go to sleep after it. I recommend always starting at the lowest possible dose, and only working your way up as needed.
Phase 3 – During The Hockey Game
Keeping our 4 main objectives outlined above at the forefront of our decision making, it is of the utmost importance to consume a high glycemic carbohydrate source combined with either free form amino acids or whey protein isolate plus some electrolytes.
I want to make a note here that I don’t recommend any marathon/triathlon style strategies. Meaning, I don’t recommend using candies, gels 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, you are at a great susceptibility to having gastric distress.
Keep it liquid- it won’t bother your stomach and it is easily accessible on the bench.
Intra-Hockey Game Drink
Inside your bottle should ideally be 20 – 40g of high GI carbohydrates (sugars), 10-15g whey isolate (or 5-8g amino’s) + magnesium/potassium/sodium.
If you want to learn more about this formula check out this “What To Drink During Hockey” video:
Recommended Products For The Hockey Drink:
Carb Powder (with electrolytes) – ATP Pentacarb
Whey Protein Isolate – New Zealand Whey Protein Isolate
EAAs – ATP EAA
This mix should come in the form of a 6-8% solution. Meaning the powder should comprise of only 6-8% of the total drink. Going any higher than this it has shown in the research that it is going to delay gastric clearance which means it is going to sit in your gut longer and take longer to get to your muscles.
For example, 500ml x 0.08 = 40g.
So, if your drink has 40g of total powder in it, your water content should be a minimum 500ml. Post-game you don’t have to worry about the percentage really, it can be over 10% as performance is no longer a concern.
Carbohydrates are there to keep glucose and energy levels high throughout the whole game. Protein/amino acids are there to prevent muscle tissue breakdown (loss of muscle) and also to provide energy substrates to fuel performance if need be.
On the amino acid note, essential amino acids (EAA’s) specifically downregulate certain neurotransmitters in the brain that are correlated with exercise-induced fatigue.
Neurotransmitters in the brain are what your body uses to communicate back and forth and give signals to what is happening in the body. Amino Acids help prevent the body’s fatigue signaling ability from a neural perspective.
This can help you to go harder, longer; and since it is neurotransmitter related you are also going to be mentally sharper as well (which is super important as all hockey performance begins with the sharpness of your mind and reaction time). The electrolytes are in the drink to drive maximal hydration and optimal muscle pH levels.
Phase 4 – After Your Game
The post-exercise period should be structured in a way that replenishes your muscle glycogen, decreases your muscle protein breakdown and supports the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis (muscle repair/growth).
Put simpler, hockey athletes should be refueling, increasing muscle size, and repairing any damage that the game or workout could have caused. Accomplishing this allows them to increase performance, recover faster, have a better body composition, and prevent future injury risk.
In doing this, you are going to want to have a combination of carbohydrates, protein, and electrolytes as soon after the game as what’s reasonable for you.
The incorporation of carbohydrates is specifically relevant to hockey players as hockey is a glycolytic sport, meaning, it primarily utilizes carbohydrates as it’s preferred energy source.
So, post-workout nutrition has to support this supply and demand chain.
If we deplete the glycogen (carbohydrates stored within the muscle cell) during a game, we need to be replenishing that if fast recovery is a goal of ours in addition to repairing our muscle tissue through protein intake and maximizing our hydration with added electrolytes.
The post-game window is where we really take advantage of the 6-hour window we have after intense physical activity to maximally synthesize glucose into glycogen in the muscle tissue as we discussed in detail in the beginning of this article.
Ideally, if you have another game, practice, or workout within 24-hours you would make this post-workout nutrition be a combination of carbohydrate powder + protein powder (i.e. you should go the supplement route).
But, if you don’t have another bout of intense physical activity within 24-hours it is totally fine to simply have a big meal after the game (although you still need to follow the protein/carbohydrate guidelines).
If you follow this post-game strategy you will feel much more optimally fueled for your next physical bout down the road whether it be the next day, or even 2-3 days later.
If you go the supplement route, which is ideally your best option to start the recovery processes as soon as possible, I would recommend using these formulas to optimize your individual intake:
Carbohydrate powder: 1g of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight.
Protein powder: 0.5g of protein per kilogram of body weight.
Example: 70kg athlete would consume 70g of carbohydrate powder + 35g of whey protein isolate. The carbohydrate powder I linked to above is my favorite brand and also includes the exact electrolytes you’re going to need as well.
This meal in food format would be as simple as combining a protein source and carbohydrate source and sticking to the same macronutrient calculation as above.
For example, that exact meal above (70g of carbohydrates + 35g of protein) would equate to 6oz of chicken breast plus 1.5 cups of rice.
You can keep it super simple, and if you want more example meals in real food format check out our best hockey post-game meals article.
Game Day Nutrition Wrap Up
I hope I have shed some light on both the big and small pictures towards priming the body for optimal hockey performance today and that this article has provided you with some practical strategies that you can start using to improve your game as soon as possible.
To wrap things up, here are some takeaway points:
- Once you understand what drives hockey-specific energy systems, you can then design a meal plan to accommodate for those systems
- Gameday nutrition is not just about pre/during/post game strategies, you have to look at the big picture of what you’re eating 7-days a week
- Once having completed the big picture, then you can move to pre/during/post game strategies as you are ready now for the “next level” strategies
- The main objectives of game day nutrition is to:
- Maintain hydration
- Maintain blood glucose
- Maintain blood amino acid levels
- Add in performance supplementation if desired
- The four phases of game day nutrition are:
- PHASE 1: 1-3 hours pre-game
- PHASE 2: 20-45 minutes pre-game
- PHASE 3: During the game
- PHASE 4: Post-game
- You can’t perform at your best if you are not fuelled properly. Period.
Want to ensure you remember all of this? We have a FREE Game Day Nutrition “Cheat Sheet” For Optimal Hockey Performance that you can access here.
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Further Learning on Hockey Game Day Nutrition
Hockey Pre-Game Meal Ideas (Podcast)
What To Drink During Hockey (Podcast)
What Should I Eat After Hockey (Podcast)
Quick Hockey Pre-Game Meal Ideas (Video)
Frequently Asked Questions on Pre-Game Meals
An ideal hockey pre-game meal would be high in carbohydrates and protein and low in fats. For example 6oz chicken breast, 1-2 cups of brown rice, and ½ – 1 cup of green vegetables.
1-3 hours before your game is the best time to consume your pre-game meal.
Yes, pasta can be a good choice for before hockey games if you add in some protein and vegetables with the meal.