Tournament Day Nutrition For Hockey

It’s been a little while since I have wrote about the nutrition aspect to hockey performance in my blog. Coming into the hockey performance industry I spoke and wrote a lot about sports nutrition as I felt it was an area that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough in this sport.

Going online or talking to coaches you heard the average recommendations alongside some straight up nonsense here and there. I felt the industry really needed somebody to step up with a series of legitimate, research based recommendations for hockey players to follow if they are trying to lose weight, gain weight or perform their best on game day.

This includes guidelines and outlines to follow with their food intake, water intake but also some supplement suggestions as well. The supplement industry isn’t exactly about making products that work unfortunately, they are about making products that make money. There is a certain criteria supplements need to go through in order for me to recommend them to my athletes and that’s the main reason why you will notice I’m never recommending anything crazy, nor should anybody else.

Both food and supplements strategies should be completely based on the individual and be comprised of methods that have been proven out through the research to create a desired body composition result or performance boost within the athlete.

Throughout my blog series I have talked about game day nutrition, how hockey players can gain weight, how hockey players can drop body fat and in my other articles, videos and posts I have discussed different strategies as well. My aim is to keep this info coming and present to you guys today the best possible way in which you can fuel yourself for a tournament and offer techniques and strategies in which to do so.

There are three things that are important to discuss when it comes to optimizing your tournament day nutrition so you can take home that MVP trophy along with that tournament championship:

#1: The daily grind
#2: Nutrient timing
#3: Champions always prepare

The Daily Grind

The daily grind is everything that you do in order to be your best on a day to day basis. Training right, sleeping right and eating right creates the athlete. This section will serve both as a reminder and as a disclaimer towards this article.

• If your effort in the gym is not up to par, tournament day nutrition will not make you an athlete.

• If your diet throughout the whole week is not up to par, tournament day nutrition will not make you an athlete.

• If your sleeping habits throughout the week or before game day are not up to par, tournament day nutrition will not make you an athlete.

• If your mindset both on and off the ice does not include a ruthless competitiveness with yourself and with others alongside a true desire to win, tournament day nutrition will not make you a better athlete.

This is what the daily grind is for.

Every decision you make towards the gym, your eating and how well rested you are going to be come game day is going to determine a very large amount how much of an asset you actually are to your team.

A good example of this is having a tournament this coming Saturday but also some of your friends who aren’t on the team invited you out for some beers Friday night. You know good and well this is going to negatively affect your performance and you do it anyway. Tournament day nutrition is not going to be a saving grace here. Alcohol affecting your hydration, electrolyte balance, mineral status and deep sleep waves will negatively affect your performance whether you know it or not.

The daily grind is where athletes are made, they are made when no one is watching and they are still 100% on their meal plan and training systems 365 days a year. Although tournament day nutritional timing strategies are a useful and effective tool for enhancing performance, the effort outside of tournament has to be there as well.

So if you’re one of these guys who haven’t figured out the daily grind yet, I would suggest working on that before moving forward into performance strategies such as this.

Tournament day nutrition is a detail in comparison to how the big picture of sports nutrition improves performance. Last minute strategies will not make up for laziness and bad decisions.

Nutrient Timing

Nutrient timing is where the heart of tournament day nutrition strategies come from and is likely the main reason everybody who’s reading this article came here today.

Nutrition on tournament day is somewhat ironic in the sense that many dedicated athletes train their butt off and eat according to plan all the time and then once they get to a tournament it all kind of fly’s out the window.

The typical tournament requires travelling plus an earlier than usual game so you might have to get out of bed earlier than normal. This usually means eating fast food for breakfast on the way there. Then once the first game is complete the team decides on a restaurant everybody should go to for lunch so you end up having 2 meals you normally never have on a daily basis and then this trend continues as the weekend progresses where essentially all your meals are coming from places you don’t normally eat at.

Either you’re out of the tournament early and you go home, or you win another game, go out for dinner with the team, stay in a hotel, eat out for breakfast again letting the cycle continue.

Let me ask you something.

If a certain way of eating has gotten you as far as it has with your athletic development, why are you completely abandoning it on the most important days where you need to perform?

Introducing foods to your system you have no idea how they will react or how you will feel after them?

The odds aren’t exactly the greatest since the average tournament goer eats out every meal of the day and can sometimes intersperse that with some crap they bought at the arena snack shop.

Tournament day nutrition boils down to nutrient timing to support optimal performance not just in the first game, but in the following several games as well. To make this section more digestible, let’s go over each macronutrient by itself.

Protein

Protein’s pretty simple in the tournament scenario. It’s the one macronutrient everybody loves to talk about and with good reason, it provides the body with tons of benefits that go well beyond the maintenance of good health and right into optimizing athletic performance.

But, the effects are protein are much more pronounced over a longer period of time and don’t offer any real acute performance increases. Protein is going to help with things like immune system function, recovery from exercise, hormonal balance, brain function, muscle growth and many other enzymatic functions that although are interesting, serve no real purpose for discussion in this blog post.

What does this mean for protein?

Well, it’s more of a “Daily Grind” type of nutrient.

This is something that is going to fuel your long term potential as an athlete but serves no real timing or dosing strategy come game day. The best thing you can do for yourself is keep a steady supply of amino acids in the blood stream throughout the entire day averaging an intake of 0.8 – 1g per pound of body weight being the total daily intake.

Spread this across 4-7 meals evenly and you will have aminos in the blood stream throughout the entire day and you will also be effectively decreasing any chance of blood sugar drops (and therefore energy crashes) this way due to proteins blood sugar managing ability.

As an example, 200lbs man eating 5 meals over a tournament day from a protein perspective should look something like this:

Meal 1: 40g protein
Meal 2: 40g protein
Meal 3: 40g protein
Meal 4: 40g protein
Meal 5: 40g protein

Animal meats, protein powders, cottage cheese, fish, Greek yogurt, eggs and egg whites all make sense here.

For protein, it’s as simple as that! Evenly distributed throughout the day and you’re doing yourself a lot of favors.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are not exactly so straight forward as protein. Protein is definitely a “daily grind” nutrient in where your strategy on tournament day should be not different then your strategy any other day of the week.

That’s just optimal timing for protein. There are no advantages to having bolus doses of protein pre or post-workout even though everybody does this. So long as you’re getting it in throughout the day and your macros are on target, you’re good to go.

I call people hypocrites when it comes to protein because they miss the most important picture. They will be so sure to take in X amount of protein post-workout throughout the week but then when I ask them:

“How much protein are you getting in throughout the entire day?”

They won’t have an answer for me. This is putting your eggs in the wrong basket. Knowing what you take in throughout the entire day is light years more important than when you actually take that protein in.

Carbohydrates on the other hand, have much more sensitivity towards timing than protein and can also create acute increases in athletic and physical performance. At the beginning when I said tournament day nutrition is all about timing, I could have probably rearranged that sentence to say it’s all about carbohydrate timing. This will likely be the longest segment in this blog post.

Read this line twice:

The pre-workout starts when the last workout ends.

As soon as that workout is done you have to do everything in your power to restore your energy, recover optimally and get your mind in gear for the next training session. Same goes for hockey:

The pre-game starts when the last game ends.

This is especially true for tournament day due to the severe lack of time in between games compared to usual. Normally you get at least 24hrs, most times much more than that. It is your job as an athlete to come prepared to each and every game you play.

You owe that to your team and to your coach. As soon as your last game ends you should be doing everything in your power to come back 100% ready to rock for the next game.

A big part of this is glycogen status.

Glycogen is the stored form of carbohydrates in the muscle cell that is primarily utilized during anaerobic activity and since hockey performance heavily relies on your alactic power and capacity it is very wise of you to ensure you have a solid glycogen status within the muscle.

How do we do this?

Well, there is such a thing called insulin sensitivity and it is something you are going to want to take advantage of as an athlete. In a tournament it becomes vital but if you can incorporate this into your daily grind as well you’re going to be making progress in your physical development at a greater rate.

insulin-resistant-cell

Normal cell vs. an insulin resistant cell

Those red guys above are glucose (carbohydrates) within the bloodstream, all forms of carbohydrate eventually become glucose at one point after digestion and once glucose is stored in the muscle cell it is known as glycogen.

Now, those blue looking dots are insulin. Insulin gets secreted from the pancreas upon carbohydrate ingestion in varying levels depending on how much is consumed and what type of carbohydrate you were eating.

You can think of the muscle cell like a nightclub, you as glucose and your buddy with the nightclub VIP pass as insulin. In order for you to get into that muscle cell nightclub, you’re going to need your buddy insulin with the VIP pass in order to get passed the doorman. Once you get in, you become glycogen and you’re good to go. Mission accomplished.

But when comparing left to right, you’re seeing a normal cell vs. an insulin resistant cell. Normal cell activity means you are insulin sensitive in the sense that the muscle cell is sensitive to the effects of insulin so glucose can be transported right inside.

But, insulin resistance means that the muscle cell is resistant to the effects insulin and therefore that glucose does not effectively reach the cell for glycogen replenishment. Instead, it circles around the bloodstream creating inflammation and other bad things while having a much higher susceptibility to being stored as fat as opposed to glycogen.

Not exactly ideal for us as hockey players due to the fact that we primarily utilize glucose and glycogen for energy use during a game and not so much fatty tissue. What we get in the end with chronic insulin resistance (which is actually Type ll diabetes) is a low glycogen status coupled with more fatty tissue. Pretty bad combination if you ask me.

To put it short, when you’re insulin sensitive glucose more effectively becomes glycogen and when you’re insulin resistant it had a greater chance of being stored as fatty tissue and/or simply being utilized as a readily available energy source.

Look we all want to get in the muscle cell nightclub so I think it’s pretty important we talk about how we do this!

This goes back to me saying that the pre-workout starts when the last workout ends.

Exercise increases insulin sensitivity and the research shows that the greatest levels of insulin sensitivity are seen within the 6hrs after intense exercise.

What does this mean for you?

The majority of your daily carbohydrates should be coming during training and within the 6hrs after training to optimize insulin sensitivity.

Why do we do this?

Because glycogen status is like a hockey players energy stores. The more effectively we can replenish glycogen after a workout (because you utilize it during training and during a game to fuel activity) the more effectively recovered we will be and the more energy we will have to effectively expend during our next physical bout.

“Hold on, why don’t I just have carbs whenever I want?”

Good question.

You can do this, but you run into two issues:

#1: You’re not optimizing the insulin sensitivity window as effectively as you could be. Is it going to be a deal breaker to your performance? No, but could it have a meaningful positive effect to your performance the following day? You bet it will. That’s why I recommend it.

#2: You run into insulin resistance issues. This is what most strength and conditioning coaches either never mention or don’t realize the prevalence of it within the scientific literature. Yes within the 6 hours after training insulin sensitivity is enhanced to a higher level.

But, the further you get away from that 6 hour window the more insulin resistance will begin the climb. The insulin resistance of a muscle cell will linearly increase with the DOMS of that muscle cell. Meaning, the sorer you are, the more likely that that muscle cell has become quite resistant to the glycogen storing effects of insulin.

Played out in a real life scenario, let’s say you hit legs today. With the hard work out you just did you have created insulin sensitivity within those legs from both the stimulus of the workout but also the endogenous depletion of your current glycogen status.

Throughout the next 6 hours your muscles are going to be eating up those carbohydrates and effectively storing them in the legs because they really need it at this point. But the further away you get from that leg work out and soreness begins to settle in, the more those carbohydrates are going to be rejected at the cell site.

So if you’re really sore the day after training and you say “Aw man I’m still really sore, I’m going to load up on some carbohydrates to help fuel this recovery”

Well, no you’re not. The time has kind of passed for that idea.

“Dan, why are you telling me all this?”

Well my friend, because the pre-game strategy starts once the last physical bout ends. This means, your tournament day nutritional timing strategy actually begins the day before or even a couple days before the tournament when you fill up your glycogen stores the most effective way possible so you can come into the tournament with a full gas tank.

Not only a full gas tank, but a full gas tank of premium fuel. Fatty tissue is energy, we can all burn fat for energy. But hockey requires anaerobic efforts and fatty tissue is an extremely poor anaerobic fuel source. We want glycogen and we want the most of it we can get, how we do that is loading up on carbohydrates within the 6hrs after our last physical bout.

So if you had a tournament on Saturday and you trained on Thursday, here’s how I’d set it up:

THURSDAY

MEAL 1: Protein / Fat
MEAL 2: Protein / Fat
PRE-WORKOUT MEAL: Protein / Carbohydrate
INTRA-WORKOUT: Liquid protein / Liquid Carbohydrate
POST-WORKOUT: Liquid protein / Liquid Carbohydrate
1-3hrs POST-WORKOUT MEAL: Protein / Carbohydrate
MEAL 3: Protein / Carbohydrate / Fat

FRIDAY

MEAL 1: Protein / Fat
MEAL 2: Protein / Fat
MEAL 3: Protein / Fat
MEAL 4: Protein / Medium serving carbs
MEAL 5: Protein / Medium serving carbs

SATURDAY: Tournament day

This way you’re getting optimal carbohydrate storage from your Thursday workout and then topping off your glycogen stores but not with anything crazy the night before on Friday. Also, not training at all on Friday as to avoid any soreness negatively effecting performance on tournament day.

If you have a hard practice on Friday, feel free to throw in another medium sized serving of carbs in there.

Now, let’s move on to the actual tournament day carbohydrate strategy.

Let me first ask you a question, what can we draw from the above strategy and basic physiology talk?

• The pre-game strategy begins right after the last physical activity

• Glycogen is best synthesized immediately after physical activity and then begins to taper down due to muscle specific insulin resistance

• Glycogen is the primary fuel source for hockey performance

If you’re reading closely, I pretty much already taught you the tournament day strategy.

The “physical activity” becomes the hockey game on tournament day so for the fastest glycogen replenishment we can get we are going to want to have carbohydrates immediately after game time.

A couple of things change a little bit, but the overall idea stays the same.

What changes here is I’m stricter about where you get your carbohydrates on tournament day and I’m stricter about how quickly you get them in.

Firstly, post-game you should immediately be having a combination of liquid protein and liquid carbohydrates. After workouts and practices it’s not that big of a deal you can just go home and have a meal because your next physical bout won’t be until typically 24hrs later. Giving your body a ton of time to refill your glycogen stores at any rate.

But, the research is quite clear that liquid carbohydrates sources replenish glycogen much faster than solid food sources. Mainly because they don’t have to go through a long digestion process, they are taken up by the small intestine into the bloodstream very quickly.

Additionally, research also shows a higher insulin environment creates a faster glycogen resynthesis rate and liquid sources create a higher insulin response than food sources (in most cases).

On top of this, it’s a hell of a lot more convenient to smash a shake after your game that you can just keep in your bag then try and eat immediately after in the dressing room.

So what do we get with post-game liquid nutrition?

• Faster glycogen replenishment so you can bring another solid effort into your next game
• More convenient to take with you when travelling in a tournament setting
• More effective glycogen replenishment due to higher insulin environment
• Complete, well-rounded and thought out strategy to increase tournament day performance

Here’s an example of a 2 game tournament day lay out:

MEAL 1: Protein / Fat
PRE-GAME: Protein / Carbohydrate
**GAME 1**
POST-GAME: Liquid protein / Liquid Carbohydrate
MEAL 2: Protein / Fat / Carbohydrate
**GAME 2**
POST-GAME: Liquid protein / Liquid Carbohydrate
MEAL 3: Protein / Fat / Carbohydrate

I know there are going to be questions about how much exactly you should be taking in but that totally depends on your size, activity level and how many meals you will be taking in that day. Simply too many variables for me to offer up concrete guidelines.

The ideal carbohydrate intake for a hockey player playing two games in a tournament day would be in the 3-5g per pound of bodyweight range as a daily total intake.

That pretty much wraps up carbohydrates everybody. I can’t stress enough how important they are to optimal hockey performance especially being that they are both the preferred fuel source for the muscular AND nervous system. Two huge components to optimal anaerobic performance ability.

Fats

Some of you guys may have forgotten that this article isn’t just about carbohydrates by this point and that I am actually going through each macronutrient. Which brings me to the last one (I don’t think alcohol as a macronutrient needs to be discussed here for obvious reasons), fat.

Fats are kept incredibly simple, even simpler than protein intake. The only strategy with fat on a tournament day is to keep it away the immediate pre, during and post-game window.

Not because it’s “bad”, but because it simply doesn’t offer any performance benefit. Not only this, but it can blunt insulin response and therefore decrease the speed of glycogen replenishment within the muscle cells. So you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot here.

Ideally on tournament day, fat sources would be kept to breakfast, lunch and after the meal after game 2. For an example of how this looks, simply refer to the above 2-game tournament meal plan layout strategy.

Champions Are Always Prepared

In the introduction I talked about the three most important aspects to optimal performance on tournament day:

#1: The Daily Grind
#2: Nutrient Timing
#3: Champions Always Prepare

Look guys, nobody is going to make you do anything and nobody owes you anything. You have to follow through on what you want to do in life. Champions are champions because they set themselves up for success. A hockey player with a do or die attitude is going to:

• Make sure he eats a good breakfast when he wakes up and not fast food on the way to the rink
• Makes sure he brings both his solid food nutrition AND his liquid nutrition to the tournament
• Makes sure he gets a good night’s sleep before the tournament
• Makes sure he utilized glycogen replenishment strategies before tournament day even started
• Embraces the daily grind to become the best hockey player he can possibly be

If you snooze your alarm and eat crap on the way, that’s your fault.

If you went out for beers the night before and then let somebody by you on the ice who went on to score a goal, that’s your fault.

If you didn’t bring any food and then said “oh there was just nothing healthy to eat around here” you better bet that’s your fault.

Champions have everything already ready to rock and roll well beforehand because they set themselves up for success. They don’t allow failure to even enter their mind. If you’re 100% prepared and you do everything you can to ensure success on that day, you’ll be a champion. It will be of no surprise to yourself or to anybody else who is looking in why you are performing the way you are because you did everything you could to be prepared on that day.

Don’t leave anything up to chance. If you fail to plan you are planning to fail.

I hope you enjoyed this Hockey Tournament Nutrition Guide.  Please share it with any hockey players/parents/coaches you know via Facebook, Twitter, Email, etc!

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About the author

Dan Garner

Dan Garner is the head strength coach and nutrition specialist at HockeyTraining.com. He has coached hockey players and other athletes at all levels from youth to the NHL elite. Garner holds many educational credentials and has been mentored by some of the top coaches in the world.

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