Before I get started, if you want a downloadable Game Day Nutrition “Cheat Sheet” Guide you can get it here.
Simply put if you want to perform to the best of your ability you have to be properly fuelled. It doesn’t matter how talented you are or how good you are if you aren’t properly fuelled you will never be playing to the potential that you otherwise could be playing at.
You cannot create a solid fuel source 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 can vary from one to the other.
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 scores on the net. Very high-intensity skating plus the shot but immediately afterward a calm stroll either back to center ice or to the bench.
Understanding the energy system demands of the sport allows you to be able to make proper decisions regarding what nutrients fuel those energy systems and how you can create the best strategy for optimal performance.
Hockey players will always ask me “What should I eat before the game?” Which is a great question, but not the right question. Everything in the performance world is connected to context. A better question to ask would be “What can I do to be properly fuelled 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 whole picture comes from your dietary habits including the days leading up to the game as well as 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 around game time.
I won’t bore you with the many factors 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.
The Importance of Carbohydrates on Game Day
One of the most important factors of note is the fact that hockey is so highly anaerobic that the absence of carbohydrates in the diet is, in all honesty, a defeating technique. Carbohydrates are a phenomenal fuel source, especially for hockey players.
Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source for both anaerobic movement and the nervous system. Keeping both your mind and body functioning at full capacity during the game. This is where the above statement on understanding the energy system demands comes into application, carbohydrates fuel anaerobic activity and hockey is an extremely anaerobic dominant sport so to properly fuel yourself for the game you need adequate amounts of carbohydrate in the diet.
I’m sure there are some athletes who feel they get by on low carbohydrate diets in anaerobic sports but in my opinion, there is a difference between good and optimal. Optimal being providing the body with adequate carbohydrates and not going low carb. It just doesn’t bring more pro’s then it does con’s from a performance perspective.
Now having laid out the importance of carbohydrates in the diet for hockey players it is also very important that you time carbohydrates properly for optimal performance and glycogen synthesis (the storage of carbohydrates into muscle tissue for future energy use).
At the end of the day, getting in your total macronutrients and calorie intake for the day outweighs any other factor in regards to performance. But when it comes to creating an optimal effect and performing at your best and attaining the best possible body composition for the sport, timing is a factor. Especially for glycogen synthesis.
Tying into my statement above regarding the importance of your nutrition a couple days prior to the game, I was mainly referring to the synthesis of glycogen. Of course, other important factors are there as well regarding everyday nutrition and its effects on the body but when it comes to fuelling your body for a game maximal storage of glycogen is going to bring you that energy you need late into the 3rd period to still be explosive.
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 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 glycogen replenishment isn’t even insulin dependent due to the muscles translocation of GLUT-4 and GLUT-12 (this is how type 2 diabetics can replenish glycogen post-exercise, fun fact for the day). GLUT-4 and GLUT-12 suck 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 so this is an area you should be consuming high amounts of carbohydrate with moderate amounts of protein to maximally store glycogen to prepare for either your next workout or the game you have coming up.
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.
Here’s something a lot of people don’t know, but if you really dig into the research you will find that as DOMS slowly increases at a linear rate after training so does insulin resistance in the muscle group trained. Meaning, as the muscle you trained progressively gets sorer and is exiting further and further out of this 6-hour 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 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 still going to eat more carbohydrates to help fuel this recovery” it doesn’t exactly work like that. The maximal amount of insulin sensitivity has passed and now that your legs are extremely sore it is also a great indicator that the carbohydrates you are eating are not being optimally stored as energy and are more than likely circulating in the system to be stored elsewhere (perhaps in another muscle or your liver), burned off for readily available energy or to be stored as fat.
This is why 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 a greater performance factor into 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, 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. Which brings me to the next important factor, hydration.
Water and Its Hockey Performance Benefits
People generally overlook hydration as a minor point in physical performance. Well, I’m here to tell you it plays massive roles in all aspects including health, muscle building, fat loss and energy levels on and off the ice. Think about it, muscle is around 70% water, how well do you feel a dehydrated man is going to be able to perform?
Additionally, research has shown even slight levels of dehydration can not only 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 because for every 1g of carbohydrate you want to store in the muscle you need an average of 3-4g of water to go with it. So 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 athletic performance:
1. A 0.5% loss in body water: increase cardiac output (more stress on the heart)
2. A 1% loss in body water: Decreased aerobic endurance
3. A 3% loss in body water: Reduced muscular endurance
4. A 4% loss in body water: Reduced muscle strength, reduced motor skills and increased heat cramps
5. A 5% loss in body water: Heat exhaustion, cramping, fatigue, reduced mental capacity
6. A 6% loss in body water: Physical exhaustion, heatstroke, coma.
7. A 10-20% loss in body water: Death
As you can see, the decreases in overall performance begin at such an early stage of dehydration. So for those of you who know you don’t drink enough water day in and day out, a simple increase in water intake could be next push you need in the gym to better yourself. But you have to keep in mind you can’t just drink a lot on game day. Hydration needs to be a 7 days a week effort in order to be done properly.
There are many water intake guides out there, my personal favorite is Body weight / 2 = daily intake in ounces. Example: 200lbs / 2 = 100oz daily water intake (this shouldn’t include exercise as different people sweat at different rates, this is simply a guide).
To make it simpler, your pee should be clear or slightly yellow throughout the whole day. If you’re peeing 5x 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 + electrolytes seem to help drastically.
Hockey Game Day Nutrition
Having laid out now two “big picture” concepts of carbohydrate intake and hydration, let’s take a more zoomed in look at the pre-game and during game windows and answer the common question of “what should hockey players eat before a game?”
The research behind pre-game and during the game nutrition can become extremely complicated but the main objectives are simple:
1. Maintain hydration
2. Maintain blood glucose
3. Maintain amino acid levels
4. 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 hrs prior to the game
PHASE 2: 0-30 mins prior to competition
PHASE 3: During the game
PHASE 4: Post-game
Get our downloadable Game Day Nutrition “Cheat Sheet” Guide here.
1-3 Hours Prior To Game
To top off your glycogen stores and have readily available glucose circulating around waiting the be burned off as energy prior to the game it is ideal to have a 1:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein in the form of a solid meal 1-3 hours before the game.
The carbohydrate should come in a low glycemic form such as sweet potato, brown rice, oats or quinoa and the protein should ideally be an animal source such as meat.
I give the range of 1-3 hours pre-game because you know your body better than I ever will, based on your own rate of digestion have this meal pre-game but you want to find that sweet spot where it is not sitting in your stomach during the game 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, you should keep it further away from the game as fat tends to slow the digestion of carbohydrates and protein while simultaneously not adding any performance benefit. A good example of a phase 1 meal would be 7oz lean cooked meat with 1 cup measured cooked quinoa.
0-45 Minutes Prior To Puck Drop
Phase 2 is in some cases an option for guys who missed phase 1. For whatever reason life brought you, you couldn’t get a meal in. Here at 30-45 minutes out you would have a combination of liquid protein and carbohydrates (liquid so it absorbs much faster through the G.I. tract and you are still very well fuelled for the game). A combination of 40g whey protein isolate with 40g carbohydrate powder of your choice would be ideal here.
Or for the guys who did get Phase 1 in, in Phase 2 you can opt for performance 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 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.
During The Hockey Game
Keeping our 4 main objectives at the highest priority 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.
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.
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%.
Side note: If you don’t have carbohydrate powder you can use Gatorade (make sure you measure out 20-40g of carbs) and because the new Gatorade formula has enough electrolytes, you would only need to add whey isolate or BCAAs to that mixture.
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 if need be. On the amino acid note, brand chain amino acids (BCAA’s) specifically actually downregulate certain neurotransmitters in the brain that are correlated with exercise-related fatigue. Neurotransmitters in the brain are what your body uses to communicate back forth and give signals to what is happening in the body and BCAA’s help prevent the bodies fatigue signaling ability allowing you to go harder, longer; and since it is neurotransmitter related you are also going to be mentally sharper as well. While electrolytes drive maximal hydration and optimal muscle pH levels.
Post-game is to 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 above. A combination of carbohydrate powder + protein powder or simply just a big meal soon after the game will do the trick! This will have you much more optimally fuelled for your next physical bout down the road whether it be the next day, or 2-3 days later.
Game Day Product Recommendations
Carb Powder (with electrolytes) – ATP Pentacarb by ATP Labs
Whey Protein Isolate – New Zealand Whey Protein Isolate
BCAAs – ATP iBCAA
Game Day Nutrition Wrap Up
I hope I have shed some light on both the big and small pictures to priming the body for optimal hockey performance today and that this article helped you out. To wrap things up here are some takeaway points:
• Gameday nutrition is not just about pre/during/post game strategies, you have to look at the big picture
• Once having completed the big picture, then you can move to pre/during/post game strategies
• The main objectives for game day nutrition are to: Maintain hydration, maintain blood glucose, maintain amino acid levels, add in performance supplementation if desired
• The 4 phases of gameday nutrition are: 1-3 hours pre-game, 0-45 minutes pre-game, during the game, post-game.
• You can’t perform at your best if you are not fuelled properly. Period.
For more in-season hockey recommendations check out our In-Season Hockey Training Program.