What Should Hockey Players Eat Before a Game

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 could otherwise 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.

Different activities require different substrates in order to maximize 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 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 nutritional and supplemental strategy for optimal performance.

Hockey players 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 on game day.

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.

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 for hockey specific performance. Carbohydrates are a phenomenal fuel source, especially for hockey players.

Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source for both anaerobic movement and the nervous system. This keeps both your mind and body 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. 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 out there 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 representing you providing the body with adequate carbohydrates and not going low carb. It just doesn’t bring more pros then it does cons from a performance perspective.

Now having laid out the necessary 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 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 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 the sport, timing is a factor. It’s one of those “good to optimal” scenarios. Especially for glycogen synthesis.

Tying into my statement above regarding the importance of your nutrition a couple days prior to the game (but really, all the time), 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 (energy, hormone balance, sleep quality, etc), but when it comes to fuelling 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 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 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 bodies use for glycogen replenishment aren’t even insulin dependent due to the muscles translocation of GLUT-4 (this is how type 2 diabetics can replenish glycogen post-exercise, fun fact for the day).

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 and moderate amounts of protein to maximally store glycogen which will prepare you for either your next workout or your next 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.

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.

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 a 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.

Which 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 just for one second, muscle is literally 70% water, how well do you feel a dehydrated hockey player is going to be able to perform?

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 Athletic 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.

So, if you know you are one of these people who don’t 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 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.

There are many water intake guides out there, but my personal favorite is:

Body weight / 2 = daily intake in ounces.

Example: 200lbs / 2 = 100oz daily water intake.

Keep in mind this shouldn’t include exercise as different people sweat at different rates, this is simply a guide to represent what you should be taking in on a daily basis, training or non-training day.

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.

Hockey Game Day Nutrition

Now having discussed 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 hours prior to the game
PHASE 2: 20-45 minutes prior to competition
PHASE 3: During the game
PHASE 4: Post-game

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 prior to the game, it is ideal to have a 1:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein in the form of a solid whole food meal 1-3 hours before the game.

The carbohydrate 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.

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 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 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).

A good example of a phase 1 meal would be 6oz 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).

PHASE 2

20-45 Minutes Prior To Puck Drop

Phase 2 is in some cases an option for you if phase 1 doesn’t work. For whatever reason life brought you, you couldn’t get a meal in.

Here at 20-45 minutes pre-game 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 if you did get Phase 1 in, in Phase 2 you can opt 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.

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% 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, brand chain amino acids (BCAA’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 forth and give signals to what is happening in the body and BCAA’s help prevent the body’s fatigue signaling ability. 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). While the electrolytes are in the drink to drive maximal hydration and optimal muscle pH levels.

PHASE 4

Post-Game

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.

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

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 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.

We have a FREE game day nutrition download here.

About the author

Dan Garner

Dan (or Coach Garner) is the head strength and conditioning coach and nutritional specialist at HockeyTraining.com. He holds 12 of the top certifications in both training and nutrition, as well as a formal education in both functional medicine and health science. Dan specializes in hockey performance, having worked with hundreds of athletes from the youth leagues, right up to juniors, AHL, KHL, and NHL.

5 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • Great article. Now to add an additional level of complexity to the game day routine…my son has Type 1 Diabetes. He has to take insulin for every gram of carbohydrates he eats and that insulin can remain active in his body for 4 hours (or more) depending on many factors such as glycemic index, anxiety/excitement, hormones, physical activity, etc…, etc…

    I know there have been/currently are several NHL players with Type 1 Diabetes. Are you aware of any articles/books/guidelines available regarding proper nutrition and game day strategies? I would appreciate your input!

    • Unfortunately this really isn’t an area I can help you out with. Although strategies can definitely be built for type 1 diabetics it’s important that the coach knows everything about the athlete through a comprehensive series of questionnaires and lab work. I would recommend working directly with a coach who has a proven track record of success in performance nutrition to attack this type of scenario.

    • Hi Rae,

      Our son is a T1D hockey player as well. We have learned lots along the way if you are interested in chatting ever…

  • Should you be applying phase 3 to workouts as well? What should you do to stay hydrated during off-ice workouts

    • Yes, I have all of my athletes incorporate Phase 3 nutrition into their resistance training or harder conditioning sessions (not their light cardio/ab work). Also, great question with the off-ice hydration. A great rule to follow here to ensure you are properly hydrated is that you should aim to hit 1/2 of your body weight in ounces of water per day.

      For example, if you’re 200lbs, 100oz would be your minimum water intake goal for the day.