Although I believe the degree to which proper nutrition can impact a hockey players physique and performance is currently under-respected and under utilized industry-wide in hockey right now – One question I do get asked on a regular basis is:
“What should I have before a game?”
Although this is an excellent question, the question would be better placed regarding nutrition as a whole, something along the lines of:
“What can I eat to become a better hockey player?”
This is a much better respect to nutrition in the game of hockey. The thing is, just because you “eat clean”, doesn’t mean you are eating like a hockey player. Certain recovery strategies, energy system specific fuel use, micronutrient intake, glycogen loading, among many other important factors represent themselves as proxy measurements in what is ultimately quantified as eating like a real hockey player.
But for simplicity’s sake, let’s keep things pre-game specific for the post today. Let me begin with the fact that pre-game carbohydrates improve hockey performance. Period.
The exercise research behind pre-activity carbohydrates is quite clear in that it will fuel the energy system specific demand of both hockey players on-ice work and their resistance training workouts more efficiently than other forms of energy.
In the gym, carbohydrate fuel won’t directly stimulate new muscle growth by themselves, but it does so indirectly as a by-product of you being able push more weight for more reps during your training sessions. Creating an overall greater muscle building stimulus to adapt and recover from. Simply put, when you can train harder, longer, you can more to adapt and recover from (progress!).
A very important note towards both the gym and your on-ice work here, carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source of both the nervous system and the muscular system. Getting more specific, glycogen (stored carbohydrates) primarily fuel the muscle cell activity where your blood glucose (circulating blood sugars from the carb source) is the nervous system’s preferred fuel source. This is important to care about because a properly timed pre-workout or pre-game meal consisting of carbohydrates can not only help top off glycogen stores for muscular performance, but also provide additional circulating blood glucose for the nervous system. With this type of strategy, we are helping delay both systemic (nervous system) and local (muscle group you’re training that day, or, your legs out on the ice) fatigue.
In some cases, this systemic fatigue can occur before the actual muscles you’re training reach failure, so for the purposes of delaying this neural fatigue a pre-workout meal consisting of carbohydrates can be used. When you prevent both local (muscle) and systemic (nervous system) fatigue, you prolong the duration at which you are able to work at a high intensity because you need both of these working in accordance with one another.
Muscle contracts to create movement, but the nervous system co-ordinates that movement through recruiting the muscle fibers to contract. You can think about your muscle like a car, and the nervous system like the driver that tells the car where to go and how fast to do it. Pre-game or pre-workout carbs fuel both the car and the driver.
Additionally, pre-workout carbohydrates have also been shown to provide a fantastic muscle sparing effect. Meaning, it helps to protect the breakdown of your own muscle tissue during intense activity, such as a workout or hockey game. This is mainly spear headed by the secretion of insulin which is a muscle protecting hormone (anti-catabolic to be a little more fancy), but is also due to the fact that pre-workout carbohydrates are providing a readily available preferred fuel source, giving the body no reason to search elsewhere and tear down it’s own tissues for fuel.
Why break apart your own muscle tissue for fuel when you have a readily available fuel source right here good to go?
For practical application, it’s ideal that these carbohydrates should come 1-3hrs before your game in the form of real food. Low-glycemic options being best if the activity length exceeds 2 hrs, while higher glycemic options being preferred if it is a very short, high intensity session (20mins sprint training for example). Some of the best options including sweet potatoes, oatmeal, rice, dates, white potato, or quinoa.
Total content of carbohydrates varies depending on timing, activity level, and total daily dietary intake, but I do want to mention that you should also consume these carbohydrates with a protein source for a whole host of other reasons. In most cases, most of the time, this is what it should look like:
40-45g of carbohydrates + 40-45g protein
Example: 1 cup measured cooked rice with 6oz chicken breast
20-25g of carbohydrates + 20-25g protein
Example: ½ cup measured cooked rice with 4oz chicken breast
To conclude this post, I would like to also recommend you consume a carbohydrate and amino acid source during your game or workout as well as it will build upon everything we have set the stage for here with the pre-game strategy.
About the author:
Dan 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.