Eat To Win: Maximize Your Performance With Nutrition

Bill Murray is a world-renowned athletic trainer who won the Stanley Cup twice with the New Jersey Devils. He is a Bolt Sports Co advisor and among other things will be telling you to prevent & cure injury. Read his full bio here.

Hockey season is well underway and many hockey parent’s weekends are being spent shuttling their young players to practices, games, and tournaments. Time constraints and busy schedules can make it challenging to fuel our bodies properly, thereby conceding the competitive edge we can gain from good nutrition. Traveling for hours by car or bus and eating fast food is hard on an athlete’s body.  Creating a nutrition plan before hitting the road can help parents and players make better food choices, which will result in them having more energy to play well all weekend, even in the last few minutes of the third period.  Players who are looking to gain an advantage for their next games should take a close look at what they’re eating. 

I have had the honor and pleasure of working with some of the greatest players in the world and one common thread that these players share is that they all made great food choices to help fuel their performance.  Making good nutritional decisions shouldn’t be limited to NHL players.  Nutrition is a key contributor to performance and is often overlooked by many players. Optimal energy intake is crucial for hockey players of all ages and levels, not only for your game, but also for overall health and wellness. It is a component that is necessary to optimize a player’s response to training and improve overall performance. Meeting the nutrient demands of young and developing athletes can be tough, as they need enough calories and nutrition for growth and development in addition to what they need on the ice.  

A healthy diet is the first line of defense against energy and nutrient deficits for all players, however navigating nutrition information can sometimes be confusing and conflicting, often leaving parents and players wondering what is best for them. In this, the first of a three-part series, I will provide an overview of how nutrition fuels performance for athletes. From proteins, fats, carbs, specific vitamins and minerals, to supplementation; how you can start to create good habits and directly impact your on ice performance. Nutrition is one part of a player’s training regimen that parents and adult players can control; if you develop a good plan you will feel and see positive results on the ice.

Ice hockey is a high intensity, physically demanding sport and hockey players need a nutrient rich diet to optimize performance at training and promote recovery between games. A hockey player’s diet should be based around lean proteins for muscle repair and recovery and appropriately timed carbohydrates for fuel. In addition, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and dairy foods provide important vitamins and minerals, along with some healthy fats. When not enough calories are consumed to meet activity demands, the body will break down fat and muscle tissue to use as fuel, resulting in a loss of both strength and endurance. 

Four nutrient categories make up the foundation of a healthy player diet; let’s discuss the basics:

Carbohydrates, or “carbs”, provide energy for hockey players during intense workouts. This is because intense activity uses up muscle glycogen (the area where carbohydrates are stored).  Eating the right amount of carbohydrates will help athletes perform faster and longer. Additionally, carbs are the main source of energy for the brain.  When carbs are consumed, they are broken into smaller sugar molecules called glucose. Glucose from carbohydrates provides energy to motivate and move you.  

Examples of good carbohydrates include brown or wild rice, beans, whole grain breads, oatmeal, eggs, fruits and vegetables, plain/chocolate/almond milk, yogurt and cheese. Bananas, filled with potassium and magnesium, are also a good choice and most locker rooms of professional teams are well stocked with this excellent source of good carbs. Bad carbs include candy, soda, sugary cereal and juices, french fries, chips, and most processed foods.  These examples of refined carbs have been stripped of almost all fiber, vitamins and minerals and are considered “empty” calories. These bad carbohydrates take a long time to digest which can leave a player feeling tired and sluggish.

Protein.  Lean protein consumption is also very important. Protein assists in endurance for hockey players. It also aids in the development and growth of muscle tissue.  Eating protein after a physical session assists in providing amino acids that repair muscles. Protein helps the body maintain a strong immune system. Hockey players should avoid eating too much protein-based food. This is because protein-based food takes longer for the body to digest. Examples of protein based food include lean poultry, fish and meat such as chicken breast, lean beef and fish.  Other examples of good proteins include beans, nut butters, cashews, eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese. Plant-based protein is also a great source because it contains fiber. Also, some players may be interested in following vegetarian or vegan diets or reducing their use of animal products.  Excellent examples of plant-based proteins include quinoa, tofu, lentils, chickpeas, almonds, edamame, and peanut butter is a popular choice among athletes.

Bad proteins include any proteins that are fried such as fried chicken and fried fish as well as high fat beef or ground meat.  Other examples include processed meats such as hotdogs, bacon and sausage. Avoid too many protein energy bars as well as low quality protein powders.

Healthy Fats are important because fats provide the body with insulation and energy storage.  Fats keep your nervous system and skin healthy as well. Fats also help with muscle recovery, and minor injuries. Some examples of fats are omega – 3 fats found in salmon, tuna, trout, olive oil, avocados, certain nuts and seeds like flax, pumpkin and chia seeds, coconut milk and eggs with the yolk. Try not to consume a lot of fats before a game, because fats take longer for your body to digest. Some examples of bad fats include meat fat, margarine, lard, and creamy salad dressings.

Vitamins and minerals are another important component of the hockey player’s diet because they help to unlock energy that your body uses as fuel. Some examples of vitamins to focus on include magnesium, fluoride and Vitamin D. You can get these nutrients from foods that you consume or take supplements. Some good food sources of magnesium include spinach, avocado, almonds, cashews, dark chocolate, tofu, oatmeal, and bananas make another appearance here.   Natural sources of fluoride include grapes, raisins, crab legs, shrimp, most raw fruits, and baked potatoes are a good source of protein.  Supplement your vitamin D with eggs with  yolks, milk, liver, cheese, orange juice, tuna, tofu, and oatmeal.

In this article we talked about the “why” and in part two we will talk about the “what” and “when”; how many calories do I need to eat?  What should I eat before, between periods, and after games?  How much protein does my child need? These are some of the most common questions and concerns I get from players and parents of young athletes.  In part two, I will get into more detailed specifics and provide fueling strategies, healthy food ideas, diet examples for players of all ages and levels including pregame and postgame meal plans you can prepare at home as well as options when traveling.  I will also discuss the importance of hydration.  Hockey is a fast moving, high-intensity game that also requires fluid.  Studies have shown that dehydration can negatively impact shooting accuracy, speed, agility, concentration and coordination.

With a few key nutrition adjustments you’ll be able to keep yourself, or your kids, well-fueled and ready to play their best.  As always, I’d love to hear if you have questions or comments on what you’ve been doing with your hockey nutrition.  Please feel free to contact me at bill@boltsports.ca or directly on Instagram @billmurrayusa.