Stanley Cup playoffs are on, and it’s time to get inspired to fuel your own hockey aspiration, whether it be a weekly pick up game, or something more competitive.
Drilling down on hockey nutrition to fuel your Stanley Cup dream isn’t hard. Knowing what to do means breaking down the basics of the game.
Ice hockey is a fast-paced sport. Apart from the goalie, hockey requires its players to quickly access maximal power during repeated periods of acceleration and sudden changes in direction. As such, hockey is characterised by high-intensity, short duration explosions of power and requires both anaerobic fitness and aerobic endurance as well as muscular strength.(1) Proper nutrition allows you to optimally fuel each of these elements to take your hockey game to its personal best.
Skating Speed Delivers Results
Anyone who’s taken a quick tour around the ice with the puck will know that speed, and rapid acceleration pays dividends. To harness these elements requires impromptu harvesting of fuel stores. Where do you get that fuel first? If you’ve read any of my other blogs, I’m sure you guessed “Carbs!”- and you’d be right.
Take it from a pro like Alex Ovechkin, and focus your carbs around your game or practice. Reportedly, Ovechkin routinely eats a large pasta meal from his favourite Italian restaurant, before all of his home games.
But, speed can also upset your stomach. Ensure you are eating your full meals 2-4 hours before game time. Keep them carb-heavy and fat light, with moderate amounts of lean protein.
What about supplements to improve speed? Caffeine shows promise, but ice hockey-specific nutrition research is a work in progress. Creatine was pegged early as a potential aid to sprint skating, but a 2006 study found that the time to exhaustion did not differ between players who took creatine monohydrate and those who did not. Investigators concluded that creatine did not improve ice hockey performance.(2) Also, keep in mind that sports professionals do not recommend supplements in youth athletes.
Endurance Reduces Late-Game Fatigue
Endurance may not jump out as an essential element because players often shift on and off the bench during a game. But, a recent look at the physical demands of elite players found that during a game, players covered an average distance of 4.6 km on ice, of which approximately 2 km was at high intensity.(3)
Positionally, defensemen tend to cover about 29% more distance than forwards, and are on the ice 47% longer. But, of that time on the ice, forwards spend more time in high-intensity skating than do defensemen- 54% more time.(3) All very interesting, but how does that dictate what you need to eat?
Apart from position-specific demands, playing time will predict this one in a game situation. The players that get more ice time need to fuel more- while those expect less ice time. Also, as with other team sports, the game duration can be somewhat unpredictable, particularly during the playoffs, when it is not uncommon for teams to play into overtime.
Again, carbohydrates are needed to meet the demands of both duration and intensity. For most game situations, meet carbohydrate demands by including fibre-rich grains, fruits and starchy vegetables regularly throughout the day. Pre-game, opt for lower fibre options. And remember, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Make like Sidney Crosby, and include a healthy mix of grains, veg, and protein each morning. His go-to? Apparently, he loves omelettes with turkey bacon, steel-cut oats, and greens.
To prepare for tournaments that promise games that are less than 8 hours apart, eat more carbohydrates and less fat and protein in a day or two leading up to the weekend. This strategy will help maintain your stored carbs- known as glycogen- and ward off performance fade due to fatigue in the later stages of the last game.
Hockey Skill and Agility Makes Plays
Similar to soccer players, hockey is a fast-paced game where one misstep can cost a team the game. Hockey players have to keep sharp to both anticipate and plan strategy on the fly. Improved cognitive performance in sports is intrinsically tied with carb availability. To stay on top of their game, hockey players benefit from a carb-based sports drink when on the bench.
Adequate hydration is also an essential component of the skill and agility equation. Aim for at least 1-2 cups of fluid a couple of hours pre-game, hydrate regularly throughout the game, and include fluid in your recovery strategy.
The goal is to avoid losing more than 2% of your body weight to dehydration during a game. Choosing fluids with some salt can improve how much liquid your body absorbs. Auston Matthews reportedly loves his mom’s chicken tortilla soup which would fit the bill for post-game rehydration.
A 2014 study out of The University of Guelph supported that it is essential for hockey players to maintain hydration during games.(4) They found that performance and time to fatigue were improved when elite players drank enough carbohydrate-containing fluids to keep their weight compared to drinking no fluid. For more on hydration check out our previous blog here.
Strength Allows for Speed
We all know that hockey players often need to throw around their body weight to get and keep the puck. Being strong is essential here of course. But strength is also a component of speed so this one goes hand in hand with our first point.
Hockey players know that time spent in the gym building muscle is vital to provide power for explosive starts and changes of direction on the ice. To support these strength sessions, players should include regular “hits” of protein throughout the day with a particular focus on eating protein-rich foods post-gym. Amounts in the range of 20-30 g post-workout should meet the needs of most players.
Does this mean protein powder is an essential part of the hockey nutrition kit? Nope. Absolutely, you can include protein powder (check here to ensure your brand is safe); but you can easily meet your protein needs with everyday foods. For example, 75 grams of chicken provides 21 g of protein.
Hockey Position Affects Nutrient Needs
Given that hockey is a team sport, the nutrition needs of the individual player may vary with both positions and playing time during a game. For example, the performance of elite forwards has been correlated to their anthropometric data (i.e. weight, height, and body composition), while that of defence is associated with their peak aerobic power and fatigue rate.(5)
However, all skating players should keep carbs a priority while goalies may need fewer carbs due to the reduced exertion of their position. For a goalie, their focus may be including sufficient protein around their strength sessions and maintaining hydration with a carb-based drink on the ice to ensure cognitive quickness throughout the game.
Ward off Injury With Veg and D
No look at diets of hockey players is complete without mentioning nutrition to both reduce injury risk and recover from injury. While carbs, protein, and hydration are all essential here, good fats and vitamins, minerals and antioxidants also play a role. This is why the nutrition regimes of Stanley Cup players often focus on including lots of vegetables.
And while vitamin D has not been found to enhance performance in hockey players, it can play a role in illness prevention. A 2018 study, found vitamin D insufficiency to be prevalent in young hockey players with 22% of study participants being vitamin D deficient and 44% were vitamin D insufficient. Makes sense, because hockey is mostly an indoor sport. The solution, ensure you are taking a vitamin D supplement during the winter months.
So, as we get deeper into Stanley Cup playoffs, take the opportunity to inspire yourself to eat better and improve your own hockey nutrition. And, if you are super interested in the nutritional needs of team sports check out this paper for more about the unique requirements of this athlete group.
Nutrition planning is integral to achieve your optimal athletic performance. Gazelle Nutrition Lab delivers one on one or group nutrition counselling and consulting to both recreational and high-performance athletes. In addition, the Food For Thought Blog is a free resource for healthy recipes and health tips. Have questions? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch!
- Nightingale SC et al. The usefulness and reliability of fitness testing protocols for ice hockey players: a literature review. J Strength Cond Res. 2013;27(6):1742-48.
- Cornish et al. The effect of creatine monohydrate supplementation on sprint skating in ice-hockey players. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2006;46(1):90-8.
- Lignell et al. Analysis of high-intensity skating in top-class ice hockey match-play in relation to training status and muscle damage. J Strength Cond Res. 2018;32(5):1303-10.
- Linseman ME et al. Maintaining hydration with a carbohydrate-electrolyte solution improves performance, thermoregulation, and fatigue during ice hockey scrimmage. Apple Physiol Nutr Metab. 2014; 39(11):1214-21.
- Burr et al. Relationship of physical fitness test results and hockey playing potential in elite-level ice hockey players. J Strength Cond Res. 2008;22(5):1535-43.