A high-performance race car runs best on high-octane gas. And just as the right gas is essential for performance in an engine, the food you eat is the fuel that powers your internal engine—your body. Naturally, if you want to achieve peak athletic performance, you’ll want to find a nutritional program that is right for your engine. So what should an athlete eat?
An athlete’s diet should be high in complex carbohydrates and water intake, while also including essential proteins and fats. Today educated experts in sports nutrition advise athletes to reduce protein intake and increase their intake of carbohydrates and whole, unprocessed foods. Though research has well-proven that a diet heavy with steak and other protein is an old, outdated standard for athletes, many athletes still believe the myth that they need to consume more protein than the Average Joe.
In other words, in some parts of the sports world—despite the best medical advice to the contrary—the pre-game steak still lives.
The truth, however, is that athletes require about 1-15 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which is only slightly higher than the protein needs for the average inactive person. Also, the average “couch potato” (sedentary American) usually eats two-to-three times the amount of protein that they really need per day, and this excess protein intake is often higher for athletes.
Eating too much protein can be hazardous to your health and athletic performance, and especially dangerous to your heart. Many food sources of protein also contain large amounts of fat, which can lead to an increase in body fat, blood pressure and even the likelihood of heart disease. Conversely, carbohydrate deficiency can lead to constant and recurring muscle fatigue, and it can reduce stamina and lower endurance as well.
Rules from a King
Need another reason to trade in your steak for a hearty bowl of fresh pasta? Extra protein isn’t used to make muscle tissue; it is converted into excess fat which hinders athletic performance (unless you are a Sumo wrestler) and taxes your kidneys.
“The percentage of body fat can have an effect on a player’s performance,” says Peter Demers, head trainer for the Los Angeles Kings. “A high percentage of (body) fat will slow a player down.”
Eating protein properly also means going to natural, low fat sources of meat. Many athletes are concerned that red meat may have high levels of cholesterol. In truth, the amount of cholesterol in beef, lamb and pork (the other white meat) is similar to that in chicken and fish. It is the “greasy meats” such as pepperoni, fast food hamburgers, sausage, bacon and hot dogs that should be avoided.
Any questions about where you should not stop on your way to and from the game?
Demers also suggests the following food guidelines for serious hockey players. “Players need three meals a day, with the most important meal being breakfast. Why breakfast? Because (for muscle tissue) the main source of energy, or glycogen, comes from carbohydrates, with large amounts found in cereals and breads.
“Also if glycogen (the fuel) is depleted in practice, then protein will have to be used and (athletes) need their protein for tissue rebuilding because of the strenuous nature of hockey.”
Timing, adds Demers, is also important when it comes to getting the most out of your meals. “To go from your evening meal until noon would mean 16-18 hours with no ‘energy food.’ The average (professional) player needs 3,500 calories. If he skips a meal, it will be too hard to reach 3,500 calories that day.”
And while the average recreational hockey player doesn’t need to take in as many calories per day, that dinner-until-lunch gap is equally unhealthy.
How should your calories break down?
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) suggests that for an athlete’s daily diet, 60-65% of the calories should come from complex carbohydrates, 20% from protein and the remaining 15-20% from fats. This is important for athletes to know, since the average American diet consists of 35% carbohydrate, 44% fat and 12% protein.
Packaging the truth
Many players depend too heavily on supplementary vitamins to enhance their performance. The truth is that vitamins are just ‘micronutrients’ which only work as a supplement to an already healthy diet.
“Vitamins are just there to handle and regulate what you will be getting if you follow a sensible diet,” explains Demers. “It’s like putting the cart before the horse if you depend on vitamins. You need the large nutrients to make the vitamins work.”
So if you think it’s safe to down a six pack of cola as long as you take your vitamins that day, then you are taking one step forward and two steps back.
Excessive consumption of cola drinks contributes to bone mineral loss, which means your bone mass actually becomes more “spongy” and weak. “Cokes (and other cola-type beverages),” notes Demers, “cause dehydration. They have so much sugar that water is drawn from the cells to break down the (excess) sugar.”
Demers believes that most players would benefit from modifying their diet. “(Players need to) cut down on foods high in fat, like steaks, meats, lunch meats, and also milk products like cheese and margarine, which have the same amount of fat as butter.”
If you do eat foods that are packaged and over-processed, do so in moderation and by all means, read the label. If you can’t pronounce the name of the ingredient, or you don’t understand what the ingredient is, reconsider your snack.
Your pre-game meal
Food that is eaten right before your game generally doesn’t benefit performance. Nutritional preparation for your game needs to start several days before you play: there is no “magic food” which immediately enhances your performance. Anyone who tells you otherwise might as well be selling snake oil.
You can, however, drink your way to a better game.
Players benefit most when they drink plenty of water in the hours before play. The night before a game, plan a meal consisting of high-carbohydrate, low fat, and protein foods. Players can reduce the risk of dehydration by drinking electrolyte fluid. Although water is not directly an energy-yielding nutrient, lack of water can lead to an immediate drop in your energy level during play.
The serious hockey player invests a lot of himself or herself into the game. Money and time are spent, as is energy. Considering this investment, most of us would do well to make a few of these dietary modifications. With these improvements, you just may have more energy, less fatigue and the “winning edge” in the third period of the game.
The Pre-Game Meal
• A pre-game meal rich in carbohydrates and low in fat is best. You may include some protein.
• Take solids 3-4 hours before an event.
• Eat foods that are easy to digest. Avoid fried foods.
• Do not eat foods or beverages high in refined sugar within one hour of the beginning of the game.
• Electrolyte fluids may be taken within 15-30 minutes of the game, and of course, during competition.
• Drink small amounts of water frequently (e.g. 6-8 ounces, every 15 minutes), rather than large volumes of water less frequently.
• Drink cold beverages (refrigerator temperature) to reduce your body’s core temperature.
• Have fluids available at the bench. Your thirst mechanism begins to fail when you lose large volumes of water, and you may need to be reminded to drink.
• After playing, replenish your system with at least one pint of water or electrolyte fluid for every pound you have lost during play.
• Water is the ideal fluid replacement, but you can use watered-down juice or electrolyte fluids.