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How Can Your Diet Impact Your Performance?

04/19/2014, 9:15am CDT
By Michael Rand

Good hockey players are often looking for an edge

Good hockey players are often looking for an edge—whether it comes from a new piece of equipment, a higher level of training or even a psychological advantage over an opponent. Sometimes, though, the last place they look is within—as in, what they are putting into their bodies.

 Experts are still discovering new ways that proper diet influences performance, but the link between the two is undeniable. Christine Rosenbloom, nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University and sports dietitian, sums it up.

 “I like to tell athletes that good nutrition won't make an average athlete a good athlete, but poor nutrition can make a good athlete an average one—or below average,” she says. “Poor nutrition choices can sabotage even a weekend warrior and make exercise seem harder than it should be.”

 Let’s take a look at some of those poor choices and the better ones you can make in order to achieve maximum performance on the ice.

Why thirst is a big performance tell

 Eating greasy, high-fat foods before working out—or not eating at all—are ways in which athletes can derail their own performances. But perhaps the biggest and most commonly overlooked form of undermining performance is a failure to properly hydrate.

Rosenbloom cites a study of elite junior hockey players in Canada that found one-third of them “did not drink enough fluids during practice to prevent a sweat loss of greater than two percent of body weight,” even though players had every opportunity to properly hydrate.

 Losing that much body weight through sweat is linked to decreased performance, particularly as games wear on.

 “Even though they play on ice, the heavy uniform and padding contribute to high sweat rates in some players,” Rosenbloom points out.

 That sentiment is echoed by George Washington University sports nutritionist Rebecca Mohning.

 “Hockey is one of those sports when you might not realize how much you are sweating,” she says.

 What should I be eating?

In addition to staying well-hydrated, there are a number of specific foods that can aid in both training and in-game performance.

 Many athletes swear by the quick-energy boost of foods and drinks loaded with carbohydrates—like fruits and sports drinks—and those can be particularly important for hockey players.

 “Hockey uses up a lot of muscle glycogen, especially in the leg muscles,” Rosenbloom notes, “so having enough carbohydrates in the diet can help a hockey player maintain high-intensity effort.”

 But hockey players cannot live on carbs alone. A good mix is essential. Let’s say you have a 7 p.m. game. Here is a good pregame dietary plan, according to Rosenbloom:

 A meal about three to four hours before game time that incorporates a lean protein (chicken, turkey, fish or even beef) that is grilled, broiled or baked, along with 200-300 grams of carbohydrates (for example: sweet potatoes, rice, noodles, pasta or bread). Combine that with a low-fiber fruit, like a banana or applesauce, along with plenty of water.

 When it comes to post-workout or post-game recovery, Rosenbloom says there are no “super-foods”—in other words, no real shortcuts—but whey protein is about as close as it gets because it is absorbed and digested quickly. Many athletes opt for the convenience of ready-made whey protein shakes, but milk or cottage cheese are also high in whey protein and can also be a great dietary addition.

 When will I see results?

Anyone who has tried to stick to a specific diet knows that one of the hardest parts is feeling like you’re not reaping the rewards of your discipline. That’s why it’s imperative to keep in mind that there is a cumulative effect to any change. Over weeks and months, the body will slowly adapt to better nutrition and, in turn, that will impact training. But the good news is that some results should be seen rather quickly.

Exercise depletes nutrients, which can impact performance. But with good nutrition and hydration, muscles will start to repair themselves quicker, allowing players to work out harder and sooner than they would otherwise, Rosenbloom says.

 Do I have to eat right all the time?

Let’s be honest. Most of us know, in general, what is good for our bodies and what isn’t. But foods that aren’t always the best for performance are often, well, delicious. If you have a couple of days off, it’s OK to slip in some of those “cheat” foods, but in general, it’s important to stick to a healthy diet in-season, Rosenbloom says.

“That being said, I am a realist when working with athletes,” she says. “(There is) nothing wrong with a cheese-veggie-lean ham pizza as a performance food, but I would draw the line at fried chicken wings and ribs!”

For a good example of what to eat and drink, check out the Peak Performance web site, which offers a comprehensive list of both pre- and post-game meals and snacks to get you on the right track.

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