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Hockey is a beautiful sport that requires the ultimate combination of strength, speed, skill, awareness, and, most importantly, stamina to make it through each and every game. Having the energy to play quality shifts late in the third period is one of the biggest features that separates the highly-skilled players and the "so-so" players. While a good portion of this energy comes from training and experience, a ton of it comes from the ever important pre-game meal.
There are many pre-game meal guides out there, but they become difficult to follow because of the huge fluctuations in game times - especially for adult league players. Having a 10:45pm game on a weeknight can really throw off your daily meal time ritual, but there are workarounds to keep your hunger satiated throughout the day and keep you energized all game long. We'll even include our favorite easy-to-follow recipes so you'll be completely prepared to make all of your meals yourself.
From here on out, let's just assume we have a reasonable 8:00pm game time - we'll get into those tricky early morning or late night game times towards the end.
The Schedule & Eating Mindset
This section is the most important, and we haven't even started cooking or eating yet.
First things first, as soon as your team receives its season schedule, put every single game in your phone's calendar or write them on a physical calendar if you're "old school." This will prevent any future game day surprises and will help you make better meal choices throughout each game day.
Then, when it's time to dig in to your pre-game meal, it's best to practice "conscious eating." This means you are paying attention to each and every bite and how your body reacts to what is being put in. A good rule of thumb is to eat until you no longer feel hungry, not until you are completely stuffed! Overeating throughout the day will end up making you feel sluggish during your game, no matter what you eat.
Water makes up about 60% of our bodies and, like gasoline in an automobile, the harder we play, the more we lose through sweat. When our bodies aren't properly "fueled," in-game performance quickly goes south. It is so important to include a glass of water with each meal and to sip water throughout the day to ensure your body is ready to perform.
Luke Corey, a performance dietitian at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN advises hockey players, "Taking a proactive approach to hydration and not waiting until you're thirsty and constantly drinking water before, during, and after your game can help with a good performance."
On the contrary, drinking too much water is almost just as bad as not drinking enough. Frequent trips to the bathroom before the game can end up making you dehydrated, and playing with a full bladder is just plain uncomfortable. Try a "hydration test run" on a day with a practice or pick-up game to see how much water your body can comfortably handle.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
It's no secret that eating a balanced breakfast is key to having a more energy-filled day, so be sure to include plenty of protein, fiber, carbohydrates, and a just little bit of fat. According to Los Angeles Kings team nutritionists and chef Melanie Barsuk, a great way to do this is a breakfast burrito. You'll get protein from the eggs and cheese, fiber from the beans, carbohydrates from the tortilla, and good, monounsaturated fats from the avocado.
If breakfast burritos aren't your thing or if you don't have time to cook one, try eating a bowl of low-sugar cereal like Honey Bunches of Oats or Kashi Honey Toasted Oats (no Froot Loops or Cap'n Crunch! - we'll explain why later) or a cup of non-fat Greek yogurt, like Fage Total 0%. You can find all of these at any major grocery store.
Eat your burrito, cereal, or yogurt with a handful of your favorite fresh fruit and a tall glass of water and you are already making great steps towards preparing for tonight's game.
Getting hungry between meals happens, even on game days. If you feel hungry between meals, try having a banana (you can slice it up and dip it in some peanut butter for more flavor), some trail mix, or a low-sugar granola bar.
For lunch, try making a sandwich on whole grain bread with a couple slices of fat-free or low-fat turkey and a your favorite cheese (the less fat, the better) and a side of graham crackers. You'll be getting plenty of carbohydrates in the bread and crackers and lots of protein in the meat and cheese. Again, be sure to drink water with your lunch.
Now that it's closer to the 8:00 game time, it's best to schedule your dinner based on how hungry you are currently feeling and how much you plan on eating. If you are only a little hungry, eat a smaller or "mini-meal" around 6:30 or 7:00. If you are starving, then eat about half of your "normal-sized" dinner portion around 5:30 or 6:00.
Dinner should consist mostly of carbohydrates and a little bit of protein. One of the easiest and tastiest meals you can make is a sautéed chicken pasta with broccoli and Parmesan cheese. Simply sauté half of a sliced chicken breast and some broccoli in a little bit of olive oil while the pasta boils, then combine them on a plate and sprinkle some more olive oil and Parmesan cheese on top. The end result will look something like this:
Don't forget to drink water with your meal!
Now that the game is over, a recovery meal immediately after the game is just as important as a pre-game meal. Since you've been eating less than usual, now is a great time for a good-sized, carbohydrate-filled snack of fruits, crackers, and some Gatorade to replenish lost electrolytes.
The Early and Late Night Games
Now let's look at preparing for those inconvenient game times. For a morning game, eat plenty of carbohydrates the night before and then follow the Breakfast section about an hour before you plan to hit the ice.
For a game closer to 6:00 or right after a work shift, prepare your "dinner" the night before and bring it with you to work. As awkward as it is to eat dinner around 4:30, remember you will have another recovery meal right after the game, so consider the pre-game meal as more of a snack.
Then, for a 10:00pm or later game, follow the guide as you normally would, but eat a "normal-sized" portion for dinner around 6:45. Then, have a light snack, like a PowerBar or Clif Bar, about an hour before the game. After the game, since most players aren't usually hungry at 12:30am for a recovery meal, an easy-to-digest protein shake with water or a glass of chocolate milk is an easy substitute to get those carbohydrates and protein.
Foods to Avoid on Game Days
Now you probably have a better idea of what to eat on game day, but what about the foods you shouldn't eat? Basically, processed sugars (natural sugars found in fruit and dairy are okay), high amounts of fat, and caffeine are the big three that you should stay away from before the game.
This is not saying that you should avoid coffee at all costs on game days. If you have an evening or nighttime game, you'll be fine if you have a cup of coffee in the morning. However, since caffeine is a diuretic, drinking several cups of coffee throughout the day will quickly dehydrate you through frequent urination.
Also, pounding a Red Bull in the locker room can cause several problems throughout the game. Primarily, all that caffeine and sugar might make you feel great during warmups and halfway through the first period, but then your energy levels will plummet throughout the rest of the game. Even worse, that quick "punch" of caffeine elevates your heart rate - the exact opposite of what your heart needs when it's already working hard during the game - which can cause much more serious health risks.
In conclusion, eating plenty of carbohydrates, but not overeating, and staying hydrated before your games will help you perform at your highest level. Although we are not doctors, this article is written based on first-hand experience and is what we feel helps us play at a high skill level. Do you have a recipe or food you like to eat before the game? Share it in the comments!