4 Rules of Your Pre-Game Meal

So it’s game day and you’ve done everything to get ready. You’ve worked hard in practice. You’ve put in the relevant strength training and energy system workouts. All that’s left is to do is get your skates sharpened and throw a little tape on your stick and you’re ready for battle. Right?

There’s something else that is as if not more important than all of the things above in order to getting ready for your hockey game?
And what is this other thing?

It’s your pregame meal and hydration.

But waiting until the day of your big game to start thinking about your pre-game meal is too late. Sure there is a specific meal you ear before your game. And I provide you with specific guidelines below in terms of the best strategies for optimal performance.

Instead of waiting until a few hours before your game to select quality foods to eat start this process a few days before. There’s a saying that goes ‘Saturday’s game is played on Thursday’s food’. What this means is that the food you eat the days leading up to your game all factor into your performance. You can’t expect to eat poorly during the week and switch it up on the weekend to do your best.

There needs to be a plan that exists for the majority of the time. And then you simply make tweaks to the amounts, types and timing of the foods you eat on game day. Because you can’t wait until the day before or even the day of your game and think you can simply improve your habits at the last minute and reap the rewards. Why not?
For a couple of reasons. One is that the purpose of the pre-game meal is to top up glycogen levels. Glycogen is the form of carbohydrate that the body stores in the muscle and liver. And it is the first source of energy the body turns to when performing exercise such as in a game of hockey.

You may think that carb loading the day of your game will satisfy all your energy needs but the truth is it doesn’t. For some too many carbs too soon to competition results in too much water retention. The player may also complain of stiffness and sluggishness when you try this approach. But it’s a hard lesson learned.

And it’s something that a number of hockey players take for granted. And sometimes it not so much that they take don’t consider it important it’s that they just aren’t well informed. This happens even at the professional level as well.

I was working with an NHL player who would still go with his regular pre-game meal every time they played. He had a routine of chicken and pasta before every meal.

Sounds like a healthy choice doesn’t it? There’s a good source of carbs and some protein so he’s got all his bases covered.
Here’s the problem though.

I asked this pro player ‘do you think it matters if you eat this meal two, three or four hours before your game?’ And he answered ‘absolutely!’
And so asked him ‘do you think it matters if you eat one, two or three chicken breasts?’ And again he answered ‘definitely!’

And lastly I asked him ‘does it matter if you have whole grain pasta compared to white pasta?’ And while he just gave me a blank look to this question the answer is it does.

So let’s take a moment and summarize what the 4 Rules of Your Pre-Game Meal are.

Rule #1 of Your Pre-Game Meal – Timing

When you eat your last meal before your game will be incredibly important as it relates to your on ice performance. This meal should be eaten a minimum 90 minutes before puck drop and ideally three to four hours before game time.

Why does this matter?

The pre-game meal is primarily to provide fuel and hydration to allow you to play. We want there to be enough time for the body to fully digest and assimilate the nutrients and water that will sustain you for the length of the game.

A meal eaten within 90 minutes will not have had enough time to move from the digest tract to the blood stream and eventually to working muscles. Worse, not only will these nutrients not be available to you during the game your body will be expending energy to try and digest this meal. Lastly, you only ever want to taste your food once!

And on the other end of the spectrum you don’t want to eat your pre-game meal too far before the game. And this makes sense. Imagine eating your pre-game meal over the lunch hour at 12 noon when game time if 7 PM. In the seven hours since eating you will have metabolized your last meal and your blood sugar will be begin dropping.

So how do you know when to eat your pre-game meal?

Well this has a little bit to do with some personal experimentation. There are some hockey players I work with that can’t handle any solid food within three hours prior to the game. Other might be alright a couple hours out. But you absolutely don’t want to be having a solid meal within 90 minutes.
Hey, you just mentioned ‘solid meal’. Does this mean there is a difference between solid and liquid meals?

Yes, there is a difference as solid food will usually involve more real food and nutrition and liquids tend to be more processed. Another key difference is that liquids will be digested and metabolized more quickly than solid food.

So get the majority of your nutrition and hydration in the first meal approximately 3 hours before the game. Then once it’s within 90 minutes and you’re still feeling hungry this is the time to have a liquid meal. Again this is based on personal preference in terms of timing and what you feel you need. If you’re someone that gets hungry in the 90 minutes before the game try a small smoothie. However if you’re someone that would get sick by trying this than pass on it. Or try and half serving before a practice and see how it works for you.

Rule #2 of Your Pre-Game Meal – Dose

This means how big of a pre-game meal you should eat. And the better idea you have of how much you are eating the more effective your nutrition will be.
In the previous section I discussed the timing of your pre-game meal. And this factors into the size of your meal. The more time before the game the larger the size of the meal whereas the closer you are to puck drop the smaller your meal should be. In terms of the ranges in time we are assuming 3 hours to be on the short end and 4 or 5 hours to be on the longer end. Adjust the size of your meal based on these ranges.
The key with the pre-game is to top up your energy stores before competition. To do this the meal should be high in carbohydrates. As this will form the bulk of your pre-game meals calories we are shooting for up to 75% of the calories from your pre-game meal to come from carbohydrates. Here’s what a 70 kg, 80 kg and 90 kg hockey player would consumes as carbohydrates before a game:

Mass of player Amount of carbs (grams) Energy from carbs (cal)
70 kg 112-119 448-476
80 kg 128-136 512-544
90 kg 144-153 576-612

The remainder of the pre-game calories are made up of fats and proteins. Hockey players should avoid over consuming either of these nutrients i.e. fats and proteins, before a game as they are more slowly digested and therefore won’t contribute as much to energy availability but may lead to gastric distress.
In the table below we add in the remaining calories as fats and protein.

Mass of player Amount of fat (grams) Energy from fat (cal) Amount of protein (grams) Energy from protein (cal)
70 kg 10-10.5 90-95 15-16 60-64
80 kg 11-12 102-109 17-18 68-73
90 kg 13-14 115-122 19-20 77-82

Putting this all together here’s what it looks like in terms carbs, fats and protein with respect to calories.

Mass of player Carb calories Fat calories Protein calories Total calories
70 kg 448-476 90-95 60-64 598-635
80 kg 512-544 102-109 68-73 682-726
90 kg 576-612 115-122 77-82 768-816

So what does a sample meal with these ratios of nutrients look like? Here’s a sample meal to give you an idea.
Sample large pre-game meal for a 70 kg hockey player or a smaller meal for an 80 kg player.

Food Calories ( grams of fat/protein/carb)
Large baked potato 278 (o/7/63)
2 pat butter 72 (8/0/0)
2 oz grilled chicken 92 (2/18/0)
½ cup green peppers 15 (0/0/4)
½ cup cucumbers 8 (0/0/2)
½ cup cherry tomatoes 14 (0/1/3)
½ cup blueberries 42 (0/0/10)
1 cup orange juice 112 (0/2/26)
Total 633 calories 14% fat 18% protein 68% carb

Rule #3 of Your Pre-Game Meal – Quality

The next condition of your pre-game meal is to select foods of the highest quality. Consider you owned a high performance race car. You would only use the highest octane fuel and the best quality synthetic oil. You know that if you skimp on the fuel you put in this machine the performance of your car won’t be as good as it could be.

Similarly when you select foods to eat before your game you should choose the best quality ingredients. This includes fresh foods that are in season to have the highest nutritional content possible. Frozen foods are acceptable as the freezing process doesn’t change the nutritional make up of the food. In the sample meal plan above frozen blueberries would work perfectly fine.

What you want to avoid consuming prior to your game is low quality foods. This includes processed, packaged, fried and fast foods. While you don’t have to eat your foods raw it is recommended to eat them as close to their natural state as possible. Consider the following example to see how this applies.

In the sample meal plane above the first food entry is a baked potato. The more processed a food item is the more nutritional value it loses and the higher it is on the glycemic index. For example:

• A plain raw potato has the most nutritional value and the lowest glycemic rating it can have.
• A baked potato has slightly less nutritional value and is a little higher on the glycemic scale.
• Mashed potatoes have less nutritional value and are a little higher on the glycemic scale.
• French fries have very little nutritional value and are higher on the glycemic scale.
• Potato chips have no nutritional value and are highest on the glycemic scale.
Keep this in mind as you select a food item and the state it is in.

In terms of the quality of each macronutrient there are specific features to opt for. With the bulk of your calories coming from carbohydrates we want to select low to medium glycemic index foods. The glycemic index is a relative rating on how quickly a carbohydrate gets into the blood stream. A food that is digested and metabolized quickly would have a higher rating whereas a slower digesting carb would have a lower rating. Combined with the glycemic ratting is the amount of a carb that is eaten to give the glycemic load. Consider the example below to understand glycemic rating and glycemic load.

Think of the glycemic rating as a measure of a currency. A penny has a low rating on a currency scale whereas a dollar has a higher rating on this scale. The glycemic load refers to how much you have of that unit times its relative rating. If I have one million pennies this has a value of $10,000. On the other hand if I have one thousand dollar bills this has a value of $1,000. Obviously if given the choice you would take one million pennies over one thousand dollar bills.

In the same way that units of currency and amount of each unit are important considerations so too it is important to know the glycemic rating (low or high) and well as the amount of the carbs we eat for our pregame meal in order to know the glycemic load.

So what types of carbs would these be? This includes long grain rice, pasta, oatmeal, bread, fruits and vegetables. Don’t eat too many fruits and high fibre vegetables as these may lead to gastrointestinal distress during the game.

Before we do on to proteins and fats did you ever wonder why the bulk of your calories in your pre-game meal should come from carbs? Well part of it has to do with the fact that carbs are readily digested and therefore involve quick gastric emptying. But the other reason has to do with the level of intensity of exercise that carbs help fuel. Carbs are an excellent fuel source for high intensity exercise just like the game of hockey. As you push hard during a shift the availability of oxygen is reduced. Carbohydrates are a preferred energy source when oxygen availability is diminished.

Take a look at the image below.

On the left vertical axis is the contribution of total energy of the body from either FAT or carbohydrate (CHO). The contribution from FAT is represented as a red line and carbs as a blue line CHO. On the horizontal axis is the intensity of the exercise. There are a few things to notice.

1. The contribution from FAT as an energy source is greatest at low intensity exercise and drops as the intensity of exercise increases.
2. The contribution from CHO as an energy source is a minimum at low intensity exercise and increases as the intensity of exercise increases.
3. The contribution of FAT and CHO cross just below 60% of exercise intensity.

Now think about the game of hockey. Is it a game played at low intensity or high intensity? Is it a game played by only five players for 60 minutes without breaks? Or are there other players and regular stoppages in play? These are all pretty easy questions. And if we look at the figure it is pretty easy to see CHO is a more relevant energy source at high intensity exercise. Therefore you should fuel your body with the nutrients that will allow you to compete at a high level of intensity.

As for the protein sources select fish, chicken and lean cuts of beef. While dairy, nuts and beans are good sources of protein they are not your best choice for the pre-game meal as the fats, oils and sugar in these foods is too high for the intended purpose, will not be digested quickly enough and therefore not lend to on ice performance.

Make sure to choose a small to moderate size of protein for your meal. While many players may enjoy a large rib eye once in a while this would be way too much protein as well as not being a lean cut of beef from all the marbleized fat it comes with. Too much protein takes too long to digest. Imagine eating a larger 8 or 10 ounce steak, which I hope you would never do, before a game. The body must then divert blood flow to the stomach in an effort to digest and transport all this protein. This takes blood away from working muscles such as the legs and results in fatigue and sluggishness during the game. Have you ever heard a hockey player complain they ‘can’t get their legs going’ during a game in which they ate a lot of protein for the pre-game meal? No surprise is it?

Too much protein will also impair the hydration status of the body as well. With increased protein digestion there will be an increased production of urine. As this urine is produced water is therefore lost from the body as well as compromising the hydration level of the player.

Just as how we are trying to limit our consumption of protein in the pre game meal likewise we want to make sure we don’t eat too much fat. High levels of fat will delay digestion and slow gastric emptying.

Rule #4 of Your Pre-Game Meal – Hydration

While your energy to perform is supplied by the nutrients listed above it will all be wasted if you are not properly hydrated.  Pre-game hydration should follow the following guidelines:

  • 2-3 glasses of water with the pre-game meal 3-4 hours before puck drop
  • 2 glasses of water 2 hours before game time
  • 2 glasses of water 30 minutes before game time

Water is your best choice for hydration.  Caffeine, alcohol, artificial sweeteners, energy drinks and juices that aren’t 100% fruit should be avoided.  This will lead to dehydration, impaired performance and insulin spikes followed by subsequent energy crashes.

During the game you should continue to hydrate and fuel up.  Choose chilled beverages over room temperature or warm ones.  It is better to drink an appreciable amount, around ½ cup, every 10-15 minutes, rather than taking small sips constantly.  The reason for this relates to gastric emptying.  When there is a larger volume in the stomach, as when ½ a cup is consumed, the rate at which this will be emptied from the stomach is faster than if small sips are taken.  Small sips do not contribute to a large enough volume in the stomach to warrant quick absorption and can result in a hockey player becoming dehydrated, even while sipping constantly.

If a sport beverage is to be consumed during the game make sure this is not greater than a 6-8% carbohydrate solution.  I have seen too many overly eager athletic trainers mix up too high a concentration of crystals in a large cooler of sports drink for the players to drink from during a game.  Sometimes there is the belief that if something is good more must be better.  Or that if the conditions are more extreme, such as tournament play, lots of overtime games etc than extra carbs in the mix will help.

Not only will they not help they will impair performance.  Extra carbohydrate crystals mixed into the sport drink mix will slow gastric emptying.  And as the body requires water to digest and metabolize consumed carbs there will be some water lost to digest this higher concentration of carbs in the drink mix.  So make sure to stay within the range of 6-8% carbs when you make up your own sports drinks.

Final thoughts regarding pre-game nutrition

In addition to the four rules listed above here are a few other points to keep in mind regarding fueling up before your game.

  • Avoid spicy foods.  Even if you like them it’s best to save them for other times.  You don’t want to eat something that may irritate your GI tract and cause nausea.  Better for a food to taste a bit bland and supply all the proper nutrients and energy than to give you an upset stomach and poor on-ice performance.
  • Avoid sugar, honey and candy.  With all the talk about the importance of carbs above it may seem ok to eat a little bit of something sweet before a game.  There are a few problems with this.  First every gram of carbohydrate takes 4 grams of water so there is the potential of dehydration from eating sweets before your game.  Secondly these foods are high on the glycemic index and therefore will result in a spike in blood sugar, a release of insulin and subsequent blood sugar crash.  In other words you will feel fatigued later in the game.  Lastly, while sugary treats are sometimes taken for the quick energy boost the fact is they can take 30 minutes to get into the blood stream.  So you miss the immediate benefit but pay the price for the coming crash.
  • Don’t try something new.  Would you try a new pair of skates before a big game?  Probably not.  You’d want some time to test them out and see how they work for you.  Don’t make the mistake of trying a new meal before a game.  Everybody has different backgrounds and is accustomed to different things.  Don’t think because your line mate swears by a particular meal and has success that you should follow his lead.  You can try this meal but not before a game.
  • Keep a food journal.  You can do this all the time but it is even more important before a game.  On game days write down everything that goes in your mouth, the quantity and the time.  After your game make a note of how your body felt as well as how you performed.  Did you feel energized and confident?  Or were you sluggish and ineffective?  Were you pushing the pace and winning battles?  Or were you constantly chasing your opponent and being dominated?  After doing this for a number of times you will start to see some trends developing.  Specifically you will learn which foods, eaten at what times and in what amounts contribute to your best performance.  From there it is simply a matter of repeating what works for and gradually trying to get better.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions on this report.  As well within PremierHockeyTraining.com there are at least 5 meals plans for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Additionally there is a report on nutrient timing which shows you another way to gain an advantage on your opponent.

Wishing you the best success in hockey,

Chris Collins M.Sc. CSCS