For as long as I can remember, coaches and trainers have advocated eating a heavy carbohydrate meal the day of a game. For all my playing competitive years I can recall stuffing myself with pasta, bread and assorted other nutrient void starchy gems. Over time I listened to my body and greatly reduced my consumption of carbohydrates on game day. I felt they weighed me down producing a bloated feeling at game time. On game day I opted to make a change and eat light.
Years later I would repeat the same mistake with my own charges. For some 30 plus years I became part and parcel of funneling empty white starchy foodstuffs into our skaters on game day. Despite my own personal athletic experience I thought that conventional wisdom had to be right. Pasta in the form of spaghetti, lasagna or ziti coupled with plenty of white bread was the most often the main course. Protein it seems had largely become an after thought.
This past summer I undertook researching fueling options for athletes believing that perhaps conventional thinking had changed. What I discovered was a bit surprising and frankly discouraging. While some new ideas had filtered into the discussion, for the most part little had changed. Carbohydrates continued to be the primary recommended fuel source. That surprised me because in the course of my readings I began paying more attention to specifically “which” types of carbs were being eaten. It quickly became apparent that our North American diet consisted of a whole lot more “bad” carb options than good. I decided to delve deeper.
There was a personal piece that added to my curiousity. Despite being active and eating what most would consider a relatively healthy diet, I was given some puzzling news following my annual spring physical. My blood sugar count was sufficiently high enough to classify me as pre diabetic. That got my full attention. Worse still, my cholesterol count was too high and my doctor said we needed to discuss taking a statin. For me that was the tipping point.
So I took to reading several excellent writings about how we fuel our bodies. In due course I stumbled into a young professional hockey player who had played at Notre Dame for Jeff Jackson. I had come across his weekly blog about an athletes perspective on nutrition, health and exercise. His name is Kevin Deeth and he made a whole lot of sense. We exchanged a few emails about the current state of nutritional fueling. Clearly there is more fiction floating out in public than fact when it comes to putting high octane gas into your personal engine.
This week Kevin posted one of the most informative and simple explanations of the types of foods/fuel an athlete needs in order to be confident they can perform and execute at the highest level. Hockey requires a tremendous amount of glycogen to fuel your muscles; but the meal you eat 48 hours prior to competition is far more important than the day of. Hydration is equally important and it needs to be addressed the day before competition. Showing up to the game slightly dehydrated is the surest way to find your body feeling lackluster on the competition day. Hydrate with water; forget about the array of sugary sport drinks which are not much better than soda in many cases. The deception and money backing the ‘sports drink’ industry is a major story all too itself.
I posted earlier this summer why fueling should be the major focus for any athlete who is working hard to perform and excel. Why spend hours every off season training in the gym to increase your power quotient if you aren’t going to pay attention to what’s going in the tank? Imagine a Nascar crew putting watery, dirty gasoline into their race car and then expecting to stay at the front of the pack? It’s not to hard to picture the outcome.
I’ve also had occasion to speak with a number of nutritionists over the course of my coaching career. Much to my surprise the majority continue to spout outmoded, outdated philosophies about fueling. The carbo loading mantra apparently is still alive and well in many circles. I’m shocked by the lack of awareness that processed, nutrient void white starches and sugary foods are still pushed as preferential for athletes. Monitor the diet of any teenager and alarms go off at the percentage of processed foods, sugars, sodium and artificial ingredients consumed on a daily basis.
After years of watching elite athletes religiously train year round without paying heed to what fuels they pour into their engine, I’ve come to the realization that this one critical aspect plays a major role in performance, consistency and general wellness. Fuel matters. Really matters. Any serious athlete looking to gain an edge or simply to perform at the upper range of their ability, has to embrace this reality or suffer the consequences.
Thirty years is a long time to watch college student athletes strive for excellence. In my early days of coaching the relationship between fuel and wellness never crossed my mind. I was often curious why certain athletes spent an inordinate amount of each season beset with flu, colds and bugs. Over time I began to realize that habitually sick athletes in most every case were the ones not taking care of themselves: poorly fueled, poorly hydrated and often burning the candle at both ends.
Why don’t youthful athletes pay closer attention if the results truly are potentially dramatic?
1. Fueling well takes time and thoughtful preparation. Eating well doesn’t just happen by accident because invariably ‘good’ food isn’t easily available, while processed junk is always at hand.
2. Fueling properly is generally more costly. Processed junk is cheap, has an unlimited shelf life and can be purchased anywhere. Fresh fruits, vegetables and protein generally require the athlete to develop a new eating routine. To set those habits in place means taking initiative and being proactive about what you eat when.
3. Knowledge and familiarity. Most athletes while having super demanding energy requirements, don’t see themselves as any different from an everyday college student. But they are, often burning twice the caloric intake. In fact a lot of college athletes over eat but under fuel. They have to eat a lot of garbage if they expect to meet their bodies daily energy demands. I see a number of athletes every season who drop weight and lose strength over the course of our long and grinding season simply because they’re running on empty.
4. Habit. In many cases they’ve never fueled properly even during their years at home. Now on their own, they don’t have the resources or knowledge to realize the impact of those choices and correct them.
There is no substitute for any serious hockey player that compensates for poor fueling habits. In the short run they may get by but over the course of time they’re running a losing battle. Consistency in these instances is virtually impossible. Factor in lack of sleep because of studies, stress and anxiety and you have a recipe for breaking down. The body is amazingly resilient, but it can only compensate to a point.
For aspiring college athletes, I encourage you to click on the link to Kevin’s blog and read his latest post: “Game Day Nutrition.” It’s never too late to invest time educating yourself about leveraging your physical skills with proper fueling. I’m confident that once any serious athlete ‘feels’ and ‘experiences’ the difference that they’ll view fueling quite the same way again. It literally is one of the biggest game changers you can make.