It’s no secret that being an elite athlete takes a huge level of commitment in many different areas. For hockey players specifically, it’s crucial to be well conditioned, uphold a steady workout regiment, and continue developing on-ice skills, while also maintaining a hearty and healthy diet.
A lot of hard work and planning goes on behind the scenes and off the ice that helps make hockey players some of the fittest athletes in the world.
Joined by Canadian Nutrition Consultant, Victoria Mikhail, who is also a nutritionist for the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, The Good Point has explored how these athletes construct a balanced and healthy diet, while at the same time, taking in enough macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) to build strength and muscle.
According to Mikhail, a hockey player burns thousands of calories on the ice (2,000-3,000 each practice or game), so their calorie, protein, carbohydrate, and fat needs are far greater than the average person. In addition, hockey players often have a higher ratio of body muscle, so their metabolism is greater (muscle burns more calories per minute than body fat).
The challenge for hockey players, according to Mikhail, is that routine meals may not often fit into their practice or game schedule, which is where she comes in to lend a hand.
“I realize as professionals, they’ve reached this level through years of sacrifice, hard work, dedication, and passion,” she told The Good Point . “My role, as I see it, is tweaking, providing guidelines and giving them ideas that support their strengths.”
Of all her patients, Mikhail says hockey players are often the most receptive to her suggestions and strategies regarding the incorporation of nutrition into their diets.
“I am so impressed by the hockey players that I counsel,” Mikhail said. “They are very open and action driven to any suggestions given, and I found the moment I give some tips and guidelines, they immediately follow my suggestions.”
One of the main areas of focus, as previously mentioned, is properly incorporating macronutrients into one’s diet – mainly protein and carbohydrates.
Like many endurance athletic sports, protein has always been an assumed “muscle building” nutrient of choice among hockey players.
“Biology 101 outlined that when we stimulate our muscles (exercise), it is there that muscle gets enlarged,” Mikhail said. “Protein foods do not get digested and become muscle in our bodies.”
Along with helping build muscle, protein is beneficial for the body in many other ways.
“Protein is essential in our diet. Our muscles, tissue, organs, hormones, and antibodies all contain protein, which is made of chains of amino acids with different configurations,” Mikhail explained. “There are 22 known amino acids, nine are ‘essential’ since the body cannot make them, therefore, they must be consumed through our diets.”
Animal protein, such as meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and cheese, are complete proteins as they contain all nine essential amino acids. Plant sources (beans, legumes, grains) are missing at least one amino acid, but by combining the different plant sources, a higher quality protein is achieved.
As Mikhail notes, an athlete’s schedule can be quite daunting, so she has come up with several suggestions on what to buy and eat in order to complement a busy schedule.
“Trail mix; buy your favorite choices from a bulk type store for flexibility and build your own mix. Keep on hand or carry in a zip lock bag for pre or post practice.”
“Dried chick peas (high in protein, low in fat), dried apricots (I like the vitamin C, and other nutrients), dried figs or dates (taste better than jujubes), cranberries, dried cereal or pretzel, and sunflower seeds.”
Like protein, carbohydrates are also a common source of energy in living organisms, despite the controversy regarding how they positively or negatively affect one’s diet.
Foods high in carbohydrates include fruits, sweets, soft drinks, breads, pastas, beans, potatoes, bran, rice, and cereals.
“Carbohydrates have been evolving to look like the ‘bad’ fats,” Mikhail said. “Sometimes these foods get so confusing, as the hockey player may be getting mixed messages, they may not know who to believe, and shift to a system that has been comfortable and familiar.”
Similar to protein, carbohydrates can still be a beneficial part of one’s diet when taken in moderation. Cottage cheese, yogurt and various fruits are other convenient snack choices for a busy athlete, Mikhail says.
Along with macronutrients, it’s important for athletes (and people in general) to balance their diets by also eating a sufficient amount of vegetables amidst the incorporation of protein foods.
For Mikhail, it’s important to try and develop a system that complements each specific athlete and their unique needs. The types of food she may suggest may differ if the player is trying to lose weight, gain weight, or simply continue to build muscle.
In addition to providing the aforementioned nutrition tips, Mikhail also has a few side projects that she hopes will benefit the athletes and clients she works with, such as developing her own sports bar and writing a nutritional recipe book.
“I started playing around in the kitchen with my own sports bar recipe, and after experimenting with my family, friends, clients, and the Flyers, I evolved the bar into a very attractive, healthy, nutritious, and well received bar,” she said. “The hockey players I work with tell me that they like the bars far more than any other protein bars out there. I am in the midst of manufacturing and having the bars available.”
Her book, The Athlete Can Cook, will focus on guiding the athlete to understanding the foods that can enhance their performance, meal ideas, recipes that are convenient and nutritious, along with foods to take when on the road, restaurant choice tips, sodium information, eating on the run and more.
“The book is my tool to share more information to the players,” she explained. “By having an easy to read, accessible, doable tool, my hope is to help all athletes with questions on nutrition and food to support their lifestyle.”