FUELING YOUR ENGINE: HOW FOOD CAN MAKE YOU A BEAST
SPORTS NUTRITION. Type those two words into any search engine and you will be instantly bombarded by millions of results. For a long time, athletes, trainers, and coaches alike have been looking for the answer to the question: how can performance be consistently great? The truth is that there are many pieces to the puzzle – training, mental capacity, skill, heart, you name it – but one piece is more overarching and important than everything else. Diet. Yep, what you put in your body matters, especially as an athlete, and your performance is a direct result of it. Eat junk, feel like junk, play like junk. It’s inevitable. The age-old adage of “You get what you put in” has never really been more accurate! Your diet is one of the only things that you can pretty much control 100% of the time with proper planning and self-discipline. With some basic knowledge and tools, you can fuel your body properly and reap all the benefits of a nutritious, tasty, and performance-based diet.
1 – EAT REAL, WHOLE FOODS
The single, most important suggestion that I make when someone asks me about food is to really just eat FOOD. Real food, not fake food. You know, stuff that grows in the ground and the animals who eat that food from the ground. Fruit, vegetables, eggs, pastured animal meat, nuts and seeds are all great sources of calories for athletes. Processed foods don’t have a place in a performance-based diet (with the exception of some supplements – see below). For as much as nutritious, whole foods can make you feel great and play well, processed foods can suck your energy stores and make you sick. Highly processed energy bars and drinks seem to have made their way as mainstays into many athletes’ diets, while real foods that offer so much more are shunned in the name of convenience. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played with teammates who have a poor diet and halfway through the season start getting sick every week. Performance suffers and so does your health. Do the right thing and give your body what it needs – whole foods – and reap the vast benefits.
2 – CARBO LOADING ISN’T WHAT YOU THINK IT IS
Most athletes, at the very least, have heard of carbohydrate loading and I’m sure many of you follow its “typical” protocol – eat a ton of carbohydrates 1-3 days before your sporting event and expect to feel great. For the typical hockey player, this means eating abnormal amount of pasta for lunch before your game. I hate to break it to you, but you probably don’t need as many carbs as you think. I was guilty (I use the word “guilty” because I think you’re harming your performance) of this too! Not much tastes better than an enormous plate of spaghetti with meat sauce and a ton of cheese before a pre-game nap. It becomes routine and thus comfortable for us. Chicken, pasta, play game, chicken, pasta, sleep, repeat. GROSS.
The whole purpose of “carbo loading” is to replenish your body’s glycogen stores. Very simply put, humans burn glycogen for energy when doing anaerobic exercise and our bodies can only hold a set amount. It is stored in two places: your muscles and your liver. When you’re full, you’re full. Excess carbs float around in your blood for a little bit and then are stored like any other excess calories – in fat cells. The best time to replenish your glycogen stores is immediately after intense exercise when your body is primed to soak up and absorb what it needs. Good quality recovery shakes or fruit with some protein powder can do the trick followed by a nutritious, whole food meal an hour or two later. Once your body has refueled its glycogen stores, go back to eating nutrient dense vegetables, good quality fats, and protein. If you scale back on your carbohydrate intake, you will feel better and more energetic on the ice–you can thank me later.
3 – GOOD FATS ARE GREAT FOR YOU
The whole eating fat makes you fat thing is over. Extremely outdated and hypothesized, the low fat, high carb eating craze of the 1990s and 2000s made North Americans fatter. Not so strange, but true. In reality, our bodies need fat, need cholesterol, and do not simply run on it; we thrive on it. In fact, the human brain is made up primarily of fat (around 70% cholesterol if I remember correctly). The best part about dietary fat is that it tastes unbelievable! Fats that athletes should focus on getting from their diet include raw nuts and seeds, olive oil, coconut oil, free-range egg yolks, and grass-fed meats among others. Consider supplementing your diet with Fish Oil or Flax Seed Oil to ensure you are getting Omega-3 fats every day. Neglecting fat as a macronutrient in your performance-based diet is essentially neglecting your body and your brain!
4 – USE SUPPLEMENTS AS WHAT THEY ARE: SUPPLEMENTS
It is my belief that athletes can get all the nutrition they need from real, whole foods. Reality is that most of us don’t want to eat 4 oranges and a steak as soon as we finish practice to kick-start our recovery (and glycogen refill) by ingesting carbs and protein. I myself would love to do that but I don’t have a grill in my locker room stall! Supplementation provides convenience for athletes, and I’m all for that. Just don’t use nutritional supplements as nutritional mainstays. Supplements cannot replace real food, ever. Don’t try it. Also, read ingredient labels on the supplements you want before you buy. Many are loaded with gross and unnecessary fillers, additives, and artificial ingredients.
Good quality supplements can enhance the effects and efficiency of a whole food diet when used correctly.
5 – DIET AND NURTRITION ARE PARAMOUNT IN SPORTS PERFORMANCE AND RECOVERY
What you eat matters. What you eat especially matters when you play a sport and want to excel. Be aware that what you put in, you get out. I’m not going to fill my Nissan GT-R with the lowest octane fuel I can find because it’s the easiest to find and the cheapest. No, I’m putting in the 94 octane. Sure, it costs a bit extra but that’s the trade off. The car performs. For food, I don’t eat convenient, packaged food. Yep, it’s easiest, fastest, and cheapest, but my body and mind suffer. It’s not worth it to me. Somewhat of a bad analogy but once you begin to know what you are putting in your body, you begin to experience the benefits.
No single diet plan is effective for all people. Find what fuels you – makes you feel the best – and stick to it. I’ve been experimenting for years with my diet and what worked for me 7 years ago when I first turned pro doesn’t anymore. I’m self-educated when it comes to nutrition, but my teammates approach me now with diet questions. I’ve always been interested in the most modern, pertinent research and base my beliefs and lifestyle around the data. It pays to know what makes you feel great. Fuel your body, fuel your performance. It’s that simple.
Mark Dekanich is a current professional hockey player and diet enthusiast. His illustrious career includes the NHL, AHL and Europe’s top league the KHL. He has a wife, two pugs and a passion for healthy living.