Feeding a hockey stomach

Right nutrition key for successful athlete


Jussi-Pekka Kurtti talks about nutrition with the participants of the 2016 IIHF Women’s High-Performance Camp. Photo: Timo Saarinen

VIERUMAKI – Not only training on and off the ice is important for those who want to become a top hockey player. How you feed your stomach is important as well. That’s one of the key learnings for the female U18 players present at the 2016 IIHF Women’s High-Performance Camp from the two sessions about nutrition, which was led by Jussi-Pekka Kurtti from Finland, who has NHL players such as Ville Pokka of the Chicago Blackhawks among his clients.

Kurtti started with the three basic building blocks of health and athletic performance.

Firstly, sleep and recovery. “Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep per night in a dark room, don’t drink coffee after 18:00,” he said and added that the room should really be dark, without electronic devices or LED lights on since the tiniest light may send wrong signals to the brain. He also recommends not using electronic devices before going to sleep.

“Rested athlete makes wiser decisions with nutrition,” he said. “The amount and quality of sleep is the foundation for performance and recovery.”

Then, progressive and wisely programmed training. That’s something they will hear about all week during various off-ice sessions. “Move your body every day, also outside of team practice, for example walk or take the bike instead the car,” he added.

And third, individualized and clean nutrition that supports the performance.

“Athletes need large energy intake to support extreme energy demands. They need to maintain body weight and fat level in narrow range,” said Kurtti.

Important for athletes are fibre-rich carbohydrates for example through vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, brown rice, whole-grain pasta or dark-rye bread. Less though carbohydrates through refined sugar, which can reduce the ability to process and store carbohydrates that do not reach the muscles. He showed a picture how much cubes of sugar can be found in several manufactured products including fitness bars and drinks creating some mix of whispering, astonishment and horror in the room. “It would be a caveman approach to throw everything like this away now but keep in mind the amounts of sugar,” he told the young ladies.

Primary protein sources come from meat, poultry, eggs, fish, milk and cheese. “You need protein to keep growing in every way,” he said. “Some people do not eat meat or animal protein, then you have to make sure to get the eight essential amino acids elsewhere although none of them have all eight in one place,” he said mentioning tofu, soy, beans, nuts and algae as possible vegan protein sources.

And then there’s fat, often demonized as bad. Something Kurtti doesn’t necessarily agree as he definitely recommends athletes not to go on a low-fat diet. Fat provides an energy source, helps manufacture and balance hormones, forms cell membranes, the brain and nervous systems, helps transport fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and provides essential fatty acids the body cannot produce: Omega 3 and 6.

“If you don’t consume enough fat, the message from your brain to the cell membranes may not get through,” he said.

About two third of the fat intake should be from unsaturated fats gained for example from olive oil, avocados, nuts, fish, flax and chia seeds.

“Aim to consume fat in a balance and not just from butter and animal fats and definitely not trans fats, which is often contained in manufactured food such as microwave food and banned in some countries. Try not to consume junk food,” he recommended.

So what’s the ideal meal? In percentages a formula that works both for female and male athletes is 40 per cent carbohydrates, 30 per cent protein and 30 per cent fat. He illustrated the ratio as follows: two hand palms of protein-dense foods, two fists of vegetables, two fists of carb-dense food and two thumbs of fat-dense foods. That’s it. “Ask the guys in the NHL, they don’t eat any super-fancy food, they eat normal, clean food,” he said.

Are you looking for examples? Here are some from his presentation:

But what if you travel for a tournament, camp or vacation? Especially when travelling as a team he recommends finding out the nearest grocery stores, restaurants and gyms when wanting to book accommodation, for rooms with a kitchenette, and to shop items such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and protein powder beforehand.

When shopping, he advised to have a list that includes three options each from the following five groups: vegetables, berries and fruits, protein, fats, whole-grain and starchy carbohydrates.

“Success comes through daily choices, which eventually turn into habits. Aim for a bit better every day,” he gave the ladies on their path to success and welcomed them to the athletes’ lounge he manages at the ice rink during the 2016 IIHF Women’s High-Performance Camp to discuss individual needs.

Do athletes need supplement in addition to simple, natural and clean food? Not if there is no special need. “Only if it’s needed to add something to support the diet,” he said and added: “Supplements shouldn’t be the bulk of the diet.”

As examples he mentions multi-vitamins, four to five grams of fish oil to reduce inflammation, vitamin D especially when there’s little sun in winter in northern regions, magnesium (but not in form of magnesium oxide), probiotics and protein powder.

When it comes to supplements it’s also important to use clean nutrition. Hockey is widely known as a clean sport and everybody involved wants it to stay like that. That’s why the girls were also educated about doping, its dangers, and why it’s not worth risking doping infractions. Not just because of risking of long-term damage to their health but also a suspension that could keep them four years out from the game and practices at such a young age.

Camp Director Aku Nieminen explained that they can be tested in national, international and out of competitions and that in the case of illness and need for medicine that may be prohibited, therapeutic use exemptions may be granted upon request.

There’s a lot to learn from the girls from 16 different countries and they showed they’re interested in improving their lifestyle on the path to potentially becoming a national team player.

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