The Lowdown on Carbohydrates and Proteins for Young Players

Contributed by Sheryl Normandeau (Calgary, AB)

A HIGH-INTENSITY SPORT such as hockey requires significant energy expenditures from players, no matter what age or playing level.

Statistics have shown that a professional ice hockey player can skate up to four kilometers during a game—most of it at nearly full-burst, with intensity levels peaking while moving a puck or playing defence. Factor in challenging environments such as humidity and the heat generated by continuous movement, and it is easy to see why hockey players need sufficient energy reserves to get them through a game.

While younger recreational players are not faced with the same pressures, they still require the appropriate levels of carbohydrates and proteins to keep them energized and happy on game day.

Carbohydrates are the single most important energy source for athletes

Carbohydrates are the single most important energy source for athletes: they fuel the muscle contractions necessary to perform sporting actions such as taking a slapshot or making a big save.

Interestingly, carbohydrates also step in and assist the function of the body’s immune system, which is temporarily suppressed during bouts of intense exercise.  Once consumed, carbohydrates break down into small sugars such as glucose.

If all the generated glucose is not immediately used by the body, it is stored by the liver and muscles as glycogen, and will be drawn upon during exercise. The body can only store so much glycogen, and so it is necessary to replenish carbohydrates before every game.

The flip side of this is that too many consumed carbohydrates will exceed the capacity of the glycogen stores and will then be absorbed by the body as pure sugar.

It is important to consider the two different types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.

Complex carbs take longer to digest and are therefore not as readily absorbed by the body, so they provide energy at a slower rate. These include foods such as whole grain breads, breakfast cereals, and rice—anything starchy.

These are the best forms of carbs for fuel storage, and ideally should be eaten within the three hours before a game begins. Stay away from beans, lentils and porridge, as the high fibre in them cannot be digested and used for energy.

Simple carbs are found in fruits such as apples, oranges, and bananas, great “breaktime” snacks that can be rapidly processed and utilized by the body.

Cells in the body contain proteins, which are the building blocks of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood. Proteins are necessary to repair depleted and damaged muscles and tissue, and are therefore extremely important to consume after playing hockey or other sports.

Proteins should be consumed as soon as possible after a game

Protein is required by the body in relatively large amounts, but it cannot be stored, so regular consumption of high quality sources is necessary.

Good proteins come from fish, poultry (without the fatty skin), cheese, peanut butter, almonds, tofu, yogurt, eggs, milk (especially low fat chocolate milk), beans, and small amounts of red meat. Avoid hot dogs, sausages, and deli meats.

Bear in mind that vegetables, fruits and nuts are incomplete proteins, and lack some of the beneficial amino acids of complete proteins.

Proteins should be consumed as soon as possible after a game, in addition to replenishing lost fluids with water, juices and fruit. As with all food consumption, moderation is key:  too much protein will be wasted by the body, and indeed can be harmful, particularly if it’s in the form of fatty red meat.

Taken together, carefully selected sources of proteins and carbohydrates—when eaten at the appropriate times and in the proper amounts—will serve as the powerhouse to give young hockey players the healthy edge they need.

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