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Gary Roberts Performance
November 27, 2023
Whether you're training to play hockey competitively or just working to stay fit enough to compete in your weekly pick-up games, eating enough protein is critical for gaining and maintaining lean muscle mass. Lean muscle mass is vital for athletic performance and longevity, and lifting weights alone is not enough to retain and gain adequate lean muscle mass.
Consuming adequate protein is a huge problem in the hockey world, and it happens at all levels. Players often think that they only need to drink a protein shake after a hard skate or training session, and they're good. But, what else are you consuming during the day to ensure you're hitting your protein requirements for your goals? When are you timing those meals? What are your sources of protein?
These are all critical questions that every hockey player should be paying attention to when thinking about protein intake.
What is Protein?
Protein is one of the three primary macronutrients: carbohydrates, fat, and protein. We'll discuss the other two in future articles, but we wanted to start with protein because of its importance for both young and old athletes.
In the past, athletes would focus on carbohydrates and fat intake to increase performance, often neglecting protein. But, recent research has shown that protein is critical for performing to the best of your abilities. This is in addition to being the primary macronutrient for enhancing muscle hypertrophy and strength.
Protein is composed of a series of long-chain amino acids - organic molecules - that are required to build muscle within the body. These amino acids are classified into two primary categories. **There is an exception to this rule but for today's discussion, we'll keep it simple.**
Essential and Non-Essential refers to the body's ability to create amino acids naturally. Non-Essential amino acids can be made through internal processes, while Essential amino acids cannot. This means that you must acquire your Essential AAs through your diet, which means consuming protein.
Importance of Protein for Muscle Development
As a competitive hockey player maintaining skeletal muscle mass is critical for performance. It allows you to accelerate to loose pucks, battle on the boards, and stand someone up in the neutral zone. Maintaining that muscle mass throughout your lifespan is also critical for preserving metabolic health/longevity, and eating adequate protein is one thing that allows that to happen.
Skeletal muscle mass is regulated through a pair of processes, muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and muscle protein breakdown (MPB). How you train, compete, rest, and eat will all affect how your body fluctuates between those two processes. Training hard will cause an increase in MPB while eating enough protein and recovering will have a positive effect on MPS. As a hockey player, you're aiming for a net positive MPS.
Every protein source contains a slightly different amino acid profile, and not all amino acids are created equal when it comes to muscle building.
Leucine deserves a special mention for its impact on muscle mass, protein synthesis, tissue regeneration, and metabolism.
Research shows that protein with higher leucine content positively affects MPS and hypertrophy. In addition, there is evidence that leucine may also inhibit muscle tissue breakdown, making it even more valuable for hockey players trying to stay on top of their game.
Outside of supplementation, there are also many foods that you can look to incorporate into your diet containing higher levels of leucine to help build lean muscle mass.
Canned Navy Beans
Lean muscle mass also significantly impacts longevity, and several studies have examined how increased muscle mass affects all-cause mortality. Put simply, the more lean muscle mass you have, the less likely you are to die from any cause.
As you age, it becomes more difficult to add muscle mass, which is why it's important to eat adequate protein and leucine to support your training. This is true to support both strength training and aerobic-based sessions.
How much protein should you consume?
These numbers function as a general guideline and seem consistent across multiple publications, but they will vary slightly based on individual training load and requirements.
Daily Hockey Player Protein Guidelines
The amount of protein will vary slightly depending on the time of year – in-season vs. off-season – and each hockey player's individual goals,
In the off-season - or during a heavy training phase - you may want to look to increase daily protein consumption to the higher end of the range. This is because the total MPB will increase with the additional strength training time.
We often notice that the players often don't eat enough protein to support their training. We've included some basic calculations below to illustrate. You can perform them with your body weight to get an accurate idea of requirements.
Protein Calculations for Hockey Players
The average NHL player is 200 lbs or 91 kg.
Protein Consumption – 1.6-2.2 g /kg/day
91 x 1.6 = 145.6 g/day (High End)
91 x 2.2 = 200.2 g/day (Low End)
This means that a 200lb hockey player will need to consume between 145-200 grams of protein per day. For context, the average chicken breast will provide you with 31 grams of protein.
GR TIP - Include protein with every meal and snack to help you hit your daily target.
When to consume your protein has been widely debated in the nutrition field over the past several decades. You may have heard about the anabolic window. This is the period immediately after training when your muscles begin to repair themselves from the session. The theory is that the first 30 minutes following a workout are the most important for replenishing the body and increasing protein synthesis.
Although there is some merit to these claims, they have oversimplified the biological process. Aragon and Schoenfeld performed an extensive review and concluded that 'there is a lack of evidence to support a narrow "anabolic window of opportunity" whereby protein needs to be consumed in immediate proximity to the exercise bout to maximize muscular adaptations.'
If there is an anabolic window, it appears to be much larger than believed previously. It seems that total daily protein intake is more important than merely consuming it after a workout. There is also evidence that shows a significant rise in muscle growth and recovery when consuming protein pre-workout. This is likely because of the amino acids available during and immediately after training before you eat your next meal.
If you're worried about potential digestive issues, a quality amino acid mix that's high in leucine is another pre-workout nutrition option to help you make those gains.
Here's a quick recap of the article takeaways:
Lean muscle mass matters.
Leucine is the most important amino acid for muscle building.
Aim for 1.6-2.2 g/kg of body weight each day.
Total protein intake is more important than an anabolic window.
Protein pre-workout may help to improve protein synthesis.
Schoenfeld, B.J., Aragon, A.A. & Krieger, J.W. The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Int Soc Sports Nutr10, 53 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-10-53