Even for youth hockey players in peak physical condition and with seemingly limitless energy, these are the season’s dog days.
For months, they’ve been balancing school and hockey, often with little time in between. It’s fun, sure, but even for a 14U/16U player, it can be a grind. And in the midst of peak cold-and-flu season, particularly in cold-weather states, their young bodies are in danger of breaking down in multiple ways.
Fortunately, this doesn’t have to happen. Dave Ellis, a longtime sports dietician who helped USA Hockey develop nutrition guidelines for youth players, parents and coaches, says there are preventative measures that can help growing 14U/16U players thrive during what can be a difficult time of the season.
Boosting Immune System
One of the biggest keys in the winter, Ellis says, is making sure to keep the immune system as strong as it can be. That means simple things like being extra diligent about washing hands and making sure to get enough sleep.
But it also means proper nutrition – particularly the fruits and vegetables that boost immune health.
“Eating fresh produce with their meals – getting fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and healthy fats and nutrients that are anti-oxidant rich that give our immune system some resistance – that’s job one, whether it’s an NHL team or a 14U/16U team,” Ellis says.
Ellis acknowledges that it can be a challenge for adolescent athletes who are pinched for time and still might not have an instinctive taste for fruits and vegetables. Fast food often comes up short, Ellis said, but he singled out Subway and Chipotle as quick options that provide enough healthy add-ons to get the job done.
Burgers and fries? Not so much, and the consequences are stark.
“The immune system becomes vulnerable as a result,” Ellis says. “Kids miss practice and their attention span becomes terrible.”
Staying healthy isn’t just a matter of not getting sick, though. It also means keeping up optimal strength during a long season when it can be easy for a growing athlete with rapid-fire metabolism to lose weight and muscle.
Ellis derides what he calls “bro science – a local gym dreaming up a narrative rather than following the research.” When it comes to staying strong, it’s a matter of being prepared and following simple rules of what to eat. Chief among those rules is eating often and not skipping meals.
“When you’re competing against rapid vertical growth and the energy on the ice, these kids can only get so much food down at one time,” he says. “So if they’re meal skippers, they’re going to come up short. Their daily needs can’t be met.”
Ideally, Ellis says, 14U/16U players will eat three meals a day and up to three snacks that focus on quick but healthy protein and energy. He recommends trail mix for quick calories, beef jerky or string cheese for portable protein and a good energy bar as a quick source of either carbs, protein or both. Even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a great option, Ellis says.
“It’s important to fill that gap between lunch and the start of practice. I think that it’s really critical for young, growing active athletes to net off enough intakes over the course of a day to support total calorie demands,” Ellis says. “There are a host of problems that come with lack of sleep and binge eating … and certainly they shed body mass along the way.”
Proper nutrition for 14U/16U hockey players can be aided by coaches, which is part of the reason USA Hockey commissioned Ellis to produce a set of video modules on the organization’s website.
Ellis said he received overwhelmingly positive feedback from coaches who watched the modules, saying USA Hockey is “ahead of the curve” when it comes to education. But coaches can – and should – only do so much, Ellis says. Those modules are also helpful resources for parents and athletes, helping unify a family along the right path even during hectic days.
“The execution is really where the rubber meets the road,” Ellis says. “When you have two working parents, sometimes everyone is holding on for dear life when it comes to getting some kind of meal on the table.”
But when families can plan ahead and work together on proper nutrition, Ellis says, it’s a positive approach from which everyone can benefit.
“Rather than the parents harping, it’s ‘hey, this is what USA Hockey is putting out there’ and families are trying to do a better job,” Ellis says. “There’s always a part where they comply and then get into ruts. But it’s a life-changing thing when you can navigate our food supply without confusion.”