Dr. Mike Houston , PhD – Expert in Performance and Nutrition
As a professor at Virginia Tech University in the US, Dr. Mike Houston works daily on the science of nutrition. In between his lectures and the writing of the third edition of his book, Dr. Houston took time to speak with The Hockey Source and give his input on nutrition and its impact on minor hockey.
THS : Mike, before we begin, can we address the following topics as myth or fact?
Dr. H : Sure.
THS : Players say, “chocolate bars give me a boost.” Is there any truth to this statement?
Dr. H : Before I answer, you should know that players are better off with some real foods that provide quick energy as well as nutrients, such as orange juice and a banana. As for giving a boost, in an extreme case, like a tournament and there are many games in a short time frame - eating one acts like a source of energy not as food you should have always. It does take less time to digest a chocolate bar than a meal and in this case can be used as an emergency source of energy.
THS : Are sport drinks better than water?
Dr. H : Yes they are. The reason is they have sodium and carbohydrates in them. The key to their effectiveness is when to drink them.
THS : Is taking a supplement the only way to get stronger and bigger?
Dr. H : We should first clarify what we mean by supplements since there are so many different kinds. There are thousands of products available, most are highly advertised. A subclass of these is promoted as absolutely necessary to achieve large muscle size and strength. These products are high in whole protein, essential amino acids or single amino acids. The second category would be supplements providing a range of essential nutrients to ensure that we have an optimum supply of vitamins and minerals in our bodies. While there is no doubt that being stronger is helpful in playing hockey, the key question is how to do this. A vast array of research data supports the view that the best way to get stronger and bigger is resistance training, a great diet and proper rest. The expensive bodybuilding supplements, so heavily promoted are not very effective. Too often they are advertised using someone who has employed illegal and unethical techniques to achieve their muscle mass. We know that these dangerous practices work, but with ever more rigorous testing and research evidence pointing out the long term dangers with the use of these products, no athlete should consider them.
As for taking anything, multi-vitamins are a good way to ensure that you are getting adequate minerals and vitamins. A vitamin-mineral supplement on top of a great diet may mean you are getting excess nutrients, but our bodies safely get rid of most of the nutrients when our ability to store them has been reached. The vitamin mineral supplement is a form of insurance for hard-working athletes.
It is important to emphasize that, while we can store an excess of some essential nutrients, such as vitamins A and D, for most, our bodies have little capacity to store an excess. An example I use in my class is - if I have an 8 oz glass that is filled with 8 oz of water and I add another 4 oz to it - how much do I have? The response is 8 oz. Then I ask, if I have only 2 oz. in the 8 oz. glass and add 4 oz, what do I have? The response is 6 oz. The idea is to take a multi vitamin and have more than you need than not enough and be short.
THS : Mike, you have been doing this for 40 years, how do we make this subject more interesting for people?
Dr. H : Think of it this way, you would not put crappy gas in a race car would you? Players with long careers take advantage of what they can. Nutrition is part of their training and growth as a player just like doing certain exercises or drills. In the past, elite players got by essentially on talent alone. Things have changed so much now. A player who aspires to be the best he/she can be must work at his/her game year round. This means constant attention to what they are putting into their bodies, along with intense off season training and working on skill weaknesses.
THS : So, is it more important to eat right or eat at the right time in terms of fueling the body for games and practices?
Dr. H : Both eating right and eating at the right time are key. Hockey is a carbohydrate fuel activity. Most of this fuel is stored in muscles as glycogen, which is simply a huge molecule (polymer) composed of individual glucose molecules. Glucose is the sugar in the blood. During intense activities, we use muscle glycogen at a rapid rate. I am sure all players can recall a very long game or practice when they simply had the feeling that there was no more ‘fuel in the tank’. This coincides with a depletion of muscle glycogen. To play and practice well, it is essential to replace muscle glycogen with carbohydrates we get in our food. To completely refill a depleted muscle glycogen fuel tank requires about 24 hours.
We also need to mention blood sugar, known as blood glucose. Active muscles can also use blood glucose at a rapid rate. While there is less than 10 grams of glucose in the blood at any time, it is replaced as rapidly as it is used by release from stores in the liver. Complete and utter fatigue by an athlete would accompany a depletion of muscle glycogen, depletion of liver glycogen and a decline in blood glucose concentration. You have probably seen pictures or video of athletes who are completely exhausted of carbohydrate supplies in muscles, liver and blood. Such people stagger, weave or fall down. They cannot perform.
The key to fueling the hockey player is to eat the right foods, that is those containing lots of carbohydrates and to eat them at the right time to optimize muscle and liver stores. These principles are especially important when games and practices are held on a daily basis. For those who play or practice only 2-4 times a week, concern about carbohydrate though important, is less critical.
THS: Let me get this straight. If it takes about 24 hours to fill the empty muscle glycogen, that is carbohydrate stores, shouldn’t an athlete start on this as soon as possible?
Dr. H: This is a great question. Yes, starting to fill the empty glycogen tank as soon as possible is critical. There are two reasons for saying this. First, if it takes about 24 hours to fill the tank, the earlier you start the better. Second, the ability of the formerly active muscles to take up carbohydrate and store this as glycogen is especially acute immediately after the game or practice. By starting really early following the intense activity, you can shorten the filling time or actually put more in the tank.
THS : What about the big meal before a game. People are rushing around today, what if they don’t have time to eat big meals, what can they do?
Dr. H : I have a saying - I call it Houston’s rule. It goes like this, what you eat before your activity won’t improve the way you play, but it will definitely have the potential of screwing it up. How many readers can recall trying to do something active following a big meal? It is really difficult. Well the same idea applies to the pre-game meal. The closer you get to your activity the less you should eat. If you have 4 hours plus you can eat a meal, less than an hour you would want to eat some fruit, a sports bar or some sports drink or just drink water.
THS : Let’s talk about nutrition in 2 categories: Food and Liquids. We’ll start with food. What would you say are 3 most important things to know about proper eating?
Dr. H : As mentioned, hockey is fueled by carbohydrates. Therefore, the diet should emphasize carbohydrate-rich foods such as breads, cereals, pasta, fruits and many vegetables. Second, elite hockey players train and practice a lot. They need good sources of high quality proteins to grow and repair muscle. Many foods contain protein, but some of these are also high in fat. Therefore athletes need to consider protein in lean meat, fish, dairy products, nuts and beans. The third point is to consider is: is it is too easy to get fat? An athlete should attempt to minimize fat-rich foods. We can easily recognize fat in meats and in oils, but there are a lot of hidden fats. Fries and potato chips are high in fats, along with fried foods. We all need some fat in the diet, but too often we get a lot more than we need. Since hockey is a carbohydrate fuel activity, by decreasing the intake of fat-rich foods, we are more likely to eat those loaded with carbohydrates.
Hockey is played in a carbohydrate ‘demand’ area of the body. Hockey is speed. By eating fat, mobility is slowed. Nutrition is simple – you know it intuitively. Make sure that there are more carbohydrates in the body to support you.
THS : Looking at nutrition for a parent, what do I want to know as a mom or dad?
Dr. H : On any given day, if there is little or no activity, then there is no energy crisis so regular meals are fine. Again, variety is very important - making sure that grains, fruit, veggies, dairy and starches are eaten daily. If there is a lot of activity day after day, like a tournament, then they need to carry a food pack like a bagel, banana, and juice and eat this in between games. The important thing is that they consume the least amount of fat possible. As mentioned, it takes about 24 hours to refill the muscles after extensive activity like hockey. So it’s crucial to consume as close to the end of the activity as possible. The sooner you start the better.
THS : I have been reading all about these different diets and food plans. What is the importance of food combining?
Dr. H : For years, we have heard that we should only eat certain foods at any time or that we should avoid combining certain foods. Nutrition and learning about foods on the body’s performance is an evolution and I have been studying this for 40 years. I have found no reputable source that demands that certain foods cannot be combined or that we must eat only a select group of foods at any time. Our digestive system is built to handle a variety of foods at once. In many cases, the variety improves our abilities to recover nutrients from foods. In our digestive tract, a wide array of digestive enzymes breaks down food constituents. These are then absorbed into the intestinal cells using a wide variety of specific transporters. Variety is good.
There is one point I do want to address. The low carbohydrate diet or Atkins-type diet is absolutely terrible for a hockey player. These diets restrict the very fuel on which hockey is played. Athletes who desire to cut back on body fat should slightly restrict the amount of food they eat each day, but especially cut back on fat intake.
THS : Let’s switch to fluids. What should people know?
Dr. H : As a parent you should know how your son or daughter loses sodium and water when they sweat. While sweat is primarily water, the amount of sodium in sweat may be different from one person to the next. A simple way to find out is to weigh your child or yourself before and after an activity like a practice. This will show how much liquid they lose. The weight difference is primarily sweat and this fluid must be replaced. The sweat from each person has different levels of sodium in it. I learned this personally the hard way. A few years ago I hiked up a mountain in Arizona over a whole day. Although I drank water and some sports drink, when I finished I felt awful. I subsequently learned that I was suffering from hyponatria or low blood sodium. I lose a lot of sodium in my sweat, especially during initial exposure to a hot environment. Now, I drink sports drinks with a little extra salt added to it to accommodate my high sweat sodium losses. As recent research has shown us, water alone is not good enough especially for prolonged activities. Drinking too much pure water will cause low blood sodium. Everyone is different. So there is no one answer for all.
THS : This is a huge topic and not one that we can address in one interview. What do you want everyone in hockey to know about nutrition to get the most out of themselves?
Dr. H : Eat a variety of foods that are a good for you. This is very simple. Everyone knows it intuitively and knows there is no one answer for everyone. A proper meal usually has a variety in it.
THS : Mike, thank you for your time today.
Dr. H : My pleasure.