Everyone’s Favorite Friday Night Past Time

Happy Thanksgiving week everyone! For many of us this means being able to gorge ourselves on a hearty spread of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, squash, cranberries, gravy, pie and football. Although for many hockey players, this marks the first big test of the season. Thanksgiving tournaments are big in sports, with teams of all levels playing to make the holiday weekend just a bit sweeter with a championship victory. As a strength and conditioning coach I see Thanksgiving week through a different lens, one loaded with the massive quantities of carbohydrates consumed during the big feast. This week offers a great chance to talk about every player’s favorite Friday night activity, the pasta feed.

Carbohydrate loading , or carbo-loading, is practiced in almost all sports, no matter the age or level. The most common way that players and teams carbo-load is through a pasta feed. For many athletes, the bumps and bruises from earlier in the week disappear after practice on Friday, as the team collectively prepares to annihilate quantities of pasta that are better measured in gallons. When the team arrives at the unlucky hosts’ house, the players turn primal and a feeding frenzy ensues, one reminiscent of a hungry pack of wolves.

Look familiar?

As the team attempts to stuff themselves like a turkey on thanksgiving (I couldn’t resist, I apologize), they all hangout and watch the typical myriad of television – the gopher game, an NHL game, miracle, or a classic movie like “Slapshot” or “Youngblood.”

All of this is fun, but what is really being achieved at a pasta feed?

Carbohydrate loading comes from endurance sports – marathon running, cycling, triathlons, etc. It was used as a means to increase the carbohydrate stores in an endurance athletes muscles so that come race day, they have extra carbohydrates to burn. Quick science lesson #1: Carbohydrates = Energy. So, endurance athletes fed themselves with an extreme amount of food the night before their race in an attempt to increase the amount of energy they had ready to burn the following day during their race. More energy = better performance. Eventually, other sports caught on to the ways of the endurance athletes and thought “if it works for them, why wouldn’t it work for us?” Thus began the time of carbo-loading in hockey; because, who wouldn’t benefit from a little extra stored energy? Funny thing is, endurance athletes and hockey players are nothing alike.

Exhibit A

Dustin-Byfuglien-wmWilson Kipsang

I don’t know about you but I got my money on Byfuglien.

Why then did the hockey community adopt such a practice? Because the endurance athletes had proven information backing up their reasoning. Here’s what it was:

– The body does not like to be low on energy.

– The body stores enough carbohydrates to supply energy for roughly an hour of continuous exercise. After an hour, the body depletes its carbohydrate stores and must rely on its stored fat and protein for energy.

– Unlike carbohydrates, the body does not store fat and protein to be used for energy when needed. The fat and protein must be mobilized, or taken from another source, before they can be used for energy.

– Having to rely on protein and fat for energy presents two problems for athletes – 1) They are slower to be turned into energy, and 2) They require oxygen to be used as energy.

– This means that fat and protein cannot supply energy to the muscles as fast as carbohydrates, and the athlete must be working at a low enough intensity to be able to use fat and protein as energy.

– Put the two together and we get an athlete who can only work at about 75% intensity. Sprinting? Forget about it. Jogging is as fast as that athlete is going to move.

With this logic its easy to see why hockey adopted this practice. It makes sense…… on paper.

Thing is, hockey is nothing like endurance sports, and most hockey players are not going to see over 25 minutes of ice time in any given night. Sure, goalies play an entire game, but how often is a goalie moving constantly for a full three periods? Even if they were, high school games only last 51 minutes, and college and pro games end after 60. Factor in the period breaks and there is no possible way that a hockey player is constantly moving for over one hour.

So, does a hockey player need to carbo-load? No.

Carbo-loading could potentially be detrimental to a hockey player’s performance. Quick science lesson #2: Carbohydrates draw water. When carbohydrates are ingested and stored, water is stored as well.  Water being stored is not necessarily bad; we need to be hydrated to play well. Unfortunately for us water is heavy. With large amounts of carbohydrates being consumed (say, during a pasta feed) and the resulting large amounts of water being stored, our body weight increases. A player who is heavier because they are full of water is going to be a slower player, and a slower player is a less effective player.

Update on carbo-loading: The scene of carbo-loading is changing. Information has come out recently on a better way to carbo-load. The New York Times wrote an article on this new carbo-loading technique, and in it they reference a study that came out of the University of Minnesota (represent!). Read it here if you want. Again, this was tested on marathon runners, not hockey players.

 Coming back to our question – What is really being achieved at a pasta feed?

Camaraderie. Community. Chemistry. Pasta feeds are great for building team chemistry. They present a time where the team can come together outside of the rink and get to know each other even better. Teams are built away from the rink, and successful teams are close teams. Successful teams play for each other, and they share a sense of camaraderie, community, and chemistry.

Think about these things at your next pasta feed. I’m not saying you need to starve yourself, but maybe reconsider before you go for your fifth plate of rigatoni. Maybe talk to a teammate you don’t know as well as you’d like to. Maybe stay a little longer. Enjoy your time there and build the sense of community with your team. The closest teams are successful teams, and they are also the most fun teams.

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