Why nutrition is NHL players’ new secret weapon

Philipp Grubauer didn’t feel bad, exactly. He didn’t feel good, either.

The goaltender was merely coasting along during his inaugural season with the Colorado Avalanche in 2018-19, preparing for games as he always had and ignoring — at first — his body’s increasing lethargy.

At the time Grubauer was like most of his NHL peers, wielding a meticulous and well-thought-out pregame routine that didn’t include questioning how — or, more importantly, why — he was eating certain things. Convenience trumped everything.

And then, Grubauer hit a wall.

“I didn’t really pay attention to food my first years in the league. It wasn’t a big thing,” Grubauer told ESPN last month. “But the more I thought about it, I was actually feeling pretty tired [during games]. Like probably around the first or second period, I was usually pretty tired, and I would pump myself full of energy bars and all that [processed] stuff in between periods.

“It probably wasn’t right. But time is really short to cook something at home. By the time you get home from morning skate and have your nap, you almost have to get right back. I needed a way to make food easy so I could focus more on the game.”

It was around then that Grubauer, who now plays for the Seattle Kraken, received a call from Amanda Gyuran. She’s a Denver-based performance chef and co-founder of Elevated Eats, a meal prep service for professional athletes. The two got to talking, and Grubauer thought he had found a perfect solution, someone to design and execute an eating plan with minimal effort required on his part.

He signed on to be Gyuran’s client. It was the first step in an eye-opening journey ahead.

“At first it was just about the food,” Grubauer said. “And then we got rolling and we did a couple of tests, like gut tests and DNA tests where it shows what your body can absorb or what nutrients it can’t absorb. Like, from eating steak, your body might not pull iron out of the steak; it might pull it better out of salmon for example or from a different vegetable. So, from the time Amanda started cooking for me, we got it dialed in a little bit more and more.”

Welcome to the world of designer athlete nutrition. It’s an increasingly popular trend in an industry where longevity is paramount, execution is key and finding the slightest edge can add extra zeros to a paycheck.

GYURAN WORKS WITH players across every major sport, each with their own motivations for seeking out an alternative health approach but with a common goal of maximizing their potential. That requires taking an individual outlook on each person and getting down to the nitty-gritty of what makes their body tick.

“Before anything else, I have all my athletes go through advanced functional lab work with medical and naturopathic doctors,” Gyuran said. “That’s really their blood markers, stool, urine, genetics. That really helps us to customize both the supplements and meal plans we give them based on exactly what’s going on inside. We also test what antioxidants their bodies respond best with, and everyone is so different.”

That might be true on the genetics side. But through uncovering the unique variabilities of each client, Gyuran also found that athletes within certain sports were more alike internally than you’d expect.

“What’s kind of cool is that, especially with hockey players, they have a lot of similar things in their lab work around hormone levels and vitamin deficiencies,” Gyuran said. “It’s the lab work that really makes what we do most effective, because really anyone can make healthy foods for an athlete. But adding in all of these really specific ingredients helps us to give every meal a purpose.”

It’s an approach tailor-made for an athlete’s framework, the same way his skates are sized to an individual foot. When Kylene Bogden, a board-certified sports dietitian and functional nutritionist, was working at Cleveland Clinic early in her career, she began seeing players drawn to that more holistic, progressive approach in addressing not just food issues but overall health concerns.

She recalls one athlete who had no idea he was living with a dairy allergy. His daily bowls of cereal were causing unexplained chronic congestion and fatigue that wouldn’t resolve and ultimately impacted his performance. Bogden discovered the issue via blood work and within a day, she realized, “he could breathe again.”

“You’d see some of these athletes, and they weren’t healthy,” Bogden said. “They were bloated after every meal or they had a face full of acne, eczema, psoriasis, hives. They’re taking [medicine] every day to get through the season because of how crazy their allergies are. This is not OK. We have to dive deeper than this basic surface-level, conventional nutrition approach because it’s one thing to have a low body fat. But if your total body health is not in line, you’ll never reach peak performance, and we need to start making this unique to players.”

Having access to that standard of care and information is a privilege professional athletes have over the average person. Ditto being able to afford services like Gyuran’s that hand-deliver an optimal diet. It’s not a position Grubauer takes being in for granted, especially when the benefits of implementing his assigned changes came about more rapidly than expected.

“I would say [I felt different] in, like, a week,” he said. “Your body has to adjust a little bit, but once you eat the right stuff, your body starts to adapt right away. We were eating better, eating cleaner, and I didn’t have that tiredness anymore. So it started off just with food focus, and then once I got more knowledge behind her food and what she makes and the science behind it, it moved on to a different perspective.”

CALE MAKAR DOESN’T leave anything to chance. Not on the ice, not on his plate.

Colorado’s top-pairing defenseman found Gyuran when he ran up against some new dietary restrictions. Makar aimed to tackle the challenge head-on, and he relied on Gyuran’s adjustments to find a path forward supporting both his body and his play.

Makar was so impressed with the offerings and overall food philosophy that he began shunning some team-provided meals in favor of fueling road trips with Gyuran’s cooking too.

So Gyuran would pack Makar coolers to take with him. Then, rather than risk eating unknown fare in an unfamiliar city, Makar finds access to a microwave and heats up those preferred, pre-prepared dishes.

The reigning Norris and Conn Smythe trophy winner has no regrets.

“I take the pregames on the road, and I love it,” he said. “It can be a little bit of a hassle sometimes, but at the end of the day, I know exactly what I’m putting in my body, and there’s a convenience to it, for sure. It goes to the mental aspect of the game, knowing you don’t have any questions in the back of your mind: Did I do something wrong during the day? Did I not have the same pregame meal?

“You try to maintain and control everything that you can, and for me the diet aspect of it is definitely important.”

Not every athlete will be so fastidious about their eating, but Gyuran has seen a genuine uptick in the number who are. Like Makar, many are driven by mitigating the risk of switching up habits or by run-of-the-mill superstition that what worked well before one game will be the right choice again.

“A lot of the guys use the excuse of, ‘Oh, I’m already bringing so much stuff on the road’ or they don’t care enough to do it,” Gyuran said. “But the ones who do, they want to eat the food custom-made for them. So I vacuum seal meals in a cooler with their pregame meals or snacks in there. They’re getting muffins or recovery electrolyte gummies, or sometimes I’ll pack them up pregame drinks that really help to boost nitric oxide and blood flow and support their energy with beet juice and pomegranate juice. And then I add in specific ingredients based on their labs, whether it was B12 or the mushrooms that can help with energy and endurance.”

Those performance boosters were, until recently, a foreign concept to Makar. He admits to being a “picky eater” for much of his youth and to exploring the many dining hall options available during his first season at the University of Massachusetts in 2017-18.

When Makar arrived in the NHL two years later, he saw that some players were more careful about what they put in their body, and he got an education in the dressing room on how doing the right things nutritionally could lead to better results in his game.

Pivoting to Gyuran’s style of eating made that message hit home.

“Basically, all of my guys eat a Paleo-ish [diet],” she said. “It’s all gluten-free, soy-free and mostly dairy-free, with the exception of eating grass-fed butter and ghee sometimes. It’s refined-sugar-free and mostly grain-free. They’ll have white rice occasionally. But the focus is on high-quality organic grass-fed proteins. Starchy veggies and fruits are the carbohydrate sources. I find that a lot of athletes feel better on that.”

A typical meal for Makar consists of “sweet potato, maybe a little bit of rice, chicken, probably some salmon in there as well, and then usually there’s just some vegetables like a salad or some broccoli just to help digestion,” he said.

It’s a far cry from the stereotypical sustenance players are thought to be downing, such as sauce-laden pasta dishes or regular postgame pizzas. Those are still on the menu for some — and can certainly be seen now and then in the hallways outside an NHL dressing room — but Makar is among those who stick to what’s in his lunchbox.

“If you feel good when you’re eating a certain way, then it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “And in my mind, it’s just, ‘Why give up on that?’ Everybody’s always trying to get better, and that’s the atmosphere that you want. So regardless of if it’s during the game or food-wise, people are always looking for that edge.”

JAMES VAN RIEMSDYK recalls receiving some critical advice early in his career.

“I knew this performance coach years ago,” the Philadelphia Flyers winger said. “And I asked him, ‘What’s the one key thing that you’ve noticed from the guys that have longevity?’ And he goes, ‘They cut out all the bulls—.'”

That could be van Riemsdyk’s new mantra. The 33-year-old is in the latter half of his career and experiences the body changes that come with it. So even though van Riemsdyk gets “great care” from Philadelphia’s staff, he started exploring how to raise the bar in every health category and ensure more good years ahead on the ice.

“What [that coach] meant was that guys who last are very specific and intentional and targeted about what they’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “That’s training on the ice with skill work, but it’s also nutrition, sleep; they have it all in a good spot. You’ve got to know where your core principles should be. Those aren’t necessarily the flashiest things, but I think those are how you get the best results.”

Gyuran, who also works with van Riemsdyk, said the most common feedback she gets after a client switches diets is they “feel lighter and they can recover faster.” That was the most immediate change van Riemsdyk felt after implementing his own new regime, which includes functional mushrooms for focus, sunflower butter cups for a treat and a wide range of cuisines.

“The two biggest improvements are recovery and energy levels,” he said. “And then just how you sleep and how refreshed you feel waking up. I’ve always been into these sorts of things over the years and different edges you can find, whether it’s supplements or nutrition or training. There are different times where you have to get educated about how to support what you want to try to accomplish, and then how you can supplement your recovery and energy and all the good stuff.”

The process itself requires effort, though. Dr. Stephanie Canestraro is a certified functional medicine doctor and founder of the Vagus Clinic, through which she and her staff work with a wide range of athletes. Canestraro earns new clients via word of mouth from players who have shared her method on expanding good overall health. And that can be extensive. So Canestraro has to see where the commitment level is for each individual.

Basically, how bad do they want to feel good?

“We ask, ‘How many supplements are you willing to take?’ And we ask them how intense they want to be,” she said. “Because if a player gets supplement fatigue, they’ll stop. But when we have a full buy-in, we see results really quickly, even from adding one simple thing. A common issue we see is mitochondrial dysfunction. That’s how your cells make cellular energy. So if we do a test and see an area is low, we can add in one change [with a supplement] and they feel [improvement] right away. The more I explain to them why they’re taking each thing, the better they stick to it, and we try to make it as simple as possible.”

Canestraro said players who remove her protocols in the offseason frequently come back once preseason training ramps up again. It can be difficult to stick with the schedule she provides, but that looming issue of longevity — or lack thereof — brings athletes back.

“They know retrospectively that they felt better on the program,” she said. “And it’s a difference for them between potentially millions of dollars by playing better and getting a better contract the next year, or staying in the NHL and not going down to the AHL. So there’s a lot of stakes, and that’s when they’re usually more willing to really commit.”

Grubauer might be one of those well-paid players at the top of his game, but it isn’t lost on the 30-year-old that everyone has a shelf life. It’s worth embracing the Brussels sprouts to extend it.

“The biggest change since [getting a new food plan] is I think it almost cuts the recovery time in half. You have to take care of yourself to have a long career,” he said. “I introduced a lot of teammates to [different food ideas] because they’d go to McDonald’s after the game to get some food versus getting actually a good meal. That’s something that helps their body to recover and be ready for the next day, and that’s good for all of us.”

THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS love blasting music at practice. Behind the scenes, Margaret Hughes is their real master mixologist.

The Leafs’ lead performance dietitian makes it her mission to stave off nutritional boredom for players with an ever-changing playlist of post-workout provisions. It has become Hughes’ thing.

“The guys come off the ice, and I’ve prepared two or three different flavors of recovery shakes,” she said. “They get excited about taking the shake because they don’t know what flavor Margaret has come up with today. I come up with fun names too. I just really try to make food exciting and enjoyable for them as opposed to this traditional vanilla protein shake. In an 82-game regular season, that is going to get old very quickly.”

If there are more options than ever for getting outside help with diet, consider Hughes part of the in-house counsel for Maple Leafs players. About half of the NHL’s 32 clubs have dietitians and nutritionists working daily with players to promote their health goals, whether individually or in tandem with another trusted professional.

“We need to be collaborative,” Hughes said. “Our job is to ensure that every athlete is supported from all angles. My job is basically to complement them and ensure that whatever program is being recommended, I also support that and ensure that the athlete gets the best care that they possibly can. There’s lots of conversations and meetings between many professionals and practitioners.”

Hughes has a wide-ranging role with the Leafs that includes creating menus for the team plane, at hotels on the road and within visiting arenas. Toronto has two cooking staffs — one each at their home and practice rinks — with whom she designs the various plans. Chef Je-Marr Wright is at the helm of bringing Hughes’ culinary visions to life, and he shares her desire to keep things interesting for the players.

“I always try to make sure that September is different than October and then October is always different than November, and that way there’s always a variety of meals,” Wright said. “Players are really conscious about what they put into their body. They’ve definitely taken a big interest in actually knowing what they’re feeding themselves.”

Food is at the heart of Hughes’ focus. On the team side, they’re not providing “pills, powders and potions” so much as fresh fuel for players to choose from that’s readily available when they need it.

“We want to make sure that they’re consuming real food in real time,” she said. “We start with conversations around, ‘What part of the season are we in? What are the training demands? Which individuals may require more carbohydrates, less carbohydrates, more protein, less protein? Is it the day before a game?’

“Then maybe we focus more on carbohydrate-rich foods. Do we have a couple of days in between games? Then we start to look at how we can fit more vegetables and nutrient-dense foods in.”

That includes a keen focus on culturally appropriate meal offerings as well as introducing players to foods they might not have tried before. Wright said he recently added okra to the Leafs’ lunch options, a less familiar vegetable he hoped would land with guys, and perhaps become part of their eating rotation.

It’s a world away from the traditional white-carb-with-a-protein options — which Hughes acknowledges are still a go-to for some — but teams are cognizant of players seeking out nutrition-dense alternatives and have worked hard to provide them.

“The athletes are human, first and foremost. I think my job is to know them as people,” Hughes said. “We have players who come from various cultures, and we also try to understand how ethnic and cultural food preferences or traditional foods fit into their lives. Having access to whatever they need is the best way to optimize an athlete’s nutrition that matches their training demands, at the time that they need it.”

FOOD IS FUEL. Food can also be about pleasure, or having a good time with friends and family.

Even the most dedicated athletes deviate from their meal plan once in a while. But, like Makar making a bad read in front of the net, it doesn’t happen often.

“You allow yourself a few cheat meals,” Makar conceded. “Everybody would be lying if they said you’re eating the exact same way during the summer as you are in the season, for example. But for the most part, you don’t want to lose track of that sense of performance or trust in the eating habits that you have. You never stop doing what you can do to get that edge.”

When Grubauer signed with Seattle in 2021 after three seasons in Colorado (and nearly that long working with Gyuran) it was “really difficult” being in the Pacific Northwest without access to her meal prep. He actively tried bringing her out to cook for him, and she eventually trained someone Seattle-based in her method so there was a person with whom Grubauer and players like him could work.

“In our schedule and with the timeline during the season, you need to eat as well as you can to fuel your body,” Grubauer said. “And you want to get the best nutrition in order to be 100{7b6cc35713332e03d34197859d8d439e4802eb556451407ffda280a51e3c41ac} the next day and perform at the highest level again and do it over and over again. I’m pretty superstitious, so if I felt like I had a good game, I want the same thing again.”

It’s about removing guesswork. Players spend hours studying video of opponents, searching for weaknesses to exploit and advantages to gain. Now that same focus is being turned onto the players themselves. Opening the door to individualized eating is a natural progression of dedication in athletes craving improvement by that proverbial 1{7b6cc35713332e03d34197859d8d439e4802eb556451407ffda280a51e3c41ac} each day.

“I’m in the mindset that doing the right things is going to lead to better results,” Makar said. “And for me, the mental aspect of it and knowing exactly what you put in your body is a big part of it as well. It’s so important to just have all that super figured out and make sure there’s no surprises in terms of eating anything that I can’t control. You can never really go too wrong with that.”