How to eat and work out like NHL stars: 8 tips from an NHL strength and conditioning coach
Dry January is a memory. The loaded nachos and wings of the Super Bowl party were consumed, as were the cream-filled chocolate bonbons on Valentine’s Day.
By now, New Year’s resolutions centered on health and wellness are likely to have encountered resistance. Bill Burniston has a theory.
“I think people fail to create their ‘why,’” said Burniston, the Carolina Hurricanes’ strength and conditioning coach. “We need to figure out exactly why we’re doing it. That ‘why’ has got to be big enough. I think that’s where we fall short.”
Meanwhile, Burniston’s charges have not slipped when it comes to personal health. Perhaps because the Hurricanes’ ‘why’ is clearly defined.
Winning the Stanley Cup is one of the five organizational principles Burniston cites, with the number correlating to a Category 5 hurricane: care, consistency, compete, culture and championship. Burniston sees the Hurricanes work toward their goal daily, from star defenseman Brent Burns to 52-year-old coach Rod Brind’Amour.
“That’s a guy that’s in the gym every day. I’m certainly not telling him what he needs to do,” Burniston said of Brind’Amour. “He’s in great shape, and he works at it. That’s where the consistency comes in. There’s not a guy in our locker room more consistent than Rod Brind’Amour. The guy doesn’t miss a workout.”
Because of his work, we asked Burniston for his advice on how us mortals can get back on track with the goals we set in January. He had an eight-point plan.
1. Define your objective
“Why are you doing it?” Burniston asked. “Why do you feel you need to exercise? Is it because aesthetically, you want to look better? Is it because you want longevity? Is there a health reason that’s making you start? Once you find that ‘why,’ I think that’s probably the most important thing.”
2. Be patient and consistent with eating and exercise habits
“We live in a society where you have instant everything,” Burniston said. “You have instant popcorn, instant email, instant messaging, instant oatmeal. Everything you want comes right at you. But you have to work at certain things. Health is something you have to work at. It’s not just a once-in-a-while thing. You have to be consistent over and over and over with it.”
3. Start small
Burniston noted that the Hurricanes’ nutrition and exercise routines are just that: routine. They are not sprinting from 0 to 60 when it comes to achieving NHL-level fitness. They are following year-round lifestyles.
Where normal people get into trouble, in comparison, is going full gas in January. Such a pace is not sustainable.
“If you haven’t been in the gym for X amount of years, if you haven’t been working out in X amount of years, don’t try and do it seven days a week,” Burniston said.
Acquaintances regularly request that Burniston write them training programs. He does not always consent. Instead, he asks them to start a routine. If they can go to the gym for 10 days straight and ride the bike, then he’ll devise a program.
“Everybody thinks the program is what’s going to drive them,” Burniston said. “That’s not true. It’s got to be an internal drive. The program isn’t going to help you. Everybody can get on a stationary bike for 20 minutes. It’s your habits that are the most important thing. That’s why you’ve got to start small when you start a training program or New Year’s resolution. Start small and build on that.”
4. Think about food as fuel
On game day at home, the Hurricanes start with breakfast. After the morning skate, they’ll have a pregame meal with an emphasis on carbohydrates. Before the game, they’ll eat a snack.
Once the game begins, food is available between periods for short-term energy boosts. After games, recovery shakes will be waiting for the players at their stalls. Following postgame workouts and showers, players eat team-prepared dinners at PNC Arena.
All of those calories are meant to optimize on-ice performance and off-ice recovery. The Hurricanes are not eating for entertainment.
“You have to change your mindset into making it more for fuel than for pleasure,” Burniston said.
5. Practice portion control
The NHL is known as the “Never Hungry League.” Food is available everywhere, from the players’ lounge to the plane to the dressing room. Even if they’re burning calories, players have to be mindful about how much they’re eating.
To that end, Burniston emphasizes portion control. He likes to use the hand method to measure serving size: the palm for protein, the fist for carbohydrates, cupped hands held together for fruits or vegetables, the thumb for fat.
6. Have a training plan
In the summer, players follow customized programs to prepare for the season. Workouts often include 90 minutes of hard, focused work.
During the season, gym sessions can last as little as 15 minutes. Maintenance and injury prevention are prioritized.
But in each case, players follow programs. The general public should do the same.
“You can’t just go into a gym with no plan,” Burniston said. “You can’t just walk in there and say, ‘I’m going to get something done today,’ because you’ll be overwhelmed. You’ve got to get a plan and stick to your plan.”
7. Take time off wisely
The Hurricanes, like every team, are mandated to take four days off per month. Any more is a coaching decision. Brind’Amour is liberal with rest days to optimize physical and mental replenishing.
The same philosophy should apply to the general public when it comes to workouts to avoid burnout. But rest should be productive.
“Are you going to the bar and having a bunch of drinks? Because that’s counterproductive,” Burniston said. “But are you going to do some meditation? Are you going to do some reading? Are you just going to relax? Are you going to allow your body to recover? That’s what the most important thing is: What are you going to do with that day off?”
8. Be mindful about alcohol
Drinks are empty calories. Also, research is showing that booze disrupts recovery.
“Your heart rate variability changes,” Burniston said. “Your resting heart rate changes. It’s really amazing to see what the effect of alcohol has on your system. To say that people should certainly avoid it, that’s probably the best answer. But there are times when socially, we want to have a drink. It needs to be done in moderation for sure.”
(Photo of Jonathan Marchessault: Andy Devlin / NHLI via Getty Images)