Like all mainstream sports with multimillion dollar rosters, fueling players for performance in basketball is big business. Take the NBA, with 82 games in the regular season to prepare for and recover from, nutrition has become vital to player recovery, with a focus on maximizing player availability and minimizing injury risk.
For these organizations, investment in nutrition is directly related to team success. Today, one-third of the top American teams employ at least one full-time nutritionist who leads their entire player nutrition strategy. Other organizations prefer to retain consulting nutritionists, while a few teams go one further, employing additional staff with focused expertise on culinary or performance nutrition. Whatever their preference, they all have one goal: To ensure that players (especially high minute players) meet the energy demands of training and games and recover optimally to perform game after game throughout the season and hopefully into play offs.
AN OVERVIEW OF A BASKETBALL PLAYER’S TYPICAL DAILY DIET
Generally, players eat 5 – 7 times per day at regular intervals, taking in anywhere from 3,000-6,000 kcal/day to optimize recovery, fuel for games and training, and to stay healthy.
Given the size and weight of most athletes, it is unsurprising that they eat 2 – 4x the amounts of an average person. For context, a player will require a 6 – 8+ oz. cooked portion of protein or meat whereas a standard portion size is around 3 oz. Depending on the training demands of that day and the next, players may eat 2 – 4 cups of starchy carbs such as yams or rice in a single meal. The average person may only need ½ to 1 cup.
Players will routinely supplement with smoothies before and after training and before bed to achieve their daily macronutrient amounts. As fancy as smoothie recipes can get, the basic strawberry banana smoothie is by far the flavor of choice across the league.
Simple strawberry and banana smoothie recipe:
SiS Whey (1 – 2+ servings)
Base of water, milk, or milk alternative
20 – 40 g vanilla whey protein
1 – 2 bananas (frozen or fresh)
2 – 4 cups organic strawberries (frozen or fresh)
Option according to goals: Avocado, coconut oil
Training days usually begin early, and players are eating breakfast at the training facility by 8 or 9 am. The team chef or culinary team will have breakfast ready, which will include individualized pre-training smoothies to provide players with extra nutrients or supplements that may benefit health, performance or be indicated from more in-depth blood work.
Nutrition needs for breakfast vary with training load, which is diligently monitored and tailored for each player to achieve these key nutrition needs:
- Fuel to support training demands and adaptations in the weight room and court
- Protein to support adaptation and recovery (1.7 – -2.2+g/kg/day),
- High dietary antioxidant intake to support immune system function
Example player breakfast:
Breakfast wrap (3 – 5+ eggs or eggs/white mix, spinach, tomatoes in sprouted grain wrap)
Mixed fruit bowl
Smoothie with whey protein, creatine (~5 g daily) fruit, milk, or milk alternative
Collagen Shot about 40 – 60min before training
Some players may use a pre-workout with caffeine, beta alanine and quick digesting carbohydrate on some training days.
Training loads vary player to player and day to day with game exposure, injury prevention, and areas for player development influencing individual programming. Daily training may include court, weights, mobility and pre-hab work.
Lighter day: Water or water with electrolytes
Heavier day: Carbohydrates and water
Carbohydrate in the form of chews are some players’ favorite easy-to-digest carb sources on the court. To fuel heavier days 30 – 60 g carb per hour of training is recommended.
POST TRAINING AND TREATMENT
Smoothies tailored to players’ weight and body composition goals
Basics: 0.3 – 0.5 g protein/kg bodyweight, 0.5 – 1.2 g carbohydrate/kg plus nutrients such as omegas or probiotics may be added into smoothies.
LUNCH AT FACILITY
Culinary services differ from team to team, but focus is on recovery, rehydrating and refueling.
Many players take their lunch to go. They spend a lot of time at the training facility or on the road so it is nice to maximize time at home, when possible. Salmon is a popular choice for many players and a balanced lunch may look like salmon (6 – 8 oz.), quinoa and rice pilaf (2 – 4 cups), roasted mixed vegetables.
Usually comprised of fruit and protein
Energy dense options, like almond, may also be recommended for players that struggle to consistently hit energy needs.
The rest of the day is up to the player to make optimal nutrition choices, either by ordering out, enjoying family-cooked meals, or a personal chef service. Some players even make time to enjoy time in the kitchen and cook for themselves. The team nutritionist may be integral in educating the player or chef on food choices, portions and strategies.
Nutrition recommendations are adjusted to account for:
- Typical game minutes played
- Body composition goals and body size
- Injury prevention or return to play
- Player development level
PRE-BED FEED (30-60 MIN PRIOR TO SLEEP)
Focus on protein (0.3 – 0.5 g protein/kg bodyweight) to promote overnight protein synthesis.
With 2 – 3 games per week, travel days are incorporated into training days, presenting further challenges for nutritionists. Nutrition routines are also adapted for game days and off-days, and they often have to plan for up to three-hour time differences depending on which city the team is traveling to.
For a 7 pm tip-off, players build a game day routine guided by either home or away game logistics and whether there is a shootaround in the morning. On the road, players may grab a little extra sleep and have a lighter breakfast consisting of omelet or a smoothie before a shootaround followed by brunch. Pre-game meals are eaten ~ 4 hours before tip-off and customized for each player by the culinary team or an expansive meal service provided on the road to allow players to maintain pre-game routine.
How a player fuels before a game is determined by how many minutes they are expected to play.
Players will tend to eat two full meals before the game with a series of snacks to ensure they are adequately fueled.
High-minute players may eat a high-carb, easy-to-digest food or drink. A favorite with the Golden State Warriors is popcorn, and every home game at the Chase Center has scent of organic popcorn popped in coconut oil in the player lounge.
During warm-up players will drink water, electrolytes or carbohydrate/electrolyte mix with high minute players aiming for ~ 30 – 60 g carbohydrate. Most players choose water and water/electrolytes during the game as time on court tends to max out at ~ 40 minutes and very few players clock this time. 20 –25 min is considered average for a high-minute player, so the need for massive amounts of fuel during play is not high if they are properly fueled going into the game.
Away game dinner is provided post-game at the arena and/or on the plane. Chefs will get creative for post-game meals with diverse themes such as a Caribbean grill or Greek themed menus. Some players will head home to eat with their family post game.
THE CHALLENGE FOR TEAM NUTRITIONISTS
Nutrition requirements of players cannot be achieved with a one-size-fits-all solution. For example, when a rookie needs to put on lean mass as part of their development, nutritionists work with culinary teams to find ways of increasing macronutrients and calories without simply resorting to just adding more food volume. This could be extra nuts and seeds integrated into recipes or using liquid nutrition (such as smoothies) between meals, including starchier vegetables such as yams instead of leafy greens, and adding fats such as avocado and olive oil to meals.
Rookies generally come into the league with a low level of performance nutrition knowledge but are eager to use all opportunities to improve their game. More veteran players may have very set nutrition routines that have worked for them for years, and often it is the nutritionist learning from the veterans about the culture and habits around fueling the NBA and improving player health and performance.
A HOLISTIC APPROACH
It is important to realize that players’ food systems have a history of culture and knowledge that influence food choices. A glass of wine may be a way a player winds down after a game; waffles with liberal amounts of maple syrup are something a nutritionist cannot take away; Chick-fil-A is a popular quick bite for the younger guys. Therefore, while every food choice 365 days a year may not be considered ‘fueling for performance,’ we try to ensure that the best food choices are made when it counts. Fueling a high-performance player involves a holistic approach that is tailored to each player.
Dana Lis an internationally recognized high-performance sport dietitian with expansive experience at the Professional, Olympic, National and International levels. She has and continues to work extensively with world-class athletes and teams, including the Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors, Israel Premier Tech, Tibco SVB, Canadian National Swim Team, Snowboard Canada and Canada Cyclisme.