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Fueling the Basketball Player: A Practitioner’s Guide

My first exposure to elite basketball as a practitioner was at courtside and I can tell you, the experience is incomparable – the accuracy, reaction time and decision-making abilities of players at this level is almost super-human.

From the culture to the technical language, the sport was new to me and although I was confident in the technicalities of fueling elite basketball players, I was a long way off from practical success in optimizing individualized performance nutrition in the league. It was going to be a steep learning curve.

Fifteen years ago, as a new practitioner, I would have jumped in headfirst, actioning everything I could to demonstrate the impact of nutrition. But I found a sweet spot in fueling this sport at the top level and now my approach is more considered and reflective.

Once you have witnessed from courtside an absolutely faultless Steph Curry nailing endless threes or been eye-level to observe the incredible synergy between teammates, you realize that fueling basketball players, particularly at the elite level, requires an approach as unique as the teams and players in the same league.

A good friend and fellow practitioner refers to nutrition practice in the league as polishing statues. Alongside technical knowledge and a contemplative approach, trust and patience are integrated into nutrition strategy to win in this league, with little to no room for mistakes if you want to keep your position.

Unlike endurance sport, such as cycling, where you can measure every pedal RPM and fuel accordingly, it is more difficult to measure the impact of nutrition in basketball performance. I am selling-out my profession by saying this, but a top player may still shoot a 30-point game whether their pregame meal was fried chicken or a balanced macronutrient-dense plate.

However, where nutrition really starts to set players and teams apart is cumulative. With 82 games in the regular season that includes weekly airplane travel for eight or nine months, recovery, fatigue, load tolerance, responsiveness to training and game stimulus and illness and injury are imperative. As teams are businesses, franchises are increasingly recognizing nutrition support’s high return on investment.

 

Culinary Team

While franchises operate differently in terms of priorities and budgets, food service across many teams is out of this world. I hesitate to label the culinary proficiency that I have experienced within our training facility as simply food service – it is more like 5-star Michelin standard at home and very high-quality on the road. Incredible food still requires menu design and individualization.

The first step in integrating science into culinary art is to invest in getting to know the culinary (or catering) team. Our culinary team has built impactful relationships with players and staff through food and have become a core part of the performance nutrition strategy. Across the league the importance for nutrition practitioners to foster respectful and trusting relationships with the culinary team underpins the capacity to integrate and execute performance nutrition strategies into the culinary framework.

Interestingly, within some teams, the chef doubles as the team nutritionist. A handful of teams have taken nutrition support to the next level by building a nutrition team comprised of chef(s)/registered dietitians that have sport nutrition knowledge (e.g., CSSD), and a Performance Nutritionist with advanced research and innovation expertise (e.g., PhD in Exercise Physiology). This may become the gold standard model across the league and other professional sports.

Culinary team key messages: Food first, by building foundational nutrition and food service systems that first executes nutrition foundations and second promotes a synergy of science and culinary art to improve player health and performance.

 

Fueling “The Bigs” and less Bigs

Within our restaurant players either pre-order, or order face-to face with a chef. Regardless, everything is plated, which provides a perfect opportunity to tailor food intake to align with performance nutrition priorities. Each player has various plate templates that allows the culinary team to adjust portions in accordance with loading, desired adaptations or to promote desired body composition changes.

It is not a perfect system, and as much as I would love to claim we have this perfectly aligned fueling system, this is not the case. In reality, once it is go-time, high-minute players are likely in game day-1, game day or game day+1 and/or combination with travel. After three years with the team, and the alliance built with the Performance Staff, most players have learned to adjust macronutrients to boost carbohydrate when most important with game day-1 dinner and game-day breakfast and automatically pre-, during and post-fueling systems.

Techniques that work in one sport may not work in another. At one point, to ensure we were nailing down a key fueling timepoint, we did a deep dive with a few high-minute players into their game day-1 nutrition with the expectation that we would capture an excellent opportunity for education. Consistently matching energy needs (estimated approx. 3,500-4,500 kcal per day) alongside reaching 6-8g/kg of carbohydrate, the players schooled me on strategies that worked for them, which were different than I was planning to suggest. These were high-minute, more veteran players.

Game day-1 fueling requirements are not the same across the team. Loading and intensity patterns for rookies and even rotational players may be quite different with inconsistent game minutes and intensity and game stimulus integrated into other training days or G-league games. Fueling requirements for varied and slightly unpredictable loading is also layered onto other priorities like maintaining lean mass or gaining lean mass, which is often the scenario with Rookies.

Across the sport, a local team with a more equal roster will prosper with team-wide education and protocols. Higher level teams have a place for team-wide protocols as a base, but individualized approaches are where the wins come from.

Fueling key messages: Capture and understand individual loading patterns to individualize fueling requirements and systems to execute both at home and on the road.

Survival of the Most Recovered

In Olympic sport, athletes focus on truly peaking once in a quad and endurance athletes choose peak races. Comparatively, basketball players are required to maximize performance and recovery multiple times per week. Some games are higher paced than others and players will often play more or less minutes than expected, but across the board providing nutrients to accelerate and optimize the recovery window are critical.

It may be assumed post-game that players engage in some recovery stimulus, eat and head to bed. In actuality, after most games players are hitting the weight room for a team lift. After media, lifting, treatments, showers and a meal, players are not in bed until 12-1am. (That is if they have throttled down enough to sleep and whether they choose to forgo Fortnight or Call of Duty!) For some road games, flights take off soon after the game and players do not hit the pillow until 4am. This schedule far from supports established sleep hygiene strategies that augment recovery and performance (Vitale et al 2019.).

Nutrition system execution is continually adapted to integrate into travel planning; a proximate post-game smoothie and meal are consistent and prioritized. Immediate recovery smoothie formulation aims to hit core priorities with protein at 0.3-0.5g/kg body weight and carbohydrate 1-1.2g/kg body weight. Nutrition in the league is seldom curtailed by budget, allowing for integration of diverging nutrition strategies such as tart cherry (Bell at al. 2016), additional omega 3 (Davis et al. 2021), curcumin and a range of nutrients that may be integrated individually.

The priorities of post-game recovery nutrition and sleep overlap where sleep and nutrition experts collaborate to optimize sleep hygiene protocols as part of the recovery equation (Halson 2014). Rest rooms and sleep pods have become common in facilities as late games and inconsistent schedules are the reality of the NBA.

Recovery Key Message: Use all opportunities to promote recovery, particularly for high-minute players.

Player Availability – Immune

Progressively players have become more aware of what they are putting in their bodies to continue to compete at the highest-level night after night and to reduce risk of illness and injury. With the small window for recovery between games, training and particularly back-to-back games, adequate daily carbohydrate and carbohydrate supplementation intake post-exercise is essential for reducing post-game stress hormone levels, inflammation, and fatty acid mobilization and oxidation (Walsh 2019).

Ingestion of fruit high in carbohydrates, polyphenols, and metabolites are established to support athlete health and performance (Bermon et al 2017), with the added benefits of improving oxidative and anti-viral capacity (Bermon et al. 2017, Gleesen 2016). Even with Michelin-level food service the uniformity of integrating nutrient-dense foods into players’ daily routines varies greatly. One thing is consistent – smoothies. Simple, popular, and effective, smoothies are made multiple times daily and tailored to ensure nutrients that may support immune system function are consumed consistently, among other priorities.

Meticulous smoothie organization, home and away, is not to be overlooked as an opportunity to support player health and also dietary supplementation. Athletic therapists are educated to administer vitamin C and zinc upon onset of cold symptoms (Walsh 2019) and medical and nutrition support is all hands-on-deck to ensure any illness is addressed quickly.

Immune Key Message: Consistent nutrition strategies are challenging to maintain between home and on the road. Solutions to address these challenges may help to reduce the frequency and severity of common illnesses, like a cold (Walsh 2019). Gaining insight into the logistics and nuances of travel are instrumental in developing strategies that are realistic to accomplish, especially if other staff are responsible for the work itself. Rarely do nutritionists travel full time with a team. Success of strategies are often dependent on other staff, and it is crucial to take into consideration their demand before bringing a solution to the table. Before suggesting an on-the-road system, build an alliance, demonstrate the value, communicate respect for colleagues’ time then open dialogue about why a certain strategy is prioritized.

Overall Injury

Injury is inevitable and prompt return to play (RTP) is a priority from “upstairs” through the entire organization. Extreme attention is invested into injury and RTP processes with nutrition integrated throughout. Injury management is multi-faceted, extending from physiological to psychological components, carefully integrated to support the best possible outcome.

A general knowledge of athletic therapy, sports medicine, physiotherapy, training on and off the court and psychology augments integration of nutrition strategies into an RTP program. For example, nutrient intake and timing are crucial to desired outcomes of retaining lean mass, minimizing fat mass gain, and augmenting collagen synthesis and cross-linking (Baar 2019, Davis et al. 2021) in an injured player. Comprehension of training and treatment program design are essential to properly overlay proven nutrition strategies such as regular, high-quality protein intake, which is featured to support tissue synthesis (approx. 0.5g/kg body weight every 3-4hrs) to accelerate RTP.

Interdisciplinary awareness is also imperative to assist evidence-based decision-making pertaining to the addition of less established approaches. This is most evidenced in RTP scenarios when no rock is left unturned to get a player back on the court. Collagen supplementation, as a public example, is still in its infancy. However, many teams routinely provide players with a collagen supplement (approx. 20g) 40-60 minutes prior – specific loading aiming to augment collagen synthesis and crosslinking in targeted tissues (Baar 2019).

Within reason, more innovative ideas that may or may not have a direct performance impact can also be tapped into as a catalyst to revisit the “been there, done that” nutrition concepts that would otherwise be received with an eye roll. Practitioners with the skillset to navigate and implement research into unique environments allows for an ability to think in an interdisciplinary manner, fortifying the impact of nutrition integration into the RTP process. Injury can derail a team, especially if a key player is out, and thus RTP is often priority number one for nutrition support. Injury nutrition is an area where current knowledge translated into initiative-taking strategies directly correlates to a franchise’s return on investment. That is a win for nutrition.

Injury Nutrition Key Insight: Injury nutrition, from prophylactic strategies to RTP, offers a strategic opportunity to highlight the value and direct impact on player health. However, it is known that in some environments the role of the nutritionist is pigeonholed. The capacity to display advanced knowledge translated into easily implemented protocols and support within the RTP process can open the door to driving an impactful performance nutrition program.

 

The science of fueling basketball players is simple in comparison to some endurance sports. The art of executing these strategies, particularly in the league, can be complex. Digging into research (Davis et al. 2021) and key textbooks (Burke & Deakin 2020) to ascertain fueling targets and best practice principals is foundational practice. Key fueling priorities and solutions are outlined in SiS Basketball Product Strategy Guide.

Based on personal experience it is my hope that this article was able to communicate nuances related to three of the central priorities for nutritionists in the NBA.

 

References

Bell PG, Stevenson E, Davison GW, Howatson G. The Effects of Montmorency Tart Cherry Concentrate Supplementation on Recovery Following Prolonged, Intermittent Exercise. Nutrients. 2016; 8(7):441. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu8070441

Vitale KC, Owens R, Hopkins SR, Malhotra A. Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations. Int J Sports Med. 2019 Aug;40(8):535-543. doi: 10.1055/a-0905-3103. Epub 2019 Jul 9. PMID: 31288293; PMCID: PMC6988893.

Davis JK, Freese EC, Wolfe AS, Basham SA, Stein KMW. Evaluation of Omega-3 Status in Professional Basketball Players. J Strength Cond Res. 2021 Jul 1;35(7):1794-1799. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000004023. PMID: 34143763.

Halson SL. Sleep in elite athletes and nutritional interventions to enhance sleep. Sports Med. 2014 May;44 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):S13-23. doi: 10.1007/s40279-014-0147-0. PMID: 24791913; PMCID: PMC4008810.

Walsh, N.P. Nutrition and Athlete Immune Health: New Perspectives on an Old Paradigm. Sports Med 49, 153–168 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-019-01160-3

Bermon, S., L.M. Castell, P.C. Calder, N.C. Bishop, E. Blomstrand, F.C. Mooren, K. Kruger, A.N.Kavazis, J.C. Quindry, D.S. Senchina, D.C. Nieman, M. Gleeson, D.B. Pyne, C.M. Kitic, G.L.Close, D.E. Larson-Meyer, A. Marcos, S.N. Meydani, D. Wu, N.P. Walsh, and R. Nagatomi(2017). Consensus Statement Immunonutrition and Exercise. Exerc. Immunol. Rev. 23:8-50.

Baar K. Stress Relaxation and Targeted Nutrition to Treat Patellar Tendinopathy. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2019 Jul 1;29(4):453–457. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0231. PMID: 30299199.

Gleeson, M. (2016), Immunological aspects of sport nutrition. Immunol Cell Biol, 94: 117-123. https://doi.org/10.1038/icb.2015.109

Davis, J.K., Oikawa, S.Y., Halson, S. et al. In-Season Nutrition Strategies and Recovery Modalities to Enhance Recovery for Basketball Players: A Narrative Review. Sports Med (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01606-7 Burke, L., & Deakin, V. (6th ed). Clinical sports nutrition. Sydney: McGraw-Hill Book Co.

 

 

Written By

The Performance Solutions Team