Got Game: The Secrets of Basketball Nutrition Revealed
With winter comes the screech of shoes on the court and the swoosh of balls through heavily defended nets as fast-paced indoor sports like basketball ramp up their action.
Basketball is a game where big players rack up big scores by jumping to great vertical heights to toss a ball through a hoop 10 feet from the ground. While renowned for their technical abilities, most basketball players – but particularly the playmakers in the game – must attain a high aerobic maximal capacity, as well as speed, and agility. Basketball nutrition must be strategized to support their aerobic and power needs and to fuel their cognition and ensure snappy responses to quick changes of play.
Ever wonder what fuels great players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Demar DeRozan? Read on for more details!
Big Players, Big Engines
It’s no secret that most basketball players tower above the rest of us. In fact, the average height for an NBA player is 6 feet 7 inches (200 cm) and for a WNBA player is 5 feet 11 inches tall (180 cm). With this large size and accompanying muscularity come considerable nutrient demands.
Energy, protein and carbohydrate needs are relatively high for both males and females in the sport to accommodate the demands of a large body mass. What do players typically eat? There are several reports in the popular media about LeBron James’ usual diet, but in reality, dietary analysis and research on this group are scarce.
At the collegiate level, it appears male players typically eat 1.5 to 2 g/kg/d of protein and 5 to 6 g/kg/day of carbohydrates. For a 180 lb (82 kg) player this means they eat 123-164 g of protein and 410-490 g of carbohydrates daily. Also, males tend to meet their calorie needs and in so doing eat enough food to meet their vitamin and mineral needs (1).
The story appears to be different for women. Not unlike many other competitive women athletes, female basketball players often eat less than required, and their diets fall short in micronutrients such as iron, vitamin B6, magnesium and zinc (2).
The adolescent growing basketball athlete is another group to watch. It can be challenging for young players to meet the energy needs for growth, development, and activity when they are balancing school, practice and travel obligations. Also, these youth are typically taller making their caloric needs higher than their peers. Their big appetites can make some younger athletes self-conscious when dining in social situations. Proper nutrition education, yearly medical check-ups, and parent and coach support can all help to ensure the junior athlete is developing healthfully and fueling adequately for the court.
Fuel for Intensity
Basketball can be a demanding game, especially for players in the top string. A typical basketball game combines high-intensity effort with repeated breaks as players are substituted off and on during a typical game. The average heart rate during a game can hit 170 beats per minute, and they often have a mean aerobic consumption of 70% VO2 max. Who works hardest on average? The guards have a higher aerobic capacity than the other players as a function of the demands of their position.
Interestingly, high heart rates do not only coincide with a player’s time on the court. The heart rates of basketball players often remain elevated throughout the game despite time on the bench due to psychological arousal and anxiety due to the pressures of the game and likely translates into higher energy needs. Also, higher intensity of play necessitates higher fluid demands.
Basketball players may have the advantage of playing in a climate-controlled environment, but they do not always meet their fuel needs. Despite adequate drinking practices during games. Players may enter the game in a dehydrated state highlighting the importance of monitoring hydration and ensuring regular and sufficient hydration. So how much fluid do you need?
Pre-game: Aim for about 5-10 ml/kg of body weight in the 2 to 4 hours before exercise. This works out to 1 ½ to 3 cups for a 180 lb (82 kg) player. Use your urine as a marker; it should be pale yellow if you are drinking enough.
During the game: Sweat rates vary among people. Your goal is to drink enough to limit your weight loss to less than 2% during the game. Your best bet is to sip on fluids throughout the game. Drink to thirst. Most athletes require 0.4 to 0.8 L per hour of exercise. To check if you are adequately hydrating, weigh yourself before and after the game. If you gain weight, you are drinking too much. If you lose weight, drink 1.25 to 1.5 L of fluid for every 1 kg you lose, or 2 to 3 cups for every pound you lose (3).
Pre-game: Fueling for intensity means consuming enough carbohydrates. Players should aim to eat 1 to 4 g/kg of carbohydrate 3-4 hours before games or practice. This means 81-327 g for a 180 lb (82 kg) person. Some players find it helpful to include an additional carb-heavy snack 1-2 hours before playing. Ideas for pre-game snacks include bagels, bananas, and sports drinks.
During the game: As a rule of thumb, you don’t need anything more than water to fuel exercise lasting less than an hour. NBA games consist of 4 quarters of 12 minutes each for a total of 48 minutes, so in theory, carbs are not required while playing. However, there are a couple of reasons to consider using carbs during a game. The first is a matter of practicality. Some players have difficulty refueling adequately after a game due to appetite or travel demands. Using at least a sports drink during a game reduces the refueling needs post-game. The second reason is to maintain skill and concentration.
Benefits of Combining Fluids and Carbs at Game Time
Not unlike other sports, adequate fuel and hydration improve performance in basketball. A 2002 study of basketball players found that carbohydrate electrolyte supplementation improved speed and duration of play in intermittent exercise (4). This is crucial because the ability to maintain high-intensity exercise predicts success in intermittent sports like basketball.
Speed and sustained ability to maintain intensity are not the only deciders of the outcome of a basketball game. Cognition and skill are essential to the finesse required in the sport. Both fluid and carbohydrate play roles in supporting skill and cognitive capacity during exercise. A 2006 study found that provision of fluid and carbohydrate together reduced technical errors and improved cognitive performance in fast-paced intermittent sports (5).
Refuel, Recover, Repeat
High-intensity play goes hand-in-hand with muscle damage, and sometimes injury. This intensity thus necessitates speedy recovery after the games. Fast recovery is supported by timely and adequate nutrient delivery. Rapid refueling becomes vital in tournament situations or when players are participating in multiple daily practices.
If there are fewer than eight hours between sessions ensure that you eat a carbohydrate-laden snack or immediately within 15-60 minutes of exercise, especially if you had lots of play time. If you exercise heavily during sessions that are less than 8 hours apart eat carbohydrate 1 to 1.2 g/kg/h for the first 4 hours after exercise to help replenish glycogen for the next game.
For some players, it is difficult to eat and drink adequately post-game as exercise may blunt their appetite. As such, a smart strategy includes aggressive hydration and carb provision during the game to make up for less than perfect nutrient provision after the game. Ideas for fueling mid-game involve using a sports drink in your water bottle and including a carbohydrate snack such as fruit, an energy bar or ½ peanut butter sandwich at half-time.
Fueling for basketball is not unlike fueling for many other sports. The players are bigger, but the concepts are the same. Eat to maintain or build muscle and to provide sufficient energy for practices and games. Be particularly mindful of eating enough before and after playing. Some players may benefit from including carbs in their on-court routine to ensure they have enough fuel for recovery. And finally, remember to hydrate. Carrying a water bottle on the court is easy to remember but don’t underestimate the power of maintaining hydration off the court as well.
Nutritional planning is integral to achieve your optimal athletic performance. Gazelle Nutrition Lab delivers one on one or group nutritional counselling and consulting to both recreational and high-performance athletes. Also, the Food For Thought Blog is a free resource for healthy recipes and health tips. Have questions? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch!
- Nowak, R.K., K.S. Knudsen, and L.O. Schulz. 1988. Body composition and nutrient intakes of college men and women basketball players. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 88: 575-578.
- Papadopoulou, S.K., S.D. Papadopoulou, and G.K. Gallos. 2002. Macro- and micro-nutrient intake of adolescent Greek female volleyball players. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism 12: 73-80.
- Thomas, D.T., Erdman, K.A, Burke, L.M. (2016) Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 116(3):501-528.
- Welsh, R.S., J.M. Davis, J.R. Burke, and H.G. Williams. 2002. Carbohydrates and physical/mental performance during intermittent exercise to fatigue. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 34: 723-731.
- Dougherty, K.A., L.B. Baker, M. Chow, and W.L. Kenney. 2006. 2% dehydration impairs and 6% carbohydrate drink improves boys basketball skills. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 38: 1650-1658.