By Ashley Sobel, RD, CDN
In any competitive sport, athletes are constantly striving to reach their peak performance to be stronger, faster, and better.
Basketball players are no different. To optimize speed, strength, and precision, basketball players must value their nutrition. To maximize outputs on the court, the best athletes are focusing intently on the inputs – meaning the nutrition they are using to fuel their bodies. Diet is one of the most integral factors that determine whether or not you’ll succeed as a basketball player. Here are the top 5 most important nutrition practices that all basketball players should know:
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1. Consume a recovery food or beverage within 30 minutes after exercise
There is an optimal window of about 30 minutes for replenishing lost muscle glycogen and repairing muscle proteins after intense physical activity. Eating the right nutrients in the right amounts helps the body replenish its stores more efficiently. Plus, consuming a post-workout recovery meal or beverage reduces muscle protein breakdown, increases muscle growth, and replenishes lost glycogen stores, which all lead to enhanced recovery.
Depending on your daily schedule this can be difficult to do and that’s where supplementation comes in. Unfortunately, many brands use unhealthy additives to make protein powders and bars taste great so stick with brands that use few ingredients and ones you can understand. There are even one ingredient protein powders such as those from Naked Nutrition. Whatever your supplement of choice the 30 minute window after exercise is the best time to consume a combination of carbohydrates and protein, as the combination of these macronutrients has been shown to improve net protein balance post-exercise. Aim for about 20-30g of protein and 60-90g of carbohydrates. In fact, this ratio of carbs to protein has been shown to increase whole body and muscle protein synthesis. For example, make a shake with 2 scoops of protein powder, 1 banana, 2 tbsp of peanut butter, 1 cup of mango, 1 cup of milk, and ice (1, 2).
2. Include protein-rich meals 5-8 times/day.
On average, our muscles can really only utilize about 25-30g of protein at one sitting for protein needs. Because of that, excess protein at one sitting can be converted to either glucose or fat. There are certain amino acids that are considered glucogenic, meaning they can convert to glucose when they’re not needed for the body’s protein needs. Because we can only utilize about 25-30g at one time, it’s important to space out protein intake strategically throughout the day to optimize the utilization of the protein we consume. According to the Academy of Nutrition and the American College of Sports Medicine, athletes like basketball players require about 1.2-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, depending on the level of training. For example, a 200-lb man (90.0 kg) requires about 109-182g of protein daily. To best meet these needs, he would need to consume 30 grams of protein about 4-6 times throughout the day (3).
3. Eat healthy fats for sustained energy
Regular consumption of healthy fats are an important part of a healthy diet as well as improving performance. In endurance exercise, the body frequently relies on fat stores for reliable, sustained energy supply. Great sources of healthy, unsaturated fats include olive oil, avocados, salmon, and nuts such as almonds, walnuts, pistachios, and cashews, for example. Not only will these foods provide you with the sustained energy you need to run up and down the court, but the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids in these types of foods can help curb post-game joint inflammation that can often occur from jumping and quick movements that can place strain on knees. For those on the Keto diet, a keto fat bomb without unhealthy additives is a good option. Athletes like basketball players require moderate amounts of fat, with total fat intake making up approximately 20-35 % of their total daily caloric intake (4, 5).
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4. Ensure to refuel properly during games
During intense physical activity, such as during a basketball game, the body runs through its glycogen stores in about 90 minutes. If exercise exceeds 90 minutes, carbohydrates are necessary to continue exercising to the same capacity. At maximum, the body can utilize 60g of carbohydrates per hour. Studies show that consuming carbohydrates during intense physical activity can preserve energy stores and enhance performance, thereby preventing a decline in physical and skilled performance. For example, energy drinks that provide glucose and electrolytes are a great way to refuel (6). In addition to just refueling with carbohydrates, athletes must focus on their hydration. Hydration needs depend on the individual, intensity of the workout, and the environment in which athletes are playing. Ensuring adequate fluids and electrolytes will enable optimal performance and prevent dehydration.
5. Eat breakfast every day
The best athletes are eating breakfast every day. Study after study shows that consuming a protein-rich breakfast helps not only maintain a lower body fat percentage but can enhance muscle mass as well (7, 8, 9). Aim to consume breakfast with at least 20 grams of protein. Upon waking up, the body is in a fasted state and protein intake in the morning will fuel the muscles with the nutrition they need after an overnight fast. Basketball players must strive to preserve their muscle mass, and to do so, protein at breakfast is key. Other key drivers in a balanced breakfast for athletes include fiber-rich carbohydrates such as oatmeal, healthy fats, and hydration.
Overall, in addition to fitness training to maintain stamina basketball players need to eat a diet that includes regular meals and snacks throughout the day that contain healthy fats and more protein than the average person. Do that, and you’re giving yourself the best chance to grab rebounds, get back on defense and hit jump shots later in a session when most others are worn down.