The Definitive Step By Step Guide To Nutrition Optimization For Basketball Players
If you are serious about becoming a better basketball player then one thing that you need to learn early on in your career is the importance of basketball specific nutrition.
You’re spending countless hours in the gym training to improve and become a better basketball player, but what if the things you’re eating are reversing all your hard work.
Remember food is fuel and it is also vital for recovery after hard training sessions and games.
One professional basketball player that illustrates the profound impact proper nutrition can have on basketball performance is Dwight Howard.
You see Dwight had a love of sugar – he was eating two dozen chocolate bars every day!
Early in his career his youth masked his bad eating habits.
However, as he got older his poor dietary choices were starting to severely impact his game.
He looked healthy on the outside, but on the inside he began to feel the negative side effects of his diet.
Once he made the commitment to quit his poor eating habits and changed up his diet, he started to feel the difference.
With better nutrition his endurance improved, he got even more shredded and his energy levels became more consistent.
It was also around this time that he packed on a heap of lean muscle, resulting in the impressive physique he maintains to this day.
Don’t let bad nutrition choices bring your game down and stop you from reaching your potential.
There are many different pathways to good overall nutrition.
Every individual responds to different diet types and macronutrient ratios (eg. carbs, fat , protein) in different ways.
Most professional players choose to follow a high carbohydrate, moderate protein diet. However many athletes have having great success following a low-carb approach to basketball nutrition such as the super effective targeted ketogenic diet.
Professional basketball athletes will often dabble with very low carb or keto diets in the off-season to help them lose body fat fast without having to worry too much about the deleterious effects of in-season calorie and macro restriction.
All diets have negative and positive aspects. You need to find what works best for you.
Don't worry, we're here to help you get your basketball nutrition on point!
We’re going to take a look at some popular diets and breakdown exactly what you should be eating before, during and after games.
We'll also take a look at what some of your favorite pro basketball players eat...
How Many Calories Should Basketball Players Eat?
Most active basketball players will need to eat between 2500 and 5000 calories per day to fuel performance.
A study by Silva et al, completed back in 2013 is still one of the best studies to date constructed to investigate the energy requirements of basketball players.
The study revealed that female high school athletes (aged 16-18yrs) have a daily energy expenditure of around 3,500 calories.
Male high school athletes in this study were found to expend significantly more energy, burning through an average of 4600 calories per day .
These energy requirements are much higher than that of the average person who usually only requires between 1500-3000 calories per day to maintain their current weight.
Understanding the relationship between caloric intake and energy expenditure is very important for both weight management and performance on the basketball court.
Basically if you consume LESS total energy than you burn you will lose weight.
If you eat MORE calories than you burn and you will gain weight.
Of course nutrition for basketball players is much more complicated than just simply consuming the right amount of calories.
All calories are not created equal.
Basketball players must be sure to consume the correct macronutrient fuel sources, such as carbs, fats and protein in the correct ratio in order to enhance both performance and recovery.
Macronutrient manipulation becomes even more important for basketball players who want to lose body fat while maintaining lean muscle mass.
Let’s take a look a look at exactly what basketball players should eat in order to obtain a lean mean physique, while achieving optimal performance on the court.
What Is The Preferred Food Fuel Source For Basketball?
Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source for basketball training and games, however the body can use both proteins and fats for fuel.
Carbohydrates found in grains (bread, pasta, cereal), fruits and vegetables are the bodies preferred fuel source during basketball games and intense practice sessions .
When a basketball player eats carbohydrates it is stored inside the liver and muscle in the form of glycogen.
The average man stores around 400g of muscle glycogen that can be used as a fast burning fuel for exercise.
The carbohydrate stored in the liver maintains blood glucose between meals. The liver stores between 75–100 g of carbohydrate, enough to maintain blood glucose during a 12-hour fast.
In fact, after around 6-8 hours of fasting, liver glycogen will be depleted to around 20%.
After this point, in a carb depleted state, the body will begin to slowly turn to fats and protein for fuel. This process is known as gluconeogenesis.
If carbohydrates are restricted for days on end the body will begin to produce ketones.
Basketball players can learn to adapt to using ketones as a primary fuel source by following a low-carb diet long term.
Many professional basketball players use the ketogenic diet in the off-season to lose body-fat.
There are many positives but also many drawbacks to following a low-carb approach to basketball nutrition, such as experiencing a long adaption period in which performance drops quite significantly .
However, a low-carb and keto approach tends to work well for recreational athletes who want to get lean fast and are not overly concerned about achieving top end performance.
The ketogenic diet can also provide recreational athletes many additional metabolic and health benefits.
You can learn more about a low-carb approach to basketball nutrition in these articles:
- Does Low Carb Dieting Work For Basketball Players?
- The Targetic Ketogenic Diet For Basketball Players: Burn Fat For Fuel!
- Basketball Diet 101 - How To Lose Weight For Basketball
- The Lebron James Diet: What Lebron Really Eats
A competitive basketball players who trains, lifts weights and plays most days of the week should be most concerned about eating adequate carbohydrates to keep muscle glycogen fuel stores topped up.
Glycogen in the muscles is what will fuel explosive activities such as running the court, dunking, rebounding and playing intense defense.
When you run out of muscle glycogen you will know it.
You have probably experienced the feeling of a glycogen depleted state at some stage of your life.
Running out of stored glycogen is known as “hitting the wall”.
Your legs feel heavy and weak, and you generally just lack any explosive power.
Stored glycogen becomes depleted after around 90-100 minutes of high intensity basketball play.
Let’s take a look at exactly how many grams of carbs you should eat to ensure you don’t ever “hit the wall” during training or practice.
How Many Grams of Carbohydrates Should a Basketball Player Eat?
A competitive basketball player should ensure that they eat around 5-10g of carbohydrate per kg of lean body mass per day to ensure they should have plenty of stored glycogen to power them through a game. This is around 55% of total daily caloric expenditure.
For example, an 100kg or 220 pound basketball player would eat around 500-1000g of carbohydrates per day to keep glycogen stores topped up.
Carbs contain 4 calories of energy per gram so in our example that 100kg player would need to consume between 2000 to 4000 calories worth of carbs per day.
When competing in tournaments, eating that many carbohydrate in the form of food may not be an option, and in this case consuming a carbohydrate rich drink may help keep glycogen stores topped up.
At a tournament you definitely don’t want to run out of go come finals time. Taking care of your carb intake will ensure you can go the distance. Bring on triple O.T in the grand final game!
If you need a top up energy stores during games or training consume a drink containing around 30-60g carbohydrates per hour.
This drink should ideally contain a nice blend of electrolytes (sodium, potassium and magnesium) to help prevent dehydration and cramping.
Gatorade is a popular go-to and coconut water is a healthy electrolyte rich option. Remember drinking carbs during games is only needed during very high intensity sustained efforts.
If you are just coming off the bench for 5 mins then you won’t need to drink any carbs in game assuming that you have eaten plenty of carbs each day in the days leading up to the game.
These carbohydrate guidelines are for very active basketball players who train intensely for hours per day, most days of the week.
If you only play recreational basketball once per week and spend the rest of the week sitting down at an office job then eating 5-10g of carbs per kg of body-weight will just lead to overflowing stores of glycogen.
Over consuming carbs will ultimately lead to fat storage and potentially diabetes and other chronic diseases down the road.
In this case, carbohydrate timing becomes an important factor in finding the balance between performance and weight management.
Using a targeted carb loading approach may be the best option for part-time and casual ballers.
Why Is Protein So Important For Basketball Players?
Protein helps build and repair muscle and therefore is vital for both performance and recovery in competitive basketball athletes.
Protein comes in a variety forms.
Hi protein foods include things such as meats, fish, eggs, milk and supplements such as whey.
There are also vegan and vegetarian protein options, however these often lack the same amino acid profile as meat and dairy based options.
For example when comparing whey protein to vegan protein powder, in order to get the same level of protein & amino acids, you'll need to take a much larger serving size of vegan protein powder.
Generally on a vegan diet an athlete will have to eat a greater quantity and variety of foods which can have a number of negative consequences for a basketball player.
You can learn more about why we think the vegan diet is not an optimal high performance diet for basketball players in our articles on the subject:
How Much Protein Should a Basketball Player Eat?
A basketball player needs to consume around 1.4-1.8g protein vs kg body weight to support lean muscle mass and recovery efforts.
Research shows that protein intake of 1.8 g/kg body weight is the upper limit for muscle protein synthesis .
This means that a 100 kg basketball player would need to eat around 140-180 grams of protein per day.
Like carbohydrates protein also contains 4 calories of energy per gram.
Therefore our 100kg example athlete would consume between 560- 720 calories per day from protein sources.
Some research suggests that more protein may be beneficial and it is very safe for most people to eat well above this limit. You just may not see any additional benefit.
Too much protein is better than too little for athletes.
Research has also shown that it is best to break your protein intake up over multiple meals per day rather than eating it all in one meal.
Some studies suggest that the body can't utilize more than around 30g of protein per meal.
Therefore 6 meals containing 30g of protein will be more effective than 2 meals containing 90 grams of protein.
A basketball player who eats well, and consumes a wide variety of high quality meats and dairy and eggs will usually not require supplementation with protein powder or branched chain amino acids.
However, busy athletes, particularly student athletes find it difficult to find time for meal prep so they may need a supplemental form of protein such as powder or bars to ensure they hit their daily requirement.
Protein supplements such as whey protein end up being a lot more affordable than whole food options such as chicken.
If you do feel like you may need help topping up your protein intake then check out the Best Supplements For Basketball Players where you can find roundups of the best protein supplements you can buy online.
How Much Fat Should a Basketball Player Eat?
The amount of fat you eat is determined by calculating the remainder of daily calories left after protein and carbohydrate recommendations are met.
To put this into perspective lets take our 100kg athlete example.
Let's take a mid range sample of carbs and protein and assume he has so far consumed 3000 calories from carbs and 640 calories from protein.
This equals 3640 calories from carbs and protein.
Let’s say our example player's daily energy expenditure is 4600 calories per day.
This would mean that he has 960 calories left to dedicate toward high fat food sources. Fat has 9 calories per gram so this means our player can consume 106 grams of fat per day.
Dietary fats are an often overlooked but vital component of basketball nutrition.
Fat is very important for the production of hormones and many cellular functions. For males this is very important as dietary fats can help keep testosterone levels at an optimal level.
Basketball players should avoid unhealthy fats such as those found in fried foods, margarine and processed foods.
Instead they should strive to consume heart-healthy fats such as mono-unsaturated fats (olive oil) as well as plenty of omega-3 fats which are found in fish.
All basketball players should ensure they consume an adequate amount of omega 3’s in their diet as they help reduce inflammation in the body.
Less inflammation means that you can recover faster and train more often.
What Should a Basketball Player Drink?
Research indicates that a body mass reduction of 2% caused by dehydration can impair performance of basketball specific skills and movements .
Basketball players must ensure they replace fluids lost from sweating and reduce the level of dehydration in order to maintain optimal performance.
Some factors that influence dehydration in basketball players can include things such as genetics, temperature and humidity of the environment, and exercise intensity.
Professional basketball teams go as far as measuring the amount of fluids players consume during exercise while also monitoring their players body mass before and after practice or games.
A professional basketball player can never afford to be dehydrated due to the potential of impaired performance.
Most athletes reading this are not going to have team of coaches and trainers around them to monitor hydration status.
The general guidelines that basketball players should follow in order to stay hydrated includes:
- Drink plenty of water over the course of a day (approx min of 64 ounces, 1.9L).
- Athletes should also re-hydrate after practices and games with about 20–24 oz, 600ml, of fluid, preferably with sodium, for every pound of body weight lost.
- Drink regularly throughout the practice/game. A general recommendation for adults and older adolescents is to drink 6-8 oz. (177-236ml) of fluid (water or sports drink) every 15 minutes.
The most simple way for any basketball player to monitor their hydration status is to take a look at their urine color.
The urine should be slightly golden (like lemonade) not clear. If the urine is dark or bright yellow this means that you are dehydrated and in desperate need for a top up of liquids.
What Should a Basketball Player Eat Before a Game?
To optimize performance a basketball player should eat a pre-game meal that is high in carbohydrates to fuel high intensity efforts on the court.
The pre-game meal should also be low in fat and fiber to help aid digestion and limit the chance of in-game gastrointestinal distress (upset tummy and diarrhea).
It is good to keep a consistent routine of what pre-game meals work well for you.
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Timing of pre-game meals is also very important.
Every food digests at a different rate.
Simple carbohydrates digest faster.
Generally most basketball players can tolerate their last main meal 2-4 hours before exercise without any unwanted stomach upset.
Some players also like to have an easily digestible snack 30-15 mins prior to the game.
What Should a Basketball Player Eat and Drink During a Game?
It is rarely necessary for a basketball player to need to drink or eat anything other than water during games.
It is unlikely that glycogen stores have been depleted enough over the duration of a basketball game to demand topping up.
However, it is very important to ensure adequate hydration, particularly on hot days.
Although it is unlikely that a player will significantly drain his muscle and liver glycogen stores, supplementing with carbohydrate during the game may help maintain performance in the fourth quarter.
Research shows that both cognitive function and sprint speed are maintained in basketball-type protocols when subjects are supplemented with carbohydrate rather than a placebo.
Sipping on a Gatorade or eating a few gummy bears is the best way to keep a steady flow of glucose in the blood without risking any adverse effects.
What Should a Basketball Player Eat After a Game?
Post game nutrition is vital for effective recovery, particularly when players have less than 24 hours between games or training sessions.
To recover optimally after a game or training an athlete should attempt to consume a meal or drink containing easily digestible carbohydrates and protein.
After training the muscles are “hungry” for amino acids and glucose.
By having this drink during this window the body is most effective at using the protein and carbs to trigger muscle protein synthesis and glycogen restoration.
For this post workout meal the recommended carbohydrate intake is 1.0–1.2 g of carbohydrate/kg body weight and about 20-30 g protein.
Basketball players should also be sure to consume a nutritionally balanced meal containing fats, carbs and protein around 2 -3hrs after their post game meal/shake.
Also, don’t forget to sip on water throughout this post game window.
And add some salt (sodium) to your meals to help promote hydration.
What Things Should a Basketball Player Never Eat?
Basketball players who compete at any level should limit the amount of “junk food” they eat.
Junk food contains very little nutrition and therefore does little to promote performance or recovery.
Things such as sugary treats and trans-fat laden biscuits and ice-cream should be avoided as much as possible.
Junk food is commonly referred to as empty calories.
When it comes time to eat you should attempt to choose whole foods that contain many micronutrients.
Think of food as fuel.
Don’t put food up on a pedestal.
Acknowledge your ancestry and eat whole foods and quality meats.
Example Daily Meal Plan for Competitive Basketball Players
Example Plan For 100kg (220 Pound Athlete)
- Daily Energy Expenditure = 4500 calories
- Goal = Maintain Weight & Optimise Performance (in order to gain weight this player would need to add 500 calories and manipulate macros, to lose weight this player would take away 500 calories and manipulate macros)
- Daily Carbs (recommended range 5-10 g per kilo) - this player will eat 7g carbs/kg body weight = 7 x 100= 700g carbs = 2800 calories
- Daily Protein (recommended 1.4-1.8 g per kg)- this player will eat 1.8g/kg = 180g protein = 720 calories
- Daily Fats= Total daily energy requirements - calories in protein and carbs = 980 calories of fat. There are 9 calories of fat per gram so 980/9 = 109 grams of fat per day
This daily Meal Plan That Will Provide 4500 calories of energy by consuming 700g of carbohydrates, 180g protein and 109 grams of fat.
- Glass of water
- Bowl Of Oats with berries + Bacon & Egg Omelet With Spinach and olive oil
Morning Tea (pre-game meal)
- Glass Of Water
- Bowl White Rice with lean mince & sriracha sauce
Post Game Shake and Snack
- Whey protein shake
- Ripe Banana
Lunch/Post Game Meal
- Spaghetti Bolognaise with veggies
- Mixed Nuts and yogurt
- Steak and Baked Potatoes With Gravy
- Whey Protein Shake With Vitamins & Creatine
We hope you found our ultimate guide to basketball nutrition helpful on your journey to become a better basketball player. We would love to hear your though on how altering your basketball nutrition has altered your on court performance. Please comment below...
Silva, A.M., D.A. Santos, C.N. Matias, C.S. Minderico, D.A. Schoeller, and L.B. Sardinha (2012). Total Energy Expenditure Assessment in Elite Junior basketball Players: A validation study using double labeled water. J. Strength Cond. Res. 27:1920-1927.