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Fueling the Basketball Player During a Game

When reading sports nutrition research, the assumption is that—granted, the research methods are sound—the results are accurate, possibly even practical for an athlete to incorporate into their nutritional plan.

However, I like to think of any new result or well-known recommendation as a starting point.

Let’s use a basketball game and fueling recommendations as an example.

The Current Science on Fueling Basketball Players During a Game

If an athlete enters a game with full muscle glycogen stores, these won’t be depleted by the final buzzer. Yet the importance of consuming adequate amounts of carbohydrates (when compared to placebo) into the fourth quarter is helpful to maintain performance, cognitive function, jump height, sprint speed, and improved mood.

Research Setting vs. a Real-life Basketball Game

Looking solely at the NCAA rule book, a college basketball game lasts 55 minutes, including a 15-minute halftime.

However, game delays include time outs, injuries, official reviews, media, and free throws, all of which contribute to extending a game's ending time. In my experience, a collegiate basketball game can easily last for two hours.

You also need to factor in the ~60 minutes of warm up the athletes run through immediately before the game, which isn’t necessarily accounted for when reviewing sports nutrition guidelines.

Now the game time an athlete experiences has been prolonged to three hours.

Most athletes I work with will snack on something during the warm up and then typically again during halftime--but likely not the recommended 90-180 grams of carbohydrates over a 3-hour period.

During a 2-hour game, halftime may be the only time an athlete fuels. This could be due to only drinking water versus Gatorade while sitting on the bench, the inability to fuel while playing, or appetite suppression related to the flight-or-flight response. If only fueling at halftime, consuming large amounts of carbohydrate in a single dose can be a blow to the gut.

How Much and When Should Basketball Players Consume Carbohydrates During a Game?

Well, it depends.

Rather than telling every athlete to consume 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour during the span of a basketball game, first, hash out a few of the below scenarios.

How long does each athlete on average play for? Those who play for longer will have burned through more fuel [i.e., their carbohydrate (muscle glycogen) repletion needs will be higher]. If your athlete sees the floor for five minutes throughout the entire game, they won't need to fuel as much.

Is an athlete’s stomach trained to eat and/or drink calories during halftime? For some athletes, the 15-minute halftime may not be a long enough period for them to comfortably eat, drink, and digest food. For them, the focus should be fueling during the warmup and throughout the game, possibly focusing more on liquid carbohydrates rather than water if the athlete doesn't tolerate solids while exercising.

Products: Goldfish (0.5 oz.), Clif ZRope, GoGo Squeez, Dole peach cup, Rice Krispie square (1.3 oz.), Gatorade (16.9 fl. oz.), Honey Stinger Energy Bar, Welch's fruit snacks (0.9 oz.), Rold Gold Tiny Twists (1 oz.), Gatorade Energy Chews, Clif ZBar, Honey Stinger Chews, and Clif bar.

Does an athlete have performance day anxiety that suppresses their appetite? Nutrition recommendations exist for how many carbohydrates to consume in the hours leading up to tipoff, but if the athlete cannot fulfill these calories due to stress--and a suppressed appetite--then they become a higher risk for under-fueling.

Plus, if the game has a 7 PM rather than a noon start, the length of time from awakening until tipoff is increased, meaning the greater the negative impact that a reduced appetite and caloric intake has on the athlete's playing ability.

Evaluate trends in missed shots and errors throughout the game (especially during the second half): Games are lost in the fourth quarter. Use data to review athlete trends in performance as the game progresses.

Use specific examples when questioning athletes. For instance, do you think your shooting accuracy differs in the first compared to the second half of the game? Or, review data trends with the athlete to build your case as to why or why not they need to fuel.

Similar to pre-game anxiety, stress hormones can suppress mindfulness surrounding true hunger during the game. You could ask the athlete how they feel their energy levels are in the first and second halves, but they may feel fine even if their endurance and skills are faltering. Their subjective vs. your data-filled objective assessment can provide support for an improved fueling strategy.

Take-away Message:

Avoid being trapped in the “research states X so there’s no flexibility in my nutritional plan” mindset. Rather, use research as a starting point, since it tends to capture the average person’s response to a study's intervention.

Responders, non-responders, and outliers to any study's intervention exists, so begin with a broad recommendation, track the impact on your athlete, and adapt as needed.

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