Jan 29, 2015
Fueled for Takeoff

The University of North Carolina is using a “full court press” in nutrition to assist its men’s basketball players in rising above the competition.

By Mary Ellen Bingham

Mary Ellen Bingham, MS, RD, CSSD, is the Head Sports Nutritionist at the University of North Carolina, where she works closely with many of the varsity sports teams, including men’s basketball. She can be reached at: [email protected].

From the moment his alarm clock sounds, a typical day in the life of a University of North Carolina men’s basketball player is jam-packed with activities. After a morning of classes and possibly a session with a tutor, the afternoon may bring a team meeting, treatment for a sore ankle in the athletic training room, and a strength workout, followed by an intense practice that runs until early evening, two hours of study hall, and, hopefully, an early bedtime so he has the energy to do it all over again the next day. And this is only a practice day! When you factor in travel to and from games around the country and some social activity–they’re in college, after all–it’s easy to see how one of the vital components of a basketball player’s success can easily fall by the wayside: proper nutrition. For players to maintain healthy eating habits during their busy seasons, top-notch nutrition education and support is essential. With concerns like these in mind, we developed a “full-court press” here at UNC to educate all of our student-athletes on nutrition. Our program covers a range of topics–from game-day meal plans to grocery shopping–and we utilize everything from team meetings to social media to get our messages across. Similar to the full-court press in basketball, we have found that collaboration and communication among all members of our “Performance Team”–which includes athletic trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, a sport psychologist, and sport nutritionists–is the most effective way to enhance the athletes’ experience. This ensures everyone is on the same page and dedicated to providing consistent messaging and reinforcement around nutrition strategies. It’s a concerted effort to promote a culture of healthy eating within the UNC men’s basketball team. Jonas Sahratian, MS, CSCS, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Men’s Basketball, incorporates tips about healthy eating and hydration into his daily conversations with players, and Doug Halverson, MA, ATC, CSCS, Head Athletic Trainer for Men’s Basketball, also regularly touches base with them regarding their hydration and fueling strategies. Team Physician Tom Brickner, MD, CAQSM, may prescribe micronutrient testing and provide supplementation, along with referring them to me for nutritional counseling, as needed. With this type of collaborative culture, players get the message!


Our first step in developing fueling strategies is to understand our athletes’ unique requirements. Since there is no “one-size-fits-all” plan, to be effective they must be tailored to each player. When creating individual nutrition plans, I meet with the player to assess his nutritional needs. I may have him complete food records or recall a typical day of eating and together we then set personal health and performance goals and design simple and realistic strategies to optimize his performance. For example, a player who never touched a vegetable until he arrived on campus isn’t likely to immediately start eating every vegetable in sight, so we design his plan to slowly expand his palate. We also use the dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry test to gather the player’s bone mineral density information and body composition data. Collaborating with the strength coaches, we then set his body composition goals.

Along with developing fueling strategies, we focus on three areas: recovery nutrition, supplementation, and hydration. We use the following approaches in these areas: Recovery Nutrition: We tell players to “Honor your recovery window” after vigorous physical activity, which creates muscle breakdown. We teach our players to rebuild their muscle strength through solid recovery nutrition practices. These include getting the right amount of fluids, electrolytes, carbs, and protein within 30 minutes of finishing a workout, practice, or game. Drinks such as low-fat chocolate milk and recovery smoothies are a good way to refuel. Proper recovery nutrition can help athletes stay healthy and strong throughout the season. Supplementation: Because of the catabolic effects of playing basketball over a long season, supplementation is crucial, not only for muscle restoration and recovery, but also to aid in the preservation of lean body mass. We provide multivitamins to each player and micronutrient supplementation when needed. Though not provided by the school, athletes can also opt to take protein powders, amino acids, creatine, and fish oils in appropriate doses. However, it’s important to note that before a student-athlete at UNC takes any type of nutrition supplement, they need to have it approved by the sports medicine department. The staff carefully reviews the supplement to assess its efficacy, safety, and legality for college athletes. Hydration: To ensure adequate hydration, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends a minimum of 125 ounces of water daily for male athletes, in addition to what’s needed to replace fluid lost during physical activity (16 to 24 ounces per pound of weight lost). Our men’s basketball players are given a one-liter water bottle to carry with them throughout the day to help them consume their recommended amount of fluid. Since basketball players vary greatly in size, shape, and body composition, they often require very distinct nutrition plans. For example, some players have an ectomorph somatotype, meaning they aren’t predisposed to storing fat or building muscle and have long, thin muscles and limbs. They have to work harder to put on and retain lean muscle mass. Other players face the opposite challenge and have to be very diligent about keeping their body-fat percentage down. MAKING IT HAPPEN

Once the players have been taught how to optimally fuel their bodies, the real challenge is getting them to consistently stick to their nutrition plans, which is especially difficult due to their hectic schedules. To aid in this, we provide structure to their eating schedule and offer small reminders throughout the day. First of all, we urge players to settle on a game-day nutrition strategy early in the season and stick with it until the season is over. There should be no “NEW”-trition on game day, as we like to tell them. The stakes are too high, and any failed experiments could adversely affect their performance. Sticking to a schedule also helps players develop a routine, making it easier for them to incorporate healthy habits into their daily lives. In an effort to maintain energy levels and achieve body composition goals, basketball players should aim to eat every few hours, spreading meals and snacks consistently over the course of the day. However, to adhere to a schedule like this they have to be disciplined and willing to plan ahead. It can seem like a daunting prospect, and this is where the full-court press is so effective. Members of the Performance Team let the players know that they’re not going it alone by constantly reinforcing and encouraging their commitment. For example, our Staff Sports Nutritionist, Rachel Stratton, RD, CSSD, and I utilize Twitter to share helpful tips on nutrition and hydration with our players. Our UNC Sports Nutrition handle–@WeFuelTheHeels–tweets easy recipes and articles of interest. We also encourage the players to tweet us pictures of their healthy and balanced meals.

In addition, we stress the importance of eating breakfast and getting a jumpstart on the day. But we also understand that it can be hard for our players to pull themselves out of bed following a tough practice or big game the night before. If a player is struggling with this and needs additional motivation, he can hold himself accountable by texting pictures of his breakfast to Coach Sahratian. To make sure our players eat at appropriate times, we remind them to always carry snacks with them. We provide suggestions for healthy, portable, and calorie-dense options, such as nuts, trail mix, apples with peanut butter, and nutrition bars. Nutritious shakes are also available to players as a post-workout recovery snack after strength and conditioning sessions. Players that need to gain weight are steered toward higher-calorie shakes, while those looking to lose weight are encouraged to take in lower-calorie choices. When the squad eats together as a team, we make sure there are plenty of healthy options. A typical team breakfast will include omelets with a variety of fillings, oatmeal with toppings, grits and assorted cold cereals, fresh fruit, breakfast potatoes, Canadian bacon, and French toast. The menu for lunch or dinner is usually two or three lean protein options, cooked vegetables, tossed salad, and fresh fruit, as well as pasta, bread, potatoes, or rice. Players are taught to build a balanced plate, which includes a variety of fruit and vegetables, a lean protein source, and a starch. For all the effort behind the full-court press, we’re careful not to sour the players on healthy eating by making the process too rigid. Occasionally, players need to buckle down and follow their nutrition plans about 95 percent of the time to achieve their training goals. Typically, though, they are taught to make healthy choices 80 to 90 percent of the time, depending on the periodization of the team’s training schedule and their progress toward their goals. We don’t want to rob them completely of their favorite foods!

With the full-court press approach, we’ve changed the way our men’s basketball players look at nutrition. Our fueling strategies give them specific information about what and when they should eat, and our focus on areas such as recovery nutrition, supplementation, and hydration makes sure nothing falls through the cracks. Even with their busy schedules, we’ve shown the players that it’s still possible to reap the rewards of a balanced fueling strategy.

The author would like to thank Jonas Sahratian, MS, CSCS, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Men’s Basketball, and Doug Halverson, MA, ATC, CSCS, Head Athletic Trainer for Men’s Basketball, for their contributions to this article.

For an example of a resource UNC gives its basketball players to help them follow their nutrition plans, please look for “Tip Sheet” in the blog section of our Web site at: www.Training-Conditioning.com/blog.php.


A 6-foot-8 freshman men’s basketball player arrived at campus weighing 195 pounds and was cleared to gain an additional 15 to 20 pounds. However, after several months he had achieved only minimal weight gain. Eventually he admitted to skipping meals because he was having trouble fitting them in his schedule, which is packed from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. A typical entry in the player’s food record read as follows:

7:30 a.m. 16 ounces of orange juice 11:00 a.m. 1 protein bar, 1 apple 1:00 p.m. 2 crispy chicken sandwiches, 20 ounces of lemonade 3:00 p.m. 2 nutrition shakes 9:00 p.m. 12-inch sub with grilled chicken, lettuce, pickles, and ranch dressing, Gatorade 10:30 p.m. 2 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, 16 ounces of milk

The record reveals an inadequate intake of total calories, protein, fat, and carbohydrates, and his food choices are low in nutrient density, with few fruits and vegetables. In addition, he isn’t spacing his meals properly. For this player to meet his weight-gain goals in a healthy way that allows him to optimize his body’s ability to train and recover, his diet should focus on quality sources of protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats, and his meals should be spread consistently across the whole day. Here’s a sample meal plan for this player, not including the water he should be drinking throughout the day: 7:15 a.m. Omelet (4 eggs with ham, spinach, mushrooms, avocado, shredded cheese) 1½ cups sweet potato home fries 16 ounces low-fat milk 1 medium-sized apple

11:00 a.m. 3 ounces mixed nuts 8 ounces tart cherry juice

12:30 p.m. Two 5-ounce grilled chicken breasts 2 cups sautéed broccoli 2 cups brown rice 8 ounces Greek yogurt 2 cups mixed fresh berries

2:15 p.m. (Weight Room) Sports drink Recovery shake

3:30 p.m. (Practice) Sports drink

6:15 p.m. Two 5-ounce sirloin steaks 2 cups mashed potatoes 2 cups mixed vegetables sautéed with extra virgin olive oil 16 ounces low-fat chocolate milk

9:15 p.m. High-calorie nutrition shake (Greek yogurt, banana, protein powder, peanut or almond butter, milk) Fish oil supplement (optional)

Shop see all »

75 Applewood Drive, Suite A
P.O. Box 128
Sparta, MI 49345
website development by deyo designs
Interested in receiving the print or digital edition of Training & Conditioning?

Subscribe Today »

Be sure to check out our sister sites: