Nutrition in the NBA; Part III: The role of the personal trainer
This week, CBSSports.com's three-part series on nutrition in the NBA explores players from Derrick Rose to Blake Griffin to Ray Allen who've adopted similar nutritional approaches to achieve their goals. In the final installment, we examine the role of personal trainers in getting players on the right nutritional path.
Roy Hibbert was training at Peak Performance in New York City during the 2011 lockout, and the only thing that was peaking was his frustration. After three moderately productive seasons in the NBA, Hibbert still had one nagging problem: He didn't have the energy to push through workouts or maintain his weight through the rigors of an 82-game season.
When Dr. Mike Roussell met him, Hibbert was 7-foot-2, 258 pounds. Hibbert's nutritional program could be found in all its glory on the menu of Pizzeria Uno.
"One time before a game at Georgetown, he went to Pizzeria Uno and had a massive pizza and dessert and played really well," said Roussell, the head of nutrition at Peak Performance, where several NBA players train during the summer. "He's superstitious. So the night before every big game, he'd have this big load of garbage food."
How'd that work out for him? Not so great. In his first few years in the league, Hibbert was always the guy with his hands on his knees during play stoppages. Two years and 35 pounds of lean muscle later – thanks to a balanced diet that includes a massive 6,000 calories a day during the offseason – Hibbert no longer finds himself waving to the bench to be subbed out.
"Actually, now he gets better as the season goes along," Roussell said. "Last year in the playoffs when everyone was dragging, he was peaking."
Roussell is Hibbert's nutritional advisor, a critical role played by highly trained and educated diet experts whose work now goes hand in hand with the strength coaches and personal trainers that many top NBA players employ.
"It takes guys two or three years into the league to start to realize how important the nutrition part is," said Rob McClanaghan, who trains multiple NBA All-Stars, including Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and Kevin Love.
"You have some guys who are just genetic freaks and their body's not going to change," he said. "And if their body doesn't change, they think, 'I'm fine.' But in the long run, they realize the toll their body takes with 82-100 games with preseason and playoffs. It's not just about how you look; it's about how you feel."
Some NBA prospects and established stars are beginning to realize they're not above dietary advice. Most top players have personal trainers, and every major agency is affiliated with a trainer or training center so clients are properly prepared for the draft. Millions are at stake between the top half of the first round to the bottom, and millions more as players fade into the second round and beyond.
Smart trainers understand the importance of proper nutrition, and it's being stressed to NBA players before they even shoot a free throw in the league. How long it takes for the advice to sink in, however, is another story.
"Usually, their knowledge base is pretty poor," said Jay Hernandez, founder of the Pro Hoops training center in Glen Cove, N.Y. "They think getting some vegetables with their Jack Daniels burger at Friday's is actually a good thing. It's typical of college kids thinking you can put anything you want in your body because you're working it off."
Sound familiar? This is the same approach that resulted in Dwight Howard consuming the sugar equivalent of 24 Hershey bars a day last season, his ninth in the NBA. It is the same kind of nutritional ambivalence that resulted in Derrick Rose earning the dubious honor of a candy company sending him a free Skittles dispenser for his home.
"The first thing we try to do is get them with somebody that's an expert in the field and explain exactly what they need to do," Hernandez said. "It enlightens them. They come back fascinated, like a whole new world is opened up to them."
Hernandez, who played college ball at Hofstra University, has trained six lottery picks in the past three drafts through his affiliation with agent Jeff Schwartz's New York-based Excel Sports Management. In an industry where everyone seems to know it all, Hernandez does the right thing when it comes to nutrition. He sends his clients to someone who is qualified to advise them on diet; someone who actually knows what they're talking about.
The program varies from player to player depending on his specific goals, needs and what he's training for -- strength, speed or a specific event, like the NBA draft combine.
"If it's a blanket approach, just like training, you're going to get benefits -- but can you optimize?" Hernandez said.
In the sports performance business, all that matters is the bottom line: results. But for pro athletes -- and even for weekend warriors looking to lose a few pounds -- it's a slippery and treacherous slope when so many trainers, strength coaches and Average Joe's claim to know the next secret for healthy eating or optimal performance.
The Lakers have gone all-in with a high-fat, low-carb, grass-fed, real-food diet. Players from Blake Griffin and Allen to Luis Scola and Manu Ginobili are doing some form of the Paleo diet -- modified with extra carbs to fuel their training. Howard and Rose have finally kicked their sugar additions.
There is room on that spectrum for a more balanced approach, and leave it to the guys whose livelihoods depend on the performance, health and success of their individual clients to strike that balance.
"We make it real simple," said Tim Grover, who has trained NBA stars from Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant to Dwyane Wade. "We have a list, and it just basically says what you can eat and what you can't eat. A yes and a no."
Simple. The biggest no?
"The biggest detriment," Grover said, "is sugar."
When Jordan came into the league in 1984 – or even Bryant in 1996 – there was no organic, locally sourced, grass-fed movement. It was just, "Eat your Wheaties," and you were good to go.
With so many options now, Grover said you have to make the diet attainable and accessible for players who've spent their entire athletic lives "playing off fast food, candy, sugar and McDonald's for years."
"Most nutritionists love to go to extremes," Grover said. "'This is what it is, here it is, and that's it.' I try to adjust the nutritional aspects more to their lifestyle."
Grover's program gives his clients one cheat day a week. Both Hernandez and Grover will advise players who like to have an adult beverage on what kind of alcohol and mixers are the lesser of all evils when it comes to performance.
"The one thing about Dwyane is, he doesn't drink, so that was a battle that we didn't have to conquer," Grover said. "My other two guys were recreational drinkers, so we had to educate them on that part. But when Michael got it, he got it. It was like, 'OK, I understand it. 'I know what I need to do now.' With Kobe, like everything else, he likes to go to the extreme."
The Heat also have a unique policy that makes a personal trainer's job easier. They test and record every player's weight and body fat percentage on a weekly basis, Grover said.
"If you don't have somewhat decent nutritional habits, you're going to end up picking it up real quick," Grover said. "They don't tell you what to eat, but if you're not doing what you're supposed to, it's going to show up."
Before he joined forces with Roussell, Hibbert's diet was a hot mess. During his first three season as the 17th overall pick in the 2008 draft, Hibbert had no stamina and would waste away as each season wore on.
Roussell, who has a PhD in nutrition from Penn State, immediately eliminated sugars and processed foods from Hibbert's diet. Grains and dairy were out, too, reintroduced once Hibbert underwent food sensitivity tests that revealed he was not allergic to those foods.
This past training camp, Hibbert showed up weighing 293 pounds. In the past two years since he's been eating meals with wholesome ingredients meticulously weighed and measured by his personal chef, Hibbert has added 150 pounds to his front squat. For the uninitiated, that's a lot; that's a me.
"He's the only client I've ever had who doesn't want an off day," Roussell said. "His birthday was [Wednesday], and I said, 'Take the day off.' And he said, 'Oh, no, no, no, I want food. I want to keep going. I'll do dinner, but I want to stay on the plan."
After tinkering with nutrient proportions, the plan for Hibbert is about 40 percent carbs, 30 percent proteins and 30 percent fats -- more moderate than the Lakers' program, which calls for 50 percent of calories to come from healthy fats.
"We'll do whole grains, brown rice, quinoa, flax pasta," Roussell said. "His chef buys all organic vegetables, locally sourced whenever possible. The quality of the food really matters. A lot."
Roussell characterizes his approach as "modified Paleo," but views some aspects of that approach as "overly restrictive without reason. ... Just to say, 'We're not going to eat dairy and beans because the caveman didn't do that,' that doesn't necessarily make sense."
Brett Singer, a registered and licensed dietician who works with athletes at the Memorial Hermann Ironman Sports Medicine Institute in Houston, said if a diet cuts out entire food groups like grains or dairy, "I'm going to have a pretty big issue with that. You're cutting out vital nutrients, vitamins, minerals and fiber."
The Lakers' approach is geared toward reprogramming the body to burn fat for fuel instead of glucose. It's a state known as ketosis, under which studies have shown that some athletes -- like cyclists -- perform very well. But it may take an athlete 2-3 years of a strict low-carb diet -- 5-10 percent of calories from carbs -- to achieve that state, and it's not for everyone.
"You need fluids, you need electrolytes and you need carbs to replenish glycogen," Singer said. "If you're playing four games in five nights in basketball, you don't want to have no carbs after the game because now you're depleted of glycogen and you're running on fumes."
At Pro Hoops on Long Island, clients like the Bobcats' Kemba Walker and prospective draft picks get a personalized nutrition plan; Hernandez doesn't believe in one-size-fits-all. But while each player's needs are different, they all have two things in common: they need results, and they need a diet they can follow.
"Sometimes, some of these things are so regimented that the guy is going to fail," Hernandez said "It's taking them from A to Z without anything in between. If you tell guys not to eat certain foods, and they're on a long road trip, all of a sudden they're not eating, which is terrible for them."
McClanaghan, Hernandez and Roussell also agree that it isn't only about what you're eating, but when. Their programs prescribe carbs or even some sugar (such as a recovery drink) during or after training to replenish the fuel that's been burned off.
"Usain Bolt ate something like 15 of 17 bananas on a race day," Hernandez said. "So we talk about some of the super foods these guys can put in their bodies."
Working with amateur and semi-pro athletes in Houston, Singer was interested in Howard's transformation from sugar addict to grass-fed model of health under the program the Lakers started last season. Obviously, whether it's a Paleo or ketogenic diet, or something more balanced, all of it is better than guzzling soda and pounding sugar all day. But Singer said the manner in which athletes learn about nutritional alternatives could use some improvement.
"Derrick Rose and tore his ACL, and he has experience recovering from an ACL injury," Singer said. "But if another athlete tears his ACL, I don't think they're going to go to Derrick Rose to get it fixed. They're going to go to an orthopedic surgeon and a physical therapist. That's their expertise. Some of them saying, 'This worked for me,' and promoting it to the rest of team … maybe it did work for them. But these guys are elite athletes."
Case in point: Singer was in the gym lifting weights recently, and a young man approached him to offer some advice.
"He starts telling me what I should be eating and what kind of supplements I should be taking based on the kind of lifting I'm doing," Singer said. "And here I am working on my master's in nutrition and some random high school kid is giving me nutritional advice. There's so many people out there giving advice, and people trust it."
Of course, even the random high school kid was smart enough not to recommend eating pizza, drinking soda and supplementing with Skittles. So maybe that's a sign of progress.
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