Written by Christopher Tack
Nutrition For Netball Players
With 1 million (mostly female) individuals competing per week during the netball season (1), it is surprising that there is such a dearth of scientific studies to outline the essential nutritional elements to incorporate into a dietary plan for these athletes. Even the resources of the England Netball organisation (2), Netball New Zealand (3), and even World Champions, Netball Australia (4) only make vague recommendations as to how to best construct a dietary plan for the sports participants. It is the focus of this article to explain what you should consume as a netball player in order to perform optimally, recover from playing and remain healthy.
Netball Activity Requirements
It is essential to examine any sport when considering the nutritional needs of its participants. In netball, the duration of the games and the intensity of activity are key influences on these needs. Netball games consist of four 10-15 minute quarters with 7 players active on the court at one time. The stop-and-go/ sprint-and-stop style of participation means that netball players will use a combination of both the anaerobic and aerobic energy systems (5). In addition over a week, athletes may have multiple games and/ or training sessions from which rapid recovery is essential. Both of these factors will mean a high requirement for nutritional sustenance for both fuel and recovery.
Good nutritional practices are one of the most essential behaviours to succeed with sporting performance (6). As is often quoted “you cannot outrun a bad diet” (7) and in sport, you cannot rely too much on your gym exertions if you are not sufficiently adhering to a dietary plan.
In studies examining team sports athletes (including netball) it is apparent that whilst males usually consumed adequate amounts of protein and carbohydrates; in females, less than 50% consumed the recommended amount of sufficient nutrients (8). Additionally, this study found females had a tendency to under eat, they consumed insufficient calories to match expenditure. This is a finding which is previously reported in team-sport athletes (6,9).
Disordered Eating in Netball Players
Unfortunately, in netball players a trend also exists which demonstrates approximately 54% of players will show signs of disordered eating behaviour (10). Additionally, 31% report menstrual irregularities and 15% reported secondary amenorrhoea (absence of menstruation) during training. For athletes and coaches, it is important to monitor the menstrual cycle and dietary intake to ensure optimal health of all players.
Recommendation #1: Ensure sufficient carbohydrate intake
It is suggested that for all athletes participating in intermittent high-intensity activity (such as netball) for every hour spent playing 30-60g of carbohydrates should be consumed to provide sufficient fuel to perform (5-6,11).
However, despite the identified benefits of carbohydrates, team sport athletes are very often inadequately address this nutritional requirement. In fact, greater than 50% of team sport athletes fail to consume 30g of carbohydrates per hour (8). This shortfall was seen in 18% of males and 29% of females, with females particularly failing to consume sufficient carbohydrates to meet their energy expenditure (8).
Timing of Carbohydrates
In order to ensure liver and muscle stores of glycogen are full, it is advisable to consume carbohydrates 1-4 hours before exercise with 1-4g of carbohydrates per kg of the player’s body weight (11). During a netball tournament where multiple matches may take place in one day when players have less than 8 hours between games, 1-1.2g of carbohydrates per kg should be consumed every hour for 4 hours (11). This aims to boost performance and recovery, whilst attenuating fatigue.
Additionally, it is important for netball players to use every opportunity during training and games to ingest carbohydrates to meet energy demands and support their performance (12). Ingestion of carbohydrates during activity has been shown to improve endurance capacity during intermittent bouts of high-intensity activity (13) and sport specific skills (14)- both of which are essential for netball performance. It is thought that carbohydrates assist by maintaining our blood glucose level, promoting usage of carbohydrates as fuel, and through supporting the central nervous system (11).
Type of carbohydrate
It is important to also note that little difference has been found in the type of carbohydrate consumed during a competitive match (15). This means that you can choose between carbohydrate gels, bars, sports drinks or foodstuffs to meet your carbohydrate requirement, and this will make no difference to its effect.
Recommendation #2: Make sure your hydration needs are met
All scientific evidence supports the idea that any fluid lost during playing should be matched by intake with fluid.
Hypohydration (insufficient fluid intake relative to fluid loss) will impact netball performance during games as prolonged periods of intense activity can impair endurance capacity and temperature regulation (16). Additionally, failure to appropriately hydrate can reduce blood flow to skin (increasing risk of heat stroke); which will increase the perception of effort and increase gastrointestinal discomfort (17).
In fact, a fluid deficit of 1.8% of body mass has been shown to significantly impair high-intensity exercise performance (18), and 2% of body mass will impair mental functioning (19).
Fluid loss in Netball
Usually in training and matches players are likely to lose 0.7-0.8 litres of fluid per hour- a rate thankfully usually met by players (20). However, environmental changes are likely to influence this rate of loss and needs to facilitate a greater intake in players. For example, indoor games will put a player under greater risk of dehydration due to inadequate airflow to assist convective cooling (21).
Fluid Management for Netball
#1 Always match your fluid intake to the amount you sweat
#2 Perform a fluid balance test to assess how much you sweat- this involves weighing yourself before activity (and after emptying your bladder), measuring how much you consumed during activity, and weighing again after activity. The difference in body mass pre and post exercise in lbs multiplied by 15.3 gives the fluid ounces of fluid lost.
#3 Start every training session and match fully hydrated
#4 DO NOT WAIT UNTIL THIRSTY! If you are thirsty, this means you are already dehydrated. Drink every 10-15 minutes if thirsty or not.
#5 Drink whatever fluid you prefer to allow (however options which allow added carbohydrate ingestion are better to aid re-fueling). Ensuring drinks are cold and sweet allows ingestion to be better tolerated.
#6 Taste sensation changes when dehydrated so do not plan to drink something new during a match, which you have not tried in training.
Recommendation #3: Do not ignore your protein requirements
Gym goers and weight training enthusiasts very rarely have to be pushed to get their required fill of protein post exercise. However, this is more of an issue with team sports such as netball.
This is emphasised further by the fact that a larger component of netball players is female and these athletes may feel it is not required. It is true that male athletes consume significantly more protein than recommended in the first 24 hours post exercise (8). However, can the same be said for female netball players?
The best guidelines suggest that players in a team sport such as netball should consume 20-25g of protein after training and/ or matches to initiate the recovery process and maximise muscle protein synthesis (23).
In order to meet their daily requirements for protein, such players should consume between 1.2g-1.7g of protein per kg of their body weight per day (5-6). However, studies show that often the degree of protein consumed is insufficient for their playing and development needs (24).
This demonstrates the evident need for netball players to consume sufficient dietary protein to ensure muscle protein synthesis is optimised for both recovery and future muscle development.
Recommendation #4: Think about other supplements!
Whilst there isn’t a lot of data on which supplements are best to support a netball player’s performance, there are some supplements which are worth considering if this sport happens to be your passion.
The intermittent bursts of high-intensity activity apparent in netball can be boosted by supplements which have a stimulatory effect on the nervous system (such as caffeine). In fact, a 7% increase in the volume of work during short duration sprints has been seen following the consumption of caffeine (25-26). This is an effect which seems to be maintained even when activity is repeated (27).
This ergogenic effect is attributed predominantly to blocking of adenosine receptors (28) which enhance performance due to increases in neurotransmitter release and greater rates of muscle firing (29). However, there is evidence performance is further boosted by facilitation of the central nervous system (30) and other cellular chemical reactions involving calcium (31) and sodium-potassium reactions (32).
Interestingly caffeine ingestion has also demonstrated to improve technical performance in rugby, facilitating improved passing performance when placed under pressure to pass rapidly (33). This is likely a transferable benefit for netball players who find themselves in a similar position and is likely due to the enhancement of the nervous system.
The benefit of creatine supplementation on increasing concentrations of total and phosphocreatine in muscle is well established (34-36).
For the netball player, this will likely mean an improvement in performance through attenuation of fatigue. In essence with greater stores of phosphocreatine, there is a reduction in adenosine triphosphate (ATP) degradation and greater resynthesis of phosphocreatine stores between episodes of intense activity (37). This translates to being able to sprint around the court faster and recover quicker between these bouts of maximal effort.
Additionally higher levels of phosphocreatine will allow greater usage of this form of anaerobic metabolism, rather than glycolysis which has the negative bi-product of accumulated hydrogen ions and lactate in the muscle tissue (36). Finally, creatine supplementation has also been reported to increase glycogen storage which would provide additional fuel for netball players during training and matches (37).
In order to gain these performance benefits a dosage of 20g per day for a course of 1 week can improve multiple sprint performance (38-39). This is particularly apparent when recovery between exertions is extended to between 50-120 seconds (38-39). As netball players are often required to perform stop-start episodes of sprinting with recovery between 40-120 seconds (40) it is likely creatine would be an assistive supplement. Additionally, it may even show benefits in other areas for netball performance, such as agility (41), lean body mass accumulation (42), muscle strength (43) and muscle power (44-45).
Take Home Message
The easiest way to summarise this article’s message is to state plainly that netball players should not consider themselves distinctly different than most other sports regarding their consumption of the key macronutrients (carbohydrates and protein predominantly). In fact what evidence there is suggests that they will likely enhance their performance by ensuring adequate intact of these nutrients alongside sustaining hydration.
Similarly, whilst creatine and caffeine are not often associated with netball performance, it is very likely that these compounds will provide an ergogenic effect to a netball player and are well worthy of consideration.