Longtime NBA trainer opens up about some of the worst things players eat

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Hess is the Director of Performance for the Denver Nuggets, and has been with the organization for 20 years. The man who oversees all of the team’s weight training, conditioning, stretching and nutritional programs joined FOX Sports for a Q&A courtesy of his partnership with MET-Rx, which is all about helping athletes take their training to the next level. We discussed player nutrition, the use of wearable technology in the NBA, and Nikola Jokic’s breakout season. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

FOX Sports: One of the crazy things that we hear about NBA players, especially the young ones when they first come into the league, is how terrible their diets are. You’ve obviously been around a lot of players, what are some of the worst dietary habits that you’ve seen?

Steve Hess: Here’s the problem: Because of the schedule and how crazy our scheduling is — it’s not like some sports where you have the luxury of playing one game a week — sometimes we have four games in five nights, in four different cities. So it’s kind of, get whatever you want. The other thing is, a lot of times your sleep patterns are messed up, you’re getting in at two or three in the morning. So there’s a bad habit where people under-fuel — they want satisfying meals that fill them at the time, but it comes down to what they can get.

Some of the worst things that I see are, and I hate to say this, but it’s American foods — processed big, thick burgers, chicken wings, then they put the sauce on there, or a hot dog that’s processed with all this garbage on there — I’ve seen this before they play a game, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t even know how you live,’ because it’d take me eight hours just for it to clear my system. So what we try and do is try to educate that the ultimate fuel for your system is food. You can’t run an appropriate system with that type of fuel, and the thing that we try to encourage is pre-planning.

FS: I’ve been surprised at some of the meals I’ve seen in locker rooms, after the games. There’s a spread out there and it’ll be fried chicken fingers, pizza sometimes, and it amazes me that teams wouldn’t go to greater lengths to make sure their guys had some better options.

HESS: This is where the problem comes in. The most important thing is that the guys — it’s absolutely imperative — if they don’t eat right after, then they don’t replenish their glycogen stores. … I’m partners with MET-Rx, and we’re able to provide specific drinks that have the appropriate amount of carbohydrates and protein right after activity. Then they’re more unlikely to eat something that’s bad for them after they’ve already replenished their glycogen stores. … I don’t know what’s worse, having bad food or not having any food at all. And I hate to say this, but I’d rather have bad food. So in order to avoid the bad food dilemma, I want to pre-plan. I want to create unbelievably nutrient-dense food that tastes amazing, so they’re inspired to eat it. And wherever possible, have them fill up on that food, and if they have to have garbage, then eat it afterwards.

FS: Totally makes sense. Shifting gears here, how much do you guys use the wearable technology that’s available to help keep players healthy and performing at their best?

HESS: We have specific devices that we use to monitor our players during practice, and then we utilize the data as best we can to put a package together which I can then take to coach to determine practice levels, playing levels, or if we can go to cities early. So we’re doing a much better job with that, which is pretty exciting. But the bottom line is, to do all that, you still have to have the coach’s buy-in. And then you’ve got to have player buy-in, because you’ve got all these amazing devices that you want them to utilize to track things, but if only four out of the 15 players wear it, it doesn’t necessarily help you. I think our guys have been amazing wearing them, and it really helps to give us a good picture so we can act on that picture. We’re not getting data to write a research paper, we’re getting data so we can actively help these players right off the bat.

FS: You mentioned the player buy-in part and how important that is, I’m not sure how deep you get into this stuff but as part of the new collective bargaining agreement, the NBA and its players are going to form a wearables committee to review the use of the technology, which could obviously impact the team-wide data if players push back against it.

HESS: The reason why we do it is for the longevity of our guys. It’s not for me to get data. I have one goal: It’s how do I make a player better? And we’re going to do whatever it takes to help these guys — prolong their careers, make them better. We use wearable devices because we’re working as a team trying to win a championship, to make you better within the realm of what the coach wants. This is all for you! It’s for you and the coach and the team.

FS: You’ve got a couple of young guys that are going to be participating in some of the All-Star weekend festivities. The guy that’s getting a lot of the national attention this season is Nikola Jokic, who’s having a phenomenal second season. What have you seen from him? How much of his development do you attribute simply to his physical development?

(Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
NBAE/Getty Images

HESS: All the credit goes to him. He’s bought into the whole system. He came into Denver at 296 pounds, he’s 265 right now. He’s dedicated to the process, he works with the entire team to get better daily.  His nutritional habits are amazing. What he does amazes me, his ability to understand the game and continue to learn the game is amazing. But the most amazing thing about the man? Joker is humble. He’s humble and he’s hungry. He’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever worked with, and I think he’s a stud. You can’t teach seven feet, the skill that he has with his hands and his ability to understand the game, you can’t teach. Will he ever have a 44-inch vertical leap? I don’t think so, but we’re moving in that direction.

FS: What advice would you give to the weekend warrior basketball types? What’s the best workout they could do to stay in shape and to keep active playing basketball, kind of for the average person?

HESS: I love this question. If you look at the sport of basketball, it’s a run and jump sport. I would start slow, but I’d make sure to do some running, and I would make sure to participate in a basic strength program. I’d do some cardiovascular basketball-specific training, which would include both slower running and faster running I would do in intervals. And I would do some jumping, but again, that doesn’t mean 700 jumps. I would be really careful how I load my system, so it’s progressive. And then I’d also do some basketball-specific stuff before actually playing, just to get my nervous system and everything ready. What I see happening is, guys wait 20 years and then they try to play the same way they did without preparing, so I would prepare. Most importantly, I’d make sure I was in good shape before I played any sport if I was a weekend warrior. If we’re smart in our approach, not only can we have fun, but we can utilize the sport as a healthy outlet. I love the whole aspect of competition, even when you’re 60. But you have to be smarter about it.

To answer your question, what one workout would I do? I can’t because I don’t know if you haven’t played for three years, seven years, 20 years. I don’t know your age, I don’t know if it’s a lady. You can’t generalize. But generally speaking, you’ve got to think through the process. Then we build up to it, and then we have the best time of our lives.