Thursday, September 2

NBA players always in training

By Dr. Steven M. Traina
Member of Professional Team Physicians

The National Basketball Association has undergone fundamental changes over the last few decades, from the way the game is played to the salaries the top players command. What has remained constant is a grueling, 82-game schedule that can gradually grind down even the most well-conditioned athletes.

To field a healthy team for the full season -- and to protect investments that run well into the millions of dollars -- NBA teams put their players through a battery of tests during training camp, and follow up with in-season and off-season conditioning programs.

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"The players come to camp in much better condition than they did several years ago," said Dr. Steven M. Traina, head team physician for the Denver Nuggets. "It's a year-round job. Most of our players have been working out together prior to camp, having informal workouts. Guys just don't go fishing and then show up and play basketball."

Unlike professional football or baseball, NBA training camp is relatively short, lasting about one week before the start of exhibition games. Before players can begin practicing, however, they must go through a series of tests.

On the first day of camp, the Nuggets players are examined by an orthopedic specialist, an internal medicine doctor, an eye surgeon, and a dentist, as well as by a physiologist and the team trainer. They are given flu shots, and rookies are given hepatitis vaccinations. Players also receive counseling to determine whether they want to get an HIV test.

An exercise physiologist administers a test called a "VO2 max," which involves a stationary bike and measures oxygen uptake during maximal exercise. Players' strength and flexibility is measured by the team's strength and conditioning coach.

Benchmarks are adjusted for different body types. "A point guard should have a body-fat ratio of about seven to nine percent, while a center is going to be about 11 percent," Traina said.

Though most players play in summer leagues, the training camp routine of two-a-day workouts inevitably puts strain on the body. The most common injuries Traina sees are ankle sprains, jammed wrists, dislocated fingers, Achilles tendinitis, and jumper's knee (patellar tendinitis). As the season progresses, the toll of playing three or four games a week usually reveals itself in stress fractures to the lower extremities.

To keep players healthy through the dog days of February and March ? particularly rookies, most of whom have never played more than 35 games in a season ? the Nuggets have a strength and conditioning program that is adhered to throughout the season. This focuses on strengthening the thigh muscles (quadriceps) muscles as well as improving flexibility and keeping weight down. "The heavier you are, the slower you are, and the greater the chance of stress fractures," Traina noted.

Players also lift weights regularly, a practice that once was frowned upon in the NBA.

"People used to think in basketball that if you lifted weights, you couldn't shoot because you'd be too muscle-bound," Traina said. "These guys spend a lot of time in the weight room. You look at the athletes now compared to 20 or 25 years ago, and they're cut, they're muscular. Karl Malone is huge."

The players are not the only members of the Nuggets organization to rack up frequent-flyer miles. During the offseason, the team's strength and conditioning coach flies around the country to visit each of the players, and spends a few days with them reviewing their workout routine and talking about nutrition.

"He'll go and spend three or four days with them, go to the gym, make sure they're doing a routine," Traina said.

Steven M. Traina, M.D., is team physician for the Denver Nuggets and a member of Professional Team Physicians.