A manicured lawn, crisp white shirts and an afternoon in the sun. No, it's not a garden party, it's a tennis match. Look closer and you will see the sweaty athletes locked in battle. Competitive tennis is no picnic.
Tennis matches last anywhere from two to four hours and test a players' strength, cognition and cardiovascular fitness. Junior players can play multiple matches in a day for several days in a row in high heat and humidity. According to Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals by the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition (SCAN) dietetic practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tennis requires 300 to 500 bursts of energy over the course of one match. Tennis players must train long and hard to have the agility, strength and endurance to last that long. Unfortunately, many tennis players come to the court unequipped to support the rigors of the sport.
As a sports dietitian and wife of a tennis coach, I have seen poor nutrition plans directly impact performance. Athletes can do all the work on the court and in the weight room, but without a sound nutrition plan they drag by the third set.
Here are four tips for improving your tennis game through nutrition.
Fluid and Electrolyte Balance
A 2007 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine followed male junior tennis players during the course of a tournament. Players were evaluated for pre-match hydration status, fluid loss and core body temperature. The researchers found that players who began match play without proper hydration were progressively unable to regulate body temperature throughout the tournament.
A more recent paper published by the NCAA Sports Science Institute and SCAN recommends an easy way to estimate daily hydration needs: divide your weight (in pounds) by two to get the minimum amount of fluid (in ounces) that you will need. For instance, a 160-pound person would need 80 ounces of fluid, or 10 cups.
Increase intake on days in which you are training hard or competing. Monitor urine color throughout the day and adjust intake accordingly. Urine color should be light yellow or almost clear. Hydrate at changeovers and between sets. Dehydration will not only affect strength and performance but focus and cognition.
Recovery Begins Immediately
Competitive tennis players may have less than 24 hours between matches. Short recovery periods such as these require immediate attention to hydration, replenishing glycogen and repairing muscle damage. Planning and preparation for recovery are imperative. Keep water, a sports drink and a source of “quick” carbohydrates in a tennis bag for quick access. Incorporate protein in the post-match snack to facilitate muscle repair.
Plan for Flexible Meals
With any sport, the meal eaten before competition is extremely important. Tennis is unique in that the start time of a match is not necessarily known in advance — and in some tournaments, players will be required to play multiple matches in a single day. Pick up the draw of any tournament and you will see start times stated such as: “Round 2 match not played before noon." This sort of scheduling does not lend itself to perfect meal timing. Set a plan for the pre-competition meal (about three hours before projected start time) and have an easily digestible snack available for an hour before competition.
Be Healthy During Travel Days
Whether at the amateur or professional level, tennis players have to travel often. Hitting the road for competition without a travel plan in place can throw healthy eating off track. Before leaving, identify restaurants and healthy menu options. Make a travel snack bag that contains transportable foods such as fresh fruit, low-fat or fat-free dairy, jerky, trail mix and bagels. Proper fueling is so important when a four-day tournament is on the horizon.
In tennis, winning often rests on the mental and physical strength of the athlete. I can't tell you how many times I've seen this scenario: As the player on the far side of the net starts to drag, the fitter and more energetic opponent realizes the opportunity and picks up the pace. You don't even have to watch to know how it will end. In a sport where the athlete stands alone on the court, any edge — including nutrition and hydration — can mean all the difference.