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Fuel Your Tennis Performance: Nutrition and Hydration for Club Players

Have you ever watched what tennis players do as they change ends or take time between sets? They always have some fluid and sometimes have a cereal bar, a banana or another similar type of snack. The fluid they swallow can be just plain water or some sort of energy drink – but it is likely to be both. A normal tennis match will take well over an hour and the research is clear: after playing for an hour, water is not enough to keep the body working at a high level! Players need to replenish the electrolytes that they have lost in playing so energy drinks are essential. In this article, Anne Pankhurst, Academy Director for The David Lloyd Leisure Tennis School at intosport.com, provides some very useful advice and guidance to help club players develop good nutrition and hydration habits for tennis.

When you watch, for example, Andy Murray carefully, notice that at every change of ends he first has a few swallows of water, then a few of his energy drink – and he repeats this 4 or 5 times, finishing with water, at every change of end. Even in the tie break change of ends he has a few mouthfuls of water as he moves around the net. Eating during matches seems to vary between players in terms of frequency and regularity, but most have a few bites of an energy bar or a few bites of the ubiquitous banana, especially as the match progresses. If you watch tennis regularly you will see the same pattern of behaviour with every player. You will also notice that the players maintain almost the same standard of play at the end of the match as they did at the beginning. One of the keys for this performance is clearly fitness, but even being fit will not help you if you become de-hydrated and lack energy.

Could you make the same observations of yourself or of other players in your club? Club practice is probably very different! Are there different attitudes to hydration and diet with pro players and club players? And assuming club players want to improve - can they learn from the pros to help them do so? Is hydration and diet important in tennis? Does what happens before and after the match matter? The answer to all these questions is yes!

The first objective for a player at any level is a balanced diet with regular meals

Let’s start your diet and with what happens every day and then think what changes might be good before, during and after practice. Andy attributes much of his success on court to his physical programme as we know, but he has also made huge changes to his diet to underpin all his hard work. He is reported to sometimes take on as much as 6000 calories a day in training. He has though all, but eliminated fast food. Let’s look first at eating for tennis

The first objective for a player at any level is a balanced diet with regular meals that will give enough ‘fuel’ for general day to day living, training and matches. It is important to have a regular intake of protein and carbohydrates as well as fats and fibres – the five a day rule is a good one. You also need to balance your food intake with your exercise output – you are probably unlikely to need Andy’s 6000 calories a day unless you are training very hard and for long periods. Where tennis can be a difficult sport in which to think about diet and getting your energy levels right is that there is no real season. When you do compete you could play several matches in a day: and you never know how long each match can take! So a daily high quality diet is a basic need and then you need to think about how to prepare for a hard practice session or a match or a tournament.

One secret of the pro players that you could tap into is to understand what and when they eat – fuelling up with energy from complex carbohydrates like pasta, cereal and bread before a match is important because of the ‘slow release’ nature of the energy this gives you. On the day of the match breakfast is important, again to build the energy stores you will need (try to avoid fatty foods because they take a long time to digest). Make sure you eat three to four hours before you play or practice so that you have time to digest the food before you play. If you know you have a practice after school or work, make sure you have lunch so your energy levels are high and you can play hard.

Tennis tournaments rarely keep to time so if you have a delayed match make sure you have a carbohydrate snack such as a sandwich or cereal bar about an hour before you play.

During the match or practice session.

We have already discussed what the pro players eating a few pieces of cereal bar or banana at intervals during a match – try and do the same to keep your energy levels up. The longer the match or practice, the more important this is. Avoid snacks like chocolate bars because they just give you a quick boost and do not rebuild your energy stores. And make sure you just eat small portions at a time.

After the match or practice sessions.

This time is very important to get right. You should try very hard to make sure you have some complex carbohydrate and protein very soon after playing. Both have been proved to be necessary to help your body recover more quickly. Eating within 30 minutes of playing would be best, but logistics (or simply not feeling like eating!) make this quite hard for most players to do. If you have another match quite soon, then have a sandwich, cereal bar dried fruit, fruit juice, milk shake or yoghurt and a banana, first to help you recover and secondly to get your energy levels back up again

Drinks Bottle

Now lets think about fluid and hydration

Hydration is very important. You probably know that you can exist for quite long time without food, but water is a different story! Feeling thirsty means you are already dehydrated and your ability to play well has dropped sharply. You will probably also feel tired. The pro players know that and that is why they drink regularly on court. But they have also built up their fluid reserves before they go on court too! Some club players only take water on court when it’s hot, but playing can make you dehydrated even on a cold day.

Before you play.

Make sure you are well hydrated before you start, by drinking about 500ml of fluid - water is fine - the night before and again about two hours before you play. This keeps you well hydrated and also give you time to excrete any excess fluid before going on court in your body.

During a match or practice.

Remember to take enough water and your sports drink when you play and get used to swallowing two or three mouthfuls at every change of ends and between sets in a match or at regular intervals in practice to help you balance fluid losses. Just like the pros, if the match or practice goes on more than an hour, make sure you drink your sports drink. Remember that different drinks suit different players so make sure you find one that suits you. During training follow the same routine of re-hydrating so you are familiar with the routine.

After a match or practice

Try to consume a little more than the fluid you have lost. This will usually be about 1-1.5L of fluid for each hour you played. Drink as much as you comfortably can and then continue periodically. Remember that just because you stop feeling thirsty does not mean you are fully hydrated. Let’s think about the key issues about using diet and hydration to improve your tennis!

To play at your best:

  • Make sure you always have a balanced and adequate diet.
  • Make sure you have complex carbohydrates some time before you play and that you have small cereal bar type snacks in your bag for a long match or practice.
  • Make sure you have a protein and carbohydrate meal within an hour of finishing play so that your body can recover more quickly.
  • Begin the process of hydration the day before your match or practice
  • Always start a match or practice well hydrated.
  • Take enough water and the sports drink that you like onto court.
  • Drink a few mouthfuls of fluid at each change of end and also between sets in. Do this at regular intervals in practice too.
  • Rehydrate after practice or a match even if you don’t feel thirsty.

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