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Nutrition: Basic Nutrition for Tennis

(The information in this article was taken or adapted from the High Performance Coaching Program Study Guide.)

Whether preparing for the club championship or the US Open, a “healthy” diet and body can clearly contribute to a player’s quest to reach peak performance.  In short, what’s good for health is also generally good for tennis.  A player’s overall dietary needs on and off the court are typically pretty straightforward.  Unfortunately, some players will focus on trying the latest fad in nutritional supplements, using the rationale “this must be what I’m missing!”  With all of this information, nutrition for tennis can become more than a little confusing. Dietary strategies should be adjusted for such factors as a player’s age, fitness, level of competition, intensity of play, environment, time of competition, duration of play, amount of time between matches, as well as many others.  From a nutritional standpoint, preparing for a tournament match is further challenged by the unpredictability of getting on the court; a match that is supposed to start at 11 a.m. may not actually begin until 1:30. This raises questions like, “Should that player now have lunch or not?” and “What types of foods should the player consume during the delay to remain ‘peaked’ for competition?”
A wealth of comprehensive information on diet and nutrition as they relate to a healthy lifestyle can be readily found from organizations such as the American Dietetic Association (www.eatright.org) and the American Heart Association (www.americanheart.org).  Because of this ready supply of information, this competency will not focus on general nutrition guidelines to eating for good health, but instead will look at basic nutrition principles and other current nutritional issues as they relate to, and impact, tennis performance. The following information on match preparation, play and recovery is also generally appropriate for on-court training and practice; players should therefore incorporate many of the following suggestions into their training and practice routines, as well.

Importantly, the discussion and guidelines presented in this competency are tailored specifically to adults; unfortunately, there are not a lot of studies on nutrition and exercise performance with children and adolescents.  Finally, it is important that players, parents, coaches and trainers realize that the effectiveness of any sound nutrition program is greatly enhanced when integrated with proper training methods, periodization and adequate rest.

A Balanced Diet

A balanced and varied diet should provide all the necessary nutrients (carbohydrates, fats, protein, minerals, vitamins, water, etc.) to sufficiently support growth and development, regulate metabolism and bodily functions, maintain normal menstrual status, and provide adequate energy during training and competition. Given the widespread availability of varied and good nutrient-dense food choices, it is not difficult to maintain a well-balanced diet. Unfortunately, we all have our favorite foods, and habitual selection of these items may limit the intake of important key nutrients. Therefore, the guidelines of the United States Food Guide Pyramid (see below) can help players, coaches and parents to choose appropriate variety, proportions and balance in their daily dietary planning. This way, an adequate and regular intake of all the essential nutrients is not just left to chance.

All tennis players should limit the known nutritional risk factors that are associated with health problems and emphasize those nutritional guidelines that have been shown to promote good health.  A diet that includes too many calories, too much saturated fat, alcohol, or chronic vitamin, mineral or caloric deficiencies should be avoided by anyone interested in good health or good tennis.

The Food Guide Pyramid graphic is used with permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Energy Balance and Fuel for the Body

Players can readily expend a lot of calories on the court, especially during intense competition.  In fact, it is not unreasonable for players to expend 600-800 calories per hour during competitive recreational singles play.   It is important for players to balance this caloric loss during play by consuming enough calories and ensuring the meals contain all of the essential nutrients.

Which nutrients provide the most support for such an expenditure of energy? Carbohydrates, fats, proteins, water, vitamins, and minerals all are important for the tennis player; however, carbohydrates and fats are the primary sources of energy for tennis.  Fats are typically used for fuel during low to moderate intensity exercise.  However, as the intensity of play increases during a match and energy expenditure goes up, the body’s emphasis shifts to utilizing more carbohydrate and proportionately less fat for fuel. This is because the body can break down carbohydrates to supply energy for muscle contraction at a much faster rate than fat can be broken down and converted to usable energy.

The intermittent nature of tennis play reduces the “overall intensity” in a match.  In other words, there is not a continuous high demand for energy within any specific muscle group and some recovery can occur between points. Consequently, even during intense singles, fat is used to supply considerable energy throughout the course of the match. During the latter part of a tennis match, protein could become a contributor in meeting a player’s energy demands, especially if the pre-match and during-play dietary carbohydrate intake is inadequate. This, of course, is undesirable since it is typically muscle that is broken down to meet the increased energy needs of the body.

Players also need to consider that, as with any vigorous physical activity, playing tennis produces a considerable amount of body heat, which can cause a player’s core body temperature to rise.  Sweating is typically the most effective and most utilized on-court method for dissipating heat in either hot or cool weather. This poses a significant challenge to many tennis players since the water lost through sweat must be replaced to avoid dehydration and impaired performance.  If the fluid lost via sweat is no properly balanced by fluid intake on the court, a tennis player may become dehydrated and overheated, and likely will experience ‘premature’ fatigue and possibly lose the match. More severely, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, or even worse, heat stroke may ultimately ensue.

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