By Benita Lalor
Tennis Australia Sport Science Unit, Nutrition
Next time you see your favourite player serving a double fault or making a poor decision at the start of the final set, it may be the result of their petrol tanks running on almost empty or them suffering from the negative effects associated with dehydration.
Tennis is a game of skill, speed, and endurance; it requires a mixture of physical and mental toughness. With players continually looking for a competitive edge over their opponents, nutrition is justt one of the sport sciences that can help players find that edge.
The nutrition strategies used in preparation for tournaments are not just about ‘eating healthily’. Many top players work closely with a Sports Dietitian to develop competition nutrition plans that ensure they’re well hydrated and with plenty of energy available on all the big points, at all the right times.
Their food and fluid choices prior to matches certainly have an impact on how they perform. So, have you ever given thought to what players actually eat before they take centre stage?
Carbohydrate-rich, low-fat choices such as sandwiches and fruit feature prominently on the menus of most players.
Another general rule of thumb is for players to choose familiar foods that are easy to digest. As match start times are often unpredictable, this approach also allows players to have some flexibility within their typical eating routine.
In waiting to play, like when the preceding match enters an unexpected deciding set, players will adjust their fluid intake and may need to top up with carbohydrate snacks.
A lack of available energy (due to the body running low on carbohydrate) as well as fluid and electrolyte losses are major contributors to player fatigue. Carbohydrate rich snacks or sports foods can be eaten by players during matches to ensure a constant delivery of fuel.
This becomes particularly important during long matches. This may be as simple as a banana or players may use sports foods such as a carbohydrate gel and sports drinks to meet their energy needs.
Throughout matches played in hot conditions, players need to pay extra special attention to their fluid intake. This is to help minimise the chances of them experiencing the performance-reducing effects of dehydration. For example, dehydrated players often fatigue earlier, exhibit slower reaction times, make poorer decisions and suffer from impaired coordination and timing than their well hydrated counterparts.
It’s not uncommon for on-court temperatures to soar above 40 degrees during the Australian summer of tennis.
It is here where the experience of a Sports Dietitian comes to the fore: they can calculate sweat rates and monitor how well players are matching their fluid intake to suit. The sweat rates of tennis players vary considerably but generally range between 1-2.5L/h. The extent to which players can rehydrate during a match or training in extreme conditions may be limited, so specific post-match rehydration strategies may be required (see below).
Players’ sweat composition can also be analysed by a Sports Dietitian to identify sodium (salt) losses. This information together with the players’ fluid preferences is used to design individualised fluid plans. While water can help replenish fluid losses, certain players will benefit from consuming drinks that contain some carbohydrates-electrolytes. It is for this reason that you may have noticed players keeping their own supply of fluids courtside.
Players’ competition nutrition plans do not cease to apply when they walk off the court. To recover effectively between matches, players need to replace fluid lost in sweat, refuel (their petrol tanks) with carbohydrates and consume some lean protein to assist with muscle repair.
By way of example, players unable to stay hydrated over the course of a match will need to consume 1.5L of fluid for every 1kg of bodyweight lost. Meeting all of these nutrition recovery goals will help to ensure that they are in the best shape to take to the court for their next match.