Eating well is a relatively simple lifestyle choice to adopt, if you don’t already. You don’t need to shop far and wide or visit alternative stores to find the healthiest and most nutritious food – most of what you should be eating are foods you’ll already be familiar with, and which are easily accessible at your local supermarket.
While good nutrition is of benefit to everyone, it’s invaluable for tennis players. That’s because so many elements of playing the game – practising, preparing for a match, contesting a match and recovering after competition or training – are influenced by what you eat.
You are what you eat
Eating nutrient-dense foods is associated with a lowered risk of developing many diseases, as well as increased energy and wellbeing. And receiving all the nutrients you need will help your body to function optimally, which is especially good if you’re training and competing.
A good rule of thumb for tennis players is to go for “real” foods that are fresh and minimally processed. Processed foods have typically been stripped back, dehydrated, grinded down or cooked, or pumped full of preservative and artificial chemicals, simply so that they last longer and are more conveniently consumed. These processes rob them of many nutrients, and resulting health benefits.
What should I be eating?
There are several nutrients you should be aiming to consume for good health. Here’s what they do, and where you can find them:
- Reduces inflammation, aids recovery
- Found in salmon, sardines, tuna, flax seeds and walnuts
- Aids in muscle development, strength and repair
- Found in red meat, chicken, fish, eggs, lentils and nuts
- Promotes bone development, good nerve and muscle function
- Found in dairy foods like yoghurt, plus almonds, some fish, and some dark green leafy vegetables
- Transports oxygen around the body
- Found in red meat, molluscs, pumpkin seeds, nuts, and whole grains
- protect against oxidative stress in the body, which can damage cells
- found in berries, other fruits and vegetables, green tea
What to eat before you play
Although there’s no “correct” way to fuel your body for training and competition, some general guidelines exist to help you work out what you should be aiming for.
Carbohydrates are one of the most important sources of energy, but not the only one. A meal containing a range of nutrients is best because you should also be consuming some protein and fats. Good meal options prior to your training or match that cover all your bases include:
- high-fibre, low-sugar breakfast cereal, with milk and fruit
- a wholegrain sandwich or roll, with lean protein like chicken or tuna plus salad
- a moderate serve of pasta or rice, with a tomato-based sauce
You want to ensure that when you take to the court for a hit, training session, or match that you have taken some time to let your meal digest. Otherwise, you may experience discomfort. Eating between two and three hours before being physically active should prevent this.
But the nature of tennis competition means you can’t always be sure when you’ll be taking to the court. If more than two or three hours passes between eating and playing, you’ll need to top up your energy stores so that you have enough in reserve to play. Carbohydrate-based snacks – a piece of fruit, or a muesli bar – are perfect for this, as are liquid meals such as smoothies or milk with Sustagen; these provide the right fuel without causing physical discomfort.
What to eat during a match
Many people don’t like eating while they’re being physically active, as the feeling of undigested food in the stomach can be uncomfortable.
Sports drinks are a good option in this case. They act as a source of fuel in the absence of food as they contain carbohydrates.
Should you want to eat during a match or training session, good choices include bananas and other fruits tolerated well, muesli bars, and even sandwiches with jam or honey.
What to eat after a match
After an intense match or training session, your energy stores will have dipped, your immune system become compromised, your fluid levels drained through sweating, and your muscles sustained micro-trauma. You need to quickly replenish your reserves by eating.
A balanced snack addressing all these deficiencies will enhance your body’s existing healing and recovery processes. A milk-based drink such as a smoothie – which rehydrates, contains protein for muscle repair, and carbohydrates and antioxidants in fruit to restore energy and immune health – is a great option.
You should aim to eat something within an hour of exercise, and the earlier the better.