By Page Love, MS, RDN, CSSD, USPTA, and Missy Diaz, Dietetic Intern
Now that summer is here, we all want to be outside playing our favorite sport safely in the extreme Atlanta heat and humidity. Have you ever experienced muscle cramps in your legs or general heat illness during or after a long match? In this article, we will review how to prevent and better manage these issues. Muscle cramping can be debilitating at times, but with preventive care, you can be back onto the court playing again in no time!
First, let’s look at the origin of muscle cramping. Muscle cramping is when there is an involuntary contraction of one or more muscles when they are tired from a hard workout or a sport that is played for an extended period. Muscle cramps can happen in any part of the body. However, the most affected muscle groups are in the gastrocnemius, hamstrings, and quadriceps. Muscle cramps also can occur in the feet, hands, arms, abdomen, and rib cage. There are several risk factors that can increase cramping: high heat, humidity, poor hydration, and lack of stretching. Here are the key areas to consider when we are preparing for tennis to avoid or lessen cramping.
Sweating depletes the water and electrolytes from your body. Cramping can occur when nutrients are lost faster than they are replenished. Cramping is one of the first indicators that your body is working extra hard to keep cool. When a tennis player cramps in hot weather, the main nutritional factors are low water intake, excessive sweating, and loss of electrolytes during the current and previous games, resulting in sodium deficiency. Tennis players may lose a significant amount of perspiration as well as a considerable amount of water, up to 2-3 liters an hour in women, and 4-5 liters an hour in men. Dehydration, heavy sweating, and a lack of sodium cause the gaps between muscle cells to narrow, placing pressure on the nerve and producing cramping. Some nutritional snacks you can eat to prevent depletion of sodium are pretzels, whole grain crackers, pickles, tomato juice, and a higher carbohydrate energy bar. Some sports beverages you could consider high in sodium are Powerade, Gatorade, and Biolyte. There are even higher levels of sodium beverages for heavy sweaters, such as Gatorlyte, Ultima, and Endurox.
Tennis players use their upper body, lower body, and core muscles when they are playing a match. Stretching is required to activate muscles. Stretching keeps the muscles flexible, strong, and healthy, which is important for joint range of motion, and it helps with preventing injuries. Without stretching, muscles shorten and tighten. Stretching prevents cramps by helping your muscles get warmed up. For tennis players, dynamic stretching is recommended before matches. This type of stretching involves moving parts of your body and gradually improving reach, speed of movement, and flexibility. Dynamic stretching is controlled movements of the arm and legs — stretches should be held for about 20 to 60 seconds. Per USTA recommendations, some examples of dynamic stretching are lunges, side shuffles, leg swings, knee to chest tucks, and high knees.
Hydration is the key to preventing cramping and preventing dehydration. If we are going to spend several hours on the court in the heat, we need to make sure we have plenty of water but also include sports drinks that provide electrolytes, especially sodium. Drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after your match. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, hydration should start taking place 24 hours before our match. Two hours before the events, athletes should drink 16 oz. of fluid, this allows the body to absorb and excrete any additional fluid. During the event, athletes should be drinking fluids at regular intervals and 4 to 8 oz. at every change over. During your match, drink sports drinks that have a good amount of carbohydrates and electrolyte balance. After matches, beware of your sweat losses by knowing your sweat rate — the volume of fluid you lose during a typical match. You can weigh yourself before and after a match to make this determination. Basically, a pound of fat loss equals 2 cups of fluid, so plan on 2 to 3 cups immediately in recovery. Also checking your urine color pre- and post-match is a simple gauge of your hydration status. Pale yellow — and not clear — urine is the goal.
Be mindful of the temperature and the time of day you are playing. Stretch before and after your match. Play safe and be healthy!
One thing that every tennis player at every level should be aware of is “what is our body telling us?” Our body will tell us if we are overheated, if we need fluids, or if we need rest. Being aware of your body signals can prevent cramping because this also can prevent injuries.
Page Love is an avid ALTA participant and sport dietitian/nutrition advisor for the WTA and ATP professional tours, served on the USTA sport science committee for 25 years, and has a private practice in Sandy Springs. You can reach her at nutrifitga.com. Missy holds a BS in Dietetics from Life University and is currently finishing her dietetic internship. She plans to have a private practice specializing in health and nutrition for athletes in the near future.