By Page Love, MS, RDN, LD, CSSD, USPTA
What is normal fueling for tennis? As a sport dietitian working with both the ATP and WTA Tours, I have had a chance to observe the eating habits of some of the best players in the world. Many, but not all of them, do a very good job being intuitive with their sport nutrition fueling. This holiday season, how can you approach your eating in a less judgmental way, still enjoy the celebrations, and still help your body to peak to play your best tennis? The answer is to learn how to be more a fuel-based eater, sensing when your body needs fuel and honoring that, not depriving yourself of needed nutrients as a sacrifice to lose weight in the New Year!
Here are my top 5 screening questions to consider as you enter your path to a healthier, more nutritionally intuitive top tennis shape in 2022:
- Do you feel you eat in response to your tennis training needs, pre- and post-fueling and hydrating for your tennis and additional tennis training workouts?
- Are you open to all foods, trying not to categorize foods as good or bad, and eating a full variety of foods that your tennis body needs from all major nutrient categories?
- Are you struggling with any physical symptoms from any nutrient deficiencies or excesses, for example, low iron or high lipids or blood sugar?
- Do you feel you have established normal tennis training sport fueling behavior (eating regular meals, not skipping meals, eating every 3-4 hours, open to snacking when hungry)?
- Are you able to partake normally in social eating events around tennis — snacking from the ALTA food tables at matches, as well as able to celebrate with your teammates on occasion such as holiday and end-of-season celebratory events?
So, let’s back this up with a few reminders from previous articles that have hopefully laid the groundwork for being able to answer “yes” to each of the self-care fueling for tennis questions above.
It is necessary to allow both a high carbohydrate pre-fueling snack before matches and practices such as: salty, grainy snacks like pretzels or a high-carb energy bar with 20-24 oz. of hydrating liquids one hour before you play. If it is breakfast, toast and dab of peanut butter with a glass of juice can work too. Allow a quickly digestible food for recovery, such as chocolate milk or a smoothie with protein, within 30 minutes after your match.
Don’t avoid important food groups that are critical for maintaining your muscle mass and helping you to recover. For example, allow dairy nutrition to help your bone health, if not cow’s milk, consider protein- and calcium-fortified non-dairy alternatives like oat milk or almond milk. If you are vegetarian, also make sure to eat adequate protein to meet your body’s needs; most adults need 20-25 grams of high-quality protein at mealtime. This could mean a can of beans or 1/2 block of tofu or better yet, a high-protein veggie burger such as Beyond Meat or Impossible Burger.
If you are iron deficient, you may not be eating enough protein, especially red meat protein. As a sport dietitian, I recommend that athletes eat lean red meats once a week for an iron boost. If you are vegetarian, take a multi-vitamin with 10-15 mg iron (minimum), plus consume more fortified sources in cereals, energy bars, and noodles at the same time as consuming a vitamin C source. If you have high cholesterol or blood sugar, be reasonable about your intake of these nutrients. You can choose more unsaturated fats to lower your cholesterol such as olive and avocado. If you have high blood sugar, choose more whole grains and natural sugars, but still allow the occasional holiday treat to not feel deprived. But do so after a meal so you won’t have as much of an elevated blood sugar response.
Aim to eat every 3-4 hours to fuel your body for a tennis training diet. For most of us, this means eating three meals and one or two snacks per day. There’s no room for skipping meals; and ideally responding to your hunger within a short period of time allows an extra snack or serving if you have had a heavier training day or longer match — which may mean an extra-high carbohydrate bar or an extra scoop of pasta or beans at your dinner meal.
Don’t deprive yourself when it comes to social eating, but if you tend to splurge at special events or buffet tables, don’t arrive hungry to the meal or match. You need to arrive in a well fueled state. You will find that you can be more moderate with your choices and be more portion aware. For example, if you have your pre-match snack the hour before you arrive to the courts, the cookies on the ALTA match table will not be calling your name and one will be satisfying and not spoil your play!
In conclusion, I want to share with you “Page’s Definition of Being An Intuitive Tennis Fueler”:
Being an intuitive fuel-based tennis player is using a hunger-based fueling approach to balancing your food intake to your training level. It is eating when you are hungry, but also eating when you feel more hunger after you have trained more or had a longer match. Don’t second-guess yourself. Instead, feel comfortable that you have given your body what it needs to be fueled and recover. It is allowing an appropriate high-carbohydrate energy source before you play tennis and an appropriate recovery source within a reasonable time after you play. It also is not compensating in any other part of your energy intake when you allow extra food for training, but instead trusting your body to use this extra intake for fueling and be stored as needed energy.
Fueling for your tennis training also means eating freely without judgment or comparison to others based on daily training needs — even if you have multiple training sessions in your day. It is not cutting back your intake significantly if you have an off day, trusting that you need that stable nutritional intake to help your body be refueled for the next day. Normal tennis fueling means that you will not exercise off your caloric intake for your day and that you value that your body needs a baseline energy intake just for normal functioning. You also acknowledge that you must fuel enough to cover both normal daily activity needs and your tennis training needs, which are in addition to this baseline. It is being comfortable with your food intake for your training level and being positive about your athletic body, knowing that it is the shape and size it needs to be, based on your self-care patterns of fueling your body properly.
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.