By Page Love, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD, USPTA & Jessie Hulsey, Dietetic Intern
Salads are often seen as a boring weight-loss food, but they can be a great option for tennis players looking to fuel their performance. Fresh salads can be optimal for recovery, but in order to replace what was lost during activity, they must contain more than just greens. As a nutrition consultant for both the Women’s WTA Tour and Men’s ATP Tennis Tours, I often see even professional players choose incomplete meal salads not realizing how these choices may negatively impact their performance. The following will help you perform your best, but still obtain optimum, healthy nutrition from your favorite salad meal with a few tweaks!
Complex Carbs – muscle energy choice
Complex carbohydrates are the tennis player’s best friend and serve as the primary source of energy because of our higher intensity anaerobic energy needs. Complex carb toppings for salads could include beans, beans, corn, or peas. Another option is to put a starch on the side such as pasta salad, baked or sweet potatoes or a legume/lentil soup. You can even brighten up your salad with addition quick energy carb toppings such as dried or fresh fruits like oranges, grapes, apples, various berries, dried cranberries, or raisins.
Protein – muscle building blocks
Protein is an essential building block of muscle and organ mass, and it helps repair and build muscle post-exercise. Some excellent protein sources to top your salad include eggs, chicken breast, beef, fish, and plant-based sources like tofu, garbanzo beans, or edamame. Aim for a palm-sized portion of meat to meet an adult’s minimum protein needs for a pre or post tennis meal. Dairy proteins can make great additions to a salad meal as well, including feta, blue or goat cheese crumbles. They help you to better meet your needs for calcium, too.
Healthy oils – back-up energy sources
Tennis players also need healthy oils, especially those from unsaturated sources like olive oil, avocado oil, and pumpkin oils; also consider nuts, seeds, or whole avocado. Oils are an excellent energy source and deliver vitamin E and other building blocks of anti-inflammatory agents in the body called “prostaglandins” that protect cells from damage and aid in quick recovery. If you’re watching the fat intake, opt for a dressing made with vegetable oil and vinegar, like balsamic vinegar or Italian vinaigrette.
Variety of Veggies – antioxidants for recovery
Explore adding tomatoes, beets, carrots, cabbage, artichoke hearts, onions, mushrooms, peppers, cucumber, broccoli, and other colorful foods to your salads. The rich color spectrum choices, especially the deep reds and purples, have been proven to lower inflammation and speed muscle recovery time.
Flavor Check – and even more benefit
Be a little creative and make salads an opportunity to explore new flavors! Spice things up with an ethnic twist such as an Asian Sesame dressing, and mandarin oranges or Southwest ranch dressing, black beans, corn, and salsa. And consider adding herbs such as cilantro, parsley, dill, and ginger. Fresh herbs add a twist of flavor and additional anti-inflammatory benefits. The options for salads are endless once you have the basics down!
Extra, Extra – performance balance
If you find your entrée salad a bit light or missing some of the important categories mentioned above, don’t be afraid to order off the menu. Pairing a salad with a complex carbohydrate-based side choices guarantees you will be satisfied and meeting your nutrient goals. Some appropriate choices include whole-grain dinner rolls, crackers, black bean or lentil soup, or a baked potato.
Here’s one simple sport nutrition-packed recipe packed with key performance nutrition and flavor:
Roasted Sweet Potato & Apple Kale Salad with Honey-Lemon Vinaigrette Dressing
Makes 2 servings
3-4 cups kale
1 sweet potato
1 Fuji apple
2 Tbsp walnuts
2 Tbsp goat cheese
1/2 cup diced roasted turkey/chicken breast*
Honey-Lemon Vinaigrette Dressing
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp honey
1 Tbsp lemon juice (1/2 a lemon)
2 tsp apple cider vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
*For easy mealtime, opt for pre-cooked roast turkey breast and dice it up. You may also chop up the breasts from a rotisserie chicken!
1. For Roasted Sweet Potatoes: Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Dice sweet potatoes into small cubes and toss with olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Spread evenly onto a non-stick baking pan and roast in oven for 25 minutes. Let cool and refrigerate until ready to prep salad. Sweet potatoes will be served cold on the salad.
2. Prep other ingredients for salad by chopping and washing the kale, slicing the apple into thin slices, chopping walnuts, and dicing turkey or chicken.
3. Build salad by combining all ingredients together in a bowl. Top with a sprinkle of goat cheese and drizzle of honey-lemon vinaigrette.
Recipe makes two salads- Each salad should have 1.5-2 cups kale, 1/2 a sweet potato, 1/2 an apple, 1/4 cup diced chicken/turkey, 1 Tbsp goat cheese, and 1 Tbsp chopped walnuts.
In conclusion, these are your key reminders for building an athlete’s salad:
- A balanced salad meal includes both a complex carbohydrate and lean protein from both lean meats, vegetarian proteins and/or dairy sources
- Choose a variety of colorful vegetables for antioxidant/anti-inflammatory nutrition
- Be creative and spice things up with various herbs, spices, and dressings
- Include a healthy oil source toppings such as nuts, avocados, and olives.
- Don’t be afraid to add an extra carbohydrate-based side option to help you feel fuller and promote recovery
- Try various flavor combinations to keep things interesting!
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. Jessie Hulsey is a dietetic intern with the Life College Dietetics Internship program doing a rotation with Nutrifit and Page. She is completing her masters in Nutrition from University of Alabama and looks forward to working with sports dietetics and wellness nutrition in the near future!