By Page Love, M.S., R.D., CSSD, USPTA
Anyone can give 100 percent during a two- or three-hour tennis match, but it’s the preparation leading up to the match that ultimately determines who wins or loses.
Nutrition pre-planning is one of these important factors for tennis players, especially if you have specific dietary restrictions, including vegetarian, lactose intolerance, gluten free and gastrointestinal issues. If you are packing for a tournament or tennis camp, this article may help maximize your performance on location.
Research supports that a tennis player’s diet should be higher in carbohydrates, moderate in protein intake and lower in fat. This dietary approach ensures optimum glycogen (stored glucose) levels, which are essential for lasting longer on the court. One mistake many traveling tennis players make is that they do not continue these steps during the travel period leading up to tournaments or in preparation for the long training days of summer tennis camps. Presented here are specific tips/suggestions on foods to pack, specifically for players with special dietary needs or special health issues.
Consideration of specific nutrition and health needs are the key to proper planning. Tennis players should consider not only the location in which they are competing, but also their own individual dietary health concerns. An important aspect of nutrition planning for travel is taking into account how it affects each of these issues and what products to consider to help manage food issues.
Vegetarian Travel Considerations
Vegetarian tennis players who need to find a vegetarian meal might be more challenged to meet their nutritional needs when traveling. It is essential to plan ahead and become familiar with the key foods to choose at restaurants to help meet your needs, as well as travel with some key sport nutrition foods that will assist in meeting those needs. Most tennis players need a minimum of 25-30 grams of protein at lunch and dinner. This might require up to double the visual volume of vegan protein to get the same grams of animal protein. Traveling with some vegetarian shelf-stable food items might be necessary.
Vegan and vegetarian protein choices:
• Bean burritos
• Beans and rice
• Legumes and legume-based soups
• Meat alternatives: soy, tofu, tempeh, seitan, meat analogs
• Nuts and nut butters
• Pasta with cheese
• Soy and rice dairy
• Veggie burgers and sausages
• Veggie ground round in sauce
Portable vegetarian choices:
• Energy bars
• Hummus in portable sealed pouches
• Nuts, seeds, trail mixes
• Portable packages of protein powders
• Soy or rice milk in portable boxes
• Soy jerky
Lactose Intolerance Travel Considerations
Lactose is the sugar found in animal milk products. Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest milk and milk products due to the deficiency or absence of the enzyme lactase that can lead to symptoms like gas and diarrhea. Many tennis players do not digest dairy easily. Traveling lactose-free can be challenging with all the dairy-derived ingredients often found in food products. One of the nutritional challenges with a lactose-free diet is adequate calcium intake. If athletes avoid dairy products, they may be at risk for calcium deficiency. Calcium is an essential nutrient for both bone health and electrolyte in the bloodstream that helps with muscle and heart contraction. One cup of milk, 8 ounces of yogurt or 1.5-2 ounces of cheese ranges between 200-300 milligrams of calcium. To obtain the needed calcium, it is important to find foods fortified with both calcium and protein. If these foods are not available, tennis players should consider nutrition supplementation during travel. Calcium needs for most tennis players range between 1,000-1,500 milligrams per day. Also, consider bringing lactose-free but calcium-rich products in individual sealed containers.
Lactose-free sources of calcium:
• Butter: soy margarine, olive oil, margarine spreads
• Cheese: soy, rice, almond, pea
• Milk: soy, almond, pea, lactose-free cow’s milk
• Yogurt: soy, pea, lactose free
Gluten-free Travel Considerations
These days, going gluten-free is common among tennis players especially because many top players, such as Novak Djokovic, follow this diet. Tennis players may in fact compromise their complex carbohydrate energy intake if they avoid too many foods for fear of gluten. Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye and barley, and in derivatives of these products (i.e., malt). A gluten-free diet limits all of the above and any derivatives of gluten. Those who have celiac disease have a permanent intolerance to gluten. However, there is no advantage to avoiding gluten for those who do not have gluten intolerance. Traveling adds another level of challenges to the gluten-free diet. Despite restrictions, athletes with celiac disease can still enjoy a wide variety of grains, including corn, rice, soy, potato, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, amaranth and legumes/lentils, as these are all naturally free of gluten.
Practical sport nutrition meal choices on a gluten-free diet:
• Bananas, oranges, apples, melons
• Carrots, broccoli, green beans, squash
• Popcorn, rice crackers
• Rice or corn flour-based grains in breads, pastas, bagels, muffins, cereals
• Rice, quinoa
• Starchy vegetables (corn, peas, white and sweet potatoes, etc.)
Gluten and dairy-free sport bars and chews:
• Boom Choco Boom Bars
• Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews
• Kind Plus Gluten Free Bars
• Raw Revolution Bars
Travel Considerations for Gastrointestinal Issues
Gastrointestinal (GI) problems occur when the mucous membrane of the digestive tract is inflamed, irritated or infected. Gastrointestinal problems can last from one day to more than a week, depending on the source of the condition. The causes of GI distress are numerous, with the most common being food allergies; side effects to medications; gastrointestinal illness such as reflux or irritable bowel syndrome; and stress-induced symptoms or “nervous stomach.” The most common symptoms of gastrointestinal distress include abdominal pain and cramping, bloating and distention, constipation or diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, and heartburn or reflux.
Tennis players who experience GI distress can avoid discomfort and illness by following a safe and familiar diet. Of course, foods that athletes tolerate well differ from player to player, but there are some general guidelines to follow.
Foods to avoid or consume sparingly:
• High-fiber foods: whole grains, nuts, raw vegetables
• Acidic foods: fresh orange or grapefruit juices, tomatoes, tomato sauce, salsa
• High-fat foods: fried foods, fatty meats
• Caffeine: coffee, black teas, soda, energy drinks
• Spicy foods: chili peppers, curry, mustard
• Peeled and cooked fruits and vegetables, white breads and dry crackers
• Pear juice, apple juice, ginger and chamomile teas, water
• Skinless chicken, turkey, tuna, lean lamb
• Herbal teas, ginger ale
• No added spices or condiments
• Probiotic yogurts, pear juice, ginger drinks
Page Love is a consultant for the ATP and WTA professional tennis tours and a member of USTA Sport Science Committee. For more information, contact her at nutrifitga.com.