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The Sports Nutrition Secrets of Tennis Players

Tennis Player
(Image credit: Unknown)

A grand slam tournament like Wimbledon is, as you might imagine, physically demanding, with intense matches lasting up to several hours. So what exactly are the professionals eating to help them perform for that long?

“Advances in sports science over the past decade have seen the diets of tennis players’ change dramatically. Science has helped the sport understand the nutritional demands of the game,” says Rebecca Stevenson, medical director of Abbott Nutrition UK (opens in new tab) and former head of sports nutrition for the Lawn Tennis Association.

“Performance nutrition now plays an integral role in every professional player’s daily routine. Tennis is an intermittent exercise with short bursts of activity highly dependent on carbohydrates for energy. Getting the right fuel and fluids is critical to their performance and must meet the demands of the game and support recovery.”

We asked Stevenson to explain what top players eat to prepare, sustain and recover from a five-set match.

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Breakfast

Breakfast on the day of a match should be made up of slow-release carbohydrates to sustain energy levels. For example, a typical meal would include oat-based cereals, porridge or wholemeal cereals with low-fat milk, yogurt and fruits (berries, dried fruit), or eggs and baked beans with wholegrain or granary toast. It’s also important that plenty of fluids – fruit juice or water – are taken with breakfast.

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Pre-Match

A pre-match meal should be timed to be 1½ to two hours before the match, which can be difficult thanks to match scheduling – especially with outdoor tournaments where rain can disrupt the schedule. The meal should provide plenty of energy from carbohydrates (pasta, rice or cereals) and should consist of simple, plain foods that are low in fat to reduce the risk of gastric discomfort during the match.

Hydration is an important part of a player’s daily routine as performance is affected by even the smallest degree of dehydration and players have specially formulated sports drinks containing electrolytes (salts). We recommend they sip sports drinks one hour before a match, ideally stopping 15 minutes before the warm-up to reduce toilet breaks, but the good news is that the electrolytes in the drinks also help retain fluid.

During the Match

The player will need to drink their sports drink throughout the match to help replace fluid loss and provide energy. Powdered sports drinks can be diluted to different concentrations depending on how much energy is needed, which in turn depends on the exertion of the game and weather conditions. For instance, a less concentrated drink prioritises fluid over energy. Players will need between 500-1,000ml an hour depending on the conditions, so they will sip at every change of ends.

Some players use isotonic gels or energy bars during the match to top up their energy levels. The gut does not have an abundant blood supply during high-intensity activity as the blood is directed to the exercising muscles, which is why normal solids foods are not well tolerated during exercise.

Post-Match

The recovery process should start immediately. Players need protein for muscle recovery now because this is when the body is the most receptive to refuelling. Usually the player’s support team will provide them with a recovery protein shake immediately after leaving the court to start the process.

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Evening Meal

At the end of a match a player’s energy stores are depleted, so the evening meal replaces lost energy to enable the player to recover. This meal should consist of plenty of carbohydrates such as rice, pasta, bread and cereals for refuelling. Lean proteins such as chicken, fish, beans or pulses help to repair muscle damage and in turn reduce muscle soreness and injury risk.

Fluid recovery is just as important as refuelling so each player needs to replace lost fluids by drinking water and electrolyte drinks. The salts in these drinks support faster rehydration. Sleep is also crucial to the recovery process.

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