Last week I read an article about the 7 foods every tennis player should eat. It was the same age old sports nutrition 101 about eating pasta, chugging Gatorades, having energy chews on hand at all times, and, my all-time favorite, ensuring you have a chocolate milk to get that all important protein after practice. I can’t believe that this kind of garbage is still being pushed out to the general public, and I don’t understand why more people are not questioning these nutritional practices.
Firstly, the more I learn about nutrition, the more I realize what we don’t know. There is so much advice out there and whether you are following a paleo diet, a vegetarian diet, a ketogenic diet, or just eat a standard western diet, you probably believe that you are right and everyone else is wrong. Kind of like religion, I guess! Basically you probably are right about your dietary choices IF it is working for you, and you are free of illness and have abundant energy. Well intentioned nutritionists and doctors will be happy to provide you plenty of advice. But unless they have put you through rounds of genetic and food allergy testing, they really have no business telling you how to eat and what foods you will best respond to, both in life or on the tennis court. Every person is unique and processes foods in different ways. What is good for me may not be beneficial for you, and vice versa. I might thrive after eliminating eggs from my diet while you might need 3 eggs a day to be at your best. There are so many factors at play when it comes to nutrition, including (but not limited to) our genes, sleeping patterns, stress levels, the types of toxins we are exposed to, the amount of sun we get and many, many more.
Sure, there are general best practices as not everyone can afford to get all their food allergy ratios tested, but common sense tells us that consuming products with tons of ingredients that we cannot pronounce can’t possibly be good for our long term health. Yes, it may benefit our performance and maybe even our recovery (which I doubt) in the short term, but so do many natural products without the long term downside.
Unless you are following a ketogenic diet (I don’t know of any professional tennis players that are), you will need to be consuming sugars and carbohydrates during your tougher training sessions and matches in order to provide sustained energy and to stave off hormonal and metabolic downregulation. Just because a food is energy dense does not mean that it is nutrient dense. Stay away from all the sugary energy gels and sports nutrition bars. Instead make some of our own easy-to-digest, nutrient dense energy bars or balls at home. You can make these with nuts, fruits, seeds, or buy some bars at your local health food store with as few ingredients as possible.
This idea that we need protein within 20-30 minutes of finishing a workout has been proven to be wrong. You only need the extra protein if you are trying to gain significant muscle, will be working out again within 8 hours or if it has been several hours since your last meal. Chocolate milk does have a good ratio of protein to carbohydrates but the amount of sugar and the indigestible nature of dairy for most people does not make it a good post workout recovery drink. Instead, buy a high quality protein powder and mix it with some coconut milk and some leafy greens if you really need to consume some protein after practice. Remember, not all matches and practices are equal so having someone tell you that you should eat certain foods every 20 minutes during practice or after practice is not good advice. There are probably many days when we don’t need to supplement anything as long as we are having nutrient dense meals. You may have a very technical workout with your coach that did not require too much physical effort, or you may have won a match 6-0, 6-0 and not be playing again for a couple of days. Unless you are really trying to gain muscle, it’s best to listen to your body and be honest about what you need nutritionally. Your body expends a great deal of energy digesting food and some foods are more digestible than others. Do you want to save that energy for the tennis court or have it wasted on digesting an unnatural product that is probably not benefitting your health or your performance?
In short, you should eat as much protein as your body needs for repair and recovery (about 0.55 grams per pound of body weight) unless you are trying to build mass. Consume the rest of your calories from healthy fats and vegetables.
On and off the court, you should experiment with your diet and figure out what really works for you. It’s important to educate yourself about the many inflammatory foods out there you are probably consuming that are impacting your performance, your recovery and, more importantly, your long term health. I am not going to tell you what you should eat, I am simply providing some better options, asking you to really explore the nutritional advice you have been provided up until now, and to not fall victim to the intense marketing campaigns out there backing these nutritional sports products. I have figured out exactly what works for me with a lot of trial and error and self-experimentation. Although what works for me won’t necessarily work for you, I encourage you to keep experimenting until you find what does work for you, therefore enabling you to take your game to the next level.