Refilling the Tank

For years I’ve brought a banana to my tennis matches. It seemed like the perfect pick-me-up food. It has carbs. It has potassium. It has a peel so your hands don’t get sticky.

Besides, I used to see Nadal and Sharapova chowing down on bananas during the changeovers. Hey, if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me!

But lately I’ve been seeing fewer bananas on the court and more energy gels. The pros tear open the foil packets and squeeze the gel directly into their mouths. It all looks very science-y and futuristic, like something astronauts would eat.

I started wondering if I needed to up my refueling game, so I turned to Page Love, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD. (Whew, that’s a lot of credentials.) A former Division 1 college player, Page currently serves on the Sports Science Committee for the USTA and as a nutrition consultant for both the men’s and women’s pro tours.

I asked Page for some mid-match refueling tips for the recreational league player. Here are the major takeaways from our conversation:

  • Bananas aren’t enough. The key electrolyte lost in sweat is sodium, not potassium. Plus, fructose–the main sugar available in bananas–may not be digested as readily as other carb sources.
  • Sodium is key to replenishing your body. “Despite the negative messages about salt, active players need more salt than the average person,” Page says. She even advises her tour-level clients to add a packet of salt to their Gatorade.
  • Page recommends pretzels for mid-match fuel. Not only do they provide sodium, the carbs are easily digested and light on the stomach.
  • During a match, you want carbs, not protein. “Protein is fine after a match, but your body doesn’t utilize protein well during activity,” Page says.
  • Energy bars can help you refuel, but make sure they’re high in carbs, like CLIF bars. Look for bars with 10g of protein or less.
  • Although many pros use the energy gels, Page doesn’t recommend them. Many contain caffeine, which may raise your heart rate and cause you to sweat more. I asked her what the gels taste like. “They’re dense–kind of like eating cake frosting,” she says. (If you’re thinking about trying an energy gel, check out this taste test published in TimeOut. Reviewers’ comments include “it’s like pie filling, but for a really cheap pie” and “tastes like a scientist’s approximation of a strawberry.”)
  • Although water may be adequate during the first hour of play, by the second hour your body needs more. Page advises bringing both water and a sports drink like Gatorade to the court and having a swig of both during changeovers. Be sure to have a minimum of two liters of fluid available for your match.
  • If you dislike Gatorade, or simply want less sugar, you can make your own sports drink with a ratio of one-third apple juice to two-thirds water, plus a packet of salt for your sodium.
  • You need to refuel for mental focus, not just physical energy. Although I don’t usually get physically tired playing, I find my focus flagging after two hours. According to Page, there could be several causes for this: low blood sugar, low sodium, or simple dehydration. A sports drink could be just what I need to keep my mind in the game.

Finally, I wanted to ask Page about a particular commercial running during the French Open. In it, Sloane Stephens claims to “bounce back” with chocolate milk. Oh, please, I thought…but as it turns out, Page does recommend it for post-match recovery. “It’s fluid, it’s protein, it’s light, it’s carbohydrate, and it’s not too high in sugar,” she explains. Who knew? But save it for after the match–it’s too high in protein to use during play.

Page is an incredible sports nutrition resource–there’s no way I could include all her insight in a single post. Fortunately for us, Page offers nutritional consulting to run-of-the-mill tennis players, not just to the sport’s elite. She’s based in Georgia, but she’s happy to do a consultation by Skype. So if you have specific nutritional concerns, shoot her an email at nutrifitga.com.

 

Has anyone tried the energy gels? What do you use to refuel?

7 thoughts on “Refilling the Tank

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  1. I’ve always found fruit to digest so quickly that I’m left hungry again after a brief amount of time. I like Luna bars!

  2. I’ve been focusing on protein so much lately. I like the idea of using carbs for fuel and then protein for recovery. I’m not a fan of pretzels, but I could go for some popcorn.

    I find Gatorade too sweet, so I cut it with water. When I get home, I put a splash of Gatorade in seltzer, which I think tastes great.

    Caffeine has been shown to boost performance. I don’t think it’s wise to have a lot. But a square or two of dark chocolate, perhaps? Or maybe a mix of pretzels, chocolate and dried cranberries — then I wouldn’t mind eating the pretzels.

    Now I’m getting hungry!

    As always, you’ve provided truly useful advice. Thanks.

  3. Following Page’s advice, I brought a Gatorade and water to my match last night…and I lost! I’m going back to my banana! 😂 (Just kidding, of course. Our opponents were just plain better. Nutrition can only do so much…)

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