Can We Have a Real Conversation about Tennis Nutrition?

Picture of Coach Mullins

Coach Mullins

Last week I read an article about the seven 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.

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Can We Have a Real Conversation about Tennis Nutrition? — 6 Comments

  1. Hi David,

    My daughter is 16 years old. She is drinking 11 grams Whey protein before practice tennis (2 hours). Is this good or bad for her ?



    • HP,

      This a good question and there are a lot of contradictory voices out there when it comes to this topic. My opinion is that if it is a high quality whey protein product, your daughter has no digestive problems when during practice, she appears to be recovering well from her workouts, and her tennis workouts are quite intense then it is likely that the whey protein is having a positive impact. Whey protein is much more digestible than Casein so you are on the right track. There are also many studies that support drinking whey protein before workouts. Personally I try to stay away from supplement powders unless I am pressed for time or don’t have some natural products readily available. I am definitely not anti-supplementation by any means as I have a number of supplements I take on a daily basis, but I do believe that most people consuming a standard western diet already have more than enough protein to support muscle regeneration. If you believe your daughter is not getting enough calories to support her workouts or if she has a particularly hard physical day training then I believe she should take the extra supplementation. If she is consuming enough calories from her regular meals and has a lighter practice than it probably is not necessary. I hope that helps, but feel free to follow up.

      • Hi David,

        One hour private tennis lesson considers hard physical day training ? How about two sets of tennis?

        My daughter also drinks whole fat milk every day. Should she have non-fat milk instead ?

        Thank you


        • HP,

          I don’t think it would be necessary before a 1 hour lesson unless she has not eaten within a few hours of her session. If you believe she will be on the court for about 2 hours during the sets then have her drink it. Maybe use 2 hours as a good guide as to whether or not to take it.
          Stay away from any non-fat products. Fat gets a very bad reputation in the media. From my research about 60% of our diets should be made up with healthy fats, but again everyone is a little different. If you can source some more organic milk options I would highly recommend paying extra for it, but always get the full fat for the most benefits.

  2. Hi David

    My 12 years old sons playing tennis since one yeras, could you suggest the diet for them



    • Hi Shiv,

      I wouldn’t recommend any diet for a 12 year old, other than suggesting that you get him eating a well balanced array of foods from multiple sources. Ultimately you want to teach great eating habits, encourage experimentation and have him understand that what he puts in his body will impact his performance on the tennis court and in life.
      When it comes to his tennis avoid foods like gatorades and energy bars. Focus on fruits, nuts or home made energy bar options. Try and eliminate any soda’s or other sugary beverages and stick to water.
      Let me know if you have any more specific questions and I will do my best to help.