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Fuel Sources

by: Ed McGrogan | September 11, 2009

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Energy products have swept the sports world, but should you believe the hype? Here’s a guide to which ones will give your game a jolt and which you should leave on the shelf.

By Alyssa Shaffer

If you asked a tennis player 20 years ago how he or she fueled up for matches, you might have gotten a blank stare. “Energy foods” were limited to bananas or a bowl of spaghetti.

But today athletes are acutely aware of the importance of eating for their sport, and tennis players are no exception. “My eating habits are very important to my success on the court,” says James Blake, who consults with a nutritionist and consumes precise amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and water each day.

Between sets or practice sessions, he eats high-carb energy bars. Afterward he breaks out a higher-protein bar. And during a match it’s not unusual to see him open up an energy-gel packet (a highly concentrated, high-carb food that’s easily digested) along with Evian water (one of his sponsors) to refuel and rehydrate. “People don’t realize how much work goes into it, but the wrong fuel can definitely compromise your performance,” Blake says. It’s not just pros who think this way.

“The energy-foods market has exploded in the past few years,” says Page Love, M.S., R.D., L.D., an Atlanta-based nutritionist who counts Blake and other tour players as clients. “There are five times as many people using energy foods and drinks compared with a decade ago.” But are sports drinks, bars, gels, and other energy products more hype than help when it comes to improving oncourt performance? “To an extent, it depends on how well you tend to eat in general and how long and hard you play,” says Michael Bergeron, Ph.D., an applied physiologist and assistant professor at the Medical College of Georgia who’s also a member of the USTA Sports Science Committee. “If you follow a healthy diet, you’re not playing for too hard or for too long, and it’s not too hot, you’re probably fi ne just drinking water and having some kind of high-carb meal a few hours before your match. But if those conditions change, sports drinks and some special foods may be beneficial.”

That said, not all energy foods and drinks are equally appropriate for tennis players. Here’s a look at the good, the bad, and the unnecessary when it comes to fueling up.


Gatorade, Powerade, and other highcarb sports drinks are perhaps the most widely accepted and applauded energy products. “Most of these drinks are scientifically engineered to have the best absorption in your body, providing energy, electrolytes, and fluids when you need them most,” says Susan M. Kleiner, Ph.D., R.D., the author of Power Eating (Human Kinetics, 2001).

A solid amount of research backs the effectiveness of these drinks. One recent study by Bergeron found that players who consumed sports drinks had lower average body temperatures while playing than those who drank water, which could translate to more energy and endurance. But having too much can be problematic. “If you already have a lot of carbs in your system, drinking a carb-rich beverage can upset your stomach,” Bergeron says.

Drinks like Accelerade, which contains both carbs and protein, help muscles recover faster after exercise. One recent study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found these drinks were 15 percent more effective in rehydrating athletes than conventional sports drinks and 40 percent more effective than water. Other research has shown that even simple chocolate milk can improve recovery after a workout.

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re playing for less than an hour, stick to water; otherwise drink about 16 fl uid ounces of a sports beverage one hour before your match and another 5–10 fl uid ounces during play. After you play, look for a drink that has both carbs and protein.


Red Bull, SoBe Adrenaline Rush, and other energy drinks have become popular among younger players who are at the receiving end of major marketing campaigns. Most contain caffeine (usually about the amount in a small cup of coffee) and herbal additives that promise to give an instant energy boost. But are they helpful to tennis players? The experts are divided. “Studies have definitely shown that caffeine can improve athletic performance,” Bergeron says. “In sports like cycling and running, caffeine has been shown to help athletes go longer, utilize carbohydrate stores more efficiently, and raise adrenaline.”

But what may be good for an endurance athlete like a runner doesn’t necessarily translate to the court, Love says. “They’re just not appropriate choices for tennis players—they have way too much caffeine, which can be dehydrating, and they’re loaded with sugar, which can have an adverse effect on your bloodsugar levels and leave you feeling jittery or lightheaded.” For those reasons, and to determine if there are patterns of misuse among pros, caffeine is now on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of monitored stimulants for tennis. Herbal additives are also questionable. Leslie Bonci, R.D., C.S.S.D., director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says that many additives, like Guarana, are basically herbal forms of caffeine. She adds that they can have possible side effects, like dizziness, when used with some prescription drugs.

BOTTOM LINE: If you react easily to caffeine, the weather is particularly warm, or you haven’t hydrated well, stick to sports drinks over energy beverages. If you’re accustomed to caffeine and you want to give it a try, do so on a day when you’ve already had a lot of fl uids and you don’t have a big match on the line.


It seems like there’s an endless variety of energy bars on the market, and each has its own marketing promise. Traditional bars like PowerBar and Clif Bar Energy Bar usually are about two-thirds carbohydrates and are best for getting amped up before play. Higher-protein options like Balance Bar or Zone are better for after a match, to help your muscles recover. Some bars also serve as a meal replacement for times when you don’t have a chance to eat a whole meal, Love says.

BOTTOM LINE: Choose your bars wisely. If you’re fueling up with a quick bite before a match, eat a higher-carb option one to two hours before you hit the court. After you play, eat within two hours for optimal muscle recovery, and look for a bar that has about 20 grams of protein (slightly more for men), Kleiner says. And remember that energy bars aren’t low-calorie— most average between 200 and 300 calories per serving.


Once the sole province of distance runners and cyclists, energy gels and chews have found a place on the tennis court. Most are high-sugar and designed for quick, easy digestion. “They’re a good way to get energy in the form of carbohydrates when you’re in a hurry,” Love says. Gels, like Gu or PowerGel, can make you especially thirsty, so be sure to have them with water (avoid ingesting sports beverages and gels at the same time, since too many carbs at once can upset your stomach). Newer items like Clif Shot Blok (which has a gummy-bear–like consistency) and Jelly Belly Sport Beans have both sugar and electrolytes to help you replace what you’ve lost through sweat. You can also try an old standby, like honey, which is now being marketed to athletes as a fast and simple fuel option.

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re in a marathon match, gels and chews can help replenish lagging energy in a hurry. Just be sure to drink at least a cup of water (5–10 fluid ounces) to stay hydrated.

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