If you’ve watched tennis matches on TV, you’ve probably seen how the pros drink from several different bottles of liquids during their changeovers.
Rafa Nadal, for instance, is particularly fussy about his fluids. He carefully lines up several drink bottles near his chair, takes a sip from one, caps it, then takes a sip from another, and places it precisely next to the other bottle.
Okay, so that’s a bit obsessive. But when you watch players like Rafa or Novak Djokovic pull out another grueling 5-set final, it’d only be natural to say, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
So what do the pros drink to replenish fluids and keep their energy levels up during a long match? What are the best choices for you? Let’s start with the basics, before we get to the pros’ choices.
Is water enough?
Certainly the bare minimum for proper hydration would be to drink plenty of water. And you should start drinking water well before your match. Players who sweat a lot like Andre Agassi and John Isner actually start hydrating the night before their matches.
You should drink at least 2-4 cups of water in the two hours leading up to your match, according to Dr. Gary Windler, Medical Advisor to the ATP World Tour.
But is water enough? There’s plenty of evidence that—on a hot day or during a particularly long match—water won’t do the complete trick.
Sweating depletes sodium (salt) and other minerals in your body. Not having enough sodium can cause muscle cramps, fatigue (even if you’re in good shape), and “fuzzy-headedness” during matches. In the worst case scenario, it can lead to nausea, headaches and even seizures according to Mike Bergeron, Sports Science & Medicine Consultant with the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour.
So at the very least, you need to replenish the right amount of sodium lost through sweating. You also need to replenish certain electrolytes (minerals) that are essential to avoid cramping.
Electrolyte drinks replace these key minerals and salts. Electrolyte drinks include sodium and chloride (salt), potassium, magnesium and calcium. These electrolytes help your body stay hydrated better. Electrolytes also help balance your body’s pH level (acidity) and control your fluid levels.
Electrolyte drinks have been around for years. You’ll recognize some of the more popular names, like Gatorade and Powerade, which you can buy at your local supermarket. You should aim for an electrolyte drink that contains at least 15 mg of sodium per ounce.
Here’s another fact you may not know. Sports drinks with sodium (salt) dissolved in them actually reach your bloodstream faster than plain water. That’s because fluids are absorbed by your gut faster when their “osmolality” more closely matches your body fluids—such as your blood. Osmolality is the concentration of dissolved particles in a fluid. Sports drinks have more minerals dissolved in them—hence, they’re absorbed into your bloodstream faster.
What’s more, the sodium in electrolyte drinks stimulates your thirst. So you’re more likely to take a drink during your match and stay better hydrated with a sports drink than when you drink just plain water.
You can get many of these electrolyte drinks in powder form and mix them up yourself to save money. A quart of Gatorade made from powder, for instance, can cost as little as 50 cents. Another advantage of using powders is that you can dilute them with extra water on hot days when you will be sweating more and will need more water.
If you really want to save money and still benefit from electrolytes, you can make your own electrolyte drink. Just add 1/2 teaspoon of salt into 2 quarts (1.91 liters) of water. You can also add just a touch — ¼ cup — of orange or fruit juice for a hint of flavor.
Electrolytes + Carbohydrates
Of course, water and/or electrolyte drinks can’t replace the energy that you burn up during your match. And replacing that energy is critical, if the match is going to last more than an hour. So the next step would be to drink something that helps replenish glycogen, which is what muscles use for energy.
Glycogen is produced from quick-digesting carbohydrates. Taking bites of a banana can help. So can a sports drink that provides about 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per liter. The main carbs to look for are sucrose, dextrose, glucose and maltodextrain—a relative of glucose. You should try to keep the carb content below 60 grams per liter to avoid getting bloated. Some experts say you should choose a drink that has between 5-8% carbs, or around 60 to 70 calories per 8 oz. Drinks with a higher carb content (such as sodas or orange juice) are too concentrated, which may delay absorption. You should also avoid drinks with fructose, to avoid bloating.
These carbs will give you an extra boost of energy since the sugars will be absorbed quickly from your stomach into your bloodstream. In fact, according the USTA, consuming a carbohydrate drink during matches has been shown to help players maintain more power and accuracy on their serve and ground strokes during a long match.
But be mindful of the calories in many of these sports drinks! If you’re not going to be burning up a lot of energy on the court, you may want to opt for some of the lower-calorie versions, such as Powerade Zero or Gatorade G2. And you certainly wouldn’t want to be consuming these drinks off-court as an everyday refreshment. Some experts note that the unique mix of sugars and additives in sports drinks can erode tooth enamel even faster than sodas. So use them sparingly and strictly for sports nutrition and high-energy activities.
Proteins and amino acids
Let’s kick it up a notch. After electrolytes and carbs, sports drinks start to get high tech. Some add protein, amino acids (component parts of protein), vitamins, and nutrients such as carnitine.
Protein promotes endurance and helps repair muscle damage. Lifting weights, for instances, causes muscle fibers to break down. It’s this breakdown of muscles that causes soreness the next day.
In addition, if your body doesn’t have enough carbohydrates for energy during a workout or tennis match, it begins to consume protein. And it gets this protein from your muscles, which causes the muscles to break down.
So the extra protein in the some drinks gives your body the nutrients it needs to repair your muscles and produce new muscle tissue.
There’s also research that shows sports drinks with protein may hydrate you even better than conventional sports drinks. That’s because the protein boosts the “osmolality” once again, the absorption rate that we mentioned before, much like minerals do. So an electrolyte + carb + protein drink may be your best bet overall for hydration.
Some sports drinks leave out the protein but contain essential amino acids such as glutamine, leucine, valine, and isoleucine, which can accomplish the same thing and may be easier to digest than protein.
What about Coconut Water?
Coconut water is a hot new performance drink that has, in fact, been around for centuries in the tropics.
Coconut water is simply the clear liquid found inside young coconuts. It’s low in calories, fat-free, and packed with natural electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium and even small amounts of essential amino acids. And of course, there are no artificial colors or preservatives. It is NOT to be confused with coconut milk, which is high in fat and squeezed from mature coconut meat. Coconut water is 95% water.
But unless you’re stranded on a Pacific island, coconut water is going to be more expensive than popular sports drinks. If you really like the taste, you may want to use coconut water along with water for hydration. But coconut water is lower in carbohydrates and protein than popular sports drinks.
Some brands of coconut water may even have as much as 11 to 12 grams of sugar and up to 60 calories per serving. So coconut water may not be well suited to regular training and competition as other sports drinks.
Drinking the right fluids right after a hard match or practice can help you recover faster, too. Otherwise you’re likely to be more fatigued, have prolonged muscle soreness, and not build muscle as quickly or at all. Studies have shown that eating and drinking certain foods up to two hours after a workout can improve your recovery time.
Let’s stick with drinks for now. The goal of your post-exercise drink should be to replenish glycogen stores in your muscles, and to boost protein (and muscle) synthesis. Having a drink with carbohydrates can help with the glycogen. Carbs also promote the release of growth hormone, which helps with protein synthesis and helps your muscles to recover.
A good drink to have after a match or workout would be a whey protein smoothie. Whey protein isolate is very low in fat and is absorbed very quickly by your body. Whey protein also contains essential amino acids such as leucine that help maximize protein synthesis and muscle rebuilding. You can get a good whey protein isolate powder at many supermarkets, health food stores and supplements stores that serve bodybuilders.
And believe it or not, another great drink to have after a match is—chocolate milk! Compared to plain milk, water, or most sports drinks, it has double the carbohydrates and protein content, making it perfect for replenishing tired muscles. Its high water content replaces fluids lost as sweat, preventing dehydration. Plus it packs a nutritional bonus of calcium, and includes just a little sodium and sugar — additives that help recovering athletes retain water and regain energy, according to the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. So if you like the taste, try chugging some cold chocolate milk after your match to boost recovery.
Some popular brands of sport drinks
“Isotonic” or Electrolyte Drinks
Gatorade Endurance Formula (for endurance athletes)
Low-Calorie Sports Drinks
Gatorade Performer G2
Nuun Active Hydration (easy-to-carry, flavored electrolyte tablets that you drop into a water bottle – a favorite of runners)
Electrolyte and Carbohydrate drinks
Carb + Protein Drinks
Gatorade Recover 03
Cytomax® Protein Pure Performance (contains whey protein for recovery)
Check out these brands for yourself. See which ones you like, how much they cost, and whether they’re available in your area.
How do you know you’re well hydrated?
When you’re not on the tennis court, the answer is easy. If your urine is very pale, almost clear, you are well hydrated. Some experts say you should consume enough fluids during the day leading up to your match so your urine is light pale or clear before you walk onto the court. That’s often 16 to 20 oz of fluid in the hours before your match.
On court, however, that’s a little tricky to test. So instead, if you feel thirsty at all, chances are you are getting dehydrated. By the time you are thirsty, you may have already lost 2% to 3% of your body weight in water. Performance drops off at the 2% dehydration level, according to Dr. Windler of the ATP.
You should automatically take sips or gulps from your bottles during changeovers, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Never skip an opportunity to take a drink during a changeover.
You should also hydrate well after a match, too. Some players can lose as much as 2 liters (67 ounces) of fluid per hour. That translates into about 4.2 lbs. per hour. Top pros and competitive players can sweat even more. Grand Slam winner Jim Courier recalls sweating off eight pounds. Giant John Isner, who trains in steamy Tampa, Florida, says he once dropped nine pounds during a two-hour practice session.
If you’re serious about hydration, weigh yourself before and after your match. Any weight loss is due to fluid loss. So try to replace that fluid with 20 ounces of liquid for every pound you lose, after you finish your match. (Hint: do not weigh yourself in your sweat-soaked clothes, but in your underwear or dry tennis clothes.)
Things to avoid
Nearly everyone agrees that drinking anything carbonated isn’t a good idea before or during your match. The bubbles will churn up inside your stomach.
The jury is out as to whether caffeinated drinks like coffee or tea or green tea can be good during or before matches. I personally find that having one strong coffee an hour before a match helps me stay focused and concentrate better. There’s a lot to think about in a close match. If coffee or tea helps you concentrate better off the court, why not add it to your hydration regimen?
However, sports nutritionists strongly recommend that you stay away from so-called “energy drinks” like Red Bull or Rockstar that contain massive amounts of caffeine. These drinks can actually speed up the pace of dehydration and increase your risk of muscle cramping.
So what do the pros drink?
This stuff isn’t discussed openly in forums and articles. It’s part of the “secret sauce” – tiny little things that top pros do to get an edge in their matches. But we can gather some information from what the pros endorse.
The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour has endorsed Gatorade as their official sports drink. Andy Roddick has endorsed Aquiss, a concentrated sports drink. Maria Sharapova has endorsed Gatorade; so has Serena Williams. John Isner reportedly drinks coconut-spiked water that’s high in potassium.
Gil Reyes, Andre Agassi’s famous fitness coach, had Agassi drinking a secret concoction called “Gil water” starting the night before a match, and continuing all day before and after a match. (If anyone has a clue what Gil Water contains, let us know!)
And what about Rafa? Rumor has it that he endorses Herbalife products and is using the company’s LiftOff energy drink. According to a company-related website, LiftOff is “an exclusive blend of L-taurine, guarana, caffeine, Panax ginseng and Ginkgo biloba clinically proven to enhance mental performance and boost energy.” Nadal also reportedly uses Herbalife’s ShapeWorks Nutritional shake as a recovery drink after matches.
Many other top pros have their own personal nutritionists, who formulate a custom mix of electrolytes, carbs, and proteins for them. Sometimes these are in powder form, which the pros pour into water bottles for their matches.
The best choice for you
Bottom line: if you’re a serious competitive player, or if you are going to be playing and running for more than an hour, you should probably use a sports drink along with water.
In my humble opinion, the best choice isn’t an either-or situation. It’s to use a combination of the above. I personally alternate during a match between a few sips of an electrolyte-carb drink such as Gatorade or Powerade and a few sips from a bottle of filtered water. And if you watch the pros carefully, you’ll notice that many of them do the same. Hence, the reason for multiple bottles near their chairs.
Many experts recommend a ratio of 2 to 1 – 2 parts water to 1 part sports drink. That means bring 2 half-liters (40 oz) of water to the court, along with 1 half-liter of a sports drink. Double this amount if it’s a particularly hot day or you anticipate a long match.
After a match, you need to keep hydrating. You can make up for lost carbohydrates and protein by eating a carb-rich and high protein snack or meal.
There’s no single hydration strategy that works for everyone. But if you watch the pros closely, you’ll notice that they are very careful about their hydration and energy levels while on the court. They’ll take sips from their water bottles, sips from their energy drinks, and nibble on a banana, energy bar or have an energy gel during their match. Fitness is important. But so is keeping up your body’s natural energy levels throughout a long match.
If you have any comments on this topic or inside information on the pros’ choices, please let us know by adding your comments below.