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Please…Don’t Feed the Players

Posted on July 1, 2010 in Health & Nutrition Miscellaneous

Never again in the history of men’s tennis will there be a match that shatters and sets as many records as the first round Wimbledon match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut. I read a quote from the great Johnny Mac, commenting on what the two had accomplished, “It’s Herculean what they’re doing. … I had to come pay my respects.” That quote really hit home with me especially considering that it was stated by one of the men to previously hold two “Longest Match” records against Mats Wilander and Boris Becker.

What was displayed athletically truly was Herculean, but what was equally, if not more impressive, was the physiological strains and barriers these men grappled with and their level of performance in pushing through conventional limits.  From a dietary standpoint an 11-hour match nearly warrants three square meals. Add to the fact the both men were starting, stopping, sprinting and jumping for the title of a professional tournament, and you have a feat of human capacity.

I can’t begin to fathom how a man standing about 6’10” and 245 lbs has the energy to move those long limbs and heavy muscles for the duration of the 11-hour match, when I can barely hold it together at the end of a three setter. There’s a lot going on in the body we take for granted — all the silent regulating done by our brain and organs that happens while we’re concentrating on hitting the next ball. During the match each player’s body had to regulate core body temperature, electrolyte balance, hydration status and energy delivery to the muscles, not to mention a slew of other internal responses. All these functions affect whether our bodies will thrive or fail. The tolls that such an intense, physical match takes on the body might be overshadowed by the performance itself and how the players conducted themselves while on court.

Based on the estimated energy requirement formula developed by the Food and Nutrition Board division of the Institute of Medicine, each player would have needed to consume about two and a half times more calories than an average person eating a diet of 2,000 calories per day to provide enough energy without using fat stores. Just to maintain his healthy weight of 245 lbs, John Isner would have to consume a baseline of roughly 2,500 calories based on the Harris-Benedict equation, not factoring in any kind of activity. Using a different equation for energy expenditure and an estimation of calories used per minute, per body weight, Isner would’ve needed to consume a little over 14,500 calories for the amount of time he spent on court.

Personally, I wasn’t able to see if the players were hydrating properly or restoring energy supplies, but I would imagine that each player was directed to take in an electrolyte-infused liquid and probably had some form of sustenance during the match. I’ve often seen Rafa Nadal in between games sucking on a package of GU, a formula of carbs, proteins, vitamins and other energy infusing ingredients — a handy, portable meal system that would’ve been helpful in this marathon match.

While reading about the epic event, I found out that Andy Roddick brought recovery treats to Isner after the match, including pizza, chicken and mashed potatoes. OK, so Andy Roddick isn’t a dietician, and certified R.D.s would probably shake their heads in disapproval, but the principle is there: Carbs and protein to feed starving muscles. As a professional athlete, I’m sure Roddick has some insight into what to eat when recovering from long matches.

At this point, you may want to argue that the match spanned across three days and that because it wasn’t continuous, it shouldn’t be as difficult as the picture I’m painting. I argue that the match gets harder over multiple days as opposed to playing straight through. The physical consequences are enough to make me squeamish. Anyone who’s worked out after a period of sedation knows that the next day you wish you didn’t have muscles because of the soreness that screams out every time you attempt to use that particular muscle group. Mahut was revealingly quoted about his status, simply stating, “It’s really painful,” and with everything that he was putting his body through, I’m not surprised in the least. The lactic acid production and processing, the tears in muscles caused by eccentric contractions all point toward pain; I’m glad this match didn’t take place on the concrete surface of the US Open.

We tend to watch sports on the Macro scale, point by point; the math in this match awed tennis fans, but the performance humbled me. Between both players, there was a combined total of more than 2,000 strokes, an average serve speed of about 120 mph and about seven hours on their feet, just in the fifth set. I can’t imagine playing at such a high level, and I would venture a guess that even some pros would be wary of their ability to perform at such a high level for such a long duration.

If you were inspired instead of humbled, and if you want to see more record-breaking matches — stay hydrated (don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink). You should constantly be replenishing your liquids, don’t underestimate your electrolytes and supplement with gels or bars that can provide adequate amounts of energy with the least amount of work for your digestive tract.

– Jackson

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