Some things have changed a lot since I was a professional player. Other things not so much. The two “off court” things that have changed the most are diet and recovery.
Many believe that it’s fitness training that has advanced the most since the 80’s and that may be true for some observers and coaches but not for me. I’ve always loved to work out and so always surrounded myself with the best trainers who could help and teach me. I was the first on the tour to really focus on things like stability work, core work and stretching. Very early I was doing scientific muscle balance testing and blood work to analyse and find out what my body was missing and what I needed to supplement as far as vitamins, minerals and amino acids. As a result, thanks to brilliant trainers like Dr Ann Quinn, I was always on the cutting edge when it came to fitness. Naturally there have been scientific advances regarding fitness but to this day I still mostly see the same exercises, on courts and in the gym, that Ann Quinn invented and I was doing in the early 80’s.
When it comes to diet though things have changed a lot more. Depending on who you talk to you’ll get different opinions on what tennis players need. But one thing a high level athlete clearly needs is a lot of is fuel. When I spoke to Goran Ivanisevic he mentioned how blown away he was by the amount of food players consume. Goran said that if Cilic isn’t playing or training he’s eating. To a large degree this was the case for me too.
I’ve learned a lot over the years regarding diet and as a result I’ve modified my eating habits since I was on the tour. Back in the early 80’s I read a story in the newspaper about how Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova were on high-carbohydrate diets. So I asked Ivan about it and he said it gave him a lot more energy. I remember being surprised that he gave me that information. But at that stage I was too young to be a serious threat to him. Little did he know ;-). I’m not sure if I ever thanked him for that tip. Perhaps I should. His intentions were good but as I’ll come back to in a bit, I now know the advice wasn’t the best.
But at the time I thought it was so I took it a step further with my trainer Ann. We planned out carb heavy meals in advance and I had a cook coming to my house during Wimbledon (unusual at the time). Ann made her banana muffins fresh every morning for me to eat between meals. Her muffins quickly became so famous on tour that after my matches my Aussie friends used to come around and ask for any extras that I didn’t eat! Anyway, carbohydrate loading quickly became the go-to diet and the food areas at every tournament soon had pasta, pasta and more pasta. Even to this day they still have a lot of pasta.
After a while I discovered that a high-carbohydrate diet didn’t work for me. During one of my comebacks after an injury I remember eating a lot of paste for dinner and barely being able to get out of bed the next morning. My energy was low and I got tired faster despite training harder than ever. What I was putting into my body was not aiding my recovery or sustaining me through tough matches.
Later I adapted the “eat right for your blood type” diet. This helped me a lot but In hindsight it was probably coincidental as the science behind the diet doesn’t hold up well to modern scrutiny. But it made me go gluten-free over 10 years before Djokovic. The cutting out of a lot of carbs made a big difference. Although at the time I didn’t know that this was what caused the improvement.
Next I started looking at bodybuilders and doing a lot more research. It soon became apparent that I needed a more protein to aid in muscle recovery. So my diet gradually transitioned from carbohydrate heavy to protein heavy with a mix of vegetables and and smaller portions of carbs.
Today I know that a high carbohydrate diet is not the most efficient. I’m now on a diet high in protein and fat with a low or balanced carbohydrate intake. Something closely related to a ketogenic diet (check out Dominic D’Agostino and Peter Attia’s research to learn more about ketosis). The latest scientific literature has now shown this to be better for you and more effective for athletes. Especially for athlete training beyond an hour. The reason behind this is quite complex but essentially carbs spikes the insulin in your blood which then spikes your energy. Ideally you want a constant source of energy that doesn’t turn to sugar. Most energy drinks, bread, rice, pasta and high glucose vegetables like potatoes just turn into sugar in your system resulting in energy spikes and drops rather than a steady stream. Only store a limited amount of glucose can be stored in your system which is why you see athletes sucking on those horrible sugary energy pouches. Their bodies need another hit to bring their energy back up. Do they know that those pouched dehydrate you before rehydrating you? I’m guessing not. I will guarantee you that in 10 – 20 years time people will be looking back at those pouches and saying “what were they thinking!”.
Now remember, I’m not a doctor so please don’t go out and make drastic changes to your diet without doing a lot of research and consulting a professional.
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