Beliefs on what constitutes a healthy diet have changed a lot over the years. 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 current players consume. Goran said that if Marin 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 Llendl and Martina Navratilova were on high-carbohydrate diets. 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. I suppose 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 do. Whilst his intentions were good, I now know the advice wasn’t the best.
At the time I thought Lendl’s advice was invaluable 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, which was 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 pasta 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.
The high-carbohydrate diet had helped me a lot in my career, but in hindsight it was probably coincidental. The science behind the diet just doesn’t hold up to modern scrutiny. It made me go gluten-free over 10 years before Djokovic. The cutting out of a lot of carbs made a big difference, even if I didn’t know that this was what caused the improvement at the time.
Next I started looking at bodybuilders and doing a lot more research. It soon became apparent that I needed more protein to aid my muscle recovery. My diet gradually transitioned from carbohydrate heavy to protein heavy with a mix of vegetables and smaller portions 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. The latest scientific literature has now shown this to be better for you and more effective for athletes. The reason behind this is quite complex but essentially carbs spike 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.
Now remember, I’m not a doctor so please don’t go out and make drastic changes to your diet without, like me, doing a lot of research and consulting a professional.