Master of Sports Nutrition
Originally published on 27/11/15
Would they be able to enjoy that finest of all Belgian culinary specialities, the chip? “Of course there are frites on the menu,” Kearney said. “It depends how many you have. We do have that internal debate: should we put the frites out? But there’s a few of us in the team and there is only a few of us playing, so I know the staff are going to want them.
“Generally a well-educated athlete will know these contain carbohydrate, salt and fat. ‘Do I want a load of fat?’ they should ask. ‘No I don’t, not the night before a match, it will slow down the digestion quite a bit.’ So they are probably going to abstain the night before. But there are times when I don't mind that kind of thing. You have got to be realistic about it. They play 12 months of the year.“
Kearney, a New Zealander, has worked part time at the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) since 2013 and has offered nutritional advice to the team during the last four Davis Cup ties.
“Sometimes it’s just good to talk about food,” he said. “My job is to give the players confidence so that when they step out on court they are physically prepared and fuelled.”
Kearney takes a holistic approach to this with the British team, as he is working with them for a short space of time. Some of his role is working on an individual plan for the players and some is in the logistics of organising food and meal planning for the entire team of 20.
“I need to understand the demands of the game contingent on whether it is three-set or five-set match,” he said. “I work back from the match and set up their plan for 16-24 hours before, aiming to get them on the court almost hyper-hydrated. This is particularly important for Grand Slams and Davis Cup where it is five sets. With reference to Andy (Murray) he is potentially playing three matches so that’s another variable in the equation.
He added: “Up to 16 hours before the match it’s all about maximizing muscle glycogen. This is the fuel you are going to use in intense activity. You can maximize that store by doing some relatively simple things with the volume of carbohydrate you eat, the type of food you eat, how much fluid you have with that. That’s almost like getting a player to bed with a good store of fuel.”
“Personally, I like to marry that with making this food enjoyable and there is great food here in Belgium – so for me that’s menu planning with the hotel.”
On Tuesday during practice, for example, the team were tucking into fillet steak, sea bass, chicken, and asparagus. Kearney said it was “a pretty normal menu but the quantities tend to be about one and a half times what you and I would eat."
There is quite a lot of snacking involved too. “Particularly the singles players,” he joked. “It’s a busy old time eating. “We normally do some body weight checks in the morning, what weight the players have woken up at. They give us a rough indication of their hydration status, and then we can start building forward to the match, which may start at 1.30 or 3.30 with specific things they like in the morning, topping up those glycogen stores, getting hydrated with things that are going to be digested easily as the nerves kick in.”
Before taking up the role within tennis Kearney spent five years working with the New Zealand rugby union team, as well as three years in track and field with the Great Britain team.
“Tennis is massively different to those sports,” he said “One of the things that attracts me to tennis, it’s a beautiful game for sure, but it’s so physically and mentally demanding at the highest level. In a five-set match you are right at the extremes of physical endurance.
“Rugby guys tend to eat a bit more protein. Often in tennis we are trying to keep off the weight. When you look at some of the top players they are extremely lean and you don't want to be carrying too much baggage if you’re out there for five hours, on court.”
So, what of those variations of weight he is looking at in the mornings? There can be variations of up to two kilogrammes, due in part to loss of moisture, but the significant detail gives him a target to work to before the match. There is plenty of work to be done after a match too.
“If they have played a long match they’d be pretty empty at the end and then you have got this limited time period in which to restore the body – get the muscle tissue back. That’s a combination of physical recovery – ice baths things like that, therapy with the physios which is absolutely critical to wind the body back down, get things back in place.
“And multiple feeding, literally feeding every two and half hours so you need to be pro active with that if your time to the next match is limited. Yes you could eat and it’s fine to feel full but you are probably missing the opportunity to re fuel and help your body regenerate.
“There are experienced players in the team, like Jamie and Dom, they have done this many times before, more times than I have been around the team. But again, sometimes they forget simple things because their mind is busy with the competition, tactics and the anticipation of the match. So it’s useful for them, so I like to prescribe and write out a plan. I do that mainly for Andy and some of the other players need it for this tie."
“’I’ve been very lucky to come into this team and just fill a space that just needed a little bit of attention – it’s a good team.”