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Mailbag: Weigh In for Performance 02/18/2010 - 5:21 PM

Andre Agassi A good portion of the Fitness questions that come in to go something like this:

I weigh 10 kilos more than I should. I play a lot of tennis and soccer every day but I don’t lose weight. What diet I should follow?

I am 56 years old, play tournament tennis, and play on all the USTA teams I can get on. As I get older I find it harder and harder to keep my fitness level. I’m 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds. Need to be at least 10 to 15 pounds lighter, don’t you think?

I am a high school varsity tennis player. I am 5-foot-9 and am overweight. What kind of routines can I do to help me build a toned body to compete at a higher level for my final season in high school?

Everyone knows that carrying around extra pounds can hinder you on a tennis court, so it’s understandable that these players are looking to lose some weight. But how much do they need to lose for optimal performance? It’s a question no one can answer with certainty, according to a recent New York Times article. Weighing too much can slow you down, but weighing too little can also be detrimental, causing weakness or premature fatigue. There hasn’t been much study in the area, and peoples’ bodies vary so much that the only way many serious athletes have found the weights at which they perform their best is through trial and error.

Andre Agassi, along with his longtime trainer, Gil Reyes, discovered that Agassi’s best weight was between 178 and 182 pounds, according to the article. How did he decide that? “It was all about him feeling strong and fit,” Reyes is quoted as saying. 

I know, I know, professional athletes’ lives revolve around their bodies. They can put tons of time and energy into being vigilant of their weights. But feeling confident and ready to compete is pretty important on court, and it doesn’t hurt in life in general, either. So, my best advice for all those looking to drop some pounds: Stay active and eat healthy, counting calories from time to time to make sure you’re not eating more than you’re burning off. But know that being thin doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a better player. Being the right weight for optimal performance does. Take a tip from Agassi and strive for the weight where you feel “strong and fit.”

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Sugar Shock 02/10/2010 - 3:55 PM

Imagine you’re groggily riding the subway to work in the morning when you look up and see this:

Are You Pouring on the Pounds?

It doesn't seem offensive at first. But as you drink another sip from your travel mug and take a closer look, your brain catches up to your eyes . . . 

Yuck! That’s not Gatorade in that glass. That’s human fat. Where would the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene get human fat? It can’t be real. That would probably be illegal. Did they make it? Is it animal fat? Gross. Good morning, subway riders.

That’s what went through my head the first time I saw NYC’s shock ads against sugary beverages. Sports drinks aren’t the only ones targeted. There are also ads that depict what look like a logo-less Coke and Snapple iced-tea bottles pouring out blubbery globs. The PSAs started adorning ad spaces in subway cars in August, after New York State dropped a proposal to add an extra tax on sugary beverages, and they've been disgusting passengers ever since. Maybe they’ve also been making New Yorkers think twice about downing a soda or other sugar-packed drink.

The ads advocate for drinking water, seltzer or low-fat milk instead of the sugary stuff. Those seem like reasonable options for everyday, but what about when you’re playing tennis? If you’re sweating it out in a long match, a sports beverage might be the right thing to reach for. It will give you quick carbs for energy and replace the electrolytes that you lose through sweat. 

But when you’re not working hard, a sports drink can indeed contribute to you “drinking yourself fat.” An 8-ounce serving of the original Gatorade has 50 calories and 14 grams of sugar. If you’re not burning that off through exercise, your body will store those calories as fat. There are other options out there, from low-calorie and naturally sweetened electrolyte replacement drinks to plain and mineral water.

For an in-depth look at when you should drink what kind of beverage, check out Alyssa Shaffer’s sports-drink breakdown “The Battle of the Beverages,” which was published in the March issue of TENNIS. One of her sources, Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., R.D., owner of High Performance Nutrition in Mercer Island, Wash., says, “These are called sports drinks because you’re only supposed to drink them when you’re active.” Take a look at those ads for some scary thoughts of what might happen if you routinely drink them when you’re not.

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Fighting Inflammation 12/21/2009 - 6:31 PM

It’s December, which means the pros are taking it easy during the off-season, right? Wrong. They’re training their butts off to fix flaws in their games and get in the best shape possible for 2010. If you’re on Twitter, all you read from tennis players is how they just finished practice, just got worked out by their sadistic trainer, or just ate yet another performance-promoting meal.

Venus Williams A couple of tweets that caught my eye were these from early December: “Esther told me I have to eat anti inflammatory foods like fish and berries. Apparently steak is one of the food that causes inflammation,” Venus Williams tweeted. “So its kind of a no no now. I am trying to resist ribeye’s. Its hard bc i luv em. But tomatoes are good, they are anti inflammatory.”

Ah, the sacrifices pro athletes must make (I'm talking about the steak, not the Twitterized grammar). “Esther” is Esther Lee, Williams’ trainer, and she’s giving good advice. According to American Dietetic Association spokesperson Lona Sandon, M.Ed., R.D., anti-inflammatory foods can help promote muscle-tissue repair and rebuilding. “There’s no official anti-inflammatory diet,” Sandon says, “but certainly athletes who are training at the level of a Venus Williams are putting a lot of stress on their bodies.”

Sandon says that anti-inflammatory foods tend to be high in anti-oxidants, meaning they prevent oxygen from damaging cells. Some examples are fruits with deep colors, like blueberries, raspberries and concord grapes, and tart cherry juice. (Check out the January/February issue of TENNIS to read more about the anti-inflammatory effects of tart cherry juice). Omega 3 fatty acids, such those found in walnuts, flaxseed oil, and fish like tuna and salmon, also have been found to be anti-inflammatory.

Sandon says that if you stick to the dietary guidelines, which include two 6-ounce servings of fatty fish per week and 5 cups a day of a combination of fruits and vegetables, you should be getting a good amount of anti-inflammatories in your diet. “It’s about prevention,” she says. “They’re good, healthy foods, so you should eat them regularly. Don’t wait until you’re completely inflamed and then eat a bowl of blueberries and think it’s going to be like you took ibuprofen.”

And as for foods that may promote inflammation, like steak? It’s all about moderation. As Williams tweeted a few days afterward, sometimes you have to treat yourself: “Awe, I have to get a steak today, I can’t help it! I have to celebrate the dolphins win!”

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Do-It-Yourself Massage 12/04/2009 - 3:21 PM

I started running a couple of years ago through an alternated jogging and walking program, which is recommended for beginners. But even though I took it slowly, my knees killed after the first few weeks. I could hardly climb stairs and would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to throbbing pain. I thought maybe my body wasn’t built for running, but a visit to a sports-medicine doctor and a physical therapist taught me otherwise. My body just wasn’t prepared; the muscles and bands attached to my knees needed loosening up. That’s when I was first introduced to the foam roller, which the New York Times covered this week in an article on self-massage.

I was advised to roll my legs on the foam cylinder to loosen up the tight muscles and bands of my legs, which had hardened in years of quick-burst sports and lots of missed stretching sessions. They’re not the most intuitive motions, but basically you use your body weight to push the foam roller deep into different parts of your legs. There are a bunch of videos showing it online, so go to YouTube and search “foam roller” to see it in action.

Victoria Azarenka uses a foam roller to loosen up the muscles in her legs Foam rolling isn’t just for runners. Tennis players can also benefit from it, as Victoria Azarenka’s trainer, Mark Wellington told me for an article in our August issue. Azarenka uses a foam roller to loosen up her legs on regeneration days, but also in warm-ups or cool-downs if she has tight spots. “If trigger points stay tight and the muscles aren’t functioning properly, down the road that can lead to more problems,” Wellington told me. “[Foam rolling] can often take care of those right when it happens.”

So keep your muscles limber and save money on massages by trying self-massage with a foam roller. It works for me. I now jog in the park regularly (though in the winter it’s sometimes not as regular) and only occasionally have knee pain. 

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Put It On Paper 11/24/2009 - 3:55 PM

Write down what you eat to curb your calorie consumptionThanksgiving, that annual day of overindulgence nationwide, is here. I’m excited to spend time with family, cook, and eat a lot of stuffing. But I won’t be celebrating without trepidation. While eating delicious holiday foods will be great, I’m not looking forward to the solid month of excess calorie consumption that Thanksgiving officially kicks off. 

For many, like holiday creep, the wintertime decline in eating and exercise habits has already taken hold. It’s hard to fight those cravings for cold-weather comfort foods and keep up your workouts in the waning daylight. It’s times like these when we all need to do our best to take control, especially considering the loads of goody-filled holiday parties and family gatherings fast approaching. How should we do it? One solution is to keep a diary—a food diary. 

A weight-loss study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2008 found that people lost twice as much weight when they kept a daily log of their food intake. "I always tell clients to keep calorie counts," says Jeff Michaud, tennis coach, trainer and owner of Fitness By Jeff in Atlanta. It helps you hold yourself accountable for what you put in your body and adjust what you eat so you consume a reasonable number of calories. 

I wouldn't recommend keeping a food diary on big celebration days like Thanksgiving—that would be agony. But between holidays, jot down what you eat each day and occasionally tally the calories you’ve consumed. If you want a more high-tech option than a pen and paper, try a website like, or, where you can search for and log the foods you’ve eaten. Remember, the more you stay on top of your holiday food intake, the less you'll feel compelled to set unattainable New Year's diet resolutions.

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Flu Season 11/05/2009 - 3:45 PM

Tommy Haas You know “Just Like Us,” that section of Us Weekly where they show paparazzi shots of celebrities doing everyday things like eating ice cream or putting gas in their cars? Well, this week they could include a photo of Tommy Haas shivering under a blanket on the couch while watching daytime TV amid a pile of tissues. Yes, Haas has contracted the H1N1 virus. Turns out stars are just like us!

But of course H1N1 is not something to be taken lightly. The World Health Organization announced today that it is now the dominant influenza strain around the globe. More than a million people have been infected in the U.S. The scary thing about H1N1 is that there are many cases where it has led to complications causing more serious health issues and even death, especially among those with existing health issues. Most people, however, recover on their own and experience H1N1 as a regular case of the flu. That seems to be how the illness has gone for Haas: “It was a shock for me,” he said in the German newspaper Bild. “I’ve calmed down now because although swine flu is a very strong form of flu, you can quickly overcome it when you’re in good physical condition like I am.”

To prevent H1N1, avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth, be religious about hand-washing, and keep your distance from people who are sick. If you get sick, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that you stay home until at least 24 hours after your fever is gone without the aid of fever-reducing drugs. Haas seems to be following that advice. He pulled out of Basel this week and will probably miss next week’s Paris Masters. Get well soon, Tommy.

I also wanted to take this chance to thank you for your feedback on last week’s blog and pass along this related article on nonprofits' efforts to replace junk food with more quality, fresh foods at convenience stores in areas where there aren't other shopping options. Regardless of your stance in the weight debate, I think most can appreciate what these organizations are doing. And as an update to the Slate article I linked to, Chris Christie ended up winning the governor’s race in New Jersey on Tuesday. I guess his weight wasn’t such a factor, after all.

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The Weight Debate 10/28/2009 - 5:28 PM

Overweight yet active The estimated 67 percent of adults in the U.S. who are overweight are discriminated against in all parts of their lives, from work to school to the doctor’s office. There are pervasive stereotypes that people who are overweight are lazy or irresponsible or lack will power. Many really think those stereotypes hold true, but others argue that there are other reasons for obesity, such as genetics or low socioeconomic class. We’re so obsessed with waistlines that it seems we won’t even vote for overweight candidates in elections.

Amid all the back and forth, a review came out in September that looks into the basis behind the claim that people can be “fat and fit.” The idea, first studied at Dallas’ Cooper Institute, a nonprofit that promotes fitness, is that it’s better to be overweight and active than to be sedentary and thin. The review shows that, even if an overweight person doesn’t lose weight, exercise has a positive effect on inflammation in the body, insulin sensitivity, harmful visceral, or belly fat, and cholesterol. Improvements in each of those areas lead to better overall health and fewer risk factors.

So even if you’re packing a few extra pounds, try not to lose hope or obsess about your weight. You can still be generally healthy as long as you maintain an active lifestyle and eat a balanced diet. Get in your exercise by regularly hitting the court.

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Mailbag: Protein for Vegetarians 10/16/2009 - 5:59 PM

My daughter is 14 years old and plays competitive tennis. We are vegetarians and do not eat meat or fish (eggs are OK but not preferred). We do eat different kinds of legumes, beans, vegetables and fruits as part of our daily diet. What is the best source of protein for my daughter on a daily basis and also on match days? Thanks and Regards.—Sundara Vardhan

Soybeans This is a great question, especially since it’s been reported that vegetarianism among adolescents seems to be on the rise. If you’re looking for the single best source of protein for a vegetarian, then Lisa Dorfman, director of sports nutrition and performance at the University of Miami and author of the Vegetarian Sports Nutrition Guide, has one word for you: soy.

“When you’re a vegetarian, you have to look for alternative sources of protein that have all the essential parts of protein, including amino acids,” Dorfman says. “All animal proteins have all the amino acids. Plant-based proteins don’t, except for soy.” So when you can, opt for soy protein (there's tons of soy on the market now, from soy milk to cheese to vegetarian products from brands like Yves, Gimme Lean and Primal Sticks) to make sure you're getting all the essentials to build your muscles and help you recover after workouts. Dorfman also recommends lean sources of protein, like beans, lentils and low-fat dairy products, over higher fat options, like cheese and eggs.

No matter how you get your protein, the most important time to make sure you're eating enough of it is during training. “In a way, training is a lot harder on the body than game day because you’re doing a lot of different things, from strength training to footwork,” she says. Depending on your weight, Dorfman recommends eating 50–60 grams of protein a day during training, and cutting back in the 48 hours before competition to 30–40 grams a day so you’ll have extra room for carbs.

Here are her recommendations for a sample training day, along with lots of water:

Breakfast: Egg Beaters with toast

Lunch: Subway veggie sub

Snack: protein bar or shake

Dinner: pasta with vegetarian meatballs

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McEnroe Hearts, Er, Hates Yoga 10/08/2009 - 4:41 PM

John McEnroe John McEnroe is the picture of health. He told Peter Bodo as a part of our “Get Better With Age” package in the October issue of TENNIS that he regularly goes to the gym, where he rides a stationary bike, does sprints, works on his side-to-side movement, and lifts weights. Isn’t this the guy who used to say he kept fit by playing doubles? But as McEnroe has gotten older—he turned 50 this year—it’s understandable that he’s needed to boost his fitness regimen. He said he realized he needed to start working out because he felt stiff on court.

It may sound like McEnroe does it all as far as fitness, but there’s one thing that’s not a part of his routine: yoga. “I used to do yoga,” he says in the interview, “but I felt stiffer after a session than before, especially in a class full of flexible people. I dropped it, but mainly because I didn’t see where it was helping my tennis.”

Sure, McEnroe, whatever you say. The red flag in his statement is, “especially in a class full of flexible people.” The competition junkies of the world have trouble in yoga classes (and let’s face it, if there’s someone with a high concentration of competitive juices in his bloodstream, it’s John McEnroe). Though yoga instructors repeat the mantras that you shouldn’t judge yourself and that you should “listen to your body,” competitive people can’t help but peek at their fellow yogis during class and try to outperform them.

McEnroe Prostate Health PSA I’ve had my own battles with yoga. As a person with little innate flexibility, every yoga class is a challenge for me. But there are plenty of pose modifications that ensure that yoga is still beneficial for the inflexible. It’s when I compare myself to the super-bendy people in class that I get in trouble. Seeing them makes me push myself that much harder, going farther into a stretch than I should or switching from my modified pose to trying full-on contortions. My misguided efforts haven’t lead to any major injuries, though I’ve heard plenty of horror stories.

That’s why people like me and Mac have to listen to the instructor’s advice and remind ourselves that this isn’t the Wimbledon final; it’s just yoga class. It becomes an exercise in mental stamina to stash away that competitiveness. So while I haven’t given it up—I still find yoga relaxing and body-opening—I hear ya, Mac.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to commend McEnroe for taking up the very worthwhile cause of promoting prostate health. I saw the poster of McEnroe at right looming large on the side of Madison Square Garden a couple of weeks ago. It’s a picture of him holding his left arm, which appears to have had blood drawn, with the caption, "This arm helped John McEnroe win 155 tennis titles. Today he uses it to screen for prostate cancer." Seeing an old-school rebel taking care of himself might convince more men (notorious for skipping trips to the doctor and ignoring warning signs) to take the steps to catch prostate cancer.

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Injury Report 09/04/2009 - 3:26 PM

Sabine Lisicki At match point in a hard-fought second-round U.S. Open contest between German Sabine Lisicki and Australian Anastasia Rodionova, Rodionova ran Lisicki out wide. Lisicki got to the ball, hit a defensive forehand slice, and fell to the court. Rodionova returned the ball to win the match 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, but Lisicki stayed down, crying out in pain and disappointment before eventually being taken off the court in a wheelchair (click here for a link to a video of the point). She had rolled her left ankle, ending the point, her bid at the 2009 U.S. Open, and probably competition for her in general until the injury heals.


While tennis isn’t a sport like hockey or football, where players really beat each other up, that doesn’t mean it isn’t high impact. Pounding on the court, quick starts and stops, the heightened stress of matches, it all takes a huge toll on the body. And there’s no better place to learn this than the interview rooms at the last Slam of the year, the U.S. Open. The pros have spent nine months pushing their bodies to the limit, and in those rooms, player after player is grilled by the press about this strain or that sprain in the thigh, ankle, foot, abdomen, shoulder, you name it.

Most of them keep their mouths shut. Venus Williams responded to questions about an injury in her left knee by saying, “Oh, you know, I don’t talk about my injuries very much. I think everyone knows that now. I don’t dwell on them. I just do my best.”

There are pretty good reasons for this zipped-lip policy. First, complaints of injury can tip off competition that a player’s movement might be off or to hit to a particular wing. Second, if a player complains of an injury, it’s often seen as an excuse for bad performance and a knock against an opponent’s rightful win.

The only thing that’s probably more frustrating than answering the press’ questions about injuries (though, in our defense, we have to ask them—the physical capabilities of the body are a huge part of sports), is dealing with the injuries themselves. Professional athletes’ bodies are their breadwinners, so the uncertainty of injury can be exasperating. Just ask Maria Sharapova, who returned this year after a nine-month injury time-out. Last August, an MRI revealed that she had small tears in her right rotator cuff. It was an injury she had been dealing with all year, and that had gone undiagnosed the previous April in another MRI scan. She stopped competing and tried to rehab the shoulder, and after that didn’t work, she underwent surgery last October and didn’t return to the tour until May. The road to recovery can be long, indeed.

You couldn’t help but feel for Lisicki, writhing in pain and disappointment with her face in her hands as trainers surrounded her and stands full of spectators looked on. A lot of things were probably running through her head. After sitting through interviews where pros field questions about the state of their bodies and their injuries old and new, I can only imagine one of those questions was, How long will this one take to come back from? For Lisicki’s sake, hopefully not long.

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