What do top tennis players eat? Top nutritionist Gemma Bes has been working with Rafa Nadal for six years. Here she shares some of the secrets of his dietary regime and reveals how its principals influence the food at the Rafa Nadal Academy by Movistar in Mallorca
“Food is medicine” says Gemma Bes, Rafa Nadal’s personal nutritionist. “I really believe that. Digestion is the most important thing because if doesn’t work well, you have so many problems. The gut is the second brain.”
Six years ago, when Nadal was looking for a nutritionist, his personal trainer approached Bes who took the job. It seems like a great fit. Not only is she local – she is married to a Mallorcan and lives in Palma - she is friendly and approachable and in the fast-changing field of nutrition which can often seem contradictory and confusing, she is full of common sense.
“Rafa is a very easy, very humble person. We have some discussions, some negotiations! But the main things I have changed for him are what he drinks during and after matches.
"Hydration is very important. When you finish a match, your stomach is closed because you have been working your muscles and diverting energy to them. Fluids are the only way to recover.” Will he be following her advice during his current tournament in Indian Wells? “Mostly!”
As well as working with Nadal, Bes teaches the children at the Rafa Nadal International school, which is part of the sports centre. They all have blood tests every 3 or 4 months to check, among other things, inflammation, vitamins, mineral and iron levels. “How the digestion is working, this is main thing for me. If the bowels are inflamed, absorption is much less, and you need to work on the best food to reduce inflammation. This is different for different people. Gluten is a big thing at the moment, but it’s not a problem for everyone. It might be dairy or something else. So we talk to people individually about their digestion, energy levels, sleep and from that, what needs to be changed.”
Nadal eats two or three hours before a match, typically choosing rice and fish. Different foods are available at different tournaments - “Wimbledon is very good” – but rice and fish is Nadal’s favourite meal and a taste of home. But it’s not necessarily right for everyone. “You have to listen to your body. That’s very important. You have to observe what is best for you before a match. For some it might be rice, for others pasta or something else.” Good fats are also very important: avocados, seeds, nuts, olive oil, coconut oil and fish like sardines and mackerel.
During a match (right, a match underway at this month's ITF Seniors event at the Academy), says Gemma, you need carbohydrates, like dates or bananas to re-fuel, and isotonic drinks. You can make your own with water, plus juice (lemon or blueberry juice, which are anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatories), sea salt and unrefined brown sugar. Before the match, reduce the sugar and afterwards, for the recovery process, it’s very important to add protein (for example milk or yoghurt), anti-inflammatories like turmeric, cherries or berries, and carbs such as bananas or dates. The proportions vary from player to player and it’s something Gemma teaches the students who have all learned how to make their own drinks. She also teaches hotel guests at the sports centre who can arrange individual classes.
After studying in Barcelona and Kings College in London, Gemma, a keen athlete, chose to specialise in sport nutrition. Now she practises what she preaches, eating a diet rich in fruit (2 or 3 pieces a day), and lots of vegetables. “I eat very little meat, but I sometimes, if my body is asking for it, I eat it. I eat a little fish, but not a lot of protein. It’s partly for the planet, and to protect animals. I don’t like the taste of alcohol so I don’t drink. I do yoga and play tennis once a week. I did play with Rafa, just once, but no, I didn’t win a point!”
A big fan of cooking with her children (she has 2 daughters aged 12 and 14), Gemma encourages them to cook for her. “They know I like vegetables, so if they cook for me, they make what I like and try it themselves. That opens their minds to new things a little bit.”
After working closely with the students at the Rafa Nadal International School, Gemma is now turning her attention to the hotel and in the last month has re-shaped the menu. She has introduced more vegan protein, like tofu, plus gluten-free options, organic eggs and free range chicken. Fruit and vegetables also play a big part in what is a varied and delicious buffet menu.
This week twenty or so Local Tennis League players have been visiting the Academy for the latest ITF Seniors event, and every one has enjoyed the excellent food and the chance to experiment with the best tennis diet. (Private sessions with Gemma are also available and can be booked in advance - price on enquiry).
Gemma’s next plan is to re-vamp the juices and smoothies in the café/bar, introducing ingredients like agai, pitaya and spirulina.
Treats have not been overlooked. There is still a wide choice of puddings and at lunch time, even chips. “Not everyone who comes here is playing sports, so we have to have all the options.”
Choice and moderation is typical of Gemma's practical approach. “I believe if you give someone nutritional advice and they get stressed because they want to do it so well, then that doesn’t help. Make changes step by step, and slowly, slowly. Don’t worry about calories. For me, calories don’t count. It’s the quality of the food that’s important."
Gemma's top tips for tennis players
No white sugar
- Go vegetarian at least twice a week
To find out more about the cooking classes at the Rafa Nadal Academy, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
To save 12% on individual trips to the Rafa Nadal Academy see here. Details of savings for the next ITF Seniors event in October 2019 will be published on this page as and when available.