It is a known fact that playing tennis during high heat presents a formidable challenge, even for the most fit tennis players. Most players and coaches realize the importance of staying well hydrated in order to maintain performance and reduce the risk of heat illness.
During a long match, a player can sweat profusely and thus suffer considerable fluid deficit, which is why so many players are faced with the not so pleasant task of having to drink too much water too fast in order to be ready for the next match.
The Aussie Open is the most difficult tournament for tennis players in terms of extreme heat conditions. Players are forced to play in temperatures which reach 40°C (104°F). Considering that it is a Grand Slam tournament and male players need to play 3 out of 5 sets the pressure on the human body is higher than ever.
However, aside from significant dehydration, tennis players who sweat profusely have lower levels of electrolytes, in particular sodium and chloride which are usually eliminated through sweating, among with other minerals. A considerable deficit of sodium can develop during a long match, especially if the player maintains a low-salt diet in order to prevent and treat high-blood pressure.
Insufficient salt replenishment often leads to heat-related cramps (heat cramps) – a progressive condition which, if left untreated can lead to more severe muscle cramps, which can leave the player incapacitated or crunching in pain on the court. The first signs of heat cramps include subtle muscle “twitches” in one or more voluntary muscles, which may be more evident while sitting during a change over period.
In an effort to avoid heat cramps players are encouraged to drink more water. Although this helps with hydration and lowers the risk for heat illness, heat cramps can still occur. For sufficient rehydration and restoration there is a need for fluid AND sodium. In the presence of sodium deficit, excessive and fast consumption of water can lead to a dangerous clinical condition, hyponatremia (Bergeron, M.F., 2003). Early signs include fatigue, light nausea and headaches.
Bergeron (2003) further emphasizes the importance of prevention by talking about LC, a tennis player, who after complaining of feeling weak and nauseous, was advised to drink plenty of water and rest. Later that day he had a seizure and lapsed into a coma. While this is not very common and occurs mostly among players who have a tendency for a very high sodium loss during play, it is worth taking preventative steps (Bergeron, 2003):
– Arrive early at the location to acclimatise to the new environment;
– Drink plenty of fluids (water, juice, sport drinks) throughout the day, but careful not to over-hydrate;
– Players prone to heat cramps should add some salt to their diet and possibly include some in their on-court drink;
– Consult with doctors if heat cramps persist.