What does the number 1 tennis player in the UK have to learn from the World’s number 1?

I had two long drives to do over the weekend and had the radio on quite a lot. On Friday I listened to the men’s Wimbledon semi-final which featured British tennis player Andy Murray. He Lost.

Andy Murray is, I think, ranked fourth in the World, but he has never won a ‘grand slam’ (one of the prestigious tennis championships). After the match was over, we had the usual pundit-based analysis and ‘will he/won’t he?’ speculation regarding whether he is ever going to win a biggie event.

Yesterday, I was in the car again and listened to the men’s final featuring Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Djokovic won (impressively). In fact, he’s won 48 out of 49 matches this year, and has risen in the ranks to become the number one player in the World.

How’s he done it? A lot of hard work and self-belief, I should imagine. But he also attributes much of his success to a change in diet in recent months. It turns out that he was diagnosed with sensitivity to gluten (a protein found in grains such as wheat, oats and rye) and has eliminated it from his diet. I read that, as a result, he feels lighter and stronger.

I’m delighted for Novak Djokovic, but not surprised. I’ve seen countless individuals remove gluten-containing foods, and in particular wheat, and feel tonnes better for it. If Djokovic is gluten sensitive, then he will obviously have benefitted from getting this out of his diet. However, let’s not forget that there’s plenty of other things grains don’t have going for them, like being rich in substances called ‘lectins’ that can provoke food sensitivity problems and ‘phytates’ that impair the absorption of nutrients.

And then of course the other thing is that grains tend to be disruptive to blood sugar levels. The roller-coaster of blood sugar highs and lows caused by eating a tonne of grain just can’t be the best thing for ensuring consistent, predictable blood sugar levels and therefore energy.

As it turns out, Andy Murray’s diet was in the news earlier this week too (before he got knocked out of Wimbledon). It’s the usual carb-loaded fare many sportsmen and women are advised to eat.

Breakfast, apparently, is two bowls of cereals plus bread and peanut butter. I heard on the radio that Murray describes this as his ‘breakfast of champions’ (hope the irony is not lost on him). In reality, though, it’s a breakfast I’d advise for someone keen to ensure they were devoid of energy in the mid-late morning.

Murray, allegedly, eats pasta and chicken is had at lunch, apparently, followed by up to 50 pieces of sushi for dinner. On top of his main meals we have cereal bars and protein shakes. Some fruit and yoghurt on top takes Murray’s total calorie intake to about 6,000 calories per day.

The fact is, the bulk of Murray’s diet comes not from real food, but fodder. He may be able to get by on this, but something tells me whatever he has achieved in the sport has been more in spite of his diet than because of it. I’m assuming he gets professional nutritional guidance. My sense is that if he really wants to be a contender, he’s going to need to get himself a new nutritionist.

23 Responses to What does the number 1 tennis player in the UK have to learn from the World’s number 1?

  1. Aris 4 July 2011 at 5:05 pm #

    For someone who works out that much every day, he’s going to have to consume a lot of calories right?
    But maybe that amount of training isn’t best for optimal health in the first place.

  2. John Briffa 4 July 2011 at 5:10 pm #


    He may indeed need a lot of calories. It’s the form those calories come in I’m questioning.

  3. vlado 4 July 2011 at 6:18 pm #

    grains are by definition the seeds of grasses yet we are not really designed to eat grasses so how are we supposed to eat grains?
    I must think it takes a lot to digest them and they are more suited to vegetarian type species who can exact the good stuff from it and expel the bad.

  4. chuck 5 July 2011 at 3:44 am #

    if i were a pro tennis player, i would eat whatever Djokovic has been eating lately. unfortunately, most don’t put much emphasis on diet.

  5. aidanpp 5 July 2011 at 9:44 pm #

    the likelihood is that Djokovic replaced wheat with gluten-free grains such as white rice and corn, which aren’t much better. As well as all the sugary sports drinks…

  6. Kirsty 6 July 2011 at 5:22 am #

    Thanks Dr Briffa for this interesting piece. I’ve been thinking a lot about sports nutrition recently after watch the Vancouver Canucks amazing and amazingly gruelling run this season. I’ve been pondering how much better I feel grain free and wondering if professional athletes would have more endurance if they didn’t eat grains. So much of athletes’ diets seem grain based but there’s so much at stake for them professionally and financially it would be difficult to take a risk and try grain free. I’d be interested to see if any other athletes try this after Djokivic’s success.

  7. Riddled 7 July 2011 at 6:44 pm #

    I wish i knew why so many people seem to have some kind of prejudice against wheat and gluten. Does the science really back up this anti gluten agenda?
    This article seems like it would fit in the Daily Mail quite nicely.

    I understand a certain amount of humans react badly to gluten but it is far from a majority and in fact i have a fealing that most people can actually handle it fine.

    Murray happens to be playing during one of, if not the strongest, periods of tennis ever. He is fourth in the world, the players above him are Federer, Nadal and the man himself, Djokovic. One of these is probably the greatest of all time, another is a serious contender for that title and Djokovic is likely to make the top ten. Murray already has earned over £10 million in Career prize money not to mention God knows how much from endorsements etc.

    It would seem to me that in fact Murray’s nutritionist may actually be doing a pretty good job.

    Nadal is already considered a beast by most, and injuries withstanding, is known to outrun and outwork nearly all his opponents. Djokivic is no doubt now challenging him as the “fittest” player out there but is it a coincidence that Djokivic has now become probably the best returner of serve whilst Nadals serve is still one of his relative weaknesses?
    I have heard Nadal mention he likes cooking and his favourite meal is pasta, no doubt he consumes horrendous amounts of gluten. Can you imagine what Nadal could of achieved if hadn’t hampered himself all these years with all that poisonous gluten.

    Psychology in sport is massive, especially in a one on one sport such as tennis, some people are winners, mentally, some just aren’t. Any edge can be the difference between winning and losing. Nadal and Federer are known to be very mentally strong and up their games in the final rounds of tournaments whereas this didn’t used to be the case with Djokivic. As well as a physical benefits from going gluten free what price the psychosomatic benefits?

    There is a reason for this rant. I have some minor, more annoying than anything else, health problems. Acne, heartburn, indegestion, burning feet etc. I have spent hours upon hours wasting my time looking stuff up on the interent and found it hard not to be swayed by all the paleo preachers and gluten haters. I have now been very limited gluten for around 4-5 months and completely gluten free for over 2 months and i am yet to notice any benefits. My acne hasn’t changed and my heartburn is worse if anything. I have messed around with my diet alot and i have actually found that i seem to be reacting worse to the fibre in the veg which has ended up replacing the gluten foodstuffs i have removed. I wish i was sensitive to gluten because i would at least know what is going on.

    As others have mentioned i doubt Djokovics recent success has anything to do with changes to the disruptions of his blood sugar levels. I would hazard a bet that in fact remvoing gluten may have resulted in even higher GI/GL from his diet, if anything. I would bet he his probably now eating lots of rice and potatoes which are often higher GI/GL than gluten alternatives.
    Why is it that sport nutritionists, that follow paelo principles even, such as those that i know are working for some Tour de France teams as i type, so obsessed with replacing blood sugar levels during and after exercise? Often using some of the highest GI/GL food types there are such as white rice, potatoes, honey etc

  8. Richard 8 July 2011 at 6:40 pm #

    John, I would be interested to see your diet prescription for various sorts of athletes (endurance/strength, those seeking to build muscle mass etc.).

  9. David 8 July 2011 at 7:42 pm #

    True, not everyone has a problem with gluten, everyone is unique and Murrays lack of success could be pschological and your health problems could be down a wide range other factors. However after recently attending a lecture from one of the worlds leading experts of gluten sensitivity, Dr Tom O’ Bryan, it seems to be a growing problem, often undiagnosed and separate to celiacs and cutting it out seems to help many people but not everyone.
    In relation to your problems I would recommend you read Dr Briffa’s blog on low stomach acid as heartburn and indigestion are often a symptom on this. and supplement first with aloe/slippery elm, with zinc bisglycinate/picolinate and B vitamins and move on to betaine hydrochloride after a few weeks, if you havent already tried this already. stomach acid requires adequate zinc, B1 & B6 and burning feet can be a sign of low B5. When you increase your stomach acid you will absorb more zinc which may help your acne. Consulting a health practitioner/doctor first if you are on any meds of course.

  10. mike 8 July 2011 at 9:07 pm #

    What if those 6,000 calories per day were principally fat and protein? Can a athlete like a tennis player or Tour de France rider generate and sustain enough energy to perform at his or her best. I believe I read somewhere that Lance Armstrong consumed 9,000 calories per day during competiton. As someone has pointed out here, sports nutrition is concerned with achieving optimum performance, not good health, especially post-career. I’m sure thre’s a rich sports nutrition literature (no pun). Riddled poses some interesting questions.

  11. JT1 8 July 2011 at 9:19 pm #

    @Riddled – imo the paleo/primal route can be confusing at best, with goal posts moved to suit. I know of some paleo folk who think it’s ok to eat sugar and honey for example! Could I suggest maybe looking at very low carb (ie 25 net carbs per day). I suggest this from experience – my dh and self had many, many ailments 18 months ago, including reflux, high bp, heartburn, headaches, IBS and a 40 year-old (yes!) fungal infection that seemed incurable. Within weeks all but the fungal had gone, that took about 6 months. Not to mention no colds/flu/coughs/bad throats etc.

    Going back to the tennis player – did you notice how he hardly seemed to break into a sweat when Nadel was dripping? Naysayers are claiming that it couldn’t possibly be his positive change in diet, it has to be down to drugs and he should be dope tested – dear me!

    And calories – quality calories count. I can’t lose weight at 1850, but I sure can at 2400! Why? Good quality fats (saturated), great proteins (not too much) and fresh, whole food – zero processed. If you haven’t already, try googling Robb Wolf – he’s funny as well as informative and his information is broken down to suit geeks and non-geeks alike.

  12. Perplexed 9 July 2011 at 6:48 pm #

    I wish I knew why so many people seem to have some prejudice against efforts to objectively discuss diet and nutrition.

    E F Schumacher, author of books including ‘A Guide For The Perplexed’ observed that there exists two kinds of science, one being the science of knowledge, and the other being the science of manipulation.

    There is a hierarchical nature to knowledge – some matters can only be appreciated on the basis of understanding something else before – but I wonder if Schumacher’s observation says something more about the human condition; that a dismissive reaction to well-intentioned efforts in the direction of objectivity may result from being either engaged in the science of manipulation or have suffered the consequences of it.

    If you were to study the ‘origin’ of money from a first principles perspective, reason the anthropological ramifications or macro-economic consequences, and then attempt, quite rationally, to alert folks to reasoned and well intentioned argument that ‘bank-issued, debt-based, supply of the most ubiquitous medium of exchange results in the kind of incentives that do indeed constitute the root of all evil’, you’d understand my point, as people are almost universally dismissive.

    It would seem to be a resistive circle – certainly not a virtuous one – because a first principle understanding of ‘money’ (that it is bank-issued and debt-based) makes it a lot easier to understand why the science of knowledge has been in decline while the science of manipulation has been on the rise. Food and nutrition have not escaped the science of manipulation. we can fall victim to the science of manipulation without ever realising we have. It is as true with dietary advice as it is in Economics.

  13. Susan 10 July 2011 at 2:12 am #

    I’d have thought someone who has to run about a lot would benefit from a nice lamb chop or two!

  14. Strang 11 July 2011 at 1:14 am #

    In answer to Riddled’s question – why do sports’ nutritionists carb’load athletes post exercise – it’s because that’s the optimum time to replenish the glycogen stores in muscle fibres – in the first hour immediately post-exercise. Glycogen – being manufactured from glucose – metabolised from carbohydrate. Protein is needed to repair and renew the muscle fibre – amongst a host of other things!

  15. Reijo Laatikainen 11 July 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    Thanks for a great comment and interesting reference, the Schumacher’s books, Perplexed!

  16. Reijo Laatikainen 11 July 2011 at 1:33 pm #

    @Riddled, have checked that you you don’t fullfill irritable bowel syndrome criteria? If you do fullfill criteria, you might want to try FODMAP diet, which seems to be most effective diet against symptoms of IBS (indigestion). While on FODMAP diet, you don’t only avoid gluten and grains but also all the food items that contain poorly absorbed carbohydrates (fructans, inulin, galactans, polyols, excess fructoce, lactose). This is not common knowledge yet, but I would strongly recommend testing it. See this UK study for quick reference, FODMAP diet worked better than NICE standard IBS diet:

    As a dietitian, I think there is too much fuzz about gluten. It might be that there are certain number of gluten intolerant people without celiac disease (2-4 %?). But far more often people with IBS might be intolerant to FODMAP carbohydrates and even resistant starch. Namely, it turns out that grains are one major source of FODMAPs and RS. It all boils down to the fermentation and gas production of poorly absorbed carbohydrates in colon.

    I hope dr.Briffa will write on FODMAPs and IBS.

  17. Reijo Laatikainen 11 July 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    Sorry, the link: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21615553

  18. Mary Skelcher 11 July 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    Djokovic changed his diet beause he was diagnosed as sensitive to gluten. Andy Murray may not share this trait.
    It seems unscientific to attribute relative sporting success primarily to diet; whilst nutrition matters, it’s only one of many factors including natural ability, training programme, psychology etc.

    Isn’t it unscientific to compare two players in this way? It would be interesting to compare Murray’s performance pre & post dietary changes, eliminating other factors (if possible). It’s also worth noting that one commentator described Murray as playing his best ever tennis.

  19. John Briffa 11 July 2011 at 8:58 pm #


    So, are you saying that in order for someone to pass comment it needs to be ‘scientific’? Really?

  20. Perplexed 12 July 2011 at 7:02 pm #

    Thank you Reijo,
    many people do indeed fall victim a skewed and manipulative component of the knowledge economy without ever realising that they have. Then when well-intentioned folks come along and try to offer more rational and objective advice they are irrationally resistive to it.

    Einstein took Newtonian laws of physics, put them under scrutiny and said to his fellow physicists, ‘the Newtonian laws of physics to which you subscribe and adhere to in consensus are OK and valid, but they are only OK and valid as when applied in particular circumstance or when scrutinised from certain, specific, and limited reference frames.’ Newtons ideas were repeatedly shunned by fellow physicists who enjoyed science from the comfort of a limited and familiar reference frame. Now physicists and scientists, the better of them at least, treat reference frames with more respect than was the case before.

    Adequate expansive reference frames are crucially to the conclusions we draw. Matters can look very different when viewed from a restricted frame of reference or a satisfactorily whole-istic and expansive one. Science began as philosophy that lacked detailed knowledge but nonetheless considered big questions. Science now has specialisms, specialists, and detailed understanding of many matters, but there are ways in which this tendency to specialise concentrates on the detailed questions and answers while overlooking more practical concerns philosophers began with.

    Sometimes the objectively informed can make an observation, as Dr Briffa does here, that is not necessarily ‘scientific’ in its approach and specificity, as with the discussion on the diets of Murray and Djokovic, but is nonetheless well-intentioned and supports the making of a more general point that is justified, can be supported with reference to scientific literature, and very probably fulfils the criteria of ‘wisdom’ philosophers have been striving for.

    The hierarchy I referred to has two facets, one of pre-eminence. The theory of relativity, for example, genius as it was required the pre-eminence of Newtonian physics. Understanding the discussion of Murray and Djokovic requires some willingness and informity (?) to consider that carbohydrate rich diets constitute a dietary balance that differs in balance from evolutionary diets (and, incidentally, is directed by selective pressures that are strongly ‘economic’ by nature) that helps bring the suitability of dense and refined carbohydrate rich food into question.

    The second facet of hierarchy as applies to knowledge sits in the relationship between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom.

    Being possessed of data can make you informed, but doesn’t necessarily do so.
    Being possessed of information can make you knowledgeable, but doesn’t necessarily do so.
    Being possessed of knowledge can make you wise, but doesn’t necessarily do so.

    In the information age in which we find ourselves wisdom itself can be a scarce commodity.

    In an age dominated by trade in an essentially scarce commodity, whose scarcity is very apparent presently, some people will go to enormous lengths to sell you something that they insist is good for you while all the while it is harmful. And some people will do their level best to present some selective knowledge as wisdom when all the while it represents something else entirely.

  21. JEYoung 2 September 2011 at 9:22 pm #

    It appears Andy Murray was listening to your 4 July podcast and took your advice!

    Reported by the UKPA during the US Open:

    Murray boosted by Djokovic diet

    Andy Murray is hoping changes in his diet will prove the missing piece in the grand slam jigsaw.
    The Scot begins his quest for a first slam title against India’s Somdev Devvarman in the first round of the US Open on Wednesday. The 24-year-old is famous for not being a morning person but he insists that is now a thing of the past after he cut the glycoprotein gliadin out of his diet, following in the gluten-free footsteps of world number one Novak Djokovic.
    “I’m having a lot more fish and vegetables and trying to have a more balanced diet rather than just the typical pasta before matches and steaks and chicken,” said Murray.
    “Breakfast is quite difficult because normally I could have bagels and any spreads. And then snacks during the day. Rather than having a chocolate bar, I’m having an apple or a banana.
    “It’s something that, now I know how I feel, I wish I had been doing it longer. I feel way better. I wake up at 7am now and feel great. Before I would wake up at 9.30 and feel terrible.”
    Fellow Britons Elena Baltacha and Anne Keothavong get their campaigns under way on Tuesday against Jamie Hampton and Chanelle Scheepers, respectively, while Irish qualifier Conor Niland will look to become only the third player to beat Djokovic this season.
    Preceding that match on Arthur Ashe Stadium, women’s top seed Caroline Wozniacki will begin her campaign while the night session features title favourite Serena Williams and men’s defending champion Rafael Nadal.

  22. Ian Day 7 March 2012 at 2:06 pm #

    Interesting – do you know what Djokovic eats in terms of carb/fat/protein?

    I’ve been T2 diabetic for 11 years.

    I changed my diet too late for it to affect my tennis “career” – 2nd or third team in a local club. I was 69 when neuropathy – caused by the NHS/Diabetes UK high carb diet – became crippling. 3 months of low carb restored my health, & 4 years on I am still playing at club standard. I play table tennis at a good standard also. No problem at all with mobility.

    Before low carb the neuropathy set in rapidly. Numbness in my thigh was the reason for diagnosis 11 years ago, but did not bother me. Then I had difficulty getting out of bed, my leg muscles were so painful I had to move my legs by hand until I was sitting on the edge of the bed. Stairs were a struggle & I sat out the hospital gym classes my wife & I went to (for her heart condition.) Now I can hold my own against the instructors at table tennis.

    I regularly play tennis for 1 1/2 hour with only water for refreshment. My system maintains or increases my blood glucose during that time.


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