By Marika Sboros
Roger Federer is a phenomenon on and off court. From a brat who used to throw his racket around every time he lost a match as a child in his native Switzerland, he has matured into a true sport superstar.
He is an artist as much as an elegant, graceful, hard working tennis professional.
Better still, he demonstrates a seductive core humility. It scaffolds the athleticism and consummate skill with which he demolishes opponents, most recently British Number 1 Andy Murray in the Wimbledon semi-final.
Currently Number 2 in the world, Federer made it to the Wimbledon final this year to face World Number 1, Serbian Novak Djokovic, in a repeat of last year’s final. He lost to the better player on the day, but his performance throughout the championship was extraordinary.
Yet pundits were quick to write Federer off a just few short years ago. Boy, did they get that wrong!
It helps that Federer comes from a solid, secure family background, with supportive parents (his mother, Lynette, is South African, which makes me even more partial to him). He is also married to long-time girlfriend Mirka, a former tennis champion herself. The couple has four children, twin girls and twin boys. Fatherhood clearly suits Federer.
Like Djokovic, Federer has a highly intelligent, close-knit team of coaches, physios and nutrition experts that supports him and includes former Swedish tennis champion Stefan Edberg.
Djokovic has revealed the diet and exercise plan that has made him the world’s top tennis player – he went gluten-free a few years ago, documented it in his book, Serve to Win, and credits diet in part with dramatically improving his game. He now eschews bread, pasta and anything made with flour. According to a feature in UK’s The Independent, he avoids dairy as well.
Federer plays much closer to his chest when it comes to what he actually eats and drinks on the day and building up to big matches. One Internet report suggested that Federer eats a high-carbohydrate, low-fat (HCLF) diet.
My gut instinct tells me that is unlikely to be true, since a growing body of solid science shows that an optimum diet for elite sports performance is the exact opposite. And no, it’s not just Cape Town sports scientist Prof Tim Noakes who says so – and has been viciously pilloried for doing so by the medical and dietetic establishments.
Noakes, a University of Cape Town emeritus professor, has pioneered low-carb, high-fat (LCHF, AKA Banting) for people with insulin resistance, but also for elite sports performance (Click here for an Idiot’s Guide to Noakes’ LCHF diet).
He bases his work on, and is a vocal supporter of, the ongoing, groundbreaking work by top US scientists Prof Stephen Phinney and Prof Jeff Volek, authors of The Art and Science of Low-Carbohydrate Performance.
In the book, the authors specifically address how a low-carb diet can and should be used by athletes. In their earlier book, The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living, they make a strong case for low carbohydrate diets to treat a range of illnesses, but in particular to manage insulin resistance (aka as carbohydrate intolerance).
However, as they point out, athletes as a group on the continuum of insulin resistance “cluster on the side of insulin sensitivity”. And most athletes “do not have anywhere near the same level of carbohydrate intolerance as someone who is overweight with metabolic syndrome or diabetes”.
That raises the question of why they would then recommend a low-carb diet for athletes. After all, conventional nutritional “wisdom” still holds that carbohydrates are the best fuel for the body.
Phinney and Volek diplomatically say that despite the best intentions, the majority view “does not always represent the truth”.
They say a high carbohydrate diet is bad for most people, but especially elite athletes because it “locks them into dependence on carbohydrate as the dominant fuel for exercise”.
And, of course, every endurance athlete knows what happens to performance when their carbohydrate tank (that at best holds 2000 calories) runs dry: “Performance goes down in flames.”
It’s an unfortunate reality, say Phinney and Volek, that the human body is not naturally designed to switch quickly and easily from carbs to fat as its predominant exercise fuel.
“Once the (carbs) are gone, you can’t power your performance with fat (even though a carbohydrate-depleted body still has tens of thousands of fat calories on hand),” Phinney and Volek say.
The key fact underlying their book is that athletes – and the rest of us more ordinary mortals – can train the body to burn fat by simply changing the diet over a period of a few weeks. In that way, the body turns blood sugar and glycogen into secondary fuels.
“Once you make this transition, you can then train harder, perform longer, and recover faster,” they say.
Therein lies the simple answer to why both scientists so public endorse a low carbohydrate lifestyle for athletes:
“ This strategy has worked for us and many people we know. More importantly, we have both conducted and published human research that supports this approach, adding to a growing body of literature that now points to the merits of reducing dietary carbohydrates to optimise fat metabolism.”
They have accumulated a “unique knowledge base” that they want to share so you too can experience it for yourself.
I’d be surprised – stunned, more likely – to find that Federer and his team is are unaware of this unique knowledge base, and its implications for sports performance and health in both body and mind. I have little doubt that he is Banting, or a version not far from its basic principles. At the very least, he is highly unlikely to be eating the refined, highly-processed, high-sugar and high-carbohydrate foods that some reports suggest he eats. He also doesn’t show any signs of insulin resistance, so has no need to keep carbs very low.
I’d say overall his lean, mean physique, stamina and endurance levels on court are strong signals of a Banting-inspired eating regimen, and certainly no fat phobia.