Practical nutritional recovery strategies during squash competition by Ollie Turner

January 15 2022

Ollie Turner, PhD Student & Performance Nutritionist at the English Institute of Sport & England Squash explains the nutritional strategies a professional player could employ at competition to fuel those lung busting rallies.

Team sports such as rugby & football often have 3-7 days in-between competitive matches to recover & refuel for the next match. However, squash proudly embraces its physical challenge with professional players expected to compete 6-48 hours following their previous match. When considering the high intensity nature of squash & the physical demands it imposes, maintaining peak performance can be difficult for players. This article aims to highlight what a player can do nutritionally to give them the best chance of maintaining that peak performance following a hard match.

An optimal nutritional recovery strategy can be split into four key areas… repair, repel, refuel & rehydrate. These are all intertwined & should be completed synergistically as if one is neglected then the other areas will be compromised.

There are two stages to muscle damage… that achy feeling after exercise that many squash players will be familiar with. The first involves little microtears in the muscle. The lunging movements which characterise squash can cause more muscle damage than normal, so this heightens the demand to repair the muscle.

Research has shown that protein is the macronutrient with the capabilities of repairing these microtears, so players will want to consume a protein source immediately post exercise. This in theory should reduce fatigue & allow for more forceful muscle contractions.

A player would want roughly 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass. Therefore a 60 kg player would want 24 grams & an 80 kg player, 32 grams. It’s unlikely that players will have the capabilities to have food immediately post-match & many cannot stomach a steak as strenuous high intensity exercise reduces appetite. Therefore, appropriate options could be sports recovery shakes, protein bars, milk or flavoured milk (i.e. chocolate). It’s important that if an athlete uses any supplement, they follow anti-doping procedures & make sure the supplement is informed sport certified.

The second stage to muscle damage is the onset of inflammatory cells called reactive oxidant species. An acute dose of polyphenols has been shown to negate these inflammatory cells & increase muscle contraction force in the hours following a hard exercise bout.

Polyphenols reduce the sensations of muscle soreness & therefore a player could theoretically move faster around the court in following matches. Polyphenols are found in a variety of foods but most commonly berries & cherries. The acute dose required equates to roughly 100 cherries which would be unrealistic to consume immediately post-match. Subsequently, many sport supplement companies have developed concentrated gels for convenience for athletes.

Professional players sustain heart rates of above 180 bpm throughout match play. At these intensities, the body predominantly uses carbohydrate as a fuel. Carbohydrate is stored in the muscle as something called glycogen. If you think of the muscle as a fuel tank, players will be able to store approximately 60 - 90 minutes’ worth of high intensity fuel in the muscle. Therefore, if a player has a long match, it imposes huge refuelling demands as their glycogen stores may be fully depleted.

Research has shown that glycogen content is increased if the same carbohydrate source is consumed immediately post exercise in comparison to waiting for two hours. It’s almost as if the body knows it is low on fuel & wants to refuel! High glycaemic index carbohydrates (sugars) are preferred post exercise as the body can store it in the muscle quicker due to it not having to be broken down as much.

Examples of appropriate high glycaemic carbohydrates post exercise are ones found in recovery shakes, ripe bananas, flavoured milk, energy gels, sports drinks & energy balls (consisting of dates & honey among other things).

To fully refuel the muscle post exercise, you want to consume 1 – 1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body mass for four hours (i.e. this amount post-match, + 1 hour, + 2 hours & +3 hours) before resuming normal eating practice.

Therefore, a 60 kg player would require 60 g – 72 g of carbohydrate every hour & an 80 kg player would require 80 g – 96 g every hour. This may seem like a lot of carbohydrate but will go a long way towards fully refuelling the muscle & will take the pressure off the following match day.

Often forgotten but rehydration plays a massive role in the recovery process.

Dehydration reduces blood volume & from a recovery aspect, nutrients such as protein & carbohydrate are transported in the blood, so if blood flow is compromised then the recovery process won’t be as efficient. Therefore, a suitable strategy is for players to weigh themselves before & after their match & consume 1.5 x the weight lost in litres of fluid.

Players should also aim to consume electrolytes (sodium, potassium & magnesium) with their fluid as these are lost during exercise & help retain the fluid consumed. Electrolytes can be consumed from electrolyte tablets, recovery shakes, sports drinks, milk & bananas to name a few.

Practical Example – Nick Wall
Presented is a practical example of how this may look. Nick weighed 80 kg prior to the match & 78 kg after the match

Food & Drink Time Goals:
Immediately Post Match
Protein = 32 g
Carbohydrate = 80 – 96 g
Fluids = 1 Litre
Polyphenols = Yes    •    Sports recovery shake
1 x Ripe banana
1 x Sports Drink
Cherry Gel

+ 1 Hour:
Protein = 0 g
Carbohydrate = 80 – 96 g
Fluids = 1 Litre
Polyphenols = No
2 x Ripe banana
2 x Homemade energy balls
1 Litre of water with additional electrolytes

+ 2 Hours:
Protein = 40 g
Carbohydrate = 80 – 96 g
Fluids = 500 ml
Polyphenols = No
1 Main meal consisting of protein portion (chicken, salmon, beef etc.) & large carbohydrate serving (pasta, rice, potato etc.)
500 ml of water with additional electrolytes

+ 3 Hours:
Protein = 0 g
Carbohydrate = 80 – 96 g
Fluids = 1 Litre
Polyphenols = No
1 x ripe banana
1 x sports drink
1 x energy ball