Diet for golfers? It's no joke

Golfers like Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson have changed the outlook of the golfing athlete. From belly-toting champions, we are now seeing fitter and stronger golfers.

Anirban Lahiri... a big supporter of nutrition plan for golfers.   -  Getty Images

The game of golf has changed since Tiger Woods. His Navy SEALs approach to training and sharpshooter focus on his diet meant that a six-pack golfer changed every other golfer’s viewpoint forever. From belly-toting champions, we are now seeing fitter and stronger golfers.

When India’s top golfer Anirban Lahiri first visited me for a sports nutrition plan in 2011, I advised him to look seriously into his diet. I explained to my first golfing client that ‘there’s no guarantee that eating properly will lower your score. Ignore golf nutrition at your peril. You are out there for four or five hours, longer than most sportsmen, and you’re walking six to 10 kilometres. If you don’t pay attention to fuelling and hydrating, your game will suffer.’ Once Anirban started looking at what he is eating, both on and off the course, there was a flood of golfers trying their hand at a sports nutrition diet. Before the golfing brigade began knocking at the door, I was busy working with Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar and powerhouse hitters like Shikhar Dhawan.

About six years ago, I began interacting with golf coaches and academies across India to develop a unique golfing nutrition programme. In those days, I actually walked the course with golfers to gauge their sweat rates, concentration, heart rates and their feelings of hunger and thirst. I then realised that golf is a physically demanding sport and golf can punish your body.

Paul Chek, in his book The Golf Biomechanic’s Manual, reveals that amateur golfers achieve approximately 90 percent of their peak muscular activity when driving a ball. This level of exertion and muscular activation equates golf with such sports as powerlifting, kabaddi, football and martial arts. The difference is that other athletes outside of golf include conditioning as an integral part of their preparation before they play. It’s only in the last 10 years that golfers like Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson have changed the outlook of the golfing athlete.

Shubhankar Sharma recently pumped his fists after winning the TAKE Open Golf Championship. This soft-spoken 21-year-old golfer started working on his diet and nutrition with me about two years ago. As a teenager he asked me: “How will diet make me a better golfer?” A logical question from a smart, astute pro golfer. I told him that over a year I would make him realise the answers to this single question.

1. A balanced diet: A golfer eating the right balance of protein, carbs and fat will have optimum energy levels to drive 250 balls during practice or walk 10 kilometres to play 18 holes and come back the next day to repeat it over. Every athlete needs to know this: You have mitochondria, they are your powerhouses of energy generation, you can increase the number of power generators within each cell by focusing on quality nutrition and scientific training.

2. Hydration: When working with Shubhankar, we wanted to know how much weight he lost whilst out in the blistering sun. So we weighed him at the start of the day and at the end of the day in dry clothes and calculated his fluid loss via sweat as well as the replenishment of his fluids via food and water. Once we had the data at my sports nutrition clinic, we were able to plan: a) How much he was losing, b) How much fluid we had to replace back into him, c) How much of glucose and electrolytes to add to that custom sports drink to enable a better muscle fluidity and flow, and a calm brain function.

In fact, with golfers playing in Chennai and Dehradun, we have noticed differing heart rates due to perspiration and heat/humidity factors. As such, when the heart rate goes up, adrenaline too goes up, which in turn makes an athlete edgy. Golf is a sport of calmness of thought and execution. A simple formula to get the glucose and electrolytes can be the difference between a birdie and an eagle.

3. Pre-golf meals: We know that most tee-offs start early morning and so golfers have little or no time to eat well before five hours of competition. A good golfer will get a balanced breakfast about two hours before the tee-off. For former amateur golf champion Trishul Chinappa, this means I have to convince him to wake up at 5 a.m. to eat breakfast immediately for a 7 a.m. tee-off. A lot of players do this very groggily, and some even eat and go back to sleep. But it is better than going off to play on a half-filled or empty stomach. A lot of my clients actually believe that a bowl of cornflakes with milk and some fruit 20 minutes before the competition is okay. Far from the truth. They do not realise that by doing this, they are raising their heart rates, not to mention their sugar and insulin spikes that will eventually catch up with their concentration through the 18 holes.

4. During 18 holes: So many clubs to juggle with, and the course direction, wind, strategy and a host of elements that need to be carefully constructed in the mind, the golfers want no say in munching or eating as they play. It’s a big distraction, they say! Even hydration was a big issue. I cite to the golfers a simple analogy: imagine you are a car driving to 18 holes. The car has fuel only for eight holes. After that it needs a break to refuel. So, you don’t stop so that your body breaks down muscle and fat. This breakdown causes your brain and heart rate to unbalance. If you eat small snacks and hydrate, it’s like you are getting a pit stop that balances your brain, muscles and heart rate so that you are as fresh as ever.

A champion golfer will snack on the course to top up energy levels. With lady golf champion Sharmila Nicollet, we realised a cup of coffee works best in picking her up, but too much caffeine brought on the jitters. With Anirban, the custom hydration solution actually had to be toned down in glucose and amino acids, as he said he felt too charged up. So every player has a different energy and nutrition requirement while playing. Shubhankar’s favourite is a combination of electral, Fastcharge and/or Gatorade.

5. Post golf: Players are too tired and hot after a game to focus on eating scientifically. The appetite centre in the brain is too overburdened to allow any more calories to enter the body. However, within 30 minutes of finishing, every golfer needs to eat a meal that contains 30 grams of protein, 70 grams of carbohydrates and 30 grams of fat. The next few snacks and meals determine the recovery for the next day’s game.

With Shubhankar, I have seen that 4-5 days after the start of a tournament we have to ensure that his veg foods is available and that we are fuelling well to enable a razor-sharp focus in the brain on the last day of the tournament.

Research shows that athletes in every sport will lose up to 60% or more of their glycogen reserves in the muscles by the end of 4-5 days of competition. This causes fatigue, and has a direct effect on players’ freshness, focus, the killer instinct to win and the ability to push.

 

Secret nutrition tips for golfers

1. Get a nutritionist to work on your diet at home as well as during travel.

2. Include nuts like almonds, pista, cashew and pine nuts during your 18 holes. The correct quantities need to be determined and you need three months to make this a habit.

3. Berries like cranberries, blueberries and raisins work effectively in calming the brain for its small sugar recharges.

4. Avoid energy drinks with caffeine on the course. Opt for sports drinks that have 6% isotonic carb balance and a 5:1 sodium to potassium balance on electrolytes.

5. Banana has always been my favourite snack for golfers.

6. Pomegranate, beetroot and chia seeds are the secret arsenal in smoothies when a golfer is not playing. Improves focus and endurance.

7. Golfers need to play on a lighter stomach. Early morning tee-offs see many players too stressed to relieve their bowels. The previous day coconut water, carrot juice and prunes help get an instant bowel movement early morning on waking.

8. A non-nutrition tip: an exercise wearable will give your heart rate and this will enable planning of hydration and glucose as you play. Key elements to the mind and the muscle.