The Role of Nutrition in Pickleball Performance

Nutrition plays a huge role in how well you perform on the court. Pickleball matches are packed with rapid and intense rallies that require sprinting back and forth. They can take a toll on your body. Skimping on proper fuel might just leave you running on empty.

Don't let a lackluster diet trip you up. Keep your mental focus and muscular power in check by eating the right foods. Remember, carbohydrates fuel your energy, while protein is all about building muscle. Timing matters too, so be mindful of when to eat different types of food—munching on the wrong stuff pre-match could weigh you down.

So, get ready to explore the ins and outs of powering your body for pickleball. In this guide, you'll discover the best foods for breakfast, pre-match bites, and recovery meals. And, just in case you need them, there are tips on staying hydrated and a handy guide to choosing top-notch supplements.

Understanding Pickleball Nutrition

What you decide to eat matters. Not just for your overall health, but also for how your body performs. Unfortunately, a healthy diet meeting all your nutrient needs doesn't guarantee top-notch performance.  That’s because eating for health and eating for performance are not the same. While your health should come first, you have to take additional steps to make sure your body is prepared to play pickleball.

Take carbohydrates, for instance - they can boost your performance in a game, just like high-grade fuel does for your car. The right nutrition helps combat mental and physical fatigue on the court, boosts your sprinting speed, and might even ward off injuries.

Picture pickleball nutrition as a pyramid-building project. The most crucial aspect forms the base, while each subsequent layer is slightly less important.

Starting at the bottom, daily calorie intake is the foundation. Next comes the macronutrient breakdown (carbs, protein, and fat), followed by the specific food types (think white rice vs. brown rice). At the pinnacle - and arguably the least vital - sit the supplements you might take.

What to Eat Before Playing Pickleball

Imagine eating a large, greasy meal before playing pickleball. Chances are you’ll feel sluggish and play poorly. On the other hand, if you’re famished when you start playing, you might have low energy. Pre-game nutrition is all about finding a balance that works for you, and afterward, you need to replenish all of the calories you’ve burned.

Now, let's talk about hydration, because it's just as important, if not more so, than your pre-match snacks. Believe it or not, the best time to hydrate is before you even step on the court. Trying to catch up on hydration mid-game can be a real challenge, and dehydration can not only hurt your performance but also pose risks, especially in sweltering conditions.

You should drink 16-20 ounces of water 2-3 hours before the match to kick off the process. Then, 15-20 minutes before the game, down another 6-10 ounces of water. This way, you'll be well-hydrated before you even start playing. Of course, you'll sip water during the match too, but with the right prep, your performance won't suffer from hydration issues.

With pre-match hydration in the rearview, it's time to shift focus to what you should eat before a match.

What Should I Eat Before Playing Pickleball?

Your body needs carbohydrates before you start playing pickleball. Carbs fuel your muscles and give you energy. Even your brain needs carbohydrates when you’re playing pickleball to help you stay sharp. Avoid fatty foods because they can weigh you down. Stick with light, carbohydrate-rich snacks. To make sure you don’t have an upset stomach while playing, aim to eat your pre-match meal or snack 3-4 hours before playing.

That way, you’ll have time to digest and let your stomach settle. In that meal, aim to have 3-4 grams of carbs per 2.2 pounds of body weight. If you have to eat closer to your match, have half that amount.

Protein can be slightly helpful but isn’t as important as carbohydrates. Eating too much can also be hard on your digestive system. If you know you’re going to be sweating a lot, you can eat a salty snack to give your body some electrolytes. Here are some examples of the best pre-match meals for pickleball players:

  • Fig Bars: Figs are high in carbohydrates, so you don’t need to eat a lot of them to fuel up. 1 ounce of a fig bar has 20 grams of carbohydrates. If you enjoy the taste, the best time to enjoy them is before a pickleball match. If you’re 150lbs, aim to eat about 10 ounces of figs 3-4 hours before a match, or half that amount 1-2 hours before.
  • Ham Sandwich and Banana: If you’re looking for more of a complete meal with plenty of carbohydrates and a little protein, a ham sandwich is a good option. The bread, lettuce, and tomato give you carbohydrates. The ham and mayonnaise have protein and fat. Adding a banana gives you a boost of extra carbs, plus potassium in case you’re low on electrolytes. Both fat and protein digest slowly, so make sure you eat this at least 2 hours before playing.
  • Crackers with Peanut Butter or Hummus: Crackers, or pretzels if you prefer, are mostly made of carbohydrates. They’re also relatively low in fiber, which means they’re easy to digest. Adding peanut butter or hummus gives you an added boost of carbohydrates, plus some protein and fat to round out your meal. If you only have 30 minutes before playing and need to eat something, skip the peanut butter or hummus and have a handful of crackers to get some carbs into your body. One of the benefits of crackers or pretzels is that they don’t spoil, so you can travel with them. Plus, the salt is good if you’ll be sweating a lot.
  • Sports Drink: The two most important things to ingest before playing pickleball are water and carbohydrates. With a sports drink, you get both things combined into one. Plus, most drinks contain electrolytes, which help you hydrate even more. If you find that sports drinks are too sweet or are hard on your stomach, try watering them down a little. This is one of the best options if you don’t have much time to eat before playing pickleball and need a pick-me-up.

What Should I Eat for Breakfast Before Pickleball?

Breakfast might not be the most important meal of the day, but it can start you off on the right foot. Eating a healthy breakfast before pickleball can boost your performance, as long as you eat the right things. If you make poor food choices you might be slower and play with less energy.

Some people might not be hungry in the morning, and that’s fine. Eating first thing in the morning isn’t important unless it’s your only chance to eat before playing. If it is, a quick carbohydrate-rich snack will suffice. If you aren't playing early, you can wait until you’re hungry to eat.

It’s common to only seek out breakfast foods since full meals can be off-putting in the morning. While it might seem like your options are limited, there are plenty of breakfast options that give you the nutrients you need to play well later that day. Here’s a list of some of the best breakfast foods:

  • Breakfast Smoothie: If you lack an appetite in the morning, a smoothie might be your best bet. It’s typically easier to stomach foods that have been blended, and it’s easy to carry a smoothie with you if you’re in a hurry. You can use water as a base or orange juice if you want more carbohydrates. Add in a scoop of protein powder or a container of Greek yogurt for extra protein. A teaspoon of peanut butter or powdered peanut butter can make the smoothie more delicious and add some carbs, fat, and protein. 
  • Waffle Sandwich: You might not think of waffles as a healthy breakfast option, but there are an increasing number of whole-grain frozen waffles on the market. Heat two waffles spread peanut butter on each, and add some banana to make a sandwich. That gives you almost 50 grams of carbs, 13 grams of protein, and 20 grams of fat. It’s easy to wrap this up and take it with you, and it’s pretty tasty.
  • Overnight Oats: This tasty breakfast can be prepped for an entire week, so it’s a convenient option for busy people. You can simply mix up the dry ingredients at the beginning of the week, and add the wet ingredients the night before so that it’s not too soggy. The best thing about this meal is that you can swap out ingredients and fit them to your tastes. Start with ½ to ¾ cup of rolled oats. You can add chopped almonds or peanuts, as well as chia seeds or any nut butter for extra flavor and nutrients. Frozen berries, chopped bananas, or apples will boost your carb count. Throw in a little vanilla extract and cinnamon for flavor, as well as honey or maple syrup for carbs. Top that all off with ½ to ¾ cup milk to hydrate the oats and leave it in the fridge overnight.
  • Bagel with Jam: If you have limited time between breakfast and pickleball and need to get something in your stomach, reach for a bagel with jam. You should aim to have something that’s carbohydrate-rich and easy to digest. A bagel with jam checks both boxes. Avoid cream cheese because dairy can weigh you down. Jam is packed with sugars to give you an energy boost on the court, and the bagel has plenty of carbs as well.

What to Eat After Playing Pickleball

Post-match nutrition for pickleball players becomes even more important if you have to play again the next day. After a match is a perfect time to get fuel into your muscles to help you recover. Your body needs adequate protein to help your muscles recover. Aim for at least 20 grams of protein, but up to 40 is ideal.

Not only do you need to eat enough to make up for the calories you’ve burned, but you might also need to rehydrate to replace fluids. If you were playing in hot conditions, this is even more important. As soon as you step off the court, it’s time to start rehydrating.

One of the best strategies to make sure you’re drinking enough is to weigh yourself before and after playing. Most of the weight you lose is from water. Try to drink one liter of water per 2.2 pounds of body weight lost. Now that you’ve got hydration under control, it’s time to worry about what to eat.

Best Post-Game Meals and Snacks for Pickleball Players

Depending on how hard you worked during pickleball, you might not be hungry for a full meal. You can always reach for a liquid snack, such as a protein shake. Or, wait for a little until the blood in your body returns to your digestive system. Once you feel ready to eat, try these post-workout meals to help you recover: 

  • Protein Bar and Sports Drink: Chances are you’re not going to have a nice meal waiting for you when you get off the pickleball court. To get an adequate amount of protein and carbs, carry a protein or energy bar with you. Make sure it’s something you enjoy the taste of, or that you can at least stomach. The ideal bar should have 15-20 grams of protein. It should also have 20-30 grams of carbohydrates to refuel the sugars that your muscles burned during the match. While high-fiber bars aren’t good to eat before a match because they can upset your stomach, you can have fiber after the match. Adding a sports drink to your post-match bar is the perfect combo because it provides added carbohydrates and electrolytes that your bar might lack. If you know you can’t eat for a while after the match, or if you have to play again soon, adding a sports drink will also boost your fluid intake.
  • Almonds and Chocolate Milk: It’s not very often that nutritionists recommend chocolate milk, but it’s hard to deny the benefits of drinking it after your match. Chocolate milk has more carbs than regular milk, which is good for recovery. Plus, it has protein and fat. It’s easy to carry with you and quick to drink, making it ideal for immediately after a match. Almonds are a good addition to this post-workout snack because they also have protein, fats, and some carbohydrates. They’re easy to carry with you and they’re packed with nutrients, so you don’t need many.
  • Salmon with Rice and Sweet Potato: Quick snacks are useful after pickleball, but if you can get a meal within a couple of hours of playing, that’s even better. A well-rounded meal provides all of the nutrients your body needs to recover. This meal has plenty of protein and fat from salmon and enough carbohydrates from rice and sweet potato to top off your muscles.
  • Thin Crust Pizza: Pizza isn’t generally considered a healthy food, but there’s nothing wrong with having thin-crust pizza with lean meats on top. The crust itself is rich in carbohydrates, and you can put the grilled chicken on top. Go easy on the cheese if you’re eating right after playing pickleball because it could be hard to digest. Add some tomato sauce and other grilled veggies to turn this into a well-rounded meal. A few slices will give you at least 50 grams of carbs, a healthy serving of protein, and vegetables. Altogether this is a delicious post-workout meal that gives your body the nutrients it needs to recover from pickleball.

Supplements for Pickleball Players

A supplement is something you take in addition to whatever you’re eating and drinking. They’re meant to be supplementary to your diet, not used as a replacement for anything. Another issue with supplements is that they’re not tightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Speak with your doctor before deciding to try any supplements to make sure they’re appropriate for you. Here are some supplements that could improve your pickleball performance:

  • Protein: This is one of the most-used supplements for fitness enthusiasts and athletes. Protein supplements can be found in powder form, in bars, in ready-made drinks, and even in waffles or oatmeal. There are also different types of protein. Whey is one of the most popular, and is derived from milk. Soy is a popular vegetarian option. When choosing a protein supplement, take into account how it affects your digestive system. Some products can cause an upset stomach, which would be counterproductive for performance. Taste is also an important factor because you probably won’t want to take a supplement that tastes disgusting. Protein is helpful for pickleball because it boosts muscle recovery. Taking protein increases the rate at which you make new muscle, which can lead to greater increases in strength over time. In other words, you might be slightly faster or hit the ball a little harder.
  • Caffeine: You might not think of caffeine as a sports performance supplement, but high levels of it are banned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. You can take caffeine in pill or powder form, but it’s usually consumed in a beverage. Coffee, for example, or an energy drink before your match, can give you a pick-me-up. If you take caffeine before a match, you might notice some mental and physical benefits. Caffeine increases alertness, which makes you more mentally sharp. That can help you decide which shot to hit next or react quickly to your opponent’s ball. Caffeine can improve your endurance. The effect is particularly pronounced in heat. If you know that you’re going to be playing in hot conditions, try taking an energy drink or other caffeine supplement 30 minutes to an hour before your match.
  • Creatine: One of the most-researched supplements on the market is actually creatine. It has a surprisingly long list of benefits for players. Creatine comes in powder or pill form, and has even made its way into some drinks. It’s decidedly unappetizing in powdered form, so be sure to mix it with something tasty. Creatine is approved for long-term use and is generally regarded as safe, no matter your age. Players will see slight improvements in strength and endurance. It improves muscular strength, which helps you hit the ball harder. You’ll also get slightly faster when sprinting from shot to shot, and it might even help you jump higher. On top of that, your endurance will improve. As the match goes on, you shouldn’t feel as tired as you previously would. While these improvements might not be very pronounced, creatine is an effective and safe supplement.
  • Electrolytes: Playing in the summer heat or even indoors in a hot climate can make you sweat more than you realize. Some people simply sweat more than others and need some way to fight dehydration. Drinking water is important, and it’s fairly easy to get salt from food. Still, you lose electrolytes when you sweat and water simply can’t replace them. Calcium, potassium, and sodium are the three main electrolytes that supplements contain. You need a balance of electrolytes in your body. An imbalance can lead to health problems. One of the benefits of supplementation is that you can take something that has all three electrolytes, ensuring you maintain balance. Many sports drinks contain electrolytes, but you can find them in pill, powder, or tablet form. Electrolytes can be used for hydration before, during, or after a match.

How Do You Increase Your Stamina for Pickleball?

It’s frustrating to look over the net and see your opponent barely breathing while you’re gasping for air. The good news about stamina is that you can improve it. Doing drills on the pickleball court and playing matches will boost your stamina, as will running and doing circuit training in the gym.

Supplements will also boost your stamina. If you’re training as hard as you can and eating the right foods, a supplement can give you the extra edge you’re looking for. While many products claim to give you more stamina, only a handful have been proven in studies to help. For example, beetroot.

Beets are a healthy and delicious root vegetable that you can cook in a variety of ways. While they’re healthy to eat, it would be nearly impossible to eat the number of beets required to enhance your pickleball performance. Beetroot powder, on the other hand, gives your body a concentrated rush of nutrients that can slightly elevate your game.

Pickleball athletes in particular benefit from taking beetroot. It works by delaying or preventing fatigue, although how it does so is unclear. Players need to sprint around the court repeatedly, and beetroot can help delay fatigue in similar activities.

Betaine is a supplement that uses a compound found in beetroot. It’s been proven effective in sprinting sports such as soccer. Pickleball similarly combines sprinting with endurance, so taking either of these supplements can help you stay on the court longer and fight fatigue.

You Are What You Eat

Taking nutrition seriously can mean the difference between winning and losing a match. If you find that you often feel sluggish on the court, it might be time to rethink your diet

Special attention should be paid to what you eat immediately before and after a match. Eating carbs beforehand and drinking plenty of water is vital to your performance. Afterward, rehydrating and eating a balanced meal with carbs and protein will help you recover so that you can play again the next day.

If you decide to use supplements, stick with brands you know and trust. Nutrition doesn’t have to be too complicated, you just need to make sure you’re prioritizing the right kinds of foods and eating them at the right time.