Athletes have never been more aware of what their bodies need in order to reach peak performance. Fuel Illustrated is a collaboration between Gatorade and the SI Overtime branded content studio exploring how the best athletes in the world manage their daily clock—training, diet, competition and recovery—as they strive for excellence in their chosen sports.
The sun beat down in Yokohama, Japan, as pro beach volleyball player April Ross sweated on the sidelines during a break at a 2015 event. Ross watched as officials measured the scorching July sand at center court. The reading? 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ross and her beach volleyball peers are not the only pros who often compete in stifling temperatures. Tennis superstar Serena Williams remembers an Australian Open a few years ago where players’ shoes were literally melting onto the court. “Fortunately not mine, but it was so hard to stay hydrated in those conditions,” Williams says.
So how do these elite athletes, and others subject to these conditions, compete without being overcome by fatigue or dehydration? One key, both say, is to hydrate as soon as they wake up on match days—and to continue throughout the day.
“I start hydrating the very first thing, usually with water,” says Ross, 33. All told, she might drink a gallon of water during the day and she brings a bottle or two of Gatorade to matches. She’ll also eat an energy bar at match time and drink a protein shake within a half hour after competing. To ease her sun exposure, Ross goes to her hotel room between matches to rest (in the air conditioning, if it’s available). Or, if there’s no time to travel to the hotel, she’ll seek out shade to sit in. Williams, who wears a hat to shield the sun, follows a similar plan. Like Ross, she will immediately “find the shade” when she’s resting.
For Ross, losing water can have a direct impact on her play. “Sometimes you get so sweaty—this happened recently in Rio—that it’s hard to control the ball,” Ross says. “I’ll rub sand on my skin to try and soak up the sweat. If I’m somewhere where it’s that hot again, I’ll wear arm sleeves.”
Another fatigue- and heat-battling asset is muscle mass. Williams has maintained a muscular physique for most of her 20-year pro career, and Ross added muscle tone when she began working with USOC exercise physiologist Tim Pelot following the 2014 Olympics. The two work together three to four times a week on everything from diet and strength training to recovery workouts.
“Heat is energy, so if we can become more efficient in the way we move—getting more technical, more crisp with our mechanics—that helps us not waste energy,” Pelot says. “And if we’re carrying excessive weight, that doesn’t help us move.”
Ross undergoes body-composition tests once a quarter, using methods like skin fold measurements, which gauge muscle mass versus body fat. Another test Pelot implemented measures power-to-weight ratio. “If we know where her body weight is and how powerful her body is, which we test through jumping tests and assessments, we can have a power-to-weight profile,” Pelot says. “Our goal is to get very strong. Strength helps combat heat, fight the onset of fatigue and reduce the need to recover from something. If April’s muscular tissues and tendons are stronger, they won’t be as damaged from the match.”
During competition, Ross also turns to a trick that her on-court partner, Kerri Walsh Jennings, taught her. “I never used to pour cold water over myself because the shock was so great,” Ross says. “But I started playing with Kerri and she does that a lot. I started doing it and it helps so much. At every time-out, I’m pouring cold water on my head, the back of my neck, my legs, my ankles—that really helps me cool off.”
And keeping cool—as both Ross, a silver medalist at the 2012 Olympics, and Williams, winner of an astounding 21 Grand Slam singles titles, could tell you—is the way to thrive in the heat of competition.