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Sweat it out: What beach volleyball can teach us about playing hard when it’s hot

Photos by Kevin Van Paassen for The Globe and Mail

With the days long and hot, and the water sparkling in the sun, it’s hard to ignore the siren call of the shoreline: Canada’s top beach volleyball players have hit the sand for another gruelling season of blocking, bouncing and backhand digs.

Pre-exercise snack

Gluten-free trail mix

(10 servings)

Mix together:

2 cups dry-roasted soy nuts

1 cup raisins

1 cup dried cranberries

2 cups Rice Chex cereal, 

Nutrition per serving: 

280 calories

35 g carbs

10 g protein

12 g fat

Source: Nicole Springle, registered dietitian

Olympic sports don’t get more gorgeous than beach volleyball, but don’t be fooled by the tanned bods in bikinis and short shorts. Their eye-catching physiques are just a side effect, said Angie Shen, who oversees all aspects of training as the Ontario Volleyball Association’s high-performance beach development head coach. Beach volleyball players are serious athletes who sweat buckets at every match and burn hundreds of extra calories in lightning-speed sprints and jumps.

In this game of endurance, team chemistry and mental focus, the spikers rule the court while the Bambis – players who tense up under pressure – are dead meat. To keep their edge, the best players draw on the latest findings from sports psychology, kinesiology and nutrition science.

Here are some tips straight from the courts on how to eat right, stay hydrated and protect yourself from the sun when you’re playing hard or working out on the sand.

Beach volleyball player Daniella Trodel, 17, practices at Ashbridge's Bay in Toronto, Wednesday, July 2, 2014.


Carbohydrates have a bad name now that high-fructose corn syrup has been linked to obesity and “gluten-free” is a full-blown fad. But “carbs are not the enemy,” said Nicole Springle, a registered dietitian and sport nutritionist at Canadian Sport Institute Ontario. Athletes, including weekend warriors, need carbohydrates, such as fruits and crackers, to give their bodies enough ready-to-use fuel, she said.

Real foods are ideal, but for athletes playing multiple tournaments away from home, so-called “sports foods” such as high-sugar gummy bears and energy gels may be indispensable, she said: “There’s definitely a place for them.”

Nuts and other low-carb snacks are not digested fast enough to do the job. While proteins are essential for rebuilding muscles after a hard workout, “they’re not going to give you the type of energy that’s needed when you’re hitting the courts in 15 minutes,” Springle said.

To help demystify nutrition for athletes, Springle explains Canada’s Food Guide in performance-enhancement terms. Grains are “energizers,” meat and alternatives are “builders and repairers,” vegetables and fruit are “super foods” and dairy and alternatives are for “recovery and bone-building,” she said.

Game-day hydration

DIY electrolyte drink

Shake together:

1 L water

3 1/2 tbsp honey

4 tbsp lemon juice

1/8-1/4 tsp salt

Nutrition per 500 ml serving: 

121 calories

31 g carb

300 mg sodium

38 mg potassium

Source: Nicole Springle, registered dietitian


Dehydration can wreck your game. Signs of excessive fluid loss include light-headedness, poor concentration, fatigue, dry mouth and even vision problems. But when it’s hot outside, “you may not actually feel those cues,” Springle said. She noted that in warm weather, the average athlete needs to drink twice as much liquid on exercise days as on days of rest. Nevertheless, she said, fluid loss is highly individual, and may vary by as much as 500 millilitres to a litre for two players with the same body weight during the same match.

But overhydration is also risky, causing comas in extreme cases. Springle recommends that athletes gauge their personal fluid needs by weighing themselves immediately before and after exercise (without urinating) and also weighing any fluids they drink in between to calculate net fluid loss. “For every kilogram you lose, you need to take in a litre of fluid during exercise,” she said. Another rule of thumb is to drink enough liquids so that urine is no darker than pale lemonade. Springle encourages athletes to keep bottles of fluid handy and set a digital alarm to remind themselves to drink liquids containing electrolytes – sodium, chloride, potassium – throughout the day.

Sports drinks, coconut water and homemade electrolyte drinks are the hydrators of choice at beach volleyball tournaments, Shen said. She added that coaches train athletes to perform under pressure, “but if they don’t drink enough, it’s countering the fact that we’re trying to work on staying mentally sharp.”


Beach volleyball players may be scantily dressed – tank top and shorts for guys, bikinis for girls – but the best players have learned to take frequent breaks out of the sun, Shen said. “We heavily push them to make sure they’re covered when they’re not playing,” she said.

The young athletes slather on sunscreen and wear skin-tight socks to prevent their feet from getting blistered or chafed by the hot sand. Many wear hats or visors as well as sunglasses, said Shen, adding that she has learned the hard way that if she doesn’t wear sunglasses, the whites of her eyes will turn yellow from sun damage by the end of the season.

The major risks of sun damage to the eyes include cataracts, macular degeneration – the single largest cause of blindness in people over 65 – and skin cancer on the eyelids, said Dr. Sherif El-Defrawy, chair of ophthalmology at the University of Toronto.

Most sunglasses, other than ultra-cheap models, have lenses that protect against ultraviolet rays. But since sun reflections can hit the eye from above, around and below the frames, “sunglasses by themselves can’t block out all the rays,” El-Defrawy cautioned. For outdoor sports in the sun, he recommends wearing both wraparound sunglasses and a hat.

Despite the fact that skin cancer is one of the most preventable forms of the disease, melanoma is on the rise in Canada – likely due to the fact Canadians just aren’t using adequate protection.

Dr. Julia Carroll, director of Compass Dermatology in Toronto, said sunscreens should be approved by the Canadian Dermatology Association and have a sun-protection factor of at least 30. Carroll noted that the SPF level generally refers to protection against UVB rays, which affect the skin’s outer layers, as opposed to UVA rays, which penetrate deep into the skin. “When you get into higher [SPF] numbers like the 70s, it actually has more to do with their UVA protection,” she said. For athletes who are reluctant to wear hats, Carroll suggests rubbing spray sunscreen into the part of their hair to prevent cancer of the scalp – “an area that’s often forgotten,” she said.

For the best protection, she added, use heavy doses of sunscreen on all exposed skin areas: The U.S. Skin Cancer Foundation recommends applying the equivalent of a full shotglass of sunscreen every two hours.

“Most people put on about a quarter of the amount of sunscreen that they should,” Carroll said.

With files from Lee Marshall

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