2018-05-09 11:00:00 CET
From diets to the demands of unforgiving work-out routines - just how hard is it for beach volleyball players to stay in shape?
Competition for medals on the Beach Volleyball Major Series has never been so high. With every team looking to find an extra edge over the opposition, keeping fitter and eating healthy is playing an increasingly important role. We talk to the beach elite to find out how they’re moving with the times to ensure they stay at the top of one of the world’s most demanding and unique sports.
They jump twice as many times in a game than stars of the NBA and combine that with digging and diving around trying to prevent a volleyball from landing on their half of the sand.
To keep the points ticking over and the gold medals rolling in, it requires an athleticism and stamina combination that you will be pushed to find a comparison in any other Olympic discipline.
Given the sport’s complexities, it’s fair to say beach volleyball players are in a league of their own when it comes to fitness – especially when you consider they do all of this exposed to elements out of their control. Whether that’s alpine winds 1,000 meters above sea level in Gstaad, or the blistering courtside temperatures of 60 degrees that made last year’s World Championships in Vienna a challenge, the beach elite are finding new ways to stay fit and keep themselves at the top of their game.
In a sport that has a demanding, and sometimes punishing schedule, where the margins between success and failure are as close as a grain of sand, keeping in shape is the number one priority.
For some of the Beach Volleyball Major Series’ most recognized players, that simply involves taking the time to work out – and all for one good reason: to avoid injury.
Ágatha Bednarczuk won Olympic silver in 2016. Last season she and teenage sensation Eduarda Santos Lisboa, more commonly known as Duda, took six World Tour medals back to Brazil with them, including the silver medal at the World Tour Finals in Hamburg. Their secret? Physiotherapy.
“We were in good shape last season because we did a lot of good work with our physio,” explains Ágatha, 34. “We would go two or three times a week. We’d go not because we were injured or we had pain, it was for our benefit and to prevent injuries from happening.
“In the off season we spent two weeks at a special place in Brazil and stayed there to train and eat right and practice a lot! We got some good sleep but we did everything we could so we could start the season fit and stay fit for the season ahead.”
The Iceman Commeth
Agatha and Duda harbor hopes of more Major Series medals this summer, but one man who has already a medal from this season on his mantelpiece is American Phil Dalhausser.
The 2008 Olympic champion is nicknamed the Thin Beast on the tour. He’s 6ft 9in tall and his slim frame enables him to leap at the net to such affect he’s been named the FIVB’s Blocker of the Year a record seven times. It’s a weapon that helped the 38-year-old and teammate Nick Lucena end their wait to win a gold medal on home sand in Fort Lauderdale in March.
With a host of up and coming talent in beach volleyball waiting to stake their claim as the sport’s number one team, veterans Phil and Nick are constantly looking for new ways to cement their position as the world’s number one team.
That’s why the Thin Beast, a family man with a wife and two children, now utilizes techniques including mediation to help him maintain his performance and his position as the world’s best blocker.
“I read about a Dutch guy called Wim Hof, who is known as the Iceman,” explains Phil. “He sets records like hiking up Everest in shorts, setting world records for spending time in the water in the arctic.
“He is able to control his breathing through a number of ways, including mediation, and he can basically control his immune system when it comes to pain.
“I read about him and he happened to be at a seminar in LA, I went to that and I bought into the theory.
“I’ve been taking cold showers – I have a daily routine of about 20 minutes that also includes breathing exercises and meditation. I find the meditation help me to be more focused on court.
“Why do I do it? Well, I might be the best blocker in the world but there’s always room for improvement. Even the slightest improvement in percentages can translate to a point here and there throughout the course of the season.”
Food for thought
Phil isn’t the only American beach volleyball star exploring different methods to stay fit. Casey Patterson, who represented the United States at the 2016 Olympics, is a big believer in how a healthy body and a healthy mind can improve performance.
One particular subject that is close to Casey’s heart is nutrition – and with a reason that goes beyond the norm of just eating healthily.
Shortly before the last Olympics, which took place on one beach volleyball’s spiritual homes, the Copacabana Beach in Rio, 38-year-old Patterson was diagnosed with a condition called Hashimoto’s. It’s an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the thyroid. That meant gluten, diary, whey protein and eggs had to be taken off the Californian’s daily menu.
Before the diagnosis, Casey would feel tired and find it tough to juggle the rigors of family life and a career on the sand – and he was determined to get to the bottom of it. To cut a long story short, it means he’s now eating baby food. It’s a new addition to his diet that he claims to have helped him deal with his condition – and not only have a positive effect on his life and performance on the sand, but also an understanding of the science behind nutrition.
“The packs are already pre-blended baby food pouches and I have them all the time, always in my bag,” says Casey, smiling. “Before my condition was identified, I was having pains in my stomach for three days and I didn’t know why. Once experts at USA Volleyball knew what was wrong everything changed. I became a happier person. I just needed to explore this. In this day and age, there are gluten-free options and plant proteins. I’m lucky I found it early without it affecting me too much.
“As for the baby food, I have four to five packs on me at all times. You never know when my youngster daughter might need some! When she does, she’ll have a bite, I’ll have a bite and we’ll take it in turns! It’s fun, it’s a little secret but the baby foods, I love them, they’re amazing. Bananas and sweet potato, spinach. You see, if food is broken down like it is with the blended baby foods – it breaks down in your body faster, which enables you to use that energy quicker. I used to eat apples a lot in between games. My nutritionist would say, ‘yes that’s great, but it’s taking until the end of the match for it to be used properly.’”
Mind over matter
Eating the right things and keeping fit is especially important to those players at the veteran age. At 45, John Hyden is the oldest male player to appear on the Beach Volleyball Major Series in the 2018 season.
John says looking after himself, the diet and the training, is the easy part. For the Californian, the toughest hurdle he faces is the mental side. Keeping your brain in check when you know your body isn’t as young as it once was.
“People are always looking for a fad diet, a quick fix,” says John, who was named the federation’s Most Inspirational Player of 2017. “I have a few secrets. But the hardest aspect is the mental game. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve freaked out warming up. The way you prepare is super tough – just waking up and not feeling like a 33-year-old – you have to get your body ready again and again. It takes its toll. Working hard in the gym is key. It’s all tough, but the point is, I’ve handled it. You have to push through.
“The daily grind, mentally and physically, gets harder and harder the older you get but the mental side is the most difficult. You ask yourself ‘can I do this another year, every day. How about three years?’ It’s a fight.”
Phil Dalhausser, seven years younger than Hyden, is in the same boat – watching what he eats and how he trains. Chocolate tests Phil’s discipline, but he makes up for it by religiously having one half of every meal the color green. Spinach, salad leaves, you name it, if it’s green it’s on the plate every meal time. Last season’s World Tour Finals champ is candid in his feeling towards keeping fit at his age.
“There are definitely days when I’m on court, or in the gym, when I say to myself ‘I don’t feel like sweating or breathing heavy today’,” jokes Phil. “It’s most difficult at the end of a season where now I can’t have too much time off otherwise my body will hurt and I’ll feel out of shape. Now I need to stay loose to avoid that in the off-season. You just have to look after your body. The good thing is when you’re winning, you’re confident to say to the competition ‘I might be 37 but I’ve still got it and I’m still going to beat you.’”
The same applies to 2016 Olympic champion Alison Cerutti. “At the age of 32, the most important thing now is to be in good shape,” says the Brazilian. “There are some big athletes, who are young and tall, and to be among the best we need to be in good physical shape. And that’s how we prepare now.”
On the bike to success
For the majority, however, keeping in shape on the beach is a routine that takes in simple yet effective, tried and tested methods.
“There’s no secret,” says current world number one Melissa Humana-Paredes. The Canadian defender has shot to the top of the world rankings with teammate Sarah Pavan after a string of impressive performances, including the Poreč Major title last year. “For me, it took a bit of time to return to peak fitness after the off-season but once you’re back into a rhythm and routine it’s just like riding a bike.
“For me the key is putting the work in during the off-season in the gym, running and training. It’s important to prepare right – any athlete will tell you that… but nothing can prepare you for the real thing of an actual game.”
One player at the other end of their beach volleyball journey is Sara Hughes. The 23-year-old American is just beginning her career and is widely tipped to emulate the achievements of her idol, three-time Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings. She burst onto the scene as a 21-year-old in 2016 by stunning Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst just two weeks before the German superstars won Olympic gold in Rio.
Having starred playing at college, this year Sara entered the rollercoaster world of international beach volleyball on a full-time basis. Only now is she beginning to realize what’s vital to keep your body fit for a long season on the road travelling to the world’s most high profile competitions.
“The adjustment period for me came at the start of the season when we made the switch from our collegiate program to the main US athletes program,” she explains. “Rest and recovery is important and strength and conditioning. Being in this new environment staying healthy around the other athletes and doing things right are very important.”
Grafting for gold
Casey Patterson has seen it all, however. He’s battled on the best beach volleyball courts of the world long enough to know sometimes there’s just no substitute for good old fashioned hard work in a sport which he believes offers the complete fitness package.
“You can be the most physically gifted person on the planet and never win because there’s so much tactics and feeling in our sport,” says the father of four. “The hard work aspect and researching how you can improve and do things is like a cheat sheet to winning tournaments and being successful.
“In beach volleyball we have the perfect storm of for fitness. How we play, where we play, the environment. We’re probably one of the most versatile athletes there are, using a variety of muscles, playing in varying conditions.
“I played basketball, and I thought I’d go down that road and play professionally but then choose to play indoor, then beach. Have I gotten fitter playing beach volleyball? Absolutely. There’s different stress levels that affect the body when it’s exposed to the elements, you’re running and jumping on sand.
“It’s the lifestyle, your body is exposed, and, after all, you’re half naked, so you want to at least look fit…”
So the next time you see a beach volleyball player and think that looks like an easy career path: jumping around in the sunshine, just remember the lengths the stars go to ensure they don’t break down at that vital point on the sand. Because it’s harder than you think…