Not so long ago, a tennis coach I worked alongside asked why I don’t prescribe long runs with our players. You know, to get them into shape. My response at the time was that we need to prioritize their strength, power and explosive abilities. He then asked why I didn’t do long runs with them during pre-season? I didn’t want to get into the details at the time but there were 2 reasons. First, there is no real ‘pre-season’ in tennis - and if there is, it's not long enough to work on only 1 or 2 qualities at a time. And second, long distance running can do more harm to a tennis player than good.
You still see it all the time though. Coaches making their players run. Especially when they want to punish a player for bad behaviour or failing to accomplish a drill. They think, why not kill two birds with one stone? Teach the kid a lesson AND get them in shape. Boy is that not the furthest thing from the truth. Many coaches also still believe that running long distance will build an aerobic base but the type of aerobic qualities that are enhanced during long-distance running, are not the qualities we need for tennis - or any explosive type sport. In this article, we’ll outline the basic physiology of tennis, why you shouldn’t run (there are more reasons then, it’s a waste of time) and what you should do instead.
We have 3 primary energy systems. The various energy systems DO NOT work in isolation. Meaning that all of them are working at all times under all conditions, just at varying proportions depending on task type, intensity, duration and so on. In any case, it's important to understand the basics. Here's a brief look at each energy system:
Anaerobic System → ATP-PCr System
This system is the primary source of ATP (our body’s energy currency) for activities up to 10 seconds. Creatine phosphate is used to replenish/recycle this system.
In tennis, this entails a number of movements. A few examples include hitting groundstrokes, the jump and throwing action of the serve, lunging for a low volley, moving wide to cover a cross-court shot, and any short rally lengths.
Anaerobic Lactic System → Glycolytic System
This system provides energy transfer for ATP regeneration from about the 10 second mark all the way up to ~2min mark (more or less depending on your genetics and level of fitness). This recycling occurs through glycolysis.
In tennis, we don’t just hit 1 serve and then rest (well some players have found success this way...cough cough Raonic, but it’s not necessarily the norm). We hit a variety of shots throughout a point - meaning that although the ATP-PCr system provides most of the energy during short points and single powerful movements, when a point lasts longer than 10 seconds (think Rafa on clay), the glycolytic system starts doing a lot of the grunt work.
Aerobic System → Oxidative System
This system takes over after the 2 minute mark or so. If the intensity is low enough (not the case in high level tennis), this system could provide enough energy to sustain low level activity for a while. ATP is regenerated here through triglycerides and oxygen.
In tennis, this system does play a role by helping during the recovery phase between points.
Training Type vs. Fibre Type
Again, it’s important to re-iterate that these systems are always active simultaneously. The proportion of their usage is dictated by the activity - i.e. if the activity is short in duration and requires explosive abilities, the ATP-PCr system will be ‘proportionately’ more active and hence contribute more to the total energy demands at that time.
Although targeted training of each of these systems will bring about a host of benefits, I’d like to briefly outline that training aerobically (long distance running for example), will primarily enhance type 1 muscle fibres.. These fibres are also referred to as “slow-twitch” fibres - emphasis on “slow”. They will help you become more resistant to fatigue, but they will literally slow you down. On the other side of the coin, we have type 2 muscle fibres, or what many refer to as “fast-twitch” fibres - emphasis on “fast”. They will literally increase speed, explosiveness and all the qualities necessary to hit big forehands and massive serves. Interestingly enough, these fast-twitch fibres can also become resistant to fatigue but in an explosive manner - which is the adaptation we want to occur. But to increase the number or proportion of these type 2 "fast-twitch" fibres, we must train in specific ways (which we'll get to soon!).
So Why Exactly Shouldn’t You Be Running?
Have you seen a tennis match of late? The game is extremely fast and dynamic. In fact, according to Kovacs et al (2006), the average tennis point lasts about 6 seconds while a player typically moves no more than 3 metres per shot. That’s one reason we shouldn’t be doing long distance running to prepare for tennis, you never actually perform that type of activity in a match! If the principle of specificity tells us anything at all, it’s that we will adapt to the specific demands imposed on us (SAID principle - specific adaptation to imposed demands) - and I don’t know about you, but I rather NOT adapt to be a runner when my sport demands high intensity movements. At this point, you may be thinking “but tennis matches can last up to 3 hours” (or more if you play the slams) - how can a player not require aerobic qualities? First off, Kovacs also analyzed what percentage of match time was actually spent playing tennis - it was around the 20% mark. That looks something like this:
Total Match Time vs. Actual Playing Time
Secondly, I’m not saying you don’t need to be well conditioned to play tennis because you do - but the qualities you need aren’t going to come from doing 10k or 5k runs. I’ll even argue that short interval runs (like suicides) aren’t that beneficial either. Sure the research suggests this form of interval work will improve anaerobic and aerobic qualities simultaneously but in my experience, when you make players run suicides (which I’ve done in the past), they often times hate you for it, and/or you simply tire the crap out of them. Why bother spending quality time tiring your players out, when you can work on more important qualities - like technical skills, mobility or mental training (often the latter 2 get overlooked anyway).
So What Should You Do Instead?
Perhaps a more appropriate term to use when describing endurance and energy system development is work capacity. As the term implies, this is the ability to endure work. For tennis, this means the ability to endure the repetitive, explosive tasks inherent in the sport. All those movements we spoke of earlier...hitting big, moving explosively, teeing off on a serve. So instead of running laps or doing 20m repeat suicides, we have other options at our disposal...options that will not only test our work capacity when we run down a tough ball, but that will enable us to hit a number of big shots within a point with the same intensity and power... and options that will allow us to recover quick enough to do it over and over again.
For instance, we could do a repeat spider drill (video above) - mirroring the rest intervals that are typical in a match (20-30 seconds). Or a series of multi directional jumping exercises with endurance in mind. This will not only benefit your conditioning, it will also improve elastic qualities and enhance movement and/or change of direction ability. Or perhaps we can perform a variety of upper and lower extremity medicine ball exercises that not only work the same movement patterns associated with tennis, but also enhance power capabilities. We can even work on starting/reactive strength with the use of ballistic and olympic weight training movements. Remember that quality? The one so important for the initiation of almost every single first step in tennis? All of these can be used and can target a different component in the conditioning process of the tennis player. Here’s a little table that may help you get started.
General Conditioning Guidelines for Tennis
In the end, the best form of conditioning for tennis is still tennis. More specifically, tennis matches and tournaments - i.e. the closer you get to the sport itself, the better your work capacity will be for that sport. To emphasize this point, I’ll recall a short story. A few years back I was with a player in Florida and had a chance to have dinner with Simon Larose, former ATP player and current Tennis Canada female touring coach. We were talking about the game and asking ourselves how guys like Novak and Murray can play 5 set matches that stretch the distance, and at such a high level. Larose strongly believed that the only way to be prepared for those 5 set battles, was to play more 5 setters. It makes sense. How can you possibly prepare for that level of intensity, for that long, without actually enduring those moments? You can’t. To be ready for a long match, you have to play long matches. Now, to withstand 5 hours of 125mph serves, big forehands and what seems like never ending stops and starts, your body must be prepared to handle those forces and that can only happen with a well-designed, well-rounded strength, conditioning and tennis program.