Based on some of my previous posts, many believe I’m not a fan of running. That, however, is not true at all! I’m a huge believer in running activities - but not the ones that have traditionally been prescribed in tennis books and in many tennis related research papers. A typical ‘old school’ prescription is to get players running long slow distances (LSD) in the off-season or during preparatory periods. The rationale is - ‘let’s build an aerobic base’. Hmm. I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll do it again - energy system development is not that simple. You can NEVER truly isolate one energy system and completely disregard the others. You can bias one over the other, but there’s an interplay between the 3 (anaerobic, anaerobic-Lactic, aerobic).
But that’s just the beginning of the story on running/sprinting. Consider this for a moment, if a player isn’t fast to begin with, and is then prescribed to perform long-distance running tasks, will this help develop court speed? And further to that, the ability to repeat this court speed several hundred times during a match? I doubt it.
So What Should Players Train Instead?
Here's a suggestion; how about sprint tasks that develop speed and acceleration qualities - which ultimately train fast-twitch muscle fibres, neural circuits, increase overall explosiveness and so much more.
The truth is, conditioning (or endurance), is a lot easier to develop compared to speed and acceleration (Evely). Track athletes spend a lifetime developing these qualities (and many are genetically gifted to bat). Tennis players don’t have the luxury to allocate a significant portion of time in developing speed qualities - and won’t ever reach levels found in elite track athletes. But implementing max sprint training at various times of the year is an absolute must.
Once speed (and it’s sub-qualities) are developed to some capacity, the implementation of conditioning drills are warranted. Alternatively, they can be developed concurrently, but again, endurance tasks should also be more representative of what a player encounters on court - this type of training is called ‘repeat sprint ability’ (RSA) and something we’ll dive deeper into in another post
Before we look at why and how acceleration and speed training can benefit tennis players, I’d like to make a few comments as many coaches/trainers and players are often confused as to what max sprint training really is (and what it isn't).
General Comments on Max Sprint Training
The first thing every player and coach must know, is that in order to become fast, you must run fast. Anything that's not full out intensity (or close to), won't cut it. For example, to truly improve maximum running velocity, an athlete must reach top end speed - this only happens after about the 20-30m mark (depending on the level, age of the athlete and sporting discipline). Younger athletes hit top end sooner compared to older, more experienced athletes. In terms of sporting discipline, a tennis player will hit top end speed speed earlier vs a wide receiver - this is due to the inherent specifics of each sport.
Further to point #1, tennis players likely don’t need as much training time at long sprint distances. Field & court sport athletes typically perform speed drills between 40m and 100m during the preparatory periods. Towards the higher end for sports like football where the field may warrant these distance types and shorter distances for sports like basketball where the dynamics of the game call for shorter bursts of effort. In tennis, it’s rare that a player has to travel more than 10m - but on occasion, a 15m max sprint isn’t out of the question. So developing general speed qualities are best done at distances that exceed 20m and reach the 40m mark. Note - for younger, developing players, max sprints at longer distances are likely beneficial. But players who don’t have the luxury of an extended prep phase should stick to shorter distance.
To sum up points #1 and #2, players must train at distances greater than what they would encounter on court because a) shorter distances won't allow them to reach top end speed; b) they must perform at least a 10m segment AT TOP END SPEED to improve max running velocity; and c) just because an event doesn't occur too often during a match, doesn't mean it's not important.
Speed & acceleration tasks should be emphasized during general prep phases or in development periods for junior players. Instead of what’s traditionally done - trying to run players into the ground in order to improve their ‘conditioning’.
Believe it or not, blood biomarkers (lactate, for instance), become elevated during short, repeat, maximal sprint tasks - and can exceed levels that players encounter during an actual match. Consider that sprinters may reach lactate concentrations of 15 mmol/l during repeated speed drills - a value which is higher than what was previously observed with pro tennis players during an actual pro tournament (Mendez-Villanueva et al 2007). Remember, specificity doesn’t only deal with how similar a task looks ‘externally’ - it’s also relevant to look at specifics in terms of ‘internal’ biomarkers (blood concentrations, hormonal secretions, fiber type recruitment and so on).
I've been around tennis nearly my entire life and I've heard the following countless times; "we have to work on footwork" or " fast feet". What do those terms even mean? It's quite vague and I've personally never seen them used in scientific literature. What players need to do is develop the ability to generate force, very quickly, under a variety of conditions. While 'fast feet' and ladder drills might seem like they're improving a player's 'footwork', under slow motion analyses, it's well known that tennis players ARE NOT running and moving on their toes (always be cautious when someone tells you to 'stay on your toes'). Even sprinters at high speeds use a larger portion of their foot to strike the ground. The slower the movement speed, the more the foot will be in contact with the ground and the more force is needed to generate an efficient, explosive action. Which is why acceleration drills are critical.
During speed & acceleration workouts, players must ensure to take a full (or near-full) recovery between sprints. The quality of the task is of primary importance here. If the quality is high, athletes may actually only be capable of doing 4-6 all-out sprints before calling it a day.
Acceleration drills differ primarily in terms of the distances that are prescribed. For tennis, distances between 5m and 15m will target this quality - and will also improve starting abilities (i.e. the first step). During acceleration workouts, rest times are shorter compared to speed routines - mainly because the distance covered is shorter and the metabolic build-up within the muscle won't be as severe. Adequate recovery is still necessary.
Pulling or pushing sleds, overcoming resistance via elastic bands; we see so much of this on social media (I even recently saw a 10 year old pushing a sled). Is this type of training all it's cracked up to be? The research on the topic is both compelling and misleading. Yes pushing a sled can help improve acceleration mechanics and sprint times; however, these are advanced methods that should be used with mature, elite athletes. Many athletes that I've worked with can't run well in a straight line, why would I add fancy bands and drills to their routines from the outset? There is definitely a place for the above mentioned workouts in the training regimes of elite tennis players, but only once they have established some proficiency with general sprint tasks (or to provide context to a technical cue...but not as a training stimulus).
Sprinting is a skill that needs to be practiced. Again, we need to hit 95% intensity or higher to actually work max speed & acceleration. This is also why volumes won't be very high for these types of workouts. In fact, during speed workouts, athletes may only do about 6-12 sprints. Also, for all running tasks, it's important to note that these are very demanding on the central nervous system (CNS). At least 48 hours between workouts is recommended.
Because the primary aim of a general prep phase is to develop general qualities - those that are vital for long-term tennis performance - acceleration drills should be biased to short, linear sprints only. Yes, in later cycles - surely in the specific and pre-competitive cycles - accelerations, decelerations and change-of-direction running drills that are more reflective of the tasks involved in tennis, must be designed and implemented. But again, improving general acceleration abilities will go a long way in augmenting specifics in later training phases.
To train this quality effectively, you’ll likely need the athlete to perform 12-25 accelerations. This is a large range but is reflective of the previous (and current) training week, the athlete's fatigue levels and how the athlete individually responds to this type of work. Use a stopwatch to keep track of the times (this goes for speed workouts too). If there’s more than a 10% drop in time for 2 subsequent sprints, it means that either not enough time was given for recovery OR the athlete has performed enough sprints on that day. The workout can then be terminated.
Various starting positions can be prescribed but I generally recommend a tennis ‘ready position’ in the beginning. After 3 (and as much as 6-12) weeks, varying the starting positions can be useful to replicate the starts seen during tennis-play - facing one side, then the other, then with the back facing the direction of the sprint etc.
Here are a few photos of WTA player Naomi Broady performing acceleration drills during Indian Wells week with my colleague Howard Green. This session occurred between events and as you can see, it's a linear sprint - something that shouldn't be restricted to the general prep phase only (topping up this quality during the competitive phase works too!). Also, as you can see in the 3rd photo, she's beginning to get into an upright position quite early (2-4 strides). This is typical for tennis players and not something coaches should try to avoid.
I highly recommend you follow Howard on Instagram - he works with both junior players along with several pros and shares quality videos regularly.
Like we mentioned above, max velocity (or near max velocity) in tennis occurs much sooner than other sports because of the short distances that players cover. Reaching ‘true’ max speed doesn’t happen very often on the tennis court, except perhaps when running down a drop shot or going from one end of the court to the other. A 2016 paper on ITF Futures level players revealed that players spend most of their time (80% of a match) at running velocities between 0-2 m/s, 16% of the time between 2 and 3.5 m/s and only 4% of the time between 3.5m/s and 7m/s (if you want to compare this top speed with other field/court sport athletes - like soccer - they often reach top end speeds between 7-10m/s). But look at the figure below - it represents the trajectories both players in the aforementioned study ran during 1 game. Trace some of these trajectories and you’ll notice that there are cases where players cover 10-15 metres of ground on a number of occasions. While it doesn’t occur frequently, when it does, it could be an important, momentum shifting point - running down a wide ball at 30-30 or chasing a drop shot on breakpoint.
But there’s another reason we should be attempting to develop max velocity - research (Clark 2017) reveals that it actually improves the entire acceleration profile of an athlete. We can’t argue that improving acceleration isn’t important - tennis is full of accelerations (and decelerations). So if we improve top speed by only 5% - going from 3.2 to 3.1 seconds on a 20m sprint - that equals an improvement of 0.5m/s (Ken Clark - Presentation: The Research & Application of Linear Speed Development for Team Sport Athletes). Doesn’t seem like a lot does it but get this, it means that in a 20m race, the athlete can now cover that same distance 1m faster (check out the graph below).
Courtesy of Altis.
For our purposes, imagine we can cover 10m at the same rate of change - we are still at the ball 0.5m ahead of our previous speed (or 0.25m over a distance of 5m). These figures may not appear to be a lot, but they could mean the difference between getting a racquet on the ball to stay in a point or turning a defensive shot into an offensive shot because of better positioning. Keep in mind that this improvement is ONLY based on improvements from top end speed training - we haven’t even factored in gains from acceleration drills.