PLEASE NOTE: The medical opinions in USTA.com's Ask the High Performance Lab are responses intended for the average player. Please consult with your primary physician before beginning any new exercise program.
The answers to this week’s "Ask the Expert" column come from Scott Riewald, PhD. Dr. Riewald is the USTA Administrator of Sport Science. Dr. Riewald and the Sport Science staff work with Coaching Education to provide information to the coaches of top American players through seminars, workshops and newsletters.
|Scott works closely with the Coaching Education and Strength and Conditioning staff within High Performance, as well as the USTA Sport Science Committee, to collect and disseminate information related to sport science and tennis. Scott is also a Certifie© USTA|
Q: I am almost 40 years old and in good physical condition. When playing tournaments, I occasionally suffer from leg cramps after playing two matches a day and sometimes during the match. Can you recommend a diet regimen prior to play and a hydration regimen before, during and after? Will stretching afterwards minimize leg cramps? When I cramp up during a match, what can I do to alleviate this during a changeover? Is there any instant cure? I've heard that cramps can also be a result of poor physical condition but I exercise regularly and push myself hard. I do sweat quite a bit during play. Can you help?!
-- John, Coldwater, MI
Q: I play league tennis and 6-7 tournaments per year. After playing for a significant period of time (long matches), I experience serve muscle cramps in my calf muscles. They lock-up for several minutes and I am not able to move or walk. I have tried everything, gatorade during matches, adding salt to my gatorade, drinking plenty of water, potassium pills and loading up with protein and carbohydrates the night before the match, but nothing seems to work. What should I try next?
-- Hill, Arlington, TX
Dr. Riewald: There are several things to recognize when dealing with cramps. For one, as the questions point out, cramps can result in several different ways: Cramps can result from poor physical conditioning/ poor fitness level or from not being acclimated to playing in the heat and electrolyte loss.
Playing tennis for long periods of time, especially when the player is in poor physical condition, can lead to fatigue and muscle cramping. These types of cramps can typically be eased with rest and stretching.
Heat cramps, however, which are thought to arise from electrolyte losses, typically arise when playing in a hot, humid environment and not having fully acclimated to playing in that type of environment. Research suggests that sodium (salt), which is lost when a player sweats, is important for preventing heat cramps.
When sodium levels drop (as in the case in someone who sweats a great deal) heat cramps can result. It is also commonly believed that there is a psychological component to heat cramps as well; players tend to cramp more when playing in a competition compared to playing under the same environmental conditions in a practice. It may be that the increased pressure increases a player’s sweat rate, or there may be some other variables that come into play.
The bottom line is that sodium should be replaced after tennis play – and for players who cramp frequently, during play. Gatorade and several other sport drinks contain sodium, but some heavy sweaters may need to take it one step further and add salt or an extra electrolyte package to their drink. Salt can also be replaced in the diet by salting food.
While salt is commonly thought of as something that should be eliminated from the diet, for tennis players and other athletes it is essential for maintaining a proper fluid/ electrolyte balance in the body. Even when following all of these recommendations, there are still some players who simply lose salt faster than they can replace it.
As with all the advice we supply, it is always best for a player to speak with his/her physician before making dietary changes and to see if there may be other medical conditions that could be contributing to the cramping on court.
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