Conditioning & Exercise

Q. I live in a mountain town that gets 200 inches of snow in the winter and the closest indoor courts are 3 hours away. How can I stay in tennis-ready shape over the 6 months of winter (I do ski) so I am ready for USTA 4.0 league tennis in May? I drive to indoor courts in April when the roads clear but it takes me awhile to get my game back.

A. Try to maintain a good base of cardiovascular fitness by exercising three (or more) times a week (on a treadmill, stationary bike, stairmaster, etc.). Lift weights a few times each week, while concentrating on your legs, shoulders, upper back, and- of course- your core. Lastly, maintain a consistent stretching program to improve your flexibility.

There is no substitute for hitting the tennis ball though, and it is certainly more enjoyable than grinding away in the fitness center. Can you hit inside a local gymnasium? If not, at least swing your racquet (especially after lifting weights) in your garage, to maintain your stroke patterns and to develop your muscle memory.

Q. What tips or drills might you have in order to improve breathing? I know I hold my breath, which does two things, tires me out, and tightens me up.

A. Practice exhaling every time you make contact with the ball. Several professional players are loud grunters, although that is unnecessary. It will take some practice before you become comfortable breathing out during contact. Begin immediately and continue every time you are on the court until it becomes a good habit.

You are correct, by the way. Holding your breath will keep you from being able to relax when you are hitting or playing. It will also assure that you get tired earlier than you should.

Q. I would like to use my treadmill, stationary bike, and nordic track to be more fit for singles tennis. Do you have suggestions for a workout that would be more specific for tennis?

A. Do intervals. Exercise hard for a short spell, and then recover. Try to maintain a work to rest ratio of 1:2.

The following is a stationery bike workout that you might consider:

• Warm-up for ten minutes, getting your heart rate to between 65%-75% of your max (which is 220 minus your age, typically).

• Do sprint intervals, maintaining at least 100 RPMs with some increased resistance for 30 seconds and then recovering at 80 RPMs at a lower tension for 60 seconds. Do ten sets of these sprints and recoveries.

• Cool-down for five minutes at a lower resistance.

• Make sure to stretch afterwards.

Q. I was wondering if you had any specific drills for increasing agility (or acceleration). My endurance level is fine, but I have a lot of trouble getting to drop shots and balls hit to the opposite side of the court.

A. There are many things that you can do to improve your on-court speed and agility. I will offer three time-tested options:

1. Run for every single ball when you are playing or practicing. This seems obvious enough, but it will train your body to Move First, Think Later. Chasing every ball, even those that land well out, is a great habit.

2. Skip rope for 10-15 minutes. If you are not used to jumping rope, it will take some time to get proficient. Professional tennis players typically describe rope-skipping as a key ingredient to their off-court training. When you jump rope, do it swiftly. Get that rope flying through the air, and hop lightly on your feet. Do all sorts of athletic movements, especially one-foot hops.

3. Do some short wind-sprints where you are forced to change directions. A few examples might include the on-court “spider drill” (beginning at the “middle T,” sprint to and from the eight destinations where a line meets another line- or the net- on a singles court) or the old “suicide sprint” (start outside one alley, sprint to the near singles sideline then back, the center service line then back, the far singles sideline and back, and then the far doubles sideline and back).

Q. I've heard of baseball pitchers being very careful not to injure or ruin their arms through over-training. Given the similar motion of a tennis serve, should tennis players be equally concerned? Can a tennis player's arm or serve become less "lively" through over-training? Should practice sessions be limited to say 150 serves per day?

A. This is a great point. You sound like a coach! Injuries can occur, particularly when there is a technical deficiency in the service delivery. To use your analogy, when baseball pitchers throw a curveball with poor mechanics, they have a greater chance of becoming injured. I certainly agree that at a certain point, there will be diminishing value on the increased number of serves that one practices.

Understand that players should warm up properly, stretch when they are done practicing, and work on developing increased strength in their shoulder and core regions.

Q. I am a slightly overweight player and have problems with speed and stamina. Do you have any daily conditioning drills that could help me lose a few pounds?

A. Why don’t you try to participate in some Cardio Tennis classes in your area? There have been some remarkable weight loss stories since the advent of this initiative. Visit www.CardioTennis.com for a facility with classes near you.

Q. My tennis instructor said to do conditioning very hard one day and the next day do a softer conditioning. Continue doing that over and over. Eoes this sound correct to you? He also said not to run miles even though it will help with my stamina because it can hurt my game.

A. Your coach sounds pretty knowledgeable to me. The idea of giving equal diligence to both stress and then recovery is sound. Too many players hurt themselves by over-training. This is not an invitation to become lazy; rather it is a good plan for growth as an athlete.

Long-distance running develops the slow-twitch fibers of an endurance athlete. While you need endurance, tennis is a sport that requires explosiveness, and a long jog is not explosive at all.

Q. I am a 42 year old that continues to work on my game. But naturally I am finding that the older I get the harder I have to work at maintaining my fitness level. So the question is this: What should my day-to-day training schedule be while the Spring/Summer season is in full swing?

A. You need to know your own body. I expect that as you age, you will need to become all the more diligent with your flexibility training. Try to find time EVERY single day to do some stretching, and especially concentrate on the areas that feel the tightest. As we age, we also lose strength. Make every effort to keep up with a “maintenance” weight training program during you’re your most active playing season. For example, if in the off-season you do resistance training three times a week, then you might reduce this commitment during the outdoor season to three times every two weeks.

To be clear, this answer addresses your goal of “maintaining” your fitness level. However, if you want to see an improvement in athletic capability, then you will need to spend more time and effort.

Q. What sort of exercises and weight-lifting can I do to boost my tennis game?

A. Stretch every single day. Go through a range of dynamic stretches prior to playing or exercising and some static stretches after you have completed your match or workout. Once you have developed a sound cardiovascular base, maintain it by taking a brisk distance run each week and jumping on the stationery bike for some interval training another day of the week. As for weight lifting, concentrate on developing your core muscles (especially your abs, lower back, and your hips), strong shoulders and upper back, and sturdy, well-balanced legs.

To become a top tennis player, you certainly need to undertake plenty of off-court training. Be sure to devote more time to your on-court development though. The best athlete in the world would be ineffective on the tennis court if he/she does not know how/where to hit the ball.

Q. What do you think is the quickest way to improve my footwork? I have a great groundstoke and serve. I just need some tips to help get my footwork up to speed.

A. There are two activities that might help you. One is off-court and the other can be done on-court during practice.

Skip rope. Practice jumping rope as quickly as you can for intervals. Over time, you will develop better balance, agility, coordination, and more “spring” in your legs.

Do 2-on-1 drills. Have two players at net and you start at the baseline. Either rally or play points out. Go as hard as you can for a short time, and then rotate one position. Virtually all of your shots will come back- and come back quickly. This tried and true drill will force you to speed up your reaction time.

Q. On average how many hours a week do professionals practice?

A. Professional tennis players practice as many hours per week as they need to. They have already put in thousands of hours of training and preparation (usually at least 10,000 hours by the time they are ready for the “big time”), so once they reach the professional level it is often a matter of refining skills, making slight adjustments, improving their fitness level, etc. Also, because professional players compete so often, their recovery time between matches (and tournaments) is crucial.

The idea for most pros is to stress their minds and bodies and then to recover with equal diligence. Therefore, some practice sessions (or even off-week training regimens) might actually appear light by certain standards. The direct answer to your question is that, like an excellent student, players prepare as much as they need to do their best. Not enough is bad, but too much can be equally bad.

Q. On average how many hours a week do professionals practice?

A. Professional tennis players practice as many hours per week as they need to. They have already put in thousands of hours of training and preparation (usually at least 10,000 hours by the time they are ready for the “big time”), so once they reach the professional level it is often a matter of refining skills, making slight adjustments, improving their fitness level, etc. Also, because professional players compete so often, their recovery time between matches (and tournaments) is crucial.

The idea for most pros is to stress their minds and bodies and then to recover with equal diligence. Therefore, some practice sessions (or even off-week training regimens) might actually appear light by certain standards. The direct answer to your question is that, like an excellent student, players prepare as much as they need to do their best. Not enough is bad, but too much can be equally bad.

Q. I have been having some difficulty with my footwork when hitting my forehand and backhand groundstrokes. I'm not quite sure how to stand in preparation for hitting the ball. Is there some sort of drill or exercise I can do to help me get more comfortable with this?

A. Without observing you hit, or play in a match, it would be hard for me to speculate what you are doing incorrectly. Please visit a local, certified teaching professional for some specific advice. The most effective web site that I could find to help you do this is as follows: http://uspta.com/index.cfm/MenuItemID/653.htm.

Meanwhile, I will offer two general ideas that might help.

1. Try to keep your feet spread nice and wide when hitting groundstrokes, so that you have a solid foundation.

2. A tennis court is 27 feet wide. On balls down the middle third (or approximately the middle nine feet), step toward the net so you are essentially sideways during the shot. On balls in the outer thirds of the court (the nine feet closest to the sidelines), hit with an open (or semi-open) stance. This makes it easier to rotate your hips/shoulders and then to recover after the shot.

Q. I’m a long distance runner and am interested in knowing if long distance running and competitive tennis can mix. Nearly 20 years ago (when I was about your age) I started to run to keep in shape for tennis. I feel that while my endurance increased in both sports, but that my “bursting” speed decreased in tennis. Is this typical or was this just the aging process?

A. Like you and most other tennis players, I always ran a few times a week to stay fit. I generally enjoy it, although marathon training is a little extreme. I would tend to agree that too much distance training actually hurts your on-court quickness. It has mine anyway. By running long distances, you are training those “slow-twitch” muscles fibers, when in tennis you need bursts of quickness.

Thanks for the good luck wishes for the upcoming NYC Marathon. I feel many of the anxieties and stresses in preparing for this race that this column’s readers write about regarding tournaments and league matches. Hopefully my tennis background will help me when push comes to shove around mile twenty. This goal has been on my “Life’s To Do” list for a while now. I have decided that if the Red Sox can win the World Series, then I can run a marathon. (The Sox DID win the World Series, right? It has felt like a dream for the past week and I am afraid that someone will tell me that it just isn’t real.)

Anyway, after the Marathon is over on Sunday I plan on getting back to my real sport and that, with a sound fitness base, I will recapture some of my “old” movement.

Q. This may not be your area of expertise, but my wife is about 4 months pregnant and we are not sure how long she can continue to play tennis, or if it is even OK for her to play in her current condition at all. She is probably a 2.0 level player, so her games are not terribly strenuous, but we were hoping you might be able to give some advice on whether it’s OK for her to have a hit now and again. Thanks in advance!

A. Playing while pregnant is CERTAINLY not in my area of expertise! From afar, I would urge her to continue exercising, but never to the point of feeling uncomfortable. I would expect that the various motions on a tennis court might relieve some of the tensions of physical stress from the pregnancy. It will feel good for her to keep moving and doing something that she really enjoys. But, again, nothing that is too demanding on the court. Halfway through a pregnancy is probably not the ideal time to enter a tournament in a humid environment! Good luck with your baby and hopefully he/she will become a player in a few (three, maybe four) years.

Q. Are there any good specific drills or gym work that the pros do to enhance their speed on the court. I want to get quicker around the court when I play matches, but no matter how hard I train in the gym or run in circuits, I always seem to be slow in reacting on the court. The pros make it look so easy. Do you have any drills or ideas? Thank you.

A. In fact, most of the training that top pros do off-court is designed to improve their movement. Virtually every serious tennis player uses plyometric exercises to enhance their balance and explosiveness. An “old fashioned” example of plyometrics is rope skipping. (I’ll bet that if you searched, you’d find a jump rope in over 90% of the touring pros’ bags). I would also highly recommend a supervised weight training program. Work on increasing strength in your legs, shoulders, upper back, and your “core” muscles (in your abdomen and lower back).

On-court, simply practice moving (really running!) for every ball. By doing this, you will improve your fitness level, as well learning to reduce your reaction time. Good luck.

Q. What are some good footwork drills to make me faster on the court?

A. The best training for getting faster around the court is to practice moving, really moving, for every ball. Many players seem to pause and evaluate whether they can reach a ball before they start moving for it. This split-second pause costs players dearly. To combat this, practice running for every ball in practice, even balls that you realize may land out. This will condition you to “move first and think later.”

Realize that touring professionals take 10-12 little steps between every routine shot. If this sounds easy, then try it! A good exercise to train your feet and legs to “bounce” quickly is old-fashioned rope skipping. It seems that tournament players always carry a jump rope in their gear bag - and there is a good reason for this.

Q. I need some training tips (both tennis and conditioning) for preparing myself for an indoor hard court tourney at the end of the month. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

A. My advice would be to get some indoor practice matches on the same surface with same lighting. Focus on “your game” and don’t start anything new. Fitness should be speed focused with some endurance work. Strength training is in “maintenance phase” assuming you have been strength training. For future training references, please check out the USTA High-Performance website.

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