Over the last few decades, off-court conditioning has moved away from distance running and focused on shorter sprints, intervals, and high intensity training. On one hand, this is a very good development by tailoring the training to the demands that tennis athlete face on the court. On the other hand, the needle may have swung too far, with many tennis players skipping any sort of distance running, biking, or swimming work, and losing some key benefits in the process.
I just finished up my high performance tennis summer camp, and it was a very successful summer with serious players visiting the mountains of Vermont from around the country. I had the opportunity to evaluate the cardiopulmonary level of numerous tennis players of different ages and from across different parts of the States, and I also informally interviewed them about their running and cardio training habits. It was shocking to learn that many of these tennis players don’t run—or may not have run for years. Not even short distances. For example, many students admitted that they worked out in the gym, but neglected to run in the park or do any kind of extra cardio work—including speed and agility. Some kids admitted that they could not even run a mile. Many students, when tested, posted very low scores on a simple test like the good old-fashioned mile run. For example, I evaluated several top nationally ranked kids who could not run a mile without a walking break and scored around an 8 minute mile time, which is an extremely poor time for a high level tennis player, especially at the national level.
In the New York City area especially—an area I know very well—kids have little extra time. They are jammed with long school days, activities, and homework. Cardio is getting cut out of the training regimen. Cardio, speed and agility seem to be the first to go. Next in line on the chopping block are gym and injury prevention work—but that’s the subject for another article. If a player only has time for tennis and nothing else, he or she is going to be at a higher risk of injury. The player will also underachieve if his or her cardiopulmonary level is poor.
While tennis is a game of short bursts, quick changes of directions, and agility, it’s also an endurance sport with junior matches sometimes reaching two-three hours on the court and professional matches extending even longer. I firmly believe that a combination of shorter distances, speed and agility, and some longer stamina training, such as the triathlete sports (running, swimming, and biking), will yield the best outcomes in terms of preparation.
Unfortunately, most juniors that I see in my practice don’t train for endurance. Endurance is a dirty word. They don’t build a good cardio base. Without a strong and efficient heart and lungs, these players will always underperform, especially when they have to play outside in the hot summer months. Some players may be able to win during the cold winter with poor endurance, but they won’t be able to hide during summer nationals, for example. I’ve also noticed that players without a good cardio level tend to have weak mental toughness.
Build the cardio base
My main point is that players should not neglect their VO2Max level and should have an awareness of their cardiovascular fitness—and it needs to be trained. This area should not be cut out of a player’s weekly regimen. With the exception of online or homeschooled players who are playing a very high number of tennis hours per week, some cardio/stamina work is vital to the overall health and development of a tennis athlete. It’s especially crucial for athletes who are playing fewer hours per week (less than 10) because their cardiovascular system is not being primed as much as a kids playing 20-30 hours per week.
While some research has focused on the physical detriments of a high level of endurance work on muscle fiber type, there has been less focus on the psychological benefits of learning how to run, bike or swim for distance. My players who are good runners, swimmers, or bikers develop discipline, concentration, patience, and once they learn how to train longer distances their confidence grows and they become more mentally tough. Learning how to run, bike or swim for distance is also a great stress reliever and leads to lower levels of anxiety and depression in players. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I have had many highly ranked national level kids who had a swimming, track and field, or cross-country team background. They are often very patient and focused players.
A few helpful reminders
Here are a few reminders and guidelines that I use with my players to help them develop their off court stamina and VO2Max. I recommend starting with running for NYC area kids because it’s easy to learn and do, and you don’t need a pool or special equipment. Remember that biking and swimming are good non-impact options too.
►Run because it’s a fun and healthy way to de-stress. It’s good for you. And it will help your tournament results.
►You can learn to like running. Running is a habit and skill that needs to be trained. Just because you don’t like running at first doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to love it.
►Run, swim or bike when on breaks and vacations. Bring your running shoes with you whenever you are not playing tennis. Hit the hotel pool. Go on long bike rides. Keeping your cardio high will help you come back to the tennis court and return to top form more quickly.
►Run before lifting weights. Train the heart and lungs before the biceps!
►Always try to run on a soft surface. Avoid roads and sidewalks.
►Mix running medium distances with shorter bursts (sprint work) and changes of direction. Do your sprint work before stamina work.
►It’s not necessary to run super long lengths greater than five-10k distances. A three-five mile jog is probably more than enough. Track distances of 400m, 800m, and 1600m are excellent.
►Sign up for Saturday or Sunday morning 5k races when not in a tournament. The races are fun and exciting, and will help keep you fit!
►Hook up with a track or cross country coach to learn running form and training methods.
►Consider joining the school track or cross country team.
►Listen to your favorite music when training stamina.
►Use a treadmill when possible and watch your favorite movies or tv shows when you are really having trouble getting motivated to run. Treadmills are convenient and cushioned.
►Don’t forget swimming and biking to complete the triad of triathlon events. They are wonderful cross-training sports and they can be just as beneficial for building endurance and have no impact on the joints. Swimming can be a great recovery exercise too.
Cardio is still king
Running, swimming or biking distance—they are all good. The focus is on building the cardio base of endurance, raising the VO2Max, improving the player’s focus and discipline, and making the legs stronger. Many tennis players these days have lost their way and have stopped training in these disciplines. Coaches have perhaps gone too far by eliminating all distance /stamina type training for fear of slowing their players down. That fear is overdone.
Let’s not forget the important mental toughness and de-stressing benefits of stamina work and also the important overall health benefits of developing good cardiovascular fitness for one’s lifetime.
Chris Lewit is a former number one for Cornell and pro circuit player. He is a high-performance coach, educator, and the author of two best-selling books: The Secrets of Spanish Tennis and The Tennis Technique Bible. He has coached numerous top 10 nationally-ranked players and is known for his expertise in building the foundations of young prodigies. Chris is currently working towards an advanced degree in Kinesiology/Exercise Science with a focus on Biomechanics. Chris coaches in NYC and year-round at his high performance tennis academy in Manchester, VT, where players can live and train the Spanish Way full-time or short-term. He may be reached by phone at (914) 462-2912, e-mail Chris@chrislewit.com or visit ChrisLewit.com.