Today is one of those clear spring days that begs one to be outside. What, then, am I doing at my computer? I’m trying to convert you to my game, tennis. As an undergraduate I both played and taught the sport, and as a young married mother, I played in tournaments against ranked players sometime five hours a day. Later, I became a tennis mom, as our son became ranked and played in the Mid- Atlantic Association and for his schools, both on the top ranked prep school and in college.
For years we ate, drank, and lived our love of the game, traveling to England for Wimbledon, and to tournaments across the US. What is about this game that hooked us? I can’t speak for my husband, but I like tennis because you have to think while you’re play. For me, it’s like chess. You learn your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and then you try to finesse them on the court, and if your serve is “on” that day, you are golden.
I also liked tennis because it was a way of meeting people and making sure that I got away from work. A round of golf takes hours; a game of tennis doesn’t, and you actually move and sweat. One last reason, I took up tennis as a child, was because my older brother didn’t. It was not until I was older that I started to play doubles. In fact, I can date doubles to dating and then marriage, but singles is still my passion. It’s two people on opposite sides of a net, who play a game with pages of rules and regulations, who need both mental and physical dexterity to win.
If you’ve been reading these articles on exercise, you know the benefits of a cardiovascular workout. Certainly there are better sports than tennis for this, as you tend to stop and start often in this game, and if you’re playing doubles, you can spend your afternoon walking about the court or picking up balls.
But, and here’s the but, tennis is a wonderful part of a total exercise regime. If you belong to a tennis club or country club, or play at the Y or county courts, you need some people with whom to play and once you have found each other, you’re excuses for not exercising will be null and void. After all, why shouldn’t sports be social and fun? So how to start and play and get the most from the game, is the question that we will address next.
The first thing to know about tennis is that you need to warm up before playing. “Each time you go onto the court cold,” says Duke University Medical School researchers, “you expose your body to unnecessary risks.”
A 1996 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that an active warm-up (one that raises body temperature and elongates muscles) helps prevent muscle strains. If you don’t believe that, look at this following statistics, Researchers for the Sports for Tennis Program at HealthSouth, a rehabilitative health-care company, say that 91% of amateur players report some type of lower body injury, while about 60% have experienced shoulder or elbow pain. As tennis becomes more of a power game, these numbers are expected to rise.
Why is the warm up so important in tennis? When you play the game your body is exposed to quick stops and starts and sudden directional changes. Those few moments of preparation are worth a lot in terms of being able to play longer. During a warm up you mobilize all your physiological systems. You also get a certain level of cortisol release which also speeds up your reaction time. Like adrenaline, cortisol is a stress hormone that induces your body to move quickly and protect itself from danger.
Experts say that you need only 15 minutes to reap these benefits. Start with light aerobics to raise your body temperature and get the blood flowing to your muscles. Next, stretch your muscles you’ll use in your game as well as those that feel tight or which have been previously injured. Add exercises during which you to move side to side and front and back to get your body used to these movements. When stretching, remember to do exercises which elongate muscles using gentle movements as this will increase blood flow to these areas.
When you play tennis you may think that a cool down is superfluous, but if you stop for a moment and think about what happens to your body when you return a hard shot, you will never not stop to get your body back together again after a game. Tennis is a game of stopping and starting on a dime, of switching directions, and of accepting the impact of a hard fast ball on muscles.
During exercise, your body makes lactic acid, a metabolic waste that gets stored in the muscles. The more the muscle is stressed, the more lactic acid builds up. The more it builds up the more sore you will become. Following a moderate workout, your muscles will have less resiliency and your range of motion may become diminished by about 15 percent. If your exercise is more grueling you may reduce your range by up to 50 percent. A proper cool down can help lower that risk and ensure peak performance e the next time out.
Just as you warm up slowly, you should gradually bring your body back to normal levels of temperature and function. Stretching is essential in helping to flush lactic acid from your muscles and returning your range of motion. If you don’t cool down you are asking your muscles to work hard and you’re not giving them anything in return. The stress adds up and one day you have a back ache that sends you to the best orthopod you can find.
As we stated before, the fitness benefits of tennis depend on the intensity with which you play. If you have long rallies, chase down shots and keep moving for an hour on the court, tennis provides aerobic training and conditioning. If you have short bursts of action, with slower play in-between, you will gain some benefits of exercise but will not maximize the cardiovascular aspects of the game.
Playing regularly will strengthen arms, legs, and hips, as well as increase your flexibility. To improve your conditioning for tennis, cross train with crunches for your stomach, total body weight training, push-ups to increase upper body strength, and stretching for increased flexibility so you can get to those wide shots. Hitting a ball against a wall will help with eye-hand coordination, but as stated before, not with the mental toughness you need to play a match. Both are important. Since you may need more of an aerobic workout, you may want to cross train with fast walking, bicycling, or other very aerobic exercise.
No two tennis games are alike as no two chess games are exactly the same. You and your skills and strengths walk on the court to try to figure out your opponent’s skills. Your body and brain will be alert to any changes and when you leave the court, win or lose, you will have a list of skills that you want to improve.
When I started to play tennis, no one was allowed on the court unless they wore white. It was the game of “those” people. Today, it is the game of everyone who wants to spend an hour or so in the sun, keeping flexibility, strength, and coordination in tact. As a diabetic, I never start a game not knowing by blood glucose levels.
I carry juices, lots of water, and carbohydrate snakes in case I need them. My friends all know the signs of hypoglycemia, and if I begin to slow down, they call a short recess in the match for another reading of glucose levels and a snack. This happens infrequently, but thank goodness my partners are experienced in how to help. After playing in the heat for an hour or two, no one, especially me, wants to run home in a car that can be a deadly weapon for someone who doesn’t know if their blood glucose levels continue to fall. We tend to visit, do that cool down thing, and wait. If friends are in a hurry, I wait. Shower done, hair dry, and tennis clothes changed, I’m ready for the rest of the day, safe and having had a fantastic mental and physical workout. Try it. Tennis Anyone?