What drives a successful game are fast, powerful, responsive legs. From a physical standpoint, the upper body plays only a secondary role.
“There’s no doubt about it, tennis is a leg-dominated sport,” says Pat Etcheberry, a fitness expert, and cofounder of LGE Performance Systems in Orlando, Fla. “If you look at almost all of the top players today, you’ll see that their leg muscles are much more developed than their upper bodies are.”
It’s your legs that help you race down the line, rush the net, stop on a dime, and then change directions in a millisecond. Strong legs are what help you run down that drop shot in time to answer it with a winner, instead of merely reaching the ball and getting it back.
Of course, all this stopping and starting, twisting and turning, and constant pounding can take its toll, especially on hard courts. We already know that the leg’s joints (ankle, knee, and hip) are what keep orthopedists in business. But with all of that motoring around the court, the leg’s muscles (the calves, quadriceps, and hamstrings) and the Achilles’ tendon are also at risk of injury, both minor and major.
HERE’S THE SCENARIO: YOU’VE HAD A LONG day at the office, trapped behind a desk and on the phone for eight hours plus. Thank goodness for that 7 P.M. tennis match you’ve scheduled with a buddy; you can’t wait to get some exercise and release the day’s tension. You jump out of the car, race through the locker room, and head straight onto the court, racquet in hand. Two serves later, you’re screaming in agony and clutching your thigh–yet another victim of a pulled leg muscle.
Muscle pulls – The Most Common Tennis Injuries
That searing pain you feel is actually a partial tearing of muscle fibers. Quite often, a pulled muscle is accompanied not only by acute pain and swelling but also by black-and-blue bruising, which is the aftermath of blood pooling under the skin from the torn fibers.
“Muscle pulls, or strains, and tendonitis are among the most common tennis injuries,” says Harlan Selesnick, M.D., an orthopedist based in Miami and a physician for the ATP Tour. “You’re especially at risk if you fail to warm up adequately before beginning to play.” And if your leg muscles are already inflexible from sitting all day long, you’re an injury waiting to happen.
Most muscle pulls, which take from four to six weeks to mend, are treated with RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation). Wearing a neoprene or elastic sleeve will protect the muscle and help keep it warm, and gentle stretching one to two days afterward can relieve pain and guard against a future injury.
The most common pulls are to muscles that are inserted above and below two different joints, such as the hamstring, which traverses the hip and the knee. “Unfortunately, because you stress the muscle through movement, muscle pulls can become chronic,” explains Todd Ellenbecker, a physical therapist based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and a member of the USTA Sports Science Committee.
The Easy Way to Avoid Muscle Cramps
Another leg problem that can hobble you? Muscle cramps, which may be triggered by dehydration, playing without first warming up, or plain old lack of conditioning. Occasionally, a dietary imbalance–not having enough potassium, for instance–can set one off. A cramp (sometimes called a charley horse when it occurs in the upper leg) stems from oxygen depletion in the muscles.
One quick, easy way to avoid muscle cramps is to drink water–not just during changeovers, but long before you get anywhere near a tennis court. Etcheberry recalls Jim Courier losing 1993 French Open final to Sergi Bruguera in five sets, in large part because of his muscles cramping. “He [Courier] didn’t drink any water in the first set and a half because he said he wasn’t thirsty,” says Etcheberry, who trained the recently retired Courier in the early 1990s. “By the time he realized it, it was already too late.”
Most nutritionists recommend drinking a minimum of eight cups of water or other fluids (not counting diuretics, like coffee or cola) per day. If you know you’re going to be playing tennis, or if you’re in a warm climate, better pour a few more glasses. “Don’t wait until you’re thirsty,” says Selesnick. “By then, you’re already partially dehydrated.”
If you’re bound for a tropical location, be sure you acclimate to the conditions before you head outside to play. And if you think you might be suffering from low potassium levels (meaning you cramp easily), eat a banana or drink a glass of orange juice before you play.
YOU NEED TO MAKE SURE YOU LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. IF the pain in your lower leg increases in intensity the more you play, it’s probably a sign of a stress fracture or a microscopic tear of bone tissue. Common in the feet, shinbone (tibia), and hip, these fractures often result from a sudden increase in training or a switch in playing surfaces (from clay courts to hard courts, for example). Wearing shoes that don’t adequately cushion your body against the impact of a hard court is asking for trouble.
Stress fractures are tricky to diagnose because they don’t often show up on an X-ray (which can make you look like a hypochondriac when you complain to the doctor). And they’re even trickier to heal. Because the bone tissue is only partially cracked, the rest of the bone remains stable enough to bear weight; continuing to walk or run on it, however, will only exacerbate the injury.
Treatment for a stress fracture consists primarily of taking time off (typically, six weeks or so) from tennis, running, and other high-impact athletic activities. Experiment with some cross-training by swimming or biking instead.
If you like to run or cross-train, you may also find yourself complaining of shin splints–a stress reaction of the bone caused by pulling the muscles and tendons. “The biggest cause of shin splints is poor foot mechanics,” says Ellenbecker. “This will usually include overpronation [a tendency for the foot to roll in on impact] or excessively flat feet.”
Shin splints are most easily treated with RICE therapy (see “Vital Signs,” above) and by gentle stretching of the hamstrings and calves. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like aspirin or ibuprofen can also offer relief. If you’re a chronic sufferer, do yourself a favor and invest in pairs of tennis shoes and running shoes with adequate motion control, which are built to keep the foot from rolling too far inward. According to Sue Fleishman, a trainer for the WTA, many of the professional players wear some form of orthotic to reduce pronation and cut down on the possibility of other biomechanical injuries.
Finally, there’s the fragile Achilles’ tendon. “Achilles’ tendinitis [microscopic tears to the tendon along the back of your heel] can take a very long time to heal,” says Selesnick. The injury often feels sore before and after playing tennis, but somewhat normal once you loosen up. Treat it by stretching the calf and tendon area, and by icing it for at least 20 minutes after you play.
PERHAPS THE EASIEST METHOD OF REDUCING ACHES and pains is to limber up through stretching. “Flexibility is one of the best ways to avoid injury,” notes Mike Nishihara, director of fitness and sports conditioning at Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, Fla. “By keeping your muscles flexible, you increase your range of motion and minimize the risk of incurring a leg injury.”
Your first target should be the long, sinewy hamstrings. “Sitting behind a desk all day, your hamstrings become shortened,” says Ellenbecker. “If you go out and run or play tennis without stretching them beforehand, you’ll frequently run into trouble.”
But that’s not the only muscle group worthy of attention. “Flexibility is critically important for all our major muscles; in the legs, that means the quadriceps, calves, and shins as well,” Ellenbecker says. Before you start making like a yogi, though, you need to be aware that to avoid pulling a too-tight muscle, it’s important to first warm up for five to 10 minutes by jogging, walking, or doing calisthenics.
In addition to keeping you off the injured list, improved flexibility will benefit your game in other ways. “If you’re very inflexible in areas like your Achilles’ tendon and hamstrings, you’ll tend to round your back–and throw off your center of gravity,” says Etcheverry. “When you’re playing tennis, that means you have to step back a little more to hit a low shot, so you won’t be able to get to the ball as quickly.” Stretching muscles also improve range of motion, enabling you to reach that hard-to-get shot.
When it comes to avoiding trouble on the court, remember that improving flexibility isn’t a panacea. “You want to make sure your muscles are balanced,” says Etcheverry. “If your quads are stronger than your hamstrings, or your calves overpower your shins, you’ll increase the likelihood of injury.” (See “In the Gym” at right).
Do everything you can to keep your leg muscles strong, flexible, and balanced–then you can start worrying about your strokes.
Can’t figure out why your leg is hurting so much? Don’t keep playing and just hope the pain goes away. If you treat an injury early, you’re more likely to prevent it from recurring.
IN THE GYM
When you play tennis and run regularly, certain leg muscles can become stronger than others. If this happens, you’ll begin to feel tightness in your leg; in some cases, you could even be risking injury. To make sure that your leg muscles remain flexible and their strength is balanced, you’ll need to do some work in the weight room. For the best results, follow this short routine on the machines at your gym.
MACHINE LEG PRESS
This exercise works the entire upper leg. Lean backward, with the shoulders and base of the spinal column, pressed firmly against the pad, maintaining a slight arch in the back. Keep feet about shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Select enough weight so you can do 10 to 15 repetitions, but no more. Bend your knees, slowly moving the legs toward the chest until there’s approximately a 90-degree angle in the knee (don’t arch your back). Hold this position for a moment, contracting the glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings; slowly extend your knees and return your legs to the starting position. Do two sets.
Stand with the balls of your feet on a step or platform, with your knees slightly bent and heels hanging below the level of the step. Contract calves and pull heels up until you’re standing on the balls of your feet, maintaining a slight bend in the knees. Hold for a few moments while contracting the calves, then slowly lower yourself back into the starting position. Repeat the exercise 10 to 15 times, for a total of two sets.
Position seat so knees are aligned with the axis of the machine, with leg pad just above feet. Select weight for 10 to 15 repetitions. Lean backward, with your lower back pressed against the pad, keeping a slight arch in the back. Contract quadriceps and begin pulling lower legs slowly up, keeping feet relaxed, until knees are fully extended. Hold for a moment, then slowly lower to starting position. Do two sets.
Lie on the bench, knees aligned with the axis of the machine, a pad positioned above heels. Press your chest and hips firmly against the bench. Select weight for 10 to 15 repetitions. Contract hamstrings, pulling lower legs up toward buttocks until hamstrings are fully contracted and knees are pulled slightly off the pad. Hold for a moment, then slowly lower back to the starting position. Do two sets.
STRETCH AND GO
How many times have you heard pro players, as they reach the end of their careers, say, “Now that I’m older, I realize I have to stretch before I can walk onto a court and play.” Listen to those words–but don’t wait until you’re older.
Holding onto a wall or chair for support (if necessary), reach back with right hand and grasp right ankle or foot (not toes), Keep both hips forward and knees parallel so that right knee points to the floor; you should feel a stretch in the quadriceps. Hold 20 to 40 seconds; switch sides and repeat.
Stand in front of a bench or low step with your left heel on the surface. Place hands on right thigh for support and lean forward from hips; you should feel a stretch in the back of the left leg. Hold for 20 to 40 seconds, then switch sides and repeat the stretch.